The 2004 Sundance Film Festival marked a huge year for independent film. It was a year that saw the premieres of Saw, Garden State, Super-Size Me, Napoleon Dynamite, among other notable titles. And yet, the winner that year came out from nowhere. A film with a budget of $7,000 about two amateur scientists who accidently invent time travel, which 80% of takes place in a garage, was the film that took the top prize. It was awarded to a 30ish year old former software engineer, Shane Carruth, who later admitted that he didn’t even plan on attending the closing ceremony that year. It was a year that began to show the increasing accessibility to resources young filmmakers now had, and Primer was the film that celebrated the true spirit of independent film. You can only imagine how giddy they were upon accepting the award.
However, what followed next was far from what any Sundance winner would want. After receiving the top award, scoring distribution for the film, he fell in a pit of development hell. He became inundated with scripts from other writers (most of them about time travel), and even developed his own TV series, all of which went nowhere.
But it wasn’t until he started developing his next project, titled A Topiary, where he started to draw more attention to himself. It was a film split into two sections – the first half about a city worker who is obsessed with a recurring starburst pattern he sees hidden everywhere around him, and the second half about a group of kids coming across a junkyard who possess imaginative powers to think up and build whatever creatures and machines they want. Soon enough he caught the attention of Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher who were attached to produce, and even began to develop his own VFX software for how he would shoot the film.
And then it seemed like everything was rolling: he was taking meetings in LA with agents and producers, which soon led to more meetings, and more phone calls, and waiting, and then more waiting, to the point where he was fed up. According to Carruth, when he would go into meetings, the project was always “met with enthusiasm,” but never actually went anywhere.
Eventually, he worked so long and hard on it that he became sick of working on the project altogether, unable to stomach putting any more time toward it.
And then, something strange happened – he stepped away from the public eye, just as Primer began to really develop its online cult following. Soon enough, thinkers and teenagers on the internet cluttered the message boards and forums, creating theories and fleshing out the time travel complexities implied by the film. It was probably the most organic way a film could ever develop a cult following: word of mouth, conversation, theories, ideas.
However, all this time while being out of the public eye, he was quietly writing what would become his next film, Upstream Color, his second and latest film. Upon finishing the script, he told himself that he would go out and just shoot it. No more meetings in Hollywood, no more phone calls with investors.
Not quite romantic, but also not quite sci-fi, Upstream Color is a film that doesn’t really act on the same level as the usual movie going experience, placed under a genre which Carruth calls “mythic.” The film follows two individuals who are stripped of everything in their lives and are forced to rebuild their identities with one another (or at least I think that’s what it’s about?) Unlike the heavy dialogue-driven script of Primer, Upstream contains minimal dialogue, conveying the information nonverbally through soundscapes and images rather than words.
Which then led Carruth to another victory lap, picking up another award at Sundance and a premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, and then touring the country with it “four-wall” style, traveling to theaters across the U.S. and giving QnA’s, only to pack up and take the film to the next theater.
However, he’s only able to do such things because he chooses to operate outside of Hollywood, his films untouched by the commercial engine of the industry. But even since Upstream, we’ve barely heard a peep from the reclusive Texas filmmaker. At the 2015 American Film Market, it was unveiled at he was in pre-production on his next project, The Modern Ocean. Naturally, the synopsis was very vague and Carruthian, in that it’s about the world’s economic system at the high seas. Interestingly enough, stars such as Daniel Radcliffe, Anne Hathaway, and Keanu Reeves were attached to the project, which makes us wonder where this film might be going.
However, ever since, we’ve failed to learn of or hear any developments about the film. Has it become another project that’s dead in the water? Hopefully not, but maybe Carruth is still trying to gather up funding for the film and hasn’t lost hope.
Nevertheless, the only other projects he’s worked on these past few years that’s publicly known (aside from a cameo in Swiss Army Man) is The Girlfriend Experience, the Starz drama created by Upstream co-star Amy Seimetz which Carruth did music for, A Ghost Story, for which he served as an additional editor, and the National Geographic Channel’s docuseries Breakthrough, for which he directed an episode about time travel, as well as acting in a short film that premiered at SXSW titled We’ll Find Something.
But for the last few years, Carruth has stayed well out of the public eye. Perhaps he’s plotting his next project? Maybe he hasn’t given up hope for The Modern Ocean after all. Maybe he’s just busy being a normal human being. Maybe he’s trying to start a family. Maybe he abandoned filmmaking altogether (hopefully not the case). All I know is, it’s time for another Shane Carruth film to come into the world, one that stands the test of time and operates on a subconscious level. “I think what it has to do is stop pretending that it’s books that we can watch and it’s got to be something else,” Carruth stated in an interview with Film School Rejects. “I don’t know what the words are for that something else, but I sort of know where the edges are.” Which prompts me to scour the message boards, go down the YouTube wormhole, and dive into the open forums of the internet and constantly ask, “Where are you Shane Carruth?” The world needs you.