Shane Carruth, wrote, directed and stars in “Upstream Color,” with Amy Seimetz. In the film, his second feature, “everything deteriorates into the ether,” Mr. Carruth says.
“I won’t always give satisfying answers,” the filmmaker Shane Carruth said, by way of warning, in an interview in early January. The premiere of his long-awaited second feature, “Upstream Color,” at the Sundance Film Festival was weeks away at the time. He was finishing the sound mix and working out the details of a self-distribution plan. But the greatest source of anxiety was the prospect of having to talk about his movie.
“I hate even the idea of a synopsis,” Mr. Carruth said. “When stories are really working, when you’re providing subtextual exploration and things that are deeply layered, you’re obligated to not say things out loud.”
Subtexts and layers abound in his new film, which combines elements of an abduction plot, a love story and a cosmic science experiment. “Upstream Color” trended heavily on Twitter when Sundance announced its lineup, and the anticipation has much to do with the cult status of Mr. Carruth’s first feature, “Primer,” the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize winner at that festival in 2004.
Mr. Carruth, 40, a former engineer and self-taught filmmaker, made “Primer,” a deadpan time-travel fantasy, for a reported $ 7,000, taking on the roles of director, writer, producer, actor, cinematographer, editor and composer. A feat of DIY enterprise and polymathic ingenuity, the film lent itself to repeat viewings and endless theorizing about its laws of physics and metaphysics, which ensured a robust afterlife in home video and on message boards.
On the phone recently Mr. Carruth said that the response to “Upstream Color,” which screens at the New Directors/New Films series this month before opening on April 5, has been overwhelmingly positive. But what irks him is the suggestion that the film, like “Primer,” is a puzzle movie in need of solving. “It’s funny that some of the early reviews used words like opaque and obscure,” he said. “And then they list the plot, beat by beat, and pretty much nail it. You’re sort of like, well, what was so opaque then?”
While the plot elements are not hard to glean, many of them boggle the mind. A young woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) ingests a hypnotic drug that leaves a gap in her memory and a worm in her body, which is extracted in a surgical procedure that involves transferring the parasite to a pig. She becomes involved with Jeff (Mr. Carruth), who may have undergone a similar trauma. Odd as it is, their plight — as the film suggests with repeated cutaways to orchid harvesters and pig pens, not to mention ample quotations from Thoreau’s “Walden” — exists within a larger cycle of nature.
More than any of these curious details, the most provocative aspect of “Upstream Color” is the way it unfolds, as a skein of associations and in a barrage of fragmentary images and clipped conversations. Increasingly prone to slippage and ellipsis the film builds to a wordless finale in which, as Mr. Carruth put it, “everything deteriorates into the ether.”
“I believe that it’s trying something new in terms of film language,” said Mr. Carruth, who in conversation projects a quiet self-assurance.
Even more than “Primer,” which plunged characters and viewers into a seductive haze of confusion, “Upstream Color” is a movie about the limits of knowledge that doubles as an experiment in inference. “It’s about people building their own narratives when they don’t have anything to hold on to,” Mr. Carruth said. “They’re accumulating their identities out of whatever they find around them.”
An open-ended fable whose protagonists are buffeted by forces they neither control nor comprehend, “Upstream Color” has a pronounced metaphorical aspect. “You could do the same story about any number of things where people are being affected by outside factors that they can’t quite speak to,” Mr. Carruth said. “The end result is the same, whether you’re talking about religious or cosmic or political beliefs, or being affected by a chemical or by a relationship.”
Mr. Carruth took on almost as many roles as on “Primer” and is also overseeing the marketing and distribution. He assumed near-total control again not just for economic reasons but also because of “the hope that there would be something gained from these things all coming from the same mind,” he said.
He cast his co-star, Ms. Seimetz, an actress and filmmaker, on the basis of her feature directing debut, “Sun Don’t Shine” (set to open in May), convinced that she could tune in to his wavelength. “She’s a storyteller,” Mr. Carruth said. “I knew she would get it.”
Ms. Seimetz, who sees “Upstream Color” as “a movie about deep emotional loss,” said that she and Mr. Carruth “clicked on a filmmaking level.” She added, “I think you can only make a film like this with a kindred spirit.”
Mr. Carruth’s next project, “The Modern Ocean,” which he hopes to shoot this year, was conceived as a romance between an oceanographer and the daughter of a shipping magnate but has now “morphed into this other massive thing that is impossibly tragic,” he said. “I’m really curious about how far it can be pushed.”
By “it,” he explained, he means a more exploratory approach to narrative, which he has found in movies as different as Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love” and Steven Soderbergh’s “Solaris.”
While others succumb to gimmickry and doomsaying, Mr. Carruth remains a believer in the untapped potential of cinema. “Everybody’s saying we’ve got to go 3-D or virtual reality or choose your own adventure,” he said. “But there are other ways forward. I don’t think we’re done with film by a long shot.”