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Shane Carruth: The Visionary Creator of Primer and Upstream Color

Updated on December 11, 2015
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Steven Soderbergh on Carruth

"I view Shane as the illegitimate offspring of David Lynch and James Cameron." - Director Steven Soderbergh in an Entertainment Weekly article.

Who is Shane Carruth?

What little I know about him I gathered from Wikipedia and numerous interviews. Born in 1972, Carruth is a former software engineer with a degree in math. Before becoming a filmmaker, he developed software for flight simulators. A large part of his life has been spent around Dallas, Texas.

To date he has made two films, Primer (2004) and Upstream Color (2013), films which he made largely with his own money and on his own terms. Both films were shot in and around Dallas.

A self taught filmmaker, Carruth has gained the respect and admiration of fimmakers, critics, and film fans alike. His fans in the industry include big time directors like Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher.

Primer trailer

A Brief Plot Synopsis

Primer is about two engineers who discover a method of time travel. They use said method to make money. And then things gets out of hand.

The plot is so thick that people have developed maps to plot the course of the characters through the time.

Good luck trying to keep track of what is what and who is from when!

Spoiler Alert!

A detailed attempt to track the characters.
A detailed attempt to track the characters. | Source

A Primer in DIY filmmaking

Carruth's first film Primer was made on a very low budget. By low budget what I mean is super-micro-miniscule budget, almost-no-money budget, so-little-money-that-it-might-as-well-have-been-done-with-no-money budget. Primer was reportedly made for only $7,000!

Shot in only 5 weeks, the five person crew painstakingly rehearsed each scene multiple times before rolling the cameras In order to make the most of the micro budget. Carruth had multiple jobs during production including directing, writing, producing, playing one of the main roles, scoring the film, and doing the cinematography.

Far from just being another indie film with no budget that clutters my Netflix queue, Primer has been recognized for its greatness. The 2004 sci-fi mindbender got a very positive reception at Sundance, having won both the Alfred P. Sloan Award (given to a film that focuses on science and technology or in which a major character is a mathematician, scientist, or engineer) as well as the prestigious Grand Jury Prize for a Dramatic film.

Primer currently has a 72% rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

Primer is in Good Company

To give you an idea what kind of company Primer is in, here are Sundance winners who garnered the same awards over the past decade or so.

All Sundance Alfred P. Sloan WInners

  • I Origins - 2014
  • Computer Chess - 2013
  • Robot & Frank / Valley of Saints (tie) - 2012
  • Another Earth - 2011
  • Obselidia - 2010
  • Adam - 2009
  • Sleep Dealer - 2008
  • Dark Matter - 2007
  • The House of Sand - 2006
  • Grizzly Man - 2005
  • Primer - 2004
  • Dopamine - 2003

Sundance Grand Jury Dramatic Winners - 2004 to 2015

  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl - 2015
  • Whiplash - 2014
  • Fruitvale Station - 2013
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild - 2012
  • Like Crazy - 2011
  • Winter's Bone - 2010
  • Precious - 2009
  • Frozen River - 2008
  • Padre Neustro - 2007
  • Quinceañera - 2006
  • Forty Shades of Blue - 2005
  • Primer - 2004

If you've seen Primer do you...

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Upstream Color trailer

Upstream Color theatrical release poster
Upstream Color theatrical release poster | Source

Shane Carruth's pep talk for the crew Upstream Color

“This is the most punk movie you’re going to come across. And it doesn’t look like it because it’s all dressed up in sweaters and collars and, like, you know, emotional experiences. But I swear to you: This is the most punk experience that you’re going to have on any film.” - quoted from Grantland.com.

Upstream Color: Carruth's 2nd Feature Film

After a 9 year break in between films, Carruth returned with his second feature film, Upstream Color. This film generated a lot of buzz in 2013 and has appeared on numerous 'Best of 2013' lists right up there with films like Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, Frances Ha and Her.

Financed with mainly his own money (what he made off of Primer), the project was kept very secret, so secret in fact that only he had the full script. And like Primer, he did much of the work, including playing one of the starring roles.

Upstream Color premiered at the 2013 Sundance festival and was also screened at South By Southwest. The shooting schedule was slightly expanded in comparison to Primer: a 40 day shoot as opposed to 5 weeks.

This film is much more abstract than Primer so it took me a couple of viewings to really get a feel for it. After the first viewing I didn't necessarily understand the film. What I did know is that I had just seen something beautiful, a film with strong visuals, and a very visceral narrative with a great atmosphere.

The film, which is very dreamy, is short on dialogue and long on visuals. The dreaminess of the film is captivating. After my first viewing, I felt the way that I had felt when the credits of Terrance Malick's The Tree of Life rolled: mystified as well as satisfied, feeling like I had beheld a moving work of art.

Upstream Color currently has an 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

If you've seen Upstream Color do you:

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What's Next for Shane Carruth?

Since finishing Upstream Color, Shane has acted in some few short films - Everything & Everything & Everything (2014), We'll Find Something (2015), and Memory Box (in post production and set for a 2015 release).

For several years, he was developing a film called A Topiary which has yet to materialize. One Room with a View listed it as #12 on their 'Best Films Never Made' list.

In an April 2013 interview with Indiewire he mentions a project called The Modern Ocean. However, nothing is listed on his IMDB page,

In the End

To say that Primer and Upstream Color are two two of my favorites of the past few years is a gross understatement. They are beautiful, poetic, confusing, and amazing.

If pressed to make a ranking, I would probably have Shane Carruth in my top five directors, definitely one of my top 10. He is a rare talent and am I excited about whatever he makes in the future.

If you are a fan of good films, I would strongly recommend that you drop everything and watch Primer and Upstream Color NOW!

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