Shane Carruth remains a rare figure in the cinematic landscape. His major achievements: “Primer” and “Upstream Color”—are idiosyncratic and unique in their execution and deconstruction of the sci-fi genre. He has been hailed and admired by filmmakers like Rian Johnson, and Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher were so enamored with his prodigious talents they once tried to help produce his legendary “A Topiary” screenplay before Carruth eventually abandoned the project.
Nevertheless, it’s been nearly a decade since his last directorial work, and it sounds debatable if there ever will be another film. In part one of this interview, we spoke with Carruth about executive producing Nicholas Ashe Bateman’s debut feature “The Wanting Mare”—a dark indie fable set in the mythical world where horses are the most valuable export and a line of women pass a recurring dream through multiple generations.
But Carruth, who made himself available by phone for what became an extensive, esoteric, and emotionally bare conversation had lots to say about, well, everything, his promise to quit filmmaking soon (three years), his love for “Ad Astra,” the current political climate, his future plans or making art beyond filmmaking, and vaguely, abandoning what was supposed to be his final film, the ambitious nautical adventure “The Modern Ocean.”
As you were talking about films leading to deeper conversation, that’s exactly how I felt when I finished “The Wanting Mare.”
Gosh, man. Sorry, I’m departing off this promotional tour for a second, but I realized maybe part of why I don’t want to watch movies is I know I won’t be able to talk to anybody about them.
Well, what was the last movie you watched?
I saw “Ad Astra” last fall. I went out to the Vista by myself. How do you feel about Steven Soderbergh’s “Solaris”?
I absolutely love “Solaris.”
So great. So, I’m in that mode. I go to a theater by myself; I feel like a loser. “What am I doing? I’m like an old person sitting in a theater by myself. Hate this shit.” And [‘Ad Astra’] blew me away. I came home and I bit torrented the Taiwanese version of [‘Ad Astra’] so that I can just watch it, however I want, all through the night. I just loved it so much.
Everything else, is just kind of fun. I wanna watch “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” [But] I don’t give a shit anymore. “Fast and the Furious 7?” Man, go for it. Make those movies; make them big. Make them with a billion dollars. Don’t spend $200 million on blowing up cars. Spend a billion. Blow it all up in the middle of the desert. I would love that shit. And then I’m going to come back home and I’m going to read wonderful things from my friends and I’m going to watch movies like “The Wanting Mare” because that edifies me. That makes me feel like I’m connected. You come home, have sourdough bread, have sustenance; and sit down, and be with your girl. You can be calm. And that’s “The Wanting Mare.”
There are avenues for the $200 million action movie. And then there’s also places like Netflix or Amazon that deal with more character-driven stuff. How do you see the industry right now with regard to the movies you want to make?
So, what’s your deal. What are you seeing right now? The reason I ask is because I do these interviews, and I love talking to you, man. But I still continue to see, outside the meat market, where people keep repeating the same shit that the PR people keep telling them. Like, “Movies are made this way. That’s how they go. They go this way.” And it never actually happens that way. Even if you’re talking about a Nat-Geo stupid show about John Glenn, you’re not actually talking about it. You’re talking about PR.
What I’m trying to ask you is, do you see the difference? Do you see the different between “Solo,” a fucking ‘Star Wars’-half-between-film, and “Phantom Thread”?
Sure, but I would say that most differences are internalized biases. Film, no matter the genre, no matter the budget is trying to engage in something. Roger Ebert once said that film is an empathy machine. I don’t necessarily see the difference in terms of the worthiness of one story versus the worth of another. The differences are more, do I see myself in that story?
I hear that. Let’s just say, I’m a different religion. Let’s say, you’re a Christian. I’m a Muslim. And we’re trying to get to the same place, but I don’t like you guys. It doesn’t appeal to me. What I want is my God in the desert at 600 AD.
That’s what I mean. It doesn’t matter. Whatever you think; whatever I think: We can all find a religion that we can go to. And we’ll find a group. There’ll be like-minded like us, and you can fight everybody else. [But] in this moment, I don’t give a shit when you think about this movie. I didn’t give a shit what I think about this movie. I just know that I love that we are talking about it right now. I want the interaction. I don’t want to be in one of these clubs. I just want to learn.
Could you define what you mean by clubs?
So, I’m getting a little esoteric, for sure. But right now we’re in this country and we’ve been seeing this shit [the pandemic] coming since January. It’s just that we don’t agree. This country does not agree. It is two pieces of idiocy. And then we wake up in a moment where like,
“Oh, I’m a Conservative fucking Republican from downtown Dallas.”
“Oh no, no. I’m a liberal from Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn.”
“No, no, I’m a liberal in LA.”
“Oh no, I’m a conservative in Wyoming.
“Oh no, I’m a… What the fuck?”
Conservatives aren’t conservative anymore and liberals aren’t liberals. Liberals don’t fucking go and give speeches for Merrill Lynch. We’re past the point that anything has a definition. So, we’re stuck in a prison of “Pick a Side.”
It’s like a high school football team. We hated those guys so much and they hated us. Why was I raised to believe that I’m against everything? Because I’m not. I want to learn about grace. I want to learn about love. I don’t want to fucking learn about rallying for a fucking football team. This is like fucking lions versus Christians. It’s like, let’s watch them all bleed. It’s disgusting.
We are taught to be tribalistic from an early age. It’s like in “The Wanting Mare,” there aren’t any governments. There are no tribes. It’s just people living through hope.
That’s how I feel. It’s hope, from a dark, dim-lit, sweating place and just, “Please. Please. Can there be something new?” I mean, like we can watch “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and he’ll do something funny and like, “Yeah. That’s what it feels like to go into a fucking bakery and ask for the cake.” And they act like it’s a political statement. But that’s not what I’m doing with Nick’s movie. Nick’s movie needs to be looked at on an “Oedipus Rex” level.
What future projects are you working on?
My plan is to do a lot of films—all at the same time. Get them all off the same time. Get out of all this. I’m 47 right now. By the time I’m 50, I’m out of this. So that’s my timeline. I’m out of this shit. I mean, I got a thousand other things that I want to do.
What else are you interested in?
I’m going to embarrass myself if I start talking about it because I don’t have it yet. So, let me give you one idea, just as an anecdote. But I would like to make sister cities; I would like to have something that looks like an art exhibition in downtown Chicago. Wait, you’re from Chicago. If I wanted to set up a circle of LCD panels with cameras attached to them, but it’s 50 meters in diameter, where would we put that?
Grant Park is a pretty large space.
There we go. I want to put that circle of LCD screens in Grand Park with cameras, so people from Chicago can go on a lunch break and they can take their chicken salad sandwich down to a bench and they can just sit there; and they can watch. And the other circle is in Sierra Leone, and it’s in a square, and it’s watching kids bring potatoes to market. It’s watching everything that happens there. And the person on their lunch break, they might want to step up and touch the screen and they say, “Hey, where are you taking those potatoes?” And he’ll say, “I’m taking them [to] my mom. My mom needs the potatoes.” They’ll be connected.
It feels very public art or interactive art.
Not that connection. Connection between the two, so that Chicago doesn’t have to hear about Sierra Leone on the news or if they happen to check Facebook that day. Chicago knows Sierra Leone is going exactly the way it’s going right now. There’s dead people on the fucking street while we’re eating our goddamn sandwiches! And I am sick of this noise. I’m sick of the news telling us what is going on over there. We already have every capability of knowing what’s going on everywhere, all the time. And right now, we don’t do shit; except buying tee shirts.
What plans, if any, do you have to revise any past projects that you’ve worked on. Or what’s going on with “The Modern Ocean”?
It’s hard to explain what “A Topiary” and “The Modern Ocean” mean to me. It would be like saying that I have a daughter or two daughters and now I don’t have them anymore. So the question is, “Hey, do you want to revive your daughter?” Of course, I do. Of course, I do. I love her. I love her. But… I don’t know what I would do with a reanimated corpse.
So, I think if I do my next deal, I’ll probably leave those works behind. And I would hope that somebody as gifted as Nick— not Nick. Nick doesn’t need to do it. Nick needs to do his stuff. Maybe somebody like that. I don’t know. I think it’s nice. I’ve been making my stories. They’re good stories. I can’t do those anymore. That doesn’t make sense.
No, it makes perfect sense, wanting to leave something where it is.
It’s too much. I know I’m only talking about myself, but it’s weird, man. It’s weird to spend so much time, so many years selecting everything: stories and characters. Knowing what they are; knowing how it was going to get made. Knowing all this stuff and then coming out here to a bunch of fucking assholes who couldn’t write a story if you put a gun to their head.
I think that’s what it would have been like a couple thousand years ago. If you were a shepherd. Your dad’s a shepherd. You’re looking around like, “So what do I do? I’m just going to take care of these fucking sheep? Okay.”
Then you want to go into Jaffa because you heard there’s noise there, and lights. You want to see the Lighthouse at Alexandria. You just want to see it.
You want to go to New York. You go there just to be told, “Hopefully… just hopefully, that it doesn’t have to be that way. You can mix it up. You can screw it up. You can twist it up. You can get math; you can get abstract. You can go back to complex numbers. You can get into ‘Hamilton.’” You can do a thousand other things. Everything’s possible. All day. Forever. And that must feel wonderful to a kid who hasn’t seen anything but sheep. That’s how I feel right now.
“The Wanting Mare” will debut at the Chattanooga Film Festival this weekend. Digital tickets are available now.