Shane Carruth has only directed two films, but they’ve been memorable, strange, and challenging. Carruth’s 2004 time travel film Primer is an excellent example of mind-bending science fiction on a limited budget. His 2013 film Upstream Color is one of the most enigmatic, dreamlike, hypnotic movies of the 2010s. I’ve watched Upstream Color multiple times over the years, and obsessively wrote a three-part deep analysis of it. It’s one of my favorite movies of the last decade.
Unfortunately, it looks like Carruth will only make one more movie before he quits the film industry entirely.
Carruth spoke to Hot Corn about Billy Sense’s film The Dead Center, which he stars in. During the interview, he spoke about his own filmmaking and what the future holds. He said the following:
I’ve got a massive thing that I’m doing, and after that I’m gonna get out of this, I’m gonna get out of film after this. I’ve got another half of my life to live and I want to think about charities and finding a way to help people, not doing this bulls**t, caring about box office, distribution and all this.
It’s unclear if the “massive thing” Carruth is working on refers to The Modern Ocean, a project that he first mentioned during the release of Upstream Color. After a star-studded cast was announced in 2015, The Modern Ocean has remained quiet.
If this really is the end of Carruth as a filmmaker, one can understand his frustrations with the film industry. He works on weird, arty, idiosyncratic films. While daring and critically acclaimed, they’re not the sort of movies with massive appeal or a great return at the box office. Securing funds for his work is a major hurdle, and the same goes for distribution. And then there’s the matter of getting his work made.
Had Carruth started making movies a decade later, he might have been courted to make a tentpole blockbuster. The MCU tapped Chloe Zhao for The Eternals even though she’s only done small character-driven indies, and even offered arty Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel (Zama) a chance to direct the forthcoming Black Widow. When I interviewed Shane Carruth for Upstream Color, he mentioned being a control freak, so he probably would have balked at doing a superhero film. But the pay’s nice.
Between Primer and Upstream Color, Carruth wrote a screenplay called A Topiary, which involved a cult, robotic creatures, and forces beyond our control. The screenplay is still available online, as far as I know, and the creatures that would have appeared in the film are briefly seen in the beginning of Upstream Color. A Topiary will pop up occasionally on lists of the best movies never made.
After Carruth completes his last film, I’ll wonder what other great works he’ll never put out in the world. At least he’ll have three movies, and hopefully the third one is a great as his first two. Fingers crossed.