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What Upstream Color Says About the Future of Indie Filmmaking

This isn't a movie-review blog, but I'd nonetheless like to urge everyone reading to go out and see Upstream Color if you're in New York this weekend, and to catch it when you can if you're not. That's not just because it's a fine film — although I think that it is — but because of what its director, Shane Carruth, has managed.
 
Carruth first made a name for himself in certain corners of the movie world with his 2004 time-travel film, . Shot on 16mm film with a seriously tiny budget (just $7,000, not counting the eventual 35mm blow-up for festival screenings), Primer was a tricky, cerebral science-fiction piece that demanded repeat viewings to sort out its multiple timelines. (All of the links in the story contain what I'd consider spoilers for Primer and/or Upstream Color. You have been warned.)
 
Primer is the kind of film you'd generally describe as a "calling card" — one that a filmmaker uses to introduce himself around Hollywood in search of bigger opportunities. Carruth had a script that he intended as a follow-up, called A Topiary, but that film required a budget to cover its VFX work, and Carruth was unable to make a deal materialize. Instead of compromising his vision, or giving up on the movie business, Carruth scrapped that project and wrote a new screenplay, Upstream Color, that he knew he could make on his own terms and with control over his own vision — a vision that splits the difference between the uneasy body horror of early David Cronenberg movies and the rapturous lyricism of latter-day Terrence Malick.
 
I know, I know. Everyone making an indie film wants to be true to "their vision," whatever it is. But consider how resistant Carruth has proven to compromise. He wrote the script for Upstream Color and he directed. He wrote the music. He was the cinematographer and (with David Lowery) the co-editor. And, once the film was accepted to Sundance, he went to Park City and announced that he wasn't looking for distribution. Why? Because he planned to distribute the film himself. He cut the film's trailer, and he selected its enigmatic key art. This month, he has it opening in 20 markets, with a full on digital distribution blitz including VOD, DVD, and iTunes to follow.
 
Did I mention he also co-stars in the film?
 
Now, I'm not suggesting that every aspiring indie director should suck it up and hire their own theater booking agents and publicists to take their next film out in the world. Being your own cinematographer won't turn you into Steven Soderbergh, editing your own picture won't turn you into the Coen Brothers, and writing cool lines for yourself won't make you Orson Welles. (It probably won't even make you Quentin Tarantino.) Even Carruth, who admits to being a control freak, would likely advise against doing what he does. But maybe you can take some inspiration from him. A film like Upstream Color — sad and playful and mysterious and compelling and completely unlike anything currently playing at a theater near you — proves what's possible when you knuckle down, get creative, and make things happen for yourself and your work.

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