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Upstream Color’s Shane Carruth Talks About His Unmade Sci-Fi Flick, A Topiary

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Shane Carruth

I could sit here and talk about Shane Carruth’s Primer until time collapsed on itself, and I haven’t yet had the chance to witness his second film in nearly 10 years, the mesmerizing mind-meld that is Upstream Color. So it’s a good thing this story is about the proposed-but-unmade movie that came between those two films, and since it was never produced, I don’t have to be jealous of anyone else for having seen it.

A recent Wired article chronicles Carruth’s rise from anonymous engineer to cult phenomenon to obscure and non-prolific cult phenomenon. But that’s all been discussed before and elsewhere, and the tidbits he revealed about his long-gestating project A Topiary are just as interesting, frustrating as it is to know that we may never feast our eyes on it. Here’s a description of the film, which even in written form is as polarizing as projects come.

The opening section follows a city worker who becomes obsessed with a recurring starburst pattern he sees hidden everywhere around him, even in traffic grids. He eventually joins with other believers, forming a kaffeeklatsch-cult that’s soon undone by greed and hubris.

The second half follows a group of 10 preteen boys who discover a strange machine that produces small funnels, which in turn can be used to build increasingly agile robotlike creatures. As their creations grow in power and size, the kids’ friendships begin to splinter and they’re forced to confront another group of creature-builders. The movie ends with a massive last-minute reveal, set deep in the cosmos, suggesting that everything we’ve just seen was directed by forces outside the characters’ control.”

Such an epic tale took its toll on Carruth, who shared his script-writing time with researching visual effects companies to figure out a way to get everything done himself, going so far as to build his own scaled-down CGI system to use.

“That’s where I lose my time,” Carruth says. “I get obsessed with these little things. I think there’s some novel way to find a solution, and I go down the pathway too far.” If only he could be running down those pathways.

Steven Soderbergh, a Primer fan, was so impressed with the script he contacted David Fincher to co-executive produce the film. That should have been enough to get A Topiary made, but even a modest budget around $20 million and an impressive mocked-up trailer were not enough to sway investors. They were very excited about the project — just not enough to open their pocketbooks. After a year of failed funding attempts, Carruth had to force himself to move on.

“I decided that if nobody was gonna say no, I was gonna have to say no,” he says. “It sort of just broke my heart.”

With Carruth’s sophomore effect now mostly behind him, his next project looks to be an idea he’d left behind when he began working on A Topiary. Initially a romantic coming-of-age tale set on the high seas, Carruth will come at the film from a darker angle. Probably one that will be incomprehensible until you’ve watched the film at least three times, with one of the viewings actually happening on the high seas.

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