Shane Carruth Explains His Cultural Influences

Shane Carruth’s first movie, 2004’s complex, no-budget time-travel fantasy Primer, earned him a cult following that still hasn’t finished untangling the film’s chronology. The director’s follow-up, Upstream Color—a love story involving pigs, brain-eating worms, and Henry David Thoreau—should keep fans just as busy. In no particular order, these are the movies, books, video games, and grocery stores that inspired Carruth.

1. Fatal Attraction
I find Fatal Attraction really romantic. I really like the seduction. Almost every time I see it, I’m surprised when it goes dark. I know that’s the claim to fame, but I key into how genuinely romantic it is. It seems strange to do that given that it’s a film that winds up where it does.

2. Aranda\Lasch
This design team’s architecture comes from the way you arrange the blocks, not the blocks themselves. The blocks don’t really even dictate the form, the way that bricks might dictate a brick wall, because they can only really go one way. Their work just reinforces the idea that form is how the building blocks evolve, and what you do with the blocks … Anyway, it’s just architecture, and I’m inspired by that.

3. Grand Theft Auto IV
There could be no mission at all, and it would still be the best game. At 3 a.m., I’d notice that I’d been playing for hours, and at no point was I interested in advancing in the game. I was just simply enjoying exploring. They made everything that could be interesting interesting, from the radio that’s playing in the car to things you find in alleys.

4. Borderliners by Peter Høeg
It has this one character, a kid who’s just a monster in waiting. He did this thing where an adult reached out to him, and the kid grabbed the adult’s finger and threw all of his weight with the idea of breaking it, and he was able to do that. It’s difficult to imagine, but I really enjoyed the idea that if somebody were to grab something and put all their weight behind it, they could do harm. For whatever reason, I think about that kid’s mental state a lot.

5. Doctor Zhivago
I would like to work on this level eventually—not budget-wise, but scope-wise. It’s massive, but it tells an intimate story. I like the pretentiousness of it. The shot with yellow flower petals that are dropping faster than they should: It’s like bad poetry, but I like it.

6-7. Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou and Vivre Sa Vie
Pierrot le Fou
is something I keep coming back to. It’s so surreal but still really engaging—it proves narratives within narratives are a landscape that can be pursued well. Vivre Sa Vie’s plot is so mechanical; it’s about how to become a prostitute. And because it’s laid out so methodically, the emotion just ratchets up incrementally. It’s like a frog in boiling water. It’s so emotional but done in a procedural way.

8. The Limey
I stole a ton of film language from Steven Soderbergh and The Limey. It’s the definition of elliptical. It was the first movie I remember that introduced me to storytelling that isn’t just one scene after another, and that things can be mixed up in the way that real experiences can.

9. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
This was the first book I read that screwed around with cause and effect and how maybe their being connected is an illusion. All I’m doing is repeating the subtext of the book, but that was a big deal when I was impressionable. You tell somebody it’s about a guy stuck in time, so they say, “Great, Ray Bradbury wrote it, and it’s all about tech and whatever.” But it’s not that at all. It’s really brilliant for using sci-fi genre elements to get you into something else.

10. Maxwell Render
I was trying to do effects for this movie, A Topiary, that I wasn’t able to get made. I wanted the effects to be seamless; I didn’t want you to ever know you were looking at an effect. Maxwell Render is this rendering software that uses real equations for the way light and energy work in order to derive the image. You have to instruct where the light sources are: Is this a tungsten light source? Is it the sun? Is there turbidity in the air to make a haze of some kind? You define it, and it matches the calculations for that. It winds up with this aesthetic that’s realistic but also really beautiful.

11. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
It’s endlessly hilarious and compelling, and at the core of it are the least likable people on the planet. They’re scum, and every motivation they have is negative. And yet stories arise that are really wonderful.

12. Rick Guidice’s Space Colony illustrations 
I’m constantly surprised that there are compelling ideas that have existed in the world but haven’t made it into movies. [Neill Blomkamp’s upcoming] Elysium is probably going to be the first movie to show what a space station would look like if you were to manufacture gravity by spinning something. This is an idea I wanted to do a while ago. A big tube a mile in diameter, you’d send it spinning, and along the edges you’d have houses and lawns and trees growing toward some center light source. That’s in these renderings. I’m inspired by the audacity and the completely naïve ambition.

13. The Hustler
I thought it was just a movie about pool tables and hustling and stuff. I had to watch it six times to figure out that it’s really about Paul Newman killing this girl. I really liked the romantic promise that exists when these characters are broken and strung out and alcoholics in hiding.

14. Laphroaig Quarter Cask, single-malt Scotch
I’ve not been a big drinker most of my life, up until recently when I’ve sort of been drinking too much. But this is a great Scotch. It’s delicious in a way that I never would have thought about something being delicious. There’s that smoky, peaty savoriness that before tasted like poison and now feels really comfortable. It helps me get in the right state of mind to write.

15. Channel Orange, Frank Ocean
Sheer emotion. It’s poppy and it’s perfect. When I’m in my head, doing my fake auteur thing, trying to be all subtextual, it’s good to listen to this. I really like the song “Pyramids.” It’s ten minutes long, and it could be five songs if you split it up. But it just travels through all these different layers. It just reminds you that things don’t have to conform to any one typical definition.

16. Portal
If there were a new Portal game out today, I would just play it for a week. It remaps the way your head works. It changes gravity, and you don’t think about gravity the same way anymore. For that to happen with a video game is amazing. It’s not just a good game—it’s a completely new form. It might as well be a piece of literature in the way it made me turn things over that I took for granted.

17. Punch-Drunk Love
It has a budget, but there are rough edges in it, so they must be purposeful. Like when Barry (Adam Sandler) is on a date and goes into the bathroom and wrecks the stall—the sound on the mike is the most horribly produced sound. But they kept that; they made that choice, and it was perfect. You feel like you’re looking at something you shouldn’t be looking at, and the scene might be breaking in front of you.

18. Etsy
When I feel like I’m looking at a blank page, I go to There’s just something about the process of selecting and hunting that feels like a good thing when another part
of your head is trying to form something as abstract as a narrative. I enjoy the handcrafted part of it. I like to see people in industry, making choices and building things.

19. Ascenseur Pour L’échafaud soundtrack by Miles Davis
I listen to it all the time. There are a lot of repeated tracks—like, take one, take two, take three—and they’re variations on the same bit of music. It’s like a remix album before there were remix albums. It’s the same works communicating the same thing but going down a different avenue every time. I really enjoy knowing that that’s possible.

20. Any clean, well-lit grocery store open late
Going to grocery stores is almost my favorite thing to do to calm myself down. There’s something about just walking aisle after aisle making mundane choices. Do I want that? No, I want the one that has the low sodium. And that feels like a good exercise to be doing when there isn’t anything to be doing. It’s like a kick-starter in some way. I wouldn’t say it’s the best grocery store in the world, but there’s this Foodtown in Bed-Stuy I like going through.

*This article originally appeared in the April 15, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Shane Carruth Explains His Cultural Influences