We Talked to Shane Carruth About the Human Drama Behind ‘The Modern Ocean’

The man who made films about self-storage time machines and mind-melding pig worms wants to tell you about the hidden drama of everyday freight ship workers.

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Aug 12 2015, 5:00pm

Image: Clinton Nguyen / Still: Shane Carruth

Shane Carruth helped code flight simulators for a living. Then he got into a car accident, watched a lot of movies, and started making challenging, cerebral films about time travel and psychically connected pigs and humans. Now, he's taking on the sea.

His first film, an incredibly ambitious Primer, was shot on film stock with a skeleton crew, a $7,000 budget, and basically no effects—it was resolute in showing a sober "everyday" version of time travelling, and was also resolute in baffling everyone that watched it. The second film, Upstream Color, follows a couple, pigs, mysterious mind-melding worms, and a mysterious crime ring stringing them all together.

His latest film, titled The Modern Ocean, tackles on an altogether different beast. The film's plot is still under wraps while it's in pre-production, and Carruth tells me there'll be a cast of about 30 people: 10 in an ensemble and about 20 for the supporting cast.

But the backbone of the film is no secret. It's a nautical psychodrama that seeks to answer this question: how can a crew weather storms, modern sea battles, and perhaps more importantly, each other?

I also wanted to know, why is the ocean such a perfect backdrop for human drama? So I called him up and asked.

MOTHERBOARD: So why is this one on the ocean?

Shane Carruth: So the ocean is a place where I can set a story on a world stage. The ocean is not policed in any kind of perfect way. And a lot of things happen out there that, you know, it's sort of every man for himself or every group of men for themselves.

And it tests everything. It tests everyone's loyalty, because there is no one to run to and say "someone did something bad, I need to call the cops!" You have to deal with it right there with the means at your disposal.

So that was the number one reason, because I've got a story where I need that. I need to have my characters all making choices that are a combination or compromise between loyalty and their own motives and that gives me that playing field.

And why shipping routes instead of something else?

I am interested in shipping routes, but mainly because they given me a vessel to mirror what's going on. It becomes clear, when we have characters on a ship and they're trying to do something, it's very much about the mission.

With a ship you're constantly having to navigate and you're constantly having to deal with questions like "what direction are we going? Why are we doing this? Why didn't we do that?"

What did you learn about ships and shipping routes for this?

I definitely had to go to school on the internet to learn about these ships. What size ships are we talking about? What are they doing? How much fuel do they burn? What could be gained if they were moving six knots faster than one that isn't?

I've done a little bit of sailing in my life, and so I know a little bit, but just very much in layman's terms. So I needed to educate myself about these boats, how the ports work, tariff systems, canals. How does traffic work? How does it flow? Is that interesting to me? Do I even care?

If reality doesn't suit my narrative, can I skew reality enough to be passable so that people won't be questioning it? But it suits the narrative better. I just did anything anybody would do when they're tackling this subject matter.

Shipping routes involve a lot of politics—it drives a world economy after all. But how does it figure into the characters?

I'm constantly interested in the politics, interactions between different personalities, different characters. That's what this boils down to: it erupts into a big action film, essentially, but the reasons why it does are the reasons the story exists.

That characters are unable to get aligned is because they're all pointed in different directions, they all have slightly different motives. And that's not always known to the group.

And it's the sort of problem we still have with the whole enterprise. The notion of getting a group of people, perfectly efficiently, toward one goal still sort of alludes us in this world.

"Really, I want the style to sort of go away this time."

And so watching that play out and making sure that every moment is pure and true and every character is doing what they would want to be doing in that moment—that's where the drama comes from, that's why these events keep escalating. That's very important to me.

Where are you taking us?

We're everywhere, we're in New York, Mumbai, Western Africa, Israel, Greece, Mediterranean, the Suez Canal. We're all over the place. It's important that this story that exists on the world stage instead of something of just in LA or New York or Connecticut, whatever.

What do you think about some of the recent films that took place primarily on ships? Captain Phillips, A Hijacking, and so on?

I really appreciate the style of [A Hijacking]. It's one of these things that's like, as you're spinning gears writing a story that's out on the ocean with cargo ships, and suddenly that comes out. I think even Captain Phillips, you start to get this pain in your chest, like "Wait. What, I'm gonna look like I'm apeing this or copying this." So no, as much as I appreciate that film very much, that's not what we're doing.

The way it was shot was very, very based in reality and I really appreciated that. The Modern Ocean is stylistically just going to be a film. It's gonna be a very high level of production, but I don't want the style to dictate the contents. Really, I want the style to sort of go away this time.

And the camera movement reflects the mood of the characters in a way that's not your typical "shoot something in two different angles and figure it out in the edit." The film will be very purposeful in the way that it moves.

So we're not tackling the Somalian pirates angle. When we deal with skirmishes, we know the motivation and it's always within its set of characters. The skirmishes escalate into full-scale naval battles using these improvised weapons on these cargo ships and so it's not trying to make a commentary about pirates. We are a world of ourselves, unto ourselves, in Modern Ocean.

And I like telling stories that are universal, that aren't about a certain culture or about a certain country or state or even way of thinking. I want a story where the characters are motivated by things that everyone would find within themselves.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity. Hell or Salt Water is a series on Motherboard about exploring and preserving our oceans. Follow along here.