In 2004, Shane Carruth stunned the film industry with his visionary debut, Primer. Taking a meticulous and realist approach to the ever-popular sci-fi theme of time travel, his singular vision earned him the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, instant cult status and legions of fans eagerly awaiting his next film.

But then? Nothing.

For nine years, little was known of Carruth’s filmmaking plans except for a mysterious two-word title, A Topiary, and whispers of something “epic” on its way. In 2013, fans were sated with the release of a new Carruth project, Upstream Color, but what exactly happened to the film he spent almost a decade trying to make? And what even is A Topiary?

Courtesy of Rian Johnson/Twitter Inc.

Courtesy of Rian Johnson/Twitter Inc.

To put it as bluntly as possible, A Topiary is the most mind-blowingly ambitious screenplay I have ever read. Working my way through its 245 pages I found myself shaking my head in disbelief every few minutes at the staggering vision on display. A Topiary is at once so complicated it dwarfs anything Primer or Upstream Color attempted and so simple it makes you look at the world around you with new eyes.

It begins with a surveyor, Acre Stowe, tasked with finding a location closest to an accident blackspot so his bosses can build an emergency fast-response unit. Pinpointing the ideal location in the middle of a busy junction, he is filled with an insatiable curiosity and marks the direction of all the accidents on this spot with spray paint, forming a pattern. Suddenly, his eye is caught by a starburst glint of light, reflecting off a nearby high-rise. Something clicks. This starburst matches the pattern he’s just sprayed on the ground.

Courtesy of ThinkFilm

Courtesy of: ThinkFilm

Following this pattern in an obsessive and methodical way, he gradually meets others searching for the same thing, though none of them know what “it” is.

They find the same mysterious pattern repeating in audio recordings and objects.

In a transcendent moment, it’s even found in the imprint left by starlight on an amber mixture, burned into the thick liquid through a telescope like a physical example of a long-exposure photograph. Acre and his wife leave this cult-like group, but one nostalgic day, they discover more patterns in old polaroids of the starbursts, patterns that are related to the Golden Ratio – a real-world theory that claims to manifest throughout nature.

This is where things get crazy. They assemble streaks in the photos into a pattern, a mosaic, and when they are finished they attach everything to a pinboard. Standing back, this is what they see:

Topiary Script

Now the action abandons Acre and we join a group of 10 boys aged between seven and 12. What happens next can best be described as an ultra-realistic cross between Pokémon, Transformers and Chronicle.

Their scientific creativity belying their age, the boys discover something they name ‘The Maker’ which leads them to eventually create artificial life called a Chorus. Dogs, horses, apes and eventually a dragon are all built to serve as the boys become involved in petty power struggles driven by their desire to discover and create.

The screenplay ends with a thrillingly tense battle against a group of rival adults with their own creations where we lapse briefly into suggestions of time travel, before the truly jaw-dropping twist. With the boys living wild with their dragon, we suddenly, and I quote, “Match cut to: Another World”.

An example of the effects work Carruth was doing to create the Choruses for A Topiary. This is part of a short clip playing on Kris's computer in Upstream Colour.

An example of the effects work Carruth was doing to create the Choruses for A Topiary. This is part of a short clip playing on Kris’s computer in Upstream Color.

An apocalypse. The creations the boys have been cultivating have taken over the world, the universe. We don’t know where, we don’t know when. A pulsar burns radiation in outer space. Cut to black.

Like I said: ambitious.

In an interview with The Verge, Carruth clarified that he had spent about three years working on the project, including significant time spent developing an effects workflow for the Choruses because “I need the aesthetic to be something that I can count on and done a little bit cheaper than farming it out to third party effects houses”.

Along the way he gave the script to Steven Soderbergh, a vocal fan of his work, who then got David Fincher on board as a co-executive producer. Carruth produced a demo reel using his effects work and some shots from Spielberg films and in his own words “found lots of enthusiasm with film financiers”. Or at least that’s how it seemed at first.

Courtesy of ERBP

Courtesy of: ERBP

Looking back on the process he reflected that, “Nobody ever said no. It was always enthusiasm and amazement and ‘We can’t wait for this!’ Meanwhile, no money’s sitting in the account.” He lowered the budget from its initial $20 million to $14 million, but still there were no takers. After endless meetings and no progress Carruth took the decision into his own hands and simply walked away. “I decided that if nobody was gonna say no, I was gonna have to say no. It sort of just broke my heart.”

Several interviewers have raised the possibility of a crowdfunding campaign to Carruth, an idea that he previously rejected for leaving the film branded as a ‘Kickstarter film’ – an unwelcome prospect for an auteur with such a singular vision. He’s said that there’s “no common ground between me and the way traditional financing works”, but his ethical stance towards crowdfunding is that “If you’ve got money available to you as equity, you can’t just take people’s money for free”.

As admirable as that stance is, I’m sure I’m not the only fan who would contribute to such a campaign in a heartbeat if it helped to make A Topiary a reality. Brave and inventive filmmakers like Carruth are what keep the world of cinema interesting and it’s heartbreaking to realise that a project as unique and powerful as A Topiary may never see the light of day.

Are you desperate to see this lost offering from the most ambitious filmmaker working today? What did you think of Carruth’s epic screenplay? Would you donate to a crowdfunding campaign to get A Topiary made? Tell us your thoughts! Don’t forget to share this if you enjoyed it.

Sources: Wired/The AV Club/The Playlist/ScriptShadow/Pajiba/MovieWeb/These Pretzels Are Making Me Thirsty/The Verge/Vulture/Badass Digest (for bringing this film to my attention in its comments section). 

You can find Carruth’s screenplay here:

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  • Galvatron

    Damn, this sounds awesome.

  • Cullen Rutledge

    I wish Hollywood would produce more thoughtful and creative pieces instead of the mindless drivel. Guess I can’t blame them. Most people are idiots and that is the audience they make money off of.

  • Jaime Treviño

    of course I’d donate in a crowdfunding campaign to get this alive!! this guy is a complete genius.

  • General Maxwell Smart

    Well, I finally read the script for ‘A Topiary’. I found it a huge disappointment. Compared to ‘Primer’, which was a grande complication of a finely crafted watch movement that Swiss watchmakers would have to adore, this script is disjointed and illogical. Part 1 is the expression of what can only be described as full-blown paranoia: the world, impersonally evolving from an instant to the next, is made of signs and clues that can be deciphered with enough patience and determination. Every sensory perception is data, everywhere underlying patterns are waiting to be discovered, linked, and classified. The sound of three planes taking off from an airfield fits exactly to the pattern of lightning bolts recorded in a different time and place, etc.
    Only two mutually exclusive explanations for this worldview exist. One, the people holding it are victims of group delusion and should seek psychiatric help immediately. Two, our world is a simulation inside some sort of computer, where a limited number of patterns are reused and recycled over and over, because limited computing resources don’t allow for a recreation of chaotic and diverse nature … and/or because we the simulated humans inside the simulated world are being experimented on for our ability to figure out the clues. A bad trip whichever way you look at it, a ‘Matrix’ with no apparent way out.

    In Part 2, the “explanation” at the very end is at odds with the scenario of Part 1. It’s a variant on the “space aliens trick us into building copies of them so they can take over Earth” premise realized, e.g., in ‘Species’, except the aliens in this case may be robots rather than lifeforms. Instead of the first part foreshadowing the second and the second part clearing up open questions from the first, we are faced with a jarring incompatibility, a Frankenstein’s monster of a script.

    in both parts the protagonists’ implausible behaviors demand massive efforts to suspend disbelief .. too much for me. I can see why this project was never greenlighted. Its planned budget of 15 to 20 million dollars would not have bankrupted a major studio, but neither would it have recouped this investment.

    • Dudley Morris

      Your last two sentences are the thing. No matter what you think about quality of the movie, I couldn’t imagine it making more than its production cost at the box office – which of course would make it a bomb.

    • john smith

      Hi, only just come across this. I loved primer and this film seems to makes sense to me. The whole premise is planet Earth being infected by a malevolent von neumann machine swarm. Self replicating machines are transmitting information out to effectively infect any receptacle place. There can be no idea how technology might interact with any particular planet, life forms or even matter.

      The first part of the film is how the transmitted information is interacting and being picked up. Why it has to do with car crashes, spectrum’s, glints etc doesn’t matter. It is simply how the information interacts. The possible reason that it is a crash analyst is probably someone who is good at spotting patterns is going to be more respective unknown patterned information. People do not know why but they are compelled to seek out what is required to create the first self replicating machine on Earth.

      Part two with the boys is clearly the the result of that first replicating machine. The box which has this replicator in it. At this point the Earth is now infected. The rest of building the animals and other things is the self-replicating machine getting closer and closer to its true dominating form. Which seems to be these tube/funnel things.

      The final scene showing that this malevolent von neumann machine swarm has spread itself and taken over every possible environment it can throughout the galaxy… Universe?

      That is my take on what is at the core of this film. How a elf replicating machine would pass on information, get itself built is where Shane Carruth has let his imagination run without limitations. I think this is the script that you end up with. It is our view.experience of being infected by such a destructive swarm.

      On final thought is the pulsar might be representing the sheer amount of time which has passed as it might represent what our sun evolved into? ( it would be wrong but then that wouldn’t matter it you were trying to suggest billions of years have past.

      Issac Arthur a futurologist on youtube has a good talk about such machines