Best Films Never Made #12: Shane Carruth’s A Topiary

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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 film-making 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 Colour, but what exactly happened to the film he spent almost a decade trying to make? And what even is A Topiary? A Topiary 1

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 Colour 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.

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L-R: Shane Carruth and David Sullivan in Primer

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 itself 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:

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Now the action abandons Acre and we join a group of 10 boys aged between seven and twelve. 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.

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 Colour.

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 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.

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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.

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.”

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Several interviewers have raised the possibility of a crowd-funding 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 crowd-funding 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 film-makers 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 film-maker working today? What did you think of Carruth’s epic screenplay? Would you donate to a crowd-funding 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:


8 responses to “Best Films Never Made #12: Shane Carruth’s A Topiary

  1. I love Shane Carruth’s work and I hope “A Topiary” gets funded and made someday. He has an original mind for storytelling and can see his vision so clear. Keep the Dream Alive, Shane!

  2. Yeah it’s such a shame he can’t find the funding for it. The plot is difficult to explain well in this format – possibly part of the reason he struggled so much – but I highly recommend anyone interested to read it. It’s fascinating to read and I have no doubts it would work ten times better on the screen as well.

  3. Pingback: Must See Movies You've Never Seen: Primer (2004) MovieMelt·

  4. The difference between a bad movie and a good movie is in the story telling. I have seen Primer at least 100 times and even twice in one sitting. A few times. Shane Carruth is the best story teller in the industry today. If A Topiary does not make it to a screen it will be akin to a world without Villa Savoye, Modular Man and the Fibonacci Sequence.

    That said, I would certainly contribute to crowd funding.

  5. I would absolutely contribute not insignificantly towards A Topiary if that is what it would take to make it. Primer and Upstream Color have really touched me and the whole storytelling, visuals, imagery immersive nature of the movies have captivated me. I’m sad I never got to see them in the cinema.

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