Thursday, January 23, 2014

Interview: Andrew Sensenig, “The Sampler” from Upstream Color

Last May, as I stumbled out of my first screening of Upstream Color, stuck in a creatively drunken state of fascination and confusion, I immediately began singing its praise. I wrote a glowing review of the film, and used Twitter to voice my opinion of the film’s importance. One of the film’s co-stars, Andrew Sensenig, who plays a mysterious and mostly silent pig farmer known as The Sampler, found my Tweets and publicly thanked me for promoting the film. Months later, Andrew and I have developed a great rapport over email, and when I pitched him the idea of doing an interview for this site, he eagerly accepted.

I want to gush for a moment about how cool Andrew Sensenig is. First off, an actor from your favorite film of the year taking time to Tweet you is great enough. But through our conversations, I’ve gotten to know Andrew as the genuinely good guy that he is. Case in point: following our conversation about Upstream Color, he spent most of the time asking me questions about myself. He wanted to know when my fascination with film took hold, about the films that I make, and if I’d ever consider putting him in one of my own movies. Would I consider it? Yeah, you better believe it, and the answers to my questions below are just a few of the reasons why.

A few notes: This interview contains a few minor spoilers to Upstream Color. If you haven’t seen the film, please read cautiously. (But really… see this movie.) Also, if you’re looking for “answers” to the mysteries of Upstream Color, you won’t find them below. I wasn’t interested in asking Andrew to explain the film, but rather to detail his experience of being a part of it. Enjoy!
I read that Amy Seimetz (the star of Upstream Color) met with (writer/director) Shane Carruth only once and, based on the strength of that conversation, he offered her the role. How did you become involved with the film? Was there an audition process for The Sampler? Did you happen to know the right people who could connect you with Shane?
I’m based in Dallas, and I heard through the grapevine that Shane was looking to shoot his second feature in the Dallas area. I had seen Primer and thought it was incredible. Everything he had accomplished… he proved he was a filmmaker to be reckoned with. So I did some networking and found out that the producer of Upstream was Ben LeClair, who’s based in Los Angeles. I managed to get a note to Ben, and we spoke on the phone and I asked if I could read the screenplay. And when I read it, it just blew me away. I knew there was something in that script that was incredibly special. I asked Ben if Shane and I could have lunch. So we did. We had Mediterranean food and chatted for two and half hours and it just clicked. I got a call from Ben a few days later, requesting that, as a formality, I put myself on tape. So I chose a scene from the script to record, sent in the tape, and they called me they next day to work out a deal.

But speaking of Amy. She carries this movie. There’s a part of me that thinks that girl should have so many Best Actress nominations.
I couldn’t agree more. It’s a sensational performance.
And she’s just a remarkable person in general. And now she and Shane are engaged, so it’s really a great thing.
Are they really?! I didn’t know that.
Oh yeah.
I love the movie even more now.
It brought two brilliant, creative people together. It’s a great match.

Some people involved with the film weren’t even given full scripts. But you were, so I’m wondering… what did that thing look like? It’s such a visually stunning film, how much of its aesthetic beauty and narrative complexity was in the script?
I sometimes read scripts that have four page-long detailed descriptions of this ongoing battle between good and evil, and the shots are fired over here, and the blood sprays over there. Well Shane will write a line that says: “The end of the world begins.” And that’s it. Which allows me as the reader to bring my own thoughts to it, which is very similar to what he wanted in the movie. He didn’t spoon feed anything to anybody. He wanted you to determine what it meant. So the script read very narrative in style, but it was very vivid in its vision. The colors, the textural elements… it stood on its own as a screenplay. It was so different and so hauntingly beautiful. 
Tell me about your specific acting process for this character. So much is purposefully left out of the film; did you create a background for The Sampler? Did you have extensive conversations with Shane about who this guy was?
I literally did not do any type of preparation or research, because this particular character is such an enigma. He’s basically just there, all the time. And the only way to prepare being there all the time is to not prepare. You simply focus on being real in those moments. We spent 10 days out at the pig farm and there would be times when Shane and I would engage in a sort of telepathic conversation. We’re standing there, the freezing rain is coming down, it’s two in the morning, the pigs are covered in mud and we would just stand there and think. He’d look at me and say, “You feel good?” I’d say, “I think I know what you want.” “Okay, let’s do it.” And then we’d shoot and shoot and shoot. Shane and I had a very symbolic relationship in the way that we understood the isolation of this individual. And the power of this individual. And whether or not he was even aware of this power. So, with a character like this, you have to just be. I’m an actor who always goes from the internal. I either feel it intuitively and can be honest about it, or I can’t. Because I don’t ever want to fake it.

So it was wonderful to not have to bring this backstory to The Sampler because… we don’t know. He could be a surgeon and a musician who helps people, or maybe he’s God. We really have no idea.

It’s such a fluid, poetic film, how much of filming was mapped out through storyboards or shot lists, versus feeling your environment? Moments like, “No, wait, look at the way the light is hitting that tree, let’s go shoot over there.”
That’s a great question. Shane is truly a genius in so many elements of filmmaking, and in life in general. He can see the film as he’s filming it. He already knows where he’s cutting. So there wasn’t a whole lot of, “Oh let’s go shoot this over there.” He really knew what he was going for. And he did whatever he had to do to get it done. Dealing with pigs, you know… sometimes they don’t cooperate. So you have to wait it out and shoot it again. But a few times, working with those animals, the reality of the number of hours in the day versus the artistic desire to get the perfect shot were conflicting. But it didn’t matter. Shane had such a handle on what he was doing, and he made it work brilliantly.

What was Shane like as a director? Or collaborator, to be more precise. Did you have conversations with Shane Carruth, the director or Shane Carruth, the cinematographer, or did it really feel like it was all coming from one person who had it all mapped out?
It was coming from one person. Always. What was so amazing was, obviously Shane wore a lot of hats in this film, but you simply can’t argue with him for wearing all of those hats because he was A-list in every aspect.

He was very intense, but intense if a good way. Very driven. He has the ability to see it, and the ability to get it done. He’d get quiet sometimes and you could just watch him working it all out. Thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking. I’ve been fortunate to work with some pretty incredible directors over these past few years, but there’s no one like Shane. To be brilliant in so many areas, from the artistic side to the business end… it’s remarkable.
How aware were you of what the entire film was doing? Did you grasp the full scope of Upstream Color and all its complexities while filming?
The story, as a narrative, did make sense to me. What was great about the story was that it was rooted in real life. So you have these three things: The Thief, The Sampler and The Orchid Hunters, who all exist with no knowledge of the others. And without the others, they don’t exist. So I understood that aspect of it. And from my character’s perspective, I knew that I couldn’t be aware that those other things existed. So what the script made me realize is that, in real life, there are so many things going on that are impacting what we’re doing and how we’re living. And we don’t know anything about it.
That’s a great point.
There are so many things going on right now that prove how connected we are. And I think that’s what Shane was looking for in this story. That human connection, that relationship. That’s what Kris (Amy Seimetz’s character) is trying to get back, that connectedness. We all get lost in cycles: get up, have coffee, go to work, go to Subway for lunch, back to work, come home, eat dinner, watch the news, go to sleep, wake up, over and over and over. And there are plenty of people who live a very happy existence doing that. I did it for a number of years. But what this film is asking is: what are the forces that are shaping our lives? Shane found a great way to make people question that. He didn’t give an answer, but he asked the question, and made you think.

You made so many points there that I hadn’t thought about, and that’s the beauty of this film: everytime I watch it or talk about it, I see it differently. I grow with it, and it grows with me.
I absolutely agree. And a lot of that should be credited to David Lowery, who edited the film with Shane. David is such a fine filmmaker in his own right (he made last year’s critically acclaimed Ain't Them Bodies Saints), and the stamp he put on Upstream is one that really pulls you in.

I watched Upstream again last night to take notes for this interview, but 96 minutes later, I looked down and my pad was blank.
That’s so funny. That’s a perfect way to describe this film. I’m sure you wanted to take notes, but you couldn’t, because you were so absorbed.
Exactly. What was it like for you to see it for the first time?
Well throughout editing, Shane asked me if I wanted to see cuts of it, but I told him I’d hold out until it was done. So the first time I saw it was at the Sundance premiere, almost exactly one year ago. I was entranced. I didn’t move, I had to wonder if I even breathed. And then when I watched it the second time, I picked up on so much more. How important the sound is, how essential Shane’s score is.

Some filmmakers use cities as characters in their films, and in that same vein, the use of sound in Upstream Color is literally a character in the film.
Absolutely. A good buddy of mine, Johnny Marshall, did the sound design for the film, and you’re right, it’s a major role. I have so much respect for the people who created this soundscape – it just holds you in.
I’d like to jump back a little and talk about the origins of your career. Your IMDb bio is very interesting because it says you found enjoyment and success in theater when you were younger, then had to take jobs in the “real world,” then, in 2006, decided to give acting a full-time go. What brought on that leap of faith for you?
My wife, 100 percent. We’ve been married 29 years and she knew when we met in college that my passion was acting and film and music. We got married, had two daughters, and I wanted to be a good dad and provider so I went into the corporate world. I still did my own businesses – computer consulting for oil companies, investment banking – things like that. But when my youngest daughter turned 16, my wife said, “Okay, you’ve been a good dad, the girls are in great shape, they’re becoming independent, so you need to get back to what you’ve wanted to do your whole life.” I thought she was kidding. I was in my mid-40s and now I’m going to go be some actor? But she really pushed me to give it a try. She told me that I could always go back and get a real job if it didn’t work out, but this was something I wanted, so why not give it a try?

That was in mid-2006, and I have been very fortunate since. I’m very humbled to be able to help directors and writers and producers bring their stories to life. That’s what it’s all about for me, that collaboration. It’s not the money or the glamor – anybody who tells you there’s glamor in this business, I don’t know what business they’re in. This is by far the hardest job I’ve ever had, but I can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s in my blood. And when you’re working with someone like Shane Carruth and it works… there’s just nothing like it.  

Upstream Color is available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and Netflix Instant, as well as various Video on Demand platforms. See it. Now.


  1. That's a fucking excellent interview. I finally saw the film this past Saturday and it's in my top 10 films of 2013 right now. Andrew Sensenig was great in that. I'm pissed the film didn't get a single Oscar nod. I think it should've gotten some commendation for its sound work.

    1. Thanks man, really appreciate you reading it. You know, Andrew actually explained to me why Upstream wasn't nominated for Oscars, but for space reasons, I didn't include it.

      Basically, the Academy has a VERY strict criteria of how a film can be considered for nominations, and Upstream didn't follow those guidelines, mostly because Shane wasn't concerned with them. The Oscars are so damn political, and I really respect Shane Carruth for going his own way with the film.

    2. Then fuck the Oscars for that bullshit. Besides, I don't want to win any awards that will do that. Plus, I don't want to act like a smug asshole when I win an Oscar. I respect Shane Carruth even more for sticking to his guns and not caring about stupid things like awards.

    3. Yep, gives me yet another reason to value him as an artist.

  2. Like Void I finally got a chance to watch "Upstream Color" last week and was impressed and enthralled. I need to watch it again soon but can only imagine that I'm going to love it more. Great interview and it sounds like you both have been enjoying getting to know each other. How amazing for Andrew to get to restart his acting pursuits....second chances can be anazing!

    1. So glad you enjoyed the film. It's a real thinker, isn't it? It was great to speak with Andrew... I'm so inspired by his creative pursuits. It really takes a lot to realize, "No, this is what I want to do, and I need do to it."

      Thanks so much for reading!

  3. "So what the script made me realize is that, in real life, there are so many things going on that are impacting what we’re doing and how we’re living. And we don’t know anything about it."

    Damn. That. That opens the whole movie up so much for me. Which, I guess, is the foremost thing you can hope for from an interview. Good stuff, Alex.

    1. Yeah man, that kind of blew my mind. I hadn't thought about the film in that way AT ALL. Really appreciate you taking the time to read the interview!

  4. Awesome interview. It just makes me appreciate the complexities of the film and what Carruth achieved even more. I've seen the film twice, but I need to see it again now.

    1. Thanks buddy. I've seen the movie a lot and Andrew's insights about it made me want to check it out again, right away. I was so fortunate to be able to talk with him.

      Thanks for reading!

  5. Great interview, man. I rewatched this again very recently and I think The Sampler's role in the film, enigmatic as it is, remains my favourite part of the film. Absolutely love the scene where he records the various sounds of nature and modifies their frequencies, finding music in nature...and then how this is contrast with the way his experience resonates with the people's lives who are now intertwined with the pigs. There's so much symbolism and poetry in that scene and Sensenig deserves as much credit as Carruth.

    1. Thanks so much man. Really appreciate you reading. I'm so glad to hear your appreciate for Andrew's work in this film. I LOVE that scene you mentioned. It's so subtle, but oh so very vital... really a unique work of art within a unique work of art.

  6. Excellent interview, man. So cool that you were able to connect with him. I finally watched Upstream Color last week and, to be honest, it completely baffled me. Your discussion has me wanting to go back and revisit it though. I have a feeling that it's one that will grow on me with each viewing.

    1. Thanks man. I really appreciate you reading the post, especially considering the film had you at a loss. Definitely not an easy film to understand, but one that I certainly value more with each passing viewing. Hope you give it another chance!

  7. Upstream Color blew me away when I saw it, too, and it's wonderful to hear how it was done. I have so much respect for Carruth and for Sensenig too, of course. Fantastic interview, Alex!

    1. Thanks so much for reading! So happy to hear that you liked the film. There's so much to take away from it, you know?

      Really appreciate you reading and commenting!