For years enigmatic writer-director Shane Carruth, the genius behind Primer and Upstream Color, was working on a project called A Topiary. Like all of his projects, it was ambitious and hard to define, a wild science fiction project that, according to a 2013 Wired report, was split into two parts – the first followed a city worker who becomes obsessed with a starburst pattern he starts seeing in everything and the other concerned a group of children who uncover a material they use to build animal-like robots. You know. That old song.
While Carruth was forced to abandon the project after failing to secure the necessary budget (even with Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher signed on as executive producers), it remained a tantalizing what-if. And then, last night, Carruth unleashed his sizzle reel for the project via the Upstream Color Twitter account. This is the sizzle he presumably took to studios and would occasionally show publicly (like during a Q&A with Rian Johnson at Cinefamily in 2013) and if this was what the movie was going to be like, whew boy were we in for a treat.
The clip features a child’s narration, which lends it a dreamy, almost Terrence Malick-style atmosphere. “It had always been around, always hidden, in glints of sunlight, hidden in the shape of bone,” the narration begins, as the sizzle features clips from Jurassic Park, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Contact, Raiders of the Lost Ark and X-Files: Fight the Future. “Until he notices. And he can’t stop noticing.” The clip continues: “And before long it tells him to build something.” More clips: E.T., Days of Heaven, The Conversation. “Until the great machine is stolen, buried,” the narration states, which gives us a glimpse at how the two halves of the story are connected: the man obsessed with the starburst in the first part of the movie creates a machine that is then taken away from him and secreted away.
“By the time the boys get ahold of it, there’s not much to do but turn it on,” the narration states. More clips of E.T., X-Files. And it’s here in the back half of the sizzle that we actually get some new footage – seemingly visual effects tests that Carruth had conducted. (In an effort to get the budget down, the filmmaker was trying to learn how to do all of the effects by himself.) The “machine” looks like beautiful origami. The children “create things that move like animals, like creatures” (a flash of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) “or robots” (The Iron Giant) “but not.” Then we see full-on footage of the machine running, looking like a box with spindly, paper-like legs. In one instance, Carruth inserts a static image of the machine into a shot from X-Files. “Being boys, they can’t help but think of something given as something that they’ve earned,” the narration says. “When the men come looking for their belongings, they may not recognize them anymore.” There are images of the robot (or whatever it is) taking on odd, huge, geometric shapes. That earlier profile of Carruth said that the finale of the movie would be a battle of the machines against one another. It ends with images from The Wild Stallion, intercut with similar, new footage of one of the creatures running along the beach, kicking up surf and wet sand.
Supposedly the end of the movie would have gotten really trippy and cosmic, which the sizzle wisely stays away from. But overall, the sizzle gives a great sense of what the movie was going to be and what mood it was trying to evoke (very Amblin-y). It should also be noted that the entire sizzle is set to a piece of Hans Zimmer score from Inception (“Time”), giving it even more epic, ethereal vibes.
It’s sort of shocking that with such a low price point (by the time he had given up, Carruth had gotten the $20 million budget down to $14 million) and with such heavy hitters like Soderbergh and Fincher behind him, he still couldn’t pull this one across the finish line. With the filmmaker effectively retired from the industry, it looks like we’ll never see A Topiary in any form. Although if there was ever a time for Netflix (or Apple or HBO Max) to make a big, splashy bid for the project and return one of the most promising young visionaries of independent cinema to the big stage, now would be it …
Check out the video below or watch it on Vimeo.