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What Upstream Color & Walden Can Teach Us About Self-Publishing

Can you self-publish a movie?

Continuing his DIY release of Upstream Color, director and writer  Shane Carruth has added his film to Netflix streaming. The movie opened in theaters in 20 markets around the country, followed by a wide range of platforms from iTunes to YouTube to Netflix to DVD. Carruth explained his choice:

As a filmmaker you try to make a compelling case for an audience to stick around minute by minute with what is on the screen … By also crafting the marketing we’re still doing that, still storytelling, but we’re trying to make a case for an audience to show up. Hopefully for viewers, framing the film this way and staying true to the film’s intent makes it a bit more of an intimate relationship.

Upstream Color is the best analogue to a self-published book you can find in the movie business. Indie writers should find some inspiration in both his creative model and his film.

The movie arrived in the middle of blockbuster season, with Iron Man 3 breaking box office records, The Great Gatsby raking in money and a new Star Trek installment lining up next in the money chute. Upstream Color opened in theaters and on demand about the same time, so I could stream it at home while babysitting my daughter on a Friday night.

Writers spend too much time arguing about the goldmine potential of self-publishing. When we talk about indie books, why does money dominate the conversation? Instead, we should worry about the artistic freedom that creators like Shane Carruth have found by taking the DIY route.

Upstream Color wasn’t a blockbuster and Carruth won’t buy a Hollywood mansions anytime soon. But he made critics pay attention around the country. The movie compels you to keep watching–I played it twice in the same weekend, an extremely rare occurrence since my daughter was born.

Even better, the entire plot of Upstream Color rests on Henry David Thoreau‘s Walden, epic collection about living and writing in cabin by himself. Thoreau financed his first book himself and struggled for years before his work emerged.

You can download a free copy of Walden online, a great way to explore a work by one of America’s most famous indie books.

New Yorker staff Caleb Crain wrote a beautiful essay about Upstream Color and Walden, providing a roadmap through this dreamy film. Here’s an excerpt:

It can’t be accidental that Carruth’s movie so strongly echoes Thoreau, the figure in American intellectual history who tried hardest to do his thinking apart from the hive mind. Indeed, the shape of Carruth’s career itself is distinctly Thoreauvian—in his suspicion of the compromises that come with money, in his insistence on doing for himself what other filmmakers usually have done for them, and in the economic austerity that his choices have imposed on his personal life. (He has told Wired that he ascribes some of his artistic freedom to not having a wife or family, and he has told Grantland that he has no health insurance.)

Many writers don’t write to get rich. Remember that as you consider your DIY options for self-publishing. If you need more inspiration to keep writing, read the conclusion of Walden right now. “The life in us is like the water in the river,” reminding us to chase meaning wherever you find it.

So think about Henry David Thoreau and Upstream Color the next time you talk about self publishing. Forget about getting rich quick or becoming the next Hollywood sensation. Think about writing something better than what we already have.

Watch the trailer for Upstream Color below. Writer Nicholas Rombes published an essay about the book at The Los Angeles Review of Books.

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