Prior to making a feature directorial debut with the ingenious science-fiction brain-teaser Coherence, James Ward Byrkit made short films and commercials, and worked closely with Gore Verbinski as a storyboard artist and illustrator on the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies. Given the careful planning that goes into a Verbinski production, Byrkit’s collaboration with him was always close, but it got closer still when the two wrote the story for the eccentric animated movie Rango together. Byrkit has finally stepped out on his own with Coherence, a micro-budgeted indie that makes up in big ideas what it lacks in resources. Released to excellent reviews—including an Essential Viewing tag from The Dissolve—the film combines a mind-bending premise with surprisingly thoughtful and emotional underpinnings.
Shot over five nights in Byrkit’s house, Coherence takes place at a dinner party as a comet streaks across the sky overhead, causing a strange disruption in the basic firmament of reality. Of the eight friends who gather for the party, which roils with gossip and romantic tension even before the night takes a turn, Em (Emily Foxler) figures most prominently, but at least initially, Byrkit takes a greater interest in how her friends function (or don’t) as a collective. A power outage, some cracked cell phones, a single house that’s illuminated down the street: So begins a series of mysteries that deepen as the guests investigate and get embroiled in a phenomenon that may or may not be explained by quantum physics. Byrkit recently spoke with The Dissolve about the heavily improvised (and heavily planned) five-night shoot, the film’s Twilight Zone influence, and how he planned a movie that would keep revealing new information on multiple viewings.
The Dissolve: How did Coherence get started? Did it arise from the necessity of doing something on a small scale, or did the idea come first?
James Ward Byrkit: It was based on the reality of not having any resources. It also stemmed from a desire to get back to a purity of filmmaking, after years of working on these huge movies that I enjoyed, but that were very pre-planned, where a lot of the decisions were made before I even got on set. I missed the days where it was just me, some actors, and a story. I wondered what it would look like to strip it down to the bare minimum of elements—to get rid of the crew, the script, and to just have the camera and actors. It led to me looking at my living room as the set I could start with. My friend and collaborator Alex Manugian, who plays Amir in the film, he and I started talking about how Twilight Zone episodes made the most of simple locations, and gave a very cosmic feeling to the most mundane circumstances.
The Dissolve: Our review likened this movie to a cross between the Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” and Shane Carruth’s Primer. Do those figure as primary influences for you?
Byrkit: Twilight Zone, for sure. Primer wasn’t really an influence so much as it was a sign to us that maybe there was an audience for this kind of movie. The actual movie itself is so different than ours that it wasn’t as much of an influence as, say, Carnage by Roman Polanski, or other non-sci-fi movies.
The Dissolve: One thing it has in common with Primer is that if you were to graph out these multiple realities, it would be extraordinarily elaborate. Given your background as a storyboard artist and illustrator, did you do a lot of that while trying to figure out which realities were out there?
Byrkit: Oh God, yeah. For about a year, all I did was make charts and maps and drew diagrams of houses, arrows pointing where everyone was going, trying to keep track of different iterations. Months and months of tracking fractured realities, looking up what actual scientists believe about the nature of reality—Schrödinger’s cat and all that. It was research, but despite all the graphs and charts, I think our whole idea was that it has to be character-based. We want the logic of our internal rules to be sound, and we wanted it to be something people could watch 12 times and still discover a new layer.
The Dissolve: That’s the pleasing surprise at the end, how much of an emotional kick you hide in there. It becomes a much more a personal, character-based tale than just a puzzle picture.
“If you’re very clear on what you need the moment to be, you can encourage diversion from the plan.”
Byrkit: That was the goal from the beginning. We figured if we’re going to tell a story that’s so convoluted and lose the audience in the funhouse, we have to have a way out of it. We have to have a simple throughline that you can grasp on to, because otherwise you’ll disconnect. We knew that would be the story of Em and the night she experiences, and the audience might not know that at the beginning. They call it a “hero emergent” story, like the first Alien, where you’re not even sure that Sigourney Weaver is the hero of the story until about halfway through. We really got excited about grounding the movie in a universal desire. We think almost everybody on Earth wonders if they’ve made the best choices in their life: “What if I could’ve done that differently?” That one little micro-choice. What would the ripple effect be? How might my life be different? Because we had that grounded character reality, that gave us the confidence to go as absolutely bananas as we could.
The Dissolve: How did you gauge the amount of information you should give viewers? Did you consider not having the physics book to help explain what’s going on, or not explaining Schrödinger’s Cat? How’d you figure out where an audience member might drop out, or be intrigued enough to hang on?
Byrkit: The funny thing is that most people didn’t realize, until a couple screenings in, that the book doesn’t mean anything. That was our meta-joke, because we don’t need the book at all. The book is a comment on movies that have this overly convenient exposition-dump halfway through, and we thought we didn’t need that. This is a Twilight Zone episode, and they don’t have an explanation. It just happens, and you follow the characters’ choices. So we thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to have something appear that looks like it’s about to explain everything, and then have the actors and the characters and the audience assume it’s explaining everything, and then it doesn’t?” It doesn’t mention comets. It doesn’t mention anything! That was really fun to us, and we said, “Wouldn’t it be great if it made everything worse, and only increased their paranoia?” It didn’t explain it, it only made them think they’re in a much worse situation than they were.
That became the fun of having the book. The book is ridiculous. The book is a writer’s crutch, appearing when we didn’t need it at all. It was too much fun to throw in that complication and trick the actors, who are all improvising. They get a mystery clue in the middle of the night, and that’s part of the game of the movie. Clues arrive, and the characters are desperate to over-interpret every little clue, so they misread that and convince themselves that they’re going to die. That was pre-planned, based on our knowledge of human nature and knowledge of what other movies had done before.
The Dissolve: You first perceive it as something important, and then it turns into a McGuffin. It becomes a thing that people are after, and that they consider important, but as you said, it isn’t.
Byrkit: The whole point is that on a thematic level, that’s what the whole movie is about. We’re projecting our fears onto other people, but the reason we’re afraid in life is because we’re projecting our own fears. Whether it’s fear of another country or another race, we’re projecting our worst fears about ourselves.
The Dissolve: It’s surprising to hear that the dialogue was fully improvised. What did you give the actors, in terms of a script or outline?
Byrkit: We shot over five nights. Each day, instead of getting a script, I’d give the actors individual notes. I’d email the actors a page or a half-page that’d give them a bit of backstory and their motivation for that night. They’d arrive primed, with their own character, what they wanted, and what they had to say. But they had no idea what the other actors had received. They were not told how to react, what was coming, how it was going to end. Every night, it was a little bit of a mystery dinner party controlled by me and Alex, who knew all the major twists and clues and plot points. Sometimes we’d let the actors go down a completely different road than we had anticipated, which would sometimes lead to great stuff, and sometimes lead to a dead end, and we’d have to steer them back. But the whole point was to keep them in the moment and absolutely engaged in the reality of what was happening. That worked so, so much better than we even planned, to have them truly listening and feeling the tension and trying to solve this thing, to fight for their own survival and solve the puzzle. To see them do that was absolutely fascinating.
The Dissolve: Did they enjoy that? Was there a level of fear with them, not being able to prepare as actors generally get a chance to do?
Byrkit: The first night, absolutely. They had no idea what they were doing. I told them, “Trust me, this is gonna be fun, this is gonna be an experiment,” but they didn’t know if they were going to die, if I was going to trick them, if I was going to do awful things to them. I told Lorene Scafaria to show up at my house and be ready to make dinner for eight people. She didn’t know what she was getting into at all, outside of the fact that she had to cook. That first night was really tense. They talked so much, because they’re all smart, funny, extroverted actors. They just talked non-stop. That was a little crazy and difficult to manage. But after that first night, when they realized they were in good hands, they got better and better, more and more comfortable. Though none of them knew each other beforehand, they got to be great friends. They had to pretend to be long-term friends and lovers, and I think by the second or third night, they really were friends.
The Dissolve: Would it be an insult for me to say that it doesn’t sound improvised?
Byrkit: The goal was to have a story that was very clear and doesn’t meander too much, but to also have natural responses and the overlapping of dialogue, the real messiness of human conversation. I got the best of both worlds. I got the naturalistic performances, but also a very controlled story. You’ve also got to understand that you’re seeing hours and hours of improv scenes that didn’t make the edit. We trimmed it down to only the relevant parts.
The Dissolve: Did you happen to see Under The Skin?
Byrkit: Nope, but I can’t wait. I’ve heard it’s great.
The Dissolve: Jonathan Glazer had a similar method, with all these clandestinely filmed conversations between Scarlett Johansson and people from Glasgow, men who came up to her car. But it’s from a director who’s given to a tremendous amount of planning as well. It’s interesting to see those two elements in play in both films. In one sense, Coherence has been extremely plotted out, leaving this other area wide open.
Byrkit: I find, as a director, that if you’re well-prepared and if you’ve thought about it from every direction, that allows you to be much more open to improvisation. You can tell whether a direction is working, and help guide it. If you’re very clear on what you need the moment to be, you can encourage diversions from the plan, because you know you can always go back to it.
The Dissolve: We talked a little about how you charted out a lot of the complicated fractured realities in this movie. Was there much else you could do to prepare yourself, or did you have to find a style that’d accommodate the actors? How’d you settle on the visual style of the film?
Byrkit: We did a little test to see if this crazy concept could work, having people show up at my house and following them around with cameras. It worked! The only drawback was that sometimes you have to focus on the fly. It starts to look more like a documentary film than a planned, composed film, and I’m used to working with a composed shot structure. Storyboarding is all about composing perfect shots, so I had to let that go and learn a new way of working, a way of composing shots on the fly that still has some kind of cinematic integrity, but could allow the actors to go wherever they want in the house. And we said, “We’re not gonna rehearse a single shot. We’re not gonna block it. You guys go wherever feels right, and we’ll follow you.” That was thrilling. I had to improvise just as much as they did. My DP, Nic Sadler, who was fantastic, he came up with a lighting plan that could accommodate the entire room. We never re-lit. The whole room was live at all times.
The Dissolve: In order to get the whole film made in such a short time, what sacrifices did you have to make? What would you have done differently if you had five weeks instead of five days?
Byrkit: You know, I don’t think I would’ve. Five weeks would’ve been too much planning, and then we would’ve lost the spontaneity of the performances. That would’ve been a mistake, to draw it out like that. Sure, I could’ve had a more comfortable shoot. I could’ve had a crew and a continuity person and all those things that make a shoot comfortable. But I would’ve lost the reality of the actors experiencing it in real time. I don’t think I would’ve changed it. I’ve been asked by studios if I’d want to remake this with bigger actors, to do a whole big movie with stars and everything. I don’t think so. I think it’d come across as false, that we’d lose all the wonderful things we have because of our lack of resources.
The Dissolve: You’re credited as a storyboard artist and conceptual consultant for the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies. Given Gore Verbinski’s precision, those roles become more crucial than they might on another production. How would you describe that relationship on those movies?
Byrkit: He’s a great friend. We’re intensely collaborative, he’s my favorite director. His brain is this infinite playground of creativity, so we merge minds really well. On the very first Pirates Of The Caribbean, I was the first person he hired. I was directing commercials, and he said, “Hey man, I know you’re directing now, but I’m doing Pirates next week.” So we went down with a couple of people from the production and took boats all over the Caribbean and started coming up with the visual design of the next three movies. We envisioned Jack Sparrow’s arrival, taking that step off the mast as it sinks, stuff that became the iconic moments of the series. We had such a good time working together that we wrote Rango together. John Logan joined us to write the screenplay, but we cracked the story together, created all the characters, did voices, wrote songs. He’s a joy to work with, one of the best experiences of my life.
The Dissolve: Rango is so sophisticated in its references and general eccentricity. Did you ever feel like you were getting away with something?
Byrkit: Every day. We’d look at each other, like, “Can you believe we’re doing this?” It was so great.
The Dissolve: Was there a thought as to whether you’d be able to hold onto younger viewers? Maybe we underrate how much young people can handle.
Byrkit: We both remembered that some of our best movie experiences as kids were accidentally watching something not meant for kids. We trusted that we were gonna make this for older kids and adults, and that those adults will be responsible for sharing it with very young kids. That’s why we pushed for a PG rating and not G. We wanted to signal to the audience that it isn’t for really little kids. Don’t confuse it with Rio or something like that.
The Dissolve: So what’s next for you?
Byrkit: I had such a great time making Coherence that I just want to make another movie right away. Promoting it takes up a lot of time. When you do an indie film, you don’t have this big machine of a studio to market it for you. It’s just you and a couple of other people. I’ve got a couple of scripts ready that I’m just trying to get off the ground. I’d love to play in the same space as Coherence, a slightly more cerebral brand of sci-fi. Hopefully, we’d reach an even bigger audience.