Director James Ward Byrkit talks Coherence

First-time director James Ward Byrkit talks cramming big sci-fi ideas into a tiny indie film.

In Coherence, eight friends get together at one couple’s house for a dinner party only to soon learn that a bizarre astronomical event is somehow altering the very fabric of reality. As hidden secrets, long-held regrets and simmering tensions rise to the surface, the dynamics of the group itself may end up becoming just as damaging as the cosmic events unfolding around them.

With a career including stints as co-writer and storyboard artist on Rango, conceptual artist on the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and director of shorts, videos and games, James Ward Byrkit makes his feature directorial debut with this micro-budget independent project, which he shot over five nights at his own house. His actors were not given a formal script, but instructions each morning on what their characters’ motivations and actions might be. Each actor was not aware of what the others were going to do, and they were not informed ahead of time of the clues and surprises that Byrkit would spring on them as they attempted to solve the mystery of what was happening to them.

The result is a gripping combination of psychological thriller, relationship drama and sci-fi mind-bender—the latest in a current crop of smaller genre films that rely more on the power of their ideas than the razzle-dazzle of computer effects, explosions or 3D.  Den of Geek got Byrkit on the phone to discuss how he took the minimal resources available and twisted the universe into knots with them.

Den of Geek: Congratulations on the film. What came first, the experimental nature of how you shot it or the actual concept?

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James Ward Byrkit: You know, for many years I had been thinking about doing this experiment and really craving to try something that did not have a script and did not have such a big crew. And so when I got serious about making a micro-budget movie, it just seemed like the right time to try that experiment. Part of it was also after years of trying to pitch things and get other projects off the ground through the studio route and being told no time and time again — they’re like, “You’re not a famous director so we’re not going to make your movie” — I think there was probably a desire to say well you know what, I can make a movie with both hands tied behind my back and hopping on one foot that will be more compelling than the stuff you guys are making. So I think that probably just the frustration with Hollywood and all the closed doors probably led to wanting to completely break the rules.

There are several filmmakers I’ve talked to recently, and now I count you among them, who are using science-fiction ideas in their movies without spaceships and explosions and planets blowing up.

Yeah, I always thought that science fiction really took a wrong turn somewhere by assuming that they had to only be visual extravaganzas. All those years the Ray Bradbury stories and Twilight Zones proved that ideas were the most compelling part of science fiction. I think it’s a really fertile ground. I think it’s just the beginning of a renaissance of sort of big idea, small budget science fiction.

What influenced this concept? Did you do a lot of research into it?

A lot of research, although you can do the research relatively quickly. If you just read for 20 hours you’re going to have a pretty good idea of just about everything that anybody has to say about it. So what really we had to do is take a year of developing the clues and the plot twists and turns to make the character story compelling. Because I don’t think you can just have a movie about science. Primer did a pretty great job of making the science front and center, but we really thought that we needed to have it character-based and have themes that resonated with people. So the theme of regret and the theme of thinking about what your life would be like if you made different choices seemed to exactly tie in with this idea of fractured reality.

There’s a very powerful existential subtext to that because that’s something that everybody really can feel very powerfully.

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It’s a universal, ground level thing. You don’t know it at first who the protagonist is but she starts to emerge, the character of Em (Emily Foxler) starts to emerge as the one who really has the most regret and who feels like just these micro decisions she made led to huge, huge regrets in her life. She just didn’t act when she had the chance to take this understudy role. It wasn’t even that she chose not to take it, she just didn’t make the call. She just didn’t say yes. And so that has haunted her for years. We actually almost called the movie The Understudy because that was so crucial to her the way that she thinks of herself.

You didn’t have a screenplay in the traditional sense. How did you present this to the actors and did you look for people that you knew had improv skills and could handle something like this?

I didn’t know if they had improv skills, to be honest. I just picked smart people that I knew could generate ideas. A lot of them had not done improv but they could flow with it once they figured out what was going on. I prepped them — each day I would give them a little note card for just their character, just notes about their backstory or stories I wanted them to tell for the night or motivations for the night but they didn’t know what was going to happen that night and they didn’t know what the other characters had gotten in terms of notes. We shot over five nights and they arrived each night with their little prep sheets so that they were informed about their own character, but then it was really like a fun house every night. They were led through the twists and turns and they got to respond any way they thought was natural for their characters to respond. But it was all in the moment; it was all real and all real reactions and that was the joy. We knew that while we were doing it that we were onto something completely new and completely special and people were constantly saying, “I can’t believe I’m part of this project.” This has literally never been done in the history of filmmaking where something this complicated with puzzle pieces and clues has been done unscripted.

You shot the movie in your own house. How naturalistic did you try to make the environment?

We removed the crew so that it felt like a real dinner party. It was just me and my DP Nic Sadler holding cameras. But besides that, the room is absolutely empty. It’s just the actors really having a dinner party. Lorene Scafaria showed up at my house, she had never met any of these people before and I said, “Just be ready to cook a chicken for eight people. You’re putting on a party.” I showed her where the plates were and I said, “This is your house now so you have to tell people if you want napkins or do you want glasses. This is your house.”

Where there a lot of happy accidents on set that took you by surprise?

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Yeah, constantly. And I had to improvise along with them. The actors would constantly throw interesting angles at me or interesting interpretations or things that we hadn’t thought about and I had to adjust constantly and weave it into the story. And that was thrilling because as a director normally you’re so prepped with the script, and I’m a storyboard artist so normally I’d have my 30 shots that I was going to do, and all that goes out the window because you don’t know what these people are going to do. We told them you can go anywhere in the house you want, we’re going to follow you. And so that constantly led to surprises and conflicts and interesting theories that they come up with of what was going on and suggestions. At one point it got really fascinating, the group that was in the house didn’t want to let two of the actors back in because they were so suspicious of them, so paranoid, because things had gotten weirder and weirder. For 45 minutes they just wouldn’t let the two guys back in the house. So that was great. I would have never thought of that. It was just real; it was a real response.

Does making a movie in this manner change you as a filmmaker and as a creative person?

It absolutely does. You’re suddenly forced to use every latent tool that you’ve ever developed in your life and you can’t rely on the crutches that you’re used to on a big film set. On a big film set you’re used to this army of people that can adjust any detail and you can rehearse it over and over and you can make it look just like you storyboarded it and you can watch it over and over on playback and decide how to perfect the shot. All of that is gone. You’re flying without a net and you have to rely on mostly your instincts and your knowledge of human nature and you’re thinking, “Okay, if these actors are doing it this way now, how are they probably going to act in five minutes from now when this part of the puzzle is revealed? And what can I do to anticipate that?” And out of the corner of your eye you’ll sense that one of the actors is about to do something and so you have to glide the camera over to them and match them right as their heads turning so that you can make a composed shot, which normally you would have rehearsed eight times and you have one shot to do it because you can’t stop the flow and say, “Oh guys, go back, I want to get that head turn again.” So it’s an incredible feeling. It’s so scary it’s like driving a racecar at 7000 miles an hour.

Would you like to keep going with this style of filmmaking? Do you see yourself continuing to work in this mode either until or alongside an assignment with a larger studio?

I wouldn’t make anything this bare bones just because it’s absolutely exhausting and it’s crazy to be honest. This should have been a disaster; this should have never have worked. I would want to have a continuity person. I would want to have a props person. I would want to have definitely a crew to help me out next time. But the lessons were great lessons, to learn how to keep the actors in the moment; how to allow the actors to contribute much more than most film sets let them do. People are out there right now trying to write what they call the actor proof script. And that’s the last thing I want. I never want to work on an actor proof script. I want the actors to have total input and total collaboration with the project. I don’t know why people would want to cut themselves off from this incredible amount of creative input at their disposal. And I would just allow for a little more improv than is normally understood. I would allow for overlapping dialogue and allow for a lot of happy accidents. You have to be prepared enough with your vision that you can then allow things to deviate from the plan.

Would you like to do another film in the sci-fi genre?

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Oh absolutely. That has been the most gratifying thing about this whole release is that the kinds of audiences that are responding to this are exactly the kind of people I want to make movies for. I couldn’t care less about the critic in New York who doesn’t like genre movies or doesn’t understand what movie lovers are really looking for. I want to make movies for the Fantastic Fest crowd. I want to make movies for people who actually love movies and these are them. This is how you get to those people.

Coherence is out now in limited release and coming soon to VOD. Check for more info.

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