James Ward Byrkit has made one of the most exciting science-fiction movies of the year, the title is “Coherence”.
We saw it in the last edition of the Syfy Film Festival. It won in the last edition of the Sitges Film Festival the best screenplay prize. It’s a really must see movie.
How was the idea for “Coherence” born? Which is the origin of “Coherence”?
Because we had no resources besides some great actor friends and my own living room, my co-story writer Alex Manugian and I had to come up with an idea that made a house seem like more than a house. And this led us to think about great “Twilight Zone” episodes that took place in a limited space. That show had some great stories often about a group of people with a reality- bending mystery to solve. That started it all.
The origin was really an experiment to see if we could shoot something without a crew and without a script, two things that can really get in the way of making a movie. So the desire to try this process fit perfectly with the “Twilight Zone” story idea.
Which was the method that you chose to work with all the cast to grab such a great job of them? Which was the margin for improvisation while you were shooting “Coherence”?
I really wanted the actors to experience the reality of the story in a new way. Where they didn’t know what was going to happen and so they were always listening to each other, full of tension, actively using their brains to figure it all out. So instead of a script, I would send them each a page of notes for their character every day (we shot the movie over five nights). So each actor would arrive with a general idea of their character’s motivation for the night, or a backstory to tell. But they wouldn’t know what the other actors were going to do. This provided an incredible dynamic of natural dialogue. The actors were prepared with character notes, but not story notes. They got to respond to the twists and surprises of the story in the actual moment of discovery. Sometimes I would give them a line that I thought needed to be said, but the large majority of the actual dialogue is improvised.
Something that I like a lot of “Coherence” is, although the plot is very complex and needs some thinking from the audience, you never get bored or you never want the movie to end. How can you convey that kind of state of mind or way of thinking?
That is great to hear! Alex and I were always in search of “fun tension,” in that rare way that Hitchcock and Polanski and few others know. We tried to keep the exposition down, and the character choices compelling. We had characters disagree, but no one had “dumb” ideas. Even the choice of splitting the group up had good reasons for the characters who decided to do that. For me, the fun was creating a puzzle that got so dense that it seems unsolvable, and then finding a way out. Everything came back to character choices— how far can we push these people? We took a year to make sure the puzzle made sense so that the characters could play without breaking the funhouse.
At the end of the premiere in the Syfy Film Festival, all the people had the same words: “I’m feeling like my brain is gonna blow up, like in ‘Scanners’ (David Cronenberg, 1981)”. Don’t you feel a little bit worried about the possibility of the audience getting lost throught the plot?
We knew that would happen. That’s why it’s called COHERENCE! Because we knew for many of the audience it would seem completely incoherent. But we also knew that some of the audience would be able to follow it, and the rest would have a joy watching it a second time. Actually, we’ve been told that the third viewing is the best. We’ve also noticed that people who watch it with others have a much better time than people watching it alone. It’s best as a communal experience.
Do you think that the Hollywood industry consider the audience like if they were little kids? I mean the screenplays are often oversimplief until they are just crystal clear? What do you think about it?
Yep, absolutely. This would have never been approved by a studio. They wouldn’t have trusted that audiences would have the capacity to actually pay attention to all the micro-clues we plant from the beginning. And they are somewhat right- some people won’t respond at all. But why make movies only for the lowest common denominator? Shouldn’t there be at least a few films that are fun for smart people?
Which are the cinematographic references of “Coherence”?
We did a test a year earlier to see if the Canon 5D could cut together with the 7D. The same cast sitting around the dinner table telling stories. I didn’t want to worry about lighting or rehearsing. I just wanted to shoot in real time and improvise my camera work with the actors. Luckily I was able to rope in my first choice for a Director of Photography, Nick Sadler, to shoot with me. This footage turned out to be surprisingly cinematic. So that test was our only cinematographic reference for the resulting film.
Which were the heroes of your childhood?
I was into Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. And Joe Johnston and John Dykstra of “Star Wars” were inspirational. Mary Renault wrote my favorite book “The King Must Die.” I thought Annabella Lwin of Bow Wow Wow was pretty great.
You have written the screenplay of “Rango”, from our point of view a very underestimated movie. What does a person able to write such different stories have in his head?
Thanks, I love that movie. I’m interested in the strangeness that goes unseen in our everyday reality. There are hints of universal vastness all around us, that our sad culture ignores. There is a spiritual door in every mundane thing, if you can just adjust your focus. There are keys all around us. Every door leads to infinity.
“Coherence” is your first movie as a director. Was that experience as you expect? Which was the real challenge of this production?
“Coherence” actually turned out to be much more enjoyable than it should have. Really, it should have been a disaster. But somehow all the right people came aboard, starting with Alex Manugian, who helped crack the story and my producer Lene Bausager, who agreed to fly out from England the minute she saw the test footage. DP Nick Sadler and editor Lance Pereira made it all professional. The challenge was creating the best possible character-based story out of hours and hours of improvised dialogue, much of it leading nowhere. The editing process was epic and this film would not exist without the genius of editor Lance Pereira.
How much did “Coherence” cost? And what was the most expensive thing in this movie?
Well, not much. Too give an idea, the most expensive thing was a wig we had to create for Lorene Scafaria. That wiped us out. And we had to fix broken car windows on the rental car over and over.
From the beginning till the end, was “Coherence” what you expected from your movie? How many changes have you done to the first draft of the movie?
In almost every way, it was better than expected. The first ideas were really nebulous and abstract. But the actors gave it a reality. With all the twists and turns, the film could get very plot heavy. But the actors made it live. Emily Foxler just soared, she quickly proved that the whole idea was going to work. The way the actors worked together, playing off of each other was fantastic.
We really designed a funhouse, and the hope was that the actors would find their way through it with honesty and real character growth. That worked so much better than it had a right to, mostly because we had the absolutely perfect team of players.
The first ideas were more violent, with a feeling of a “home invasion” movie. But the more we worked on it, the more it became clear that really this was a puzzle movie where the puzzle started with the first shot and ended one second before the film cuts to black.
What do you think about ‘Primer’ and Shane Carruth?
I love “Primer” and I’ve seen that movie a few times. I think Shane Carruth is a special filmmaker. We knew the same kind of audience would respond to “Coherence” but really they are completely different at their core. The power of “Primer” is that from top to bottom it has a sense of plausibility, that there is some scientific reality behind it. “Coherence” is the opposite. Except for the naturalistic acting, the rest is all fantasy, like a “Twilight Zone” or Ray Bradbury story. We don’t think of “Coherence” as being especially cerebral. It’s like a drive-in movie from the 1950’s, just with the dumb parts taken out, and much love given to the details.