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How Gotham Nominee James Ward Byrkit Made ‘Coherence’ in 5 Days with No Script or Budget

How Gotham Nominee James Ward Byrkit Made 'Coherence' in 5 Days with No Script or Budget

Coherence” is not just smart science fiction: it’s a triumph of crafty independent filmmaking, made with few resources and big ambition. Gotham-nominated debut director James Ward Byrkit stripped his vision down to the barest of bones to achieve a mind-shifting, metaphysical freakout about a dinner party gone cosmically awry. This film explodes with ideas, and it has that thing we always hope for at the movies: the element of surprise.

Shot in sequence, in one location on a beer budget, “Coherence” gathers eight longtime friends and lovers hoping for a pleasant night on Earth — only they, along with space and time and reality, are about to be torn inexplicably asunder by a comet passing overhead. Inject some heady quantum physics, volatile emotions and parallel realities into the equation, and the film goes completely rogue.
Byrkit brought eight unwitting actors to his Santa Monica home, threw them a few red herrings and set them loose for five days knowing that the film could evolve organically, like great jazz, if he kept his players in the dark. But he and co-storywriter Alex Manugian weren’t just making it up as they went along. 
“Coherence,” Byrkit’s directorial debut, played theaters over the Summer and is on VOD. We spoke on the phone. (Watch clips from the film after the jump, and read my review here.)
Ryan Lattanzio: This film is incredibly scary. What were its origins, and what compelled you to tell this story?

James Ward Byrkit:
It was a combination of two things: a desire for many years to try and
experiment, to strip down a film set to the bare minimum: getting rid of the
script, getting rid of the crew. When you’re on bigger movies, most of your time is spent waiting.  You’re not actually filmmaking. So I thought, “wouldn’t it be great to have
nothing to worry about but the actors and the story?” So that, combined with the opportunity to
explore the latest cameras — Canon 5Ds — and make a micro-budget movie.
Starting with a lack of resources merged well with my desire to experiment
with having a lack of everything.
Saying, “we’ve got a living room, a camera, and some actors…what can we
do?” “Coherence” was born after about ten seconds of putting all of those elements together.
RL: The dialogue here is largely improvised. How did you accomplish that so successfully in a short amount of time, and how much
were the actors in the dark?

JWB: We shot over five days, and
instead of a script I had my own 12-page treatment that I spent about a year
working on. It outlined all of the twists, and reveals, and character arcs and
pieces of the puzzle that needed to happen scene-by-scene. But each day,
instead of getting a script, the actors would get a page of notes for
their individual character, whether it was a backstory or information about
their motivations. They would come prepared for their character only. They had no idea what the other
characters received, so each night there were completely real reactions, and surprises
and responses. This was all in the
pursuit of naturalistic performances. The goal was to get them listening
to each other, and engaged in the mystery of it all.
RL: So how much
were you screwing with them? In terms of
shutting the power off, banging on the door — their reactions to the film’s spookiest moments seem totally genuine.

JWB: They were completely
in the dark. All the surprises you see
are real. They didn’t know the power was going out. They didn’t know the knocks were coming.
There were knocks that surprised me, even, because it was, like, the pizza guy at the door. It was uncontrolled mayhem. You’re
improvising along with the actors as a director, and cameraman. My DP, Nic Sadler, and I told them, “You can go anywhere you want in
the house and we’ll follow you. We’re
not going to rehearse it or block it.” We
just treated it almost like a documentary unfolding in front of us.
RPL: Were you
pitting the actors against each other?

JWB: It was very
organic. In fact, at one point, when two of the characters leave and come back to the house, and the other actors wouldn’t
let them in. They were too freaked out.
My rule was to not interfere too much if they had an organic instinct,
but after 45 minutes of this intense standoff at the door I finally had to say, “Guys, you have to let them in otherwise the story’s going to stop.”
They were so freaked
out, and just trying to figure out the puzzle.
So it naturally led to conflicts and a real heightened sense of tension.
The actors would leave every night so energized. They were just on fire after five or six hours of this immersive experience. It was sort of like those murder mystery parties but this felt a lot
more real, and a lot weirder.

RPL: How did you research the science of the film? The Schrodinger’s Cat explanation for dummies was amusing, but it’s also
central to the story, and there is some intense quantum theory here.

JWB: Alex Manugian, who also stars in the film, co-wrote the treatment with me, and we
spent a year cracking the diagram of the whole thing based on our research, and
based on looking into the history of fractured realities and the
multiverse. It urns out that Stephen
Hawking and all of these guys actually believe in these crazy multi-dimensions.
So it’s a very rich world to draw from, and you don’t have to make up a lot to
get into some really, really weird stuff. 
But unlike “Primer,” which is a movie that’s all about making the science feel plausible,
our movie doesn’t try to make the science feel plausible. We were using the comet as our shortcut to
say to the audience, “This is a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode.” So in a way there is no
explanation, and we realized that since we didn’t have to justify the science, we could start mucking around and playing with the tropes of the this
kind of film. 
RPL: I’m glad you mentioned “The Twilight Zone.” I certainly thought of “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” where all the characters are already full of fear and aggression and a cosmic event drags it out of them.

JWB: Exactly. One of those sci-fi tropes is
that halfway through the movie, when one character gives a giant
exposition dump. And Alex and I thought, “wouldn’t that be funny if we had a moment like that where you thought you were
getting an explanation, but the explanation actually didn’t explain anything? They just thought it did.” The Schrodinger’s Cat theory, for example, explains nothing. What you see is just the actors so desperate for an explanation that the over-interpret
the clue. And that, of course, ramps up the paranoia and the other themes of the
movie, in that we project our own fears onto others, but it’s all
ourselves. We’re afraid of
ourselves. So this is a longwinded way
of saying the science is only hinted at as a way to get to the themes of the
RPL: Are you
struggling at all to keep a lid on spoilers for this movie?

JWB: It saddens me.
For so many months we were able to get reviews that spoke about it elliptically,
but here two weeks beforehand all of these spoilers are coming out. It’s okay in the long run because people have
told me that their best viewing is their third viewing and of course they’ve
had the entire movie spoiled for them at that point.  But the movie just gets better with more
viewings, so in a way it won’t really affect the viewing. But it’s sort of like taking dessert away
from someone — it’s that bonus surprise of actually being in the moment, and
having these twists and turns revealed. 
RPL: What’s next?

JWB:  I had such a good time making this. I want to
do something else like this, something in the same space. Something in the science fiction vein but a little smarter, a little
more character based. Something that
will hopefully reach more people.
RPL: I look forward
to that. I hope this movie takes off, and I have a feeling it will.

JWB: Oh bless you,
it’s all in your hands. You know we have
no marketing. So I’m counting on you to allow me to make another movie. If you don’t come through my career is dead basically.

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