After Coherence screened to a packed house at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival, the film’s writer/director James Ward Byrkit (Rango, Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy), sat down with me to discuss the mind-bending thriller, its origins, its unique production, and more…
Where and when did you originally come up with the premise for Coherence?
Well, we came up with the premise in my living room, where the movie is shot. A couple years ago we were trying to think about what a good low budget, or no budget, movie would be. And, since we didn’t have any resources, I had to think of what we actually had. We had a camera. We had some actors who were pretty good, and we had a living room. So we had to find out how to make a living room feel like more than just a living room. And, that led to a whole Twilight Zone type story [laughs].
Coming off the work you’ve done — storyboarding for Pirates of the Caribbean and working on the story for Rango, how did this shift your way of thinking?
Yeah, I was really craving the opposite of the process that I had been involved with on these bigger films. The big films are fun but you plan everything in advance. I was missing the days when I could work directly with actors and move very fast and not have a big crew to slow you down, and not have every single thing pre-planned. So I wanted to try an experiment where I could just be in the middle of it, letting the actors improvise which would make me have to improvise and try to get back to a very pure form of interacting with the story and the performers.
As exciting as Coherence is, it’s almost equally as exciting to hear about the production. Can you give some details on how you “wrote it”, the production process, and how much improvisation you encouraged?
I’ve always wanted to try this experiment where we could get rid of the script. I was craving a more naturalistic type of dialogue, where people overlap and it’s very messy, where people talk more like real humans talk. And so, we planned the story for a year, including the twists and turns and reversals and betrayals so that we had a really tight puzzle –almost like a fun house that we knew we could lead the actors through. When it came time to shoot, we had five days to shoot, and instead of giving a script to everybody, I would give each actor just notes for their character so that they could come prepared with their motivations or backstories or whatever they needed to know that night. But they would have no idea what the other actors got, which led to this really interesting unknown factor of when were they gonna tell their story and when were they going to interact with each other, when was the girl gonna try to seduce her ex-boyfriend, etc. All of that stuff was real because it was up to the actors to choose when the right moment was, and that was thrilling! Because I didn’t know what was going to happen. There’s a moment where, for example, I gave the actors conflicting motivations — I told Kevin “at one point you’re gonna want to leave the house” and I told Emily, “At one point, if Kevin tries to leave the house, you DO NOT let him leave the house.” It got thrilling because you’re watching and I’m holding the camera trying not to shake it too much because I don’t know what’s going to happen. Emily ended up using her body to stop him, and she’s tall-
That’s in the film…
-yeah that’s in the film, she body checks him to say “you are not getting through me” and it completely blew Maurice Sterling’s (Kevin) mind. They didn’t know that was gonna happen. And she had to win. That was her directive, ‘You have to win.’ And it came out. I can’t believe I held the camera steady enough because my heart was pounding so much.
Maybe in the Coherence bonus features you can release all the different iterations of these scenes.
Well there’s a lot in the bonus features of, like, there will be an extra knock at the door that scares the hell out of the actors and it’s the pizza man arriving [laughs].
What are some movies and books that had inspired you or helped you formulate this story?
It’s definitely inspired by Twilight Zone episodes that had a confined set and characters that were trapped in a bent reality. Definitely the short stories of Ray Bradbury would go into that world. And then there’s this movie, Carnage, by Roman Polanski, that’s based on this play called “God of Carnage” that was very much an inspiration as well. That all takes place in an apartment where the relationships just devolve and get absolutely crazy. So actually Carnage was incredibly influential.
Would you ever do this type of film again?
Would you recommend it to anyone?
I would recommend it. It’s a great experiment! I would definitely take away certain lessons — I really love allowing the actors to contribute and to collaborate and let them bring things to the table. There’s a tendency to try to create scripts that are so perfect that they don’t need actors, that actors just sort of “plug in” and become puppets. I’m not interested in that. I want to use the actors and this is proof that actors can come up with extraordinary things in the moment. Even if I were working on a much bigger film with a bigger crew, I would try to build that in somehow.
Great. Well, thank you so much for chatting.
Coherence will be showing at Presidio Theater in San Francisco and the Camera 12 Cinema in San Jose on June 27th, 2014. For tickets, visit: http://www.lntsf.com/presidio-theatre.html and http://sjcoherence.oscilloscope.net/