When our lovelies Liz and Melissa included James Ward Byrkit‘s Coherence in their Top 10 Films of the Summer, I did a double take. What is this movie which you rate so high? It had not crossed my radar for some reason (I will blame them even though Melissa wrote briefly about it) and I rushed to the interwebs to help me figure out what it was and who made it. When I found out it was written and directed by the same man who received story credit for the Oscar-winning animated film Rango, I was surprised. So when I read that Coherence was, in fact, a science fiction thriller, I went from surprised to being impressed. The thing about good writers is that they can work in multiple genres and are able to create films that can appeal to the different audiences attracted to said genre. Rango was a four-quad film with mass appeal and Johnny Depp as the star. Coherence is the polar opposite and is better off for it.
The film’s premise is basic in its construction, but as it unfolds, it becomes harder and harder to decipher and follow making us as viewers active participants in the action onscreen. A group of friends, four couples actually, convene for a dinner party. This is a typical group of friends that has their strong bonds, issues with each other’s significant others and secrets of past trysts with one another. There is the well-adjusted host couple, Mike (Nicholas Brendon) and Lee (Lorene Scafaria), the in-love couple on the cusp of marriage, Em (Emily Foxler) and Kevin (Maury Sterling), the distinguished, academic couple, Beth (Elizabeth Gracen) and Hugo (Hugh Armstrong), and the mismatched couple, Amir (Alex Manugian who also has a story credit on the film) and Laurie (Lauren Maher) who also happens to be Kevin’s ex. So when they get together, the situation is rife with possible scenarios. And that’s just on a regular night. The twist with this night is that “Miller’s Comet” happens to be the passing closest it will come to Earth that very night in its orbit.
The inexplicable shattering of Em’s cell phone upon arrival is a harbinger of things to come. Couple that with Laurie’s unexpected presence, and she is on edge. Despite this, the evening progresses nicely. However, when no one can get cell reception and Hugo’s phone shatters in the same way Em’s did before, it is obvious that something is afoot. It is then that Hugo announces that his brother, who is a scientist, told him that if anything out of the ordinary were to happen with the comet passing close by that he was to call him immediately. Then…the lights go out. The neighborhood in ensconced in complete and total darkness except for one house a few blocks away.
Both Hugo and Amir decide to brave the darkness and go to the house to see if they have a phone. Hugo writes a note to leave on the door should no one be there and off they go. Of course, while they are gone, strange things happen and someone approaches the house scaring the hell out of everybody still left there. When Kevin goes to the door, what do they find on it? The sign that Hugo had written. When Hugo and Amir finally return, Hugo has been hit in the head and is bleeding, and they bring back a mysterious box. After arguing about whether or not to open it, they finally do. And what do you think is in the box? Pictures of each one of them, including one of Amir that had been taken that very same evening. And this is when the film spirals into mindfucktown. I will stop here with the synopsis as describing what happens from here is a) very difficult because of its complex nature and, b) because it is a journey that is best experienced while watching and I would hate to take that away from any of you.
I would liken Coherence to playing with a Rubik’s cube that goes from being solved to getting more and more scrambled as the experience unfolds, unable to return it to its pristine original state all the while frustrating and confusing you as you try with all of your might just to put it back in order. There are twists and turns that you don’t even know about until the a few scenes later. Coherence is expertly mapped and that makes all the difference. Without the meticulous attention to detail both in the directing and the editing, Coherence would have no chance of being able to stand on its own. This is one of the most satisfying films I’ve seen all year and much of that is owed to James Ward Byrkit who was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the film. There are likely some spoilers ahead, so beware…
First off, this is an incredibly amazing movie. I was completely floored by it. Congratulations on creating something that I wasn’t expecting and something that was incredibly thought provoking.
In developing the idea for the film, was there a specific scientific/philiosophical theory that launched this script? Of course, Schrödinger’s Cat is mentioned in the film, but was it the launching pad?
No, we first decided to make a B movie, a fun drive-in movie with a fractured reality, like a modern character-driven Twilight Zone. At first, it was going to be more of a thriller. But little by little, as we researched some of the actual science, I started sprinkling it with these philosophical/psuedo-scientific blips. And that somehow veered it into a more “thinky” feeling vibe. But really, that’s just a tiny splice. Thematically, for me, it was a perfect match of a character story that involved missed opportunities and regret, and this “science” of other universes that could hold an answer.
The comet was a really incredible touch. I love how it invokes the characters to talk about ancient mysteries/legends that revolved around comets. Did you ever consider a different type of phenomenon to have the events of the films be centered around?
No, that instantly felt right because we had to signal to the audience that this is not a story about science, it’s about metaphysics and allegory and character. The comet tells us this is more like a Twilight Zone story than Primer. It’s a fast way to say “don’t worry about the explanation…this is more magical realism than science fiction.”Then it was fun to blur that with watching the actors scramble for an explanation. That’s why when the book shows up and has NO answers, it’s all about the characters projecting their own interpretations and fears on it. They are all wrong, but that’s the point.
The editing in this film is really incredible and I can’t imagine how difficult of a job Lance Pereira had in piecing the film together since so much of the footage had to be so similar. Many people say that a film is really made in the editing room. Was this the case with Coherence? Or did you stick to the script in piecing it together?
It was absolutely created in the editing room. When there’s literally no script and no different takes of scenes, you have to have a superstar editor. You should see the hours and hours of footage we didn’t use. And if you knew all the tricks Lance used to piece together a scene, you would faint and then sue him for being impossibly smart.
So there was no script?
I’d say it was about 97% improvised. Sometimes there would be a certain line that I would want a character to work in to anchor the scene. But usually even that line would be done in the actor’s own words. I had everything mapped out in my own secret treatment, but the actors had no idea what was going to happen each night. They were always responding in the moment, fighting to figure out what was happening.
Did you and the actors rehearse? If so, how much? It seems like this film would have required quite a bit to get everything to match. Also, the dynamic between the 8 characters was really amazing. I could actually believe that these people were friends and that is how a dinner party involving them would actually be like.
No rehearsal. That was the experiment. I built a funhouse structure along with my co-conspirator Alex Manugian. Meaning there was a sequence of experiences that were planned, with outcomes decided. There was a design and shape to the narrative experience that the funhouse designers is aware of, but the participants do not.
The actors, for the most part, had never met before. So they instantly had to be married couples and longtime friends and lovers. They all played exaggerated versions of themselves, often creating flaws that I suggested they have.
Was there a central character that you built the film around in your first draft of the script or was it always Em?
Always Em. She’s a stand-in for anyone who has ever wondered how their live might have turned out if they had just made some tiny different decisions. Which is everyone on Earth.
How many cameras did you use?
Mostly two. One night, three.
Coherence is so drastically different than Rango in scope, intended audience and in subject matter. Did you find it hard to shift gears and make a movie like Coherence?
No, I was craving getting back to the simplicity of working with actors and a story. Rango was a fantastic creative experience because Gore Verbinski and I got to write, design, compose, choreograph, draw, act, and explore so many cool ideas. And have a budget to realize those ideas. We got to work with so many great people. But I missed the simplicity of shooting a story with none of the toys. No safety net. And yet full creative control.
Kristin Øhrn Dyrud’s score is unbelievable and adds so much depth and creepiness to the film. I wanted to commend you on working with her. Without it, I don’t think it would have been anywhere near ahs effective as a film. How did you come to work with her and what, if any, directions did you give to her for the music?
I’m so glad you noticed that. I hope you get a chance to hear the score solo—it’s available on iTunes. People don’t even realize how much the score is doing. It’s unbelievably dense and beautiful. It’s not so prominent sometimes because there’s so much dialogue but it’s freaking cool. There’s over an hour of original score and all of it is perfect. She works with sound like it’s a sculpture. We talked about using very unconventional methods and instruments, of finding reality-bending, haunting psychological themes to repeat and reverse, delay and skip. She put in a lot of vocals as well, and got some great players to come in for some special solos.
What was the shooting schedule like? It really felt like the whole film was shot in one night aside from the ending that is during the day.
We shot over five nights, for about five hours a night. Because there were no breaks, no lighting set-ups or re-sets, we shot the whole time without breaks. So it was actually pretty exhausting.
Has it been your goal to direct or were you always a writer first and it just happened that you were able to direct Coherence?
I’ve really only thought of myself as a director ever since college when I was making short films. When I was directing commercials and TV and more elaborate short films, I realized I would have to start writing because all the good scripts go to the top directors. If a script came to me, that meant it was so bad no one else wanted it. So I learned writing, bit by bit, and started selling scripts. John Logan became a mentor on Rango, and I upped my game tremendously by trying to keep up with him on Rango. But even now, I’m a director first, who just happens to have some beginning writer skills.
A big thanks to James for chatting with me about this absolutely fantastic film, which is still out in theaters, available to stream through the film’s website or via iTunes and will be released by the fantastic home video distributor Oscilloscope Labs sometime in the near future. RUN, do not walk, to see this film. I will blow your mind. And who doesn’t need that from time to time?