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

Photo of Ryan Lattanzio By Ryan Lattanzio | TOH! October 23, 2014 at 5:03PM

Gotham Best Director nominee 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.

"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.

This article is related to: Coherence, Features, Interviews, Gotham Awards, Coherence

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.