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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.
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 movie. 

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.

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.