Originally this film was quiet, entering the festival circuit around the world with very little known about it. The more it is shown, the more recognition and critical acclaim it seems to be gaining with plenty of festival awards in tow. James Ward Byrkit‘s feature debut, Coherence is a self-confessed “brain bender” shot in an entirely improvisational way but that in no way means it is nonsensical or badly thought through. The tightly plotted film recently struck up a lot of success taking home the Best Film prize at the FANT Bilbao Festival. We luckily had a few moments with the director and writer of this mind-melting thriller and chatted in depth about Coherence and his process in a tight scheduled, improvisational, actors’ heaven of a film.
The trailer was released today [day of interview] which gave more insight into the film and especially its visual style. I’m curious, what influenced it? It’s got that intimate style that a lot of independent films have.
Really the influence is necessity because of the unusual way I wanted to shoot the film – which was 90% improvised – so because of that, we could not rehearse shots or set up any fancy, big lighting setups like you would normally do on a bigger film. I wanted it to be as natural as possible in terms of performances and reactions. In order to do that, you’ve just kind of got to get in there with the camera and be reactive. I would tell the actors to show up at my house, be ready for anything and be open to any possibility. I had to convince them they were not in any danger. [laughs] But they would go into the house and then we would follow them. So the result is that I’m holding a camera and my brilliant DP [Director of Photography], Nic Sadler, is holding a camera and we’re just following the actors, trying to grab it in as real a way as possible. When you edit that together, it has that really indie vibe to it.
Were they all the first takes? Were there never secondary takes?
Yeah, for sure. Not takes on the same thing, sometimes – because I was allowing them to improvise – they would go down a route that for 45 minutes I’d know ‘Wow, this isn’t really what I wanted to happen’, but I have to allow the actors get it out of their system as they’re on a roll here. I would let them follow an instinct somewhere and then I would say ‘Keep the cameras rolling. We’re actually going to go back now but this time the choice needs to be this. It’s going to lead you down a different set of possibilities.’ So without relighting, without even stopping the camera, we would make a new choice. A microchoice sometimes and it would completely change the direction of the scene. You could call that another take or you could just call it another branch of their choose-your-own-adventure style story.
Are you an actor’s favourite kind of director for allowing them this creative freedom?
[Laughs] Maybe. They loved it! By the end of the first day, when they realised they weren’t going to be hurt or embarrassed, they had such a great time and became super-charged with each other and loving the project. By the end, they didn’t want it to end. They couldn’t believe that they got to contribute so much to it. I’ve had this philosophy for a long time, because I came out of the theatre, and I’ve been working on these big movies that sort of stick to the script so diligently that it sometimes kills creativity in terms of performance.
I’ve been desperately wanting to find a system that allows the actors to contribute, because they’ve been trained for years to follow their creative instincts. It’s this huge pool of possibilities that a lot of scripts and a lot of projects ignore. Out of necessity sometimes because, you know, they’re on a budget or a schedule. I want to work with actors who are smart and can contribute in that way. It’s exciting. It opens up entire possibilities that you’d never find! If you script it down to the last possible word and you’re so sensitive to getting it written to the point where it sometimes doesn’t even sound like real people talking. Scripts are so efficient today, they have these sassy buttons, they have these perfectly designed interactions. That’s not how human beings talk.
How did you manage to get the best out of the cast considering your shooting method? It seems to be quite like a recent trend lately of the anti-scripting with films like Monsters, Willow Creek, In Fear and maybe Locke. They allow room for improvisation so how did you get the best out of the cast when doing that?
There’s a lot of steps. The first step is you have to cast great people. You have to really think about who you’ve worked with before or who has shown potential to do that. A huge part of the battle is getting the right people. Not every actor can roll with that. Some actors have to be told word-by-word and given months to prepare their character. But if you get the right people together and you create a safe environment, you show them right away that you are open and that you’re not going to destroy their instincts; you’re not going to tell them they’re wrong all the time. You let them explore.
And then, you have to be a guide though. You have to have a strong vision of what it’s going to add up to. For me, for example, I realised very quickly that I had a living organism on my hands when you put eight very extroverted people together. They all want to talk at the same time. They all want to outdo each other. They all want to contribute. It’s like riding a herd of dragons! Through a scene. You have to be sensitive to it. You have to know when to give a little wink to tone it down or give a nod to someone that triggers something that you talked about hours ago.
You have to really become in sync with everybody, be an incredibly sensitive director who’s not just about making cool shots. There are a lot of different kind of directors. Some just want to make cool shots. Yhey couldn’t care less about what the actors are experiencing. This is all about putting yourself in their shoes and saying ‘OK, what is this actor feeling right now? Insecure? Are they getting enough information?’ You have to be sensitive to prepare them for something that’s coming up that might throw them a curve. We had a fight scene in ours where I knew there were certain people who needed to know what was coming and there were certain people that would appreciate it if they didn’t know it was coming.
You need to really be in tune with each and every single actor to really get the best out of them.
I loved that analogy by the way, “Riding a herd of dragons”, that’s a good one.
[Laughs] Good. It really did feel like that. It’s exhausting, to be honest, but it’s incredibly exhilarating.
You recently won the Best Screenplay prize at Sitges Film Festival. How much of it is actually scripted?
That’s a great question. For about a year, Alex Manugian, who is my co-writer, and I pounded out a very, very detailed treatment because we have a lot of twists and turns and clues. The whole movie is a puzzle really. From the beginning shot to the very last split second of the movie this is one big puzzle. All of those things did have to be figured out in advance, really plotted and broken down even into act breaks and things like that. It was sort of like building a fun house, where you know there’s room-by-room things that are going to happen but within each room the person passing through can act any way they want to react and are still going to be led to the next room. You can call that a screenplay but really it was a 12-page treatment and it didn’t have any dialogue written.
I would give each actor their own personal page of notes for just that night; whether it was a back-story they were going to tell or a motivation they had to focus on. We shot over five nights. They would be primed, their character would be primed with written material that I had given them, but it wouldn’t tell them what specifically to say and they would have no idea what the other actors had received. They’re definitely improvising about 90% of the actual dialogue that you hear in the film but at the same time it’s a very guided experience.
The plot is certainly very demanding on the audiences and, like you said, it’s a puzzle. Was it difficult to make sure it came across in a way that audiences would understand it, especially in only five nights of filming? Was it difficult to get every clue together?
Luckily the clue part of it was worked out so diligently that it was not too stressful. We had months and months and months of diagramming branches of possibilities and what all the clues meant. There are so many items that had to be tracked. That part was actually OK. The hard part was, again, managing the improv of it all, dealing with unexpected things, dealing with uncontrollable, intangible surprises that would happen. So I had to improvise as a director just as much as the actors because we didn’t have a script that we could refer to. We would have to ride the energy and one night we would think ‘OK, this is going to be about this scene’ but really that night would take on a shape of its own. We had to be constantly redesigning the plans to adjust for what the actors were doing.
Sometimes crazy things would happen like one night we were supposed to shoot outside all night in the neighbourhood and of all nights, of all years, there just happened to be another film shoot in our neighbourhood. With hundreds of people, with lights, with cranes, with two hundred extras and horses! The horse trailer was parked out the front of our house. There were cones, sirens and people with megaphones so we had to deal with things like that on the fly.
I bet that was a complete pain in the ass.
Yeah, it was crazy. That was a Snickers commercial. Probably about 30 seconds of their commercial cost 10 times as much as our movie did.
Who or what were your inspirations for this kind of film? Was it stuff like The Twilight Zone?
The Twilight Zone for sure. That was the definitely the impulse that told us that a movie or story that is set in a contained location could feel bigger than just that location. Once you bring in that Twlight Zone reality bending vibe, it has a feeling of expanding the space. I would also say the stories of Ray Bradbury have this way of taking the mundane aspects of life and giving them a special brain expanding sensibility. There’s also a movie called Carnage by Roman Polanski, based on a play, that was a big inspiration.
Would you shoot another film with a similar process?
No. [Laughs] It was exhausting! I’ll tell you what: I would definitely repeat certain aspects of it. I would definitely do a film again where I allowed for actor contribution and I have to be really in tune with the actors, allowing them to participate much more than is normally done. I would also take some lessons about how fast we shot in terms of keeping the energy and not breaking every time to relight the scene and losing the energy. Staying in the reality of it had a huge bonus and that’s all about lighting. That’s about planning so well that you can keep shooting.
It’s often described as a creepy tale. The trailer has an eerie atmosphere, especially that closing song. Would you describe it as a horror film or does it contain horror elements and use the horror tone?
No, it’s not a horror movie. It’s a brain bender. It’s a mind-bender that is incredibly tense and I guess it does get scary but the fun of it is that you’re caught up in a mystery where you don’t know what’s going to happen, whether it’s dreadful or actually quite liberating. It’s just this enigma that starts to fracture everybody’s nerves. It’s a movie to watch on the edge of your seat because there’s so much thrown at you and you realise that you’ll probably have to watch it again or three times to really absorb all the layers that are going on. But I’m hoping most people will say it’s even more fun than a horror film. We don’t have any gore or anything like that. It’s not that kind of movie. It’s like a really trippy, modern Twilight Zone.
The biggest win we’ve gotten out of it is that Alex and I said ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a movie that the third time you watch it, you have an even better time?’ The reports we’re getting back now from people who have seen it two or three times is that their eyes just get wider and wider, and they come up to us with these big smiles and they’re like ‘OOHHHHH it’s getting better!’
To end it simply: what is next for you? Do you have more brain bending plans in the works or are you looking for something simpler as a rest?
I would love to do another movie for the same audience because I’ve found that the audience for Coherence are the smart people who have been craving something special. They don’t want a movie to talk down to them or one that has been dumbed down.
They don’t want to be spoonfed.
Exactly! I found we’ve been embraced by the super-nerds who love movies so I want to make another movie for these people. Maybe a little bigger, maybe a little more polished, maybe slightly more commercial as in reach more people, but I want it to be the same crowd ultimately because they’ve people have embraced it. Why not make movies for smart people too?
Do you have anything in the works that you can tell us about or are your lips unfortunately sealed?
Well it’s one of those things where you hope you’re gonna do it but you don’t know if you’re going to do it. I have one that is definitely a brain bender that’s got a little bit of time travel in it. It’s a script I’m writing so I would love to make it next. Don’t have any concrete plans for it yet.
We’d like to thank James for taking the time to talk to us. Coherence is out in the US tomorrow June 20 and we hope to be able to report a confirmed UK release date some time soon. In the meantime we’ll leave you with a trailer for the film.