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Coherence and Its Lack Thereof: A Conversation with James Ward Byrkit


Coherence 01

By Tom Ue.

On the night of an astronomical anomaly, eight friends at a dinner party experience what becomes a troubling chain of reality-bending events. Part cerebral science fiction, and part relationship drama, Coherence is a tightly focused, intimately shot film that quickly ratchets up with tension and mystery.

This film marks the feature length debut of writer and director James Ward Byrkit. With a background in theater and music, he has always been interested in graphic arts. As a designer, he visualized conceptual spectacles for his frequent collaborator Gore Verbinski, who has directed Pirates of the Caribbean series (2003-2007), Rango (2011), and The Lone Ranger (2013). Since he was a child, Byrkit has been concocting strange tales that weave fantasy elements with realistically toned storytelling. His previous writing credits include the story for the Academy Award-winning film Rango, for which he shared an Annie Award with co-writers John Logan and Verbinski.

Coherence has earned numerous accolades, including the Black Tulip Award at the Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival. In what follows, Byrkit discusses some of his decisions behind this experimental debut.

What led you to make Coherence?

Coherence was really an experiment to see if I could shoot a movie with the bare minimum of a crew and without a script. I was Coherence 02craving the chance to get back to the simplicity of a character-based story without anything distracting us.

So much of the film is about combinations. How did you decide on the number of characters and actors?

Coherence is a puzzle, so it was crucial to choose the exact number of pieces for the puzzle.  We experimented with a treatment that only had six characters, but that didn’t allow for the kinds of variations and combinations we needed. So after months of charts and graphs and clues and twists, we settled on eight players as the perfect number for the game that would unfold.

You have directed short films and video games in the past. How did Coherence differ? Was the feature similar to what you had done previously?

I’ve always been fascinated by games, logic puzzles, mysteries and mindbenders. So even as a kid, I was building elaborate treasure hunts for friends that had clues within clues, and clues that seemed like one thing early on, then turned out to be used again differently later. I loved Games magazine, and the classic issues had some outrageously clever games with completely original elements. So Coherence was a way to play in a very comfortable sandbox.

Part of the film’s interest lies in its exploration of second chances. Rather than trying her life, including troubling relationship with her partner, Em (Emily Foxler), the central protagonist, seeks escape. Without spoiling the film, why do you think she, and more generally we, as the film’s audience, constantly look elsewhere for something better instead of trying to improve our own lives?

We felt like Coherence had to be grounded in a universal truth, and it seems like everyone, at some point in their life, or even every day, is going to wonder if they are living the best version of their life. This is the whole concept of regret. People regret choices, and the lost path to a different life they are not leading. The character of Em represents this for the audience. We found over and over that audiences are surprisingly open to the idea of being willing to do whatever it would take to regain the life they felt they missed out on. And they would be much harsher on themselves than anyone else. The whole story is about being in conflict with ourselves, and the lost paths that elude us.

As in Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2002), Coherence is preoccupied with details, and things that we might have missed in our first viewing. Having watched the film three times now, I am still learning new things about the different dimensions in the story. Tell us about the film and its use of metanarratives.

The movie has been under wraps, so only now have we started getting feedback from people who have seen it more than once. That’s when we really get the freak out calls at 2 am!  They start to see the connections and clues they missed on the first viewing. Everything that felt incoherent at first begins to make sense. We’ve had a couple of people see it six times and they say they are still putting it together, that they can see how every line plays a role. My guess is that around 12 viewings is enough to digest it all.

Memento famously had a special feature in its DVD where the film’s chapters are placed in chronological coherence 03order. Will Coherence get this treatment?

No, the film’s done.

As in Memento, it’s interesting that the characters’ immediate response to their doubles in from another dimension is through violence and aggression – as if it’s symptomatic of our responses to the unknown. Have you thought about other ways with which we might engage with the unknown?

The story was always about how far a person would go to regain the life she thought she wanted. We almost called it “The Understudy,” because of the story Em tells about how she missed this opportunity that would have changed her life. And so she is primed not to make that mistake again. She won’t let it go the next time opportunity knocks. She can’t let it slip away. So the whole movie points to the ending, the extreme measures she takes to reclaim a lost path. To step in to the life she feels slipping away from her. It’s really the only story to tell – how badly we want the other life.  And how far do we fall away from ourselves to find ourselves.

Could the characters have been drugged?

Absolutely. That’s an intentional layer we were playing with.

What’s next for you?

Coherence has been such an unbelievably satisfying experience; I just want to make another small, creative piece with a strong ensemble. I love the audience that has embraced the film. I want to make more movies for smart people who are open to something different. I’d love to collaborate with Alex Manugian again (he co-wrote the treatment for Coherence and plays Amir in the film).  And my sister Alyssa Byrkit started Bellanova Films to finance this film – we’ve got some ideas to continue what we’ve started and use Bellanova as the production company for a slate of small, elevated genres films that gain even bigger audiences.

Thank you so much for your time, and we look forward to your next film!

For more information about Coherence, including screenings near you, please see http://coherencethemovie.com/.

Tom Ue writes for Film International. His edited collection World Film Locations: Toronto was published by Intellect in April 2014, and he is presently writing a book about the White Messiah in contemporary films and editing the Dictionary of Literary Biography 377: Twenty-First Century British Novelists. Ue is Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellow and Canadian Centennial Scholar in the Department of English Language and Literature at University College London.

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