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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 06.19.14]

A few weeks ago we posted the first trailer for James Ward Byrkit's sci-fi indie Coherence, a little movie that made quite the splash at Fantastic Fest last year and is finally getting a theatrical release, though limited to NY and LA at the moment, on Friday, June 20. Screening updates are available on the film's website.

I loved Coherence so much I was itching to speak with Byrkit about his feature film debut and he was kind enough to squeeze me into his busy schedule, at lunch no less, before I headed off for a week of sun, glaciers and mojitos.

Over the years I've had the opportunity to speak with a number of directors but I've never had the pleasure of speaking to someone who is so humble and down to earth and so clearly in love with movies. During our chat we talked about the unorthodox way in which Byrkit made Coherence, the special challenges of production and his experience working with Gore Verbinski.

One of the things I really love about Coherence is that it's both very simple and also really complicated and mind bending.

That was exactly the intention.

Where did this idea come from?

It came from wanting to make a no budget movie and just thinking that if you have no money, what do you do to make it feel more than just a tiny story? So I had a living room, that's my house in the movie, and I thought "how can I make a living room feel like more than just a living room?" and that got me thinking about "The Twilight Zone" episodes and how those shows often made a small, mundane location or space feel like it had some kind of cosmic significance, some kind of epic, mind-bending story going on that took reality to another dimension and that was really at the core of it [the movie]: trying to make something out of nothing.

One of the things that I uncovered doing some research into the production of the movie is that you chose to approach the telling of the story in one of the most unique ways possible that also suggests it would be much more work for you.

Yeah. That was part of the fun of it, to throw yourself this huge challenge and to see if you can find a way to make it work. Normally when you create a puzzle movie with a lot of twists and turns, that's the kind of thing you have to script so immaculately and we decided to do the opposite. Let's not script this. Let's just have our twists and turns and clues and puzzles figured out so well that the actors can improv their way scene by scene as the clues are being revealed to them and they would respond to it without foreknowledge of how the scene was going to turn out or even how the story was going to end. That was the fun of shooting the movie. It was this crazy experiment of having the actors experience this like a funhouse.

That must be a continuity nightmare.

It was a nightmare. Especially when you have no crew and no continuity person and it's just you and the actors trying to keep track of all those little items and clues and the objects that are coming and going and disappearing and re-appearing. It was a nightmare.

To your credit backstage nightmares don't come through in the finished product. I wasn't aware of any of this until I started reading about the making of the movie after having seen it. It's amazing that you've managed to pull this off.

It's staggering to me that it actually worked because that kind of project should have ended two nights in, in a complete meltdown of things going wrong and I can't believe it didn't. Every night just got better and better.

We shot over five nights and the first night was a little rocky because we just couldn't find our rhythm and then every night got better and better after that.

Was there something specific that happened that clicked things into place so that you could find your rhythm?

Yes. After the first night I think everybody settled in and they realized that this is going to be fun, there's not the kind of pressure of a typical movie, they can be as real as they want to be, and they don't have to fake anything. After the first night we figured out how to control the energy because we had these eight really extroverted actors who want to talk the whole time and who are making jokes the whole time, they're coming up with ideas and so it took a night to figure out how to manage this eight body organism that has a brain of its own. We just needed one night under our belt to understand the rhythm of it and then it just clicked into gear.

You talk a little bit about your actors and I was really impressed by the performances. It's always nice to see actors who do most of their work for TV get the opportunity to exercise some other muscles because it's a bit different acting for TV and for movies. Did you have these people in mind when you started putting this together because it seems to me you'd have to have a really strong feeling about the people you would put together if you are going to work without a script.

I had a general sense of them. Part of the fun of the movie was figuring out who the couples should be because we didn't have a casting director so we had to draw from friends we already knew and I had to imagine who would work well together. Most of them had never met each other before.

My collaborator Alex Manugian who plays Amir in the film, he and I had a lot of fun mixing and matching photographs of friends of ours to find the couples. One of my favourite things is Lorene Scafaria who plays Lee in the movie, she has the glasses on. I had never seen her act before but I knew her as this amazingly creative person and I just had a feeling that she would be great so I took a chance on her and she took a chance on this project and she ended up being fantastic.

Happy accidents.

Yeah, exactly.

Would you consider using this approach to filmmaking again or was this experience enough?

I will definitely use some of the lessons. The big lesson is to be much more open to collaboration with your actors. Today on a lot of film sets the actors are just expected to plug in their lines and go back to their trailer and I think that actors can provide so much more than that. I think there's a whole resource there that is largely untapped and I would definitely take some lessons of allowing improvisation and take lessons of really allowing actors to develop their own characters. I would definitely not recommend making something this complicated without a bigger crew. It will exhaust you. It will hurt you. I had to do yoga for many days and get a massage just from the physical exhaustion that I felt from holding the camera in very bad poses - bad for my back and bad for my knees. Those are definitely things I would do more conventionally.

I understand you've always wanted to be a filmmaker but your road to getting here has been long and varied and you've picked up quite a few skills along the way and looking at your website, you've done everything from books to short films. I'm curious to know what skills that you have picked up over the years have proven to be indispensible as a filmmaker.

I think it's all about loving the element of storytelling. From the time I was two years old I began drawing and telling stories and writing crazy little books. I'd the kid that would get all my friends together in school to do plays or shows or shoot little funny music videos together in college. Directing incorporates all of the areas of creative endeavours that I'm interested in: photography, music, art and design and writing and acting. I don't know if I'm especially good at any particular one those besides drawing but I am good at combining them all together to make a film and luckily I've gotten to work with a lot of great directors over the last several years that were very inspiring and convinced me that I was in the same kind of mould as the people making films.

To be honest, I don't know if it's talent as much as love.

Just a passion for it.

Yeah. It's a passion. I just can't do anything else. I waited tables for a while. I can either make movies or I can wait tables.

You speak of directors who have inspired you that you've worked with and I can't help but thing of your relationship with Gore Verbinski. You've had a long working relationship with him and I'm wondering what that relationship is like, how you know Gore and how you came to work together.

Gore was one of the first directors that I story boarded for right after finishing school. I was taking storyboard jobs so that I could finance my own crazy little film projects. By day I would story board for Michael Bay and Gore Verbinski and other directors who were making commercials at the time and then by nights and weekends I was getting together with my other Cal Arts graduate friends and making crazy stop-motion animation and Gore was always very supportive of that. He'd be done shooting a commercial on a set and he'd say "Do you want this set?" And we would show up with a truck and pick up a set. We'd take it back to our studio and re-assemble it and shoot a movie on it.

Gore has always been a friend and we got very close working on the Pirates movies together to the point that after Pirates 3 he asked me to write Rango with him and we came up with that story and worked very closely with John Logan, also a writer and another great mentor to me. We worked on Rango every single day drawing characters, doing voices for Rango, writing songs together. He came to my wedding. It's a really inspirational relationship.

Do you think it's really important for young filmmakers to have that sort of mentorship from someone who is already in the industry to give them a hand up?

To be honest, I don't think I got a hand up with Gore for directing. The directing is something I had to discover on my own and by my own initiative. I don't think any director can pull you up if you're not meant to be a director. You have to find a way to be a director yourself. But yes, if you are a new filmmaker, I think it's crucial to find people who are like minded and who love what you do and if they have experience that's when you ask a million questions until you get some kind of education whether they mean to or not and that's what I've done my whole life: try to be around bright people and hopefully have some of it rub off on you. But it's not a short cut. I don't mean to make it sound like just by knowing someone is going to elevate you because you have to do that yourself.

You really need to want it and work for it.

You do and you have to be willing to give up so much normal life. Even just to make this movie is such a great example. This was done just out of love. We were going to buy a Prius for my wife since she needed a four door car as we were about to have a baby and I said, "Honey I have some bad news. We're not going to buy the Prius. We're going to risk all that money and make a movie instead."

That's quite the leap to make. Especially with a baby on the way.

Yeah. And it is. You double down and bet it all on your career and for some people it's really too scary to do that. It's not the right choice for a lot of people.

Putting so much on the line to get the movie made and getting it out there, what was it like to present the movie at Fantastic Fest? You've had experience with big blockbusters where you've been a part of a team and added to the final product but I expect this would be much different because it's your baby.

Absolutely incredible. In a way my life completely changed. I've never taken a movie to the world ever. Rango was a big studio movie and I loved it and I was personally involved in it but that's very different from making a movie in your living room. Putting your life and your money into it. Fantastic Fest suddenly was like a tidal wave of support that came out of no where. We showed up at that festival and nobody knew who we were. We were an opening night movie, we were playing against Machete 2 and nobody knew who we were and within days we felt like we were completely embraced by that community. And that is the community you want. Those are film lovers, they are incredibly knowledgeable, incredibly judgemental - in a good way - they're smart and to feel support from that crowd is incredibly validating.

People would ask me all the time about the movies I'd worked on and they'd ask what it was like to work with Johnny Depp or with Keira Knightley and suddenly people want to talk about the ideas in the movie. They want to talk about Coherence and what it means and the ideas and themes in the movie. It was overwhelming. It changed everything.

Coherence is coming out soon but it's been almost a year since it premiered and I'm wondering what's next for you? I read something about a time travel romance?

To be honest I had such a good time making Coherence and that experiment worked out so much better than even I expected that I just want to make another movie. I just want to make something smart. I'd love to make it for the same kind of people who are interested in something unusual and maybe a little mind bending. I just want to get right back onto a set with great actors and a great crew and make another one.

Probably smaller, probably only a few million dollars but still with that homemade quality to it.

So can you tell us anything about what it might be?

Well the time travel thing is my favourite. That is a finished script. I'd love to float that around and see if I can get funding for that and there are all these other things floating around in my head. Cooking. Hopefully I can jump right into that once Coherence opens.

Is sci-fi your genre of choice?

Yes. I would say right now it definitely feels like there is an untapped wealth of possibility in the low budget, big idea, science fiction realm. I haven't seen The Signal but that kind of range of movie seems really intriguing.

Science fiction went down this strange road where everyone started thinking that science fiction meant massive spectacle with expensive special effects and that's not true. Ray Bradbury and these other authors made a whole living out of these intimate ideas that have really incredible science fiction concepts at their core that explore life and reality in amazing ways.

I really enjoyed Coherence and though I can't say I fully understand what I watched, I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation afterwards and I look forward to seeing it a second time.

I promise you that if you watch it again you'll get even more out of it. People are telling me that now that people can see it two or three times, it's so much more enjoyable the second and third time once they've sort of digested the big picture. So I really hope you get to see it again.

That's great to hear. Actually, Denis Villeneuve's Enemy is another movie like that. You watch it the first time and it's very cryptic and then on second viewing it's like seeing it again for the first time except now it makes much more sense.

That's wonderful and to be honest that's what we did intentionally. We set out to make a movie that is meant to be seen two or three times.

And you succeeded because as soon as it finished I wanted to see it again. It's really entertaining and has a sense of humour and it's smart. It has a little bit of everything.

Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. I really appreciate it and best of luck with the movie and I look forward to the next one!

Thank you.

Coherence opens in New York and LA on June 20 and is available on VOD August 5.

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uncleB (5 years ago) Reply

Great interview

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