Over the past couple of months, the city of Philadelphia has been taken over by some awesome film festivals. Thanks to them, I was fortunate enough to see some great movies that I probably wouldn’t have had the chance to see otherwise. But it was at the 22nd Philadelphia Film Festival that I saw one of the best movies that I’ve seen all year. In fact, it might be one of the best original sci-fi movies that I’ve seen since ‘Inception’ or ‘Looper’.
Hidden in the “American Independents” section of the program, ‘Coherence’ was the first feature film from director James Ward Byrkit. This mind-bending original story follows a group of friends coming together for a dinner party on a night that a mysterious comet is passing close to Earth. I can’t say too much about this superb thriller, but what I can say is that it’s an intense puzzle of a film reminiscent of ‘The Twilight Zone’ that constantly keeps you guessing until the very end. Shot over five days in the director’s house, the production had no script. Instead, they followed an extensive outline and utilized a lot of improv to bring the film to life. And because of there not being a script, the actors didn’t even know how the film would end until they were shown the first cut. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here’s a teaser of the movie:
After one of the screenings of the film at the festival, I managed to catch up with Byrkit after his Q&A with the audience to ask him a bit more about this project. In our lengthy discussion, he told me all about the fairly unorthodox manner in which the film was shot, what inspired this story, and where the film is in terms of getting distribution. We even talked about the state of science fiction, the urge to tell stories, and professional wrestling, although I’ll spare you all of that last bit. You can see almost everything that we talked about and more in the interview below:
ScienceFiction.com (SF): How did the idea of ‘Coherence’ first come up?
James Byrkit (JB): It was all based on limitations. We didn’t have a budget, but we did have a living room, my living room, and a couple 5D cameras, and some friends who could act. So, my friend Alex Manugian, who plays Amir in the film, we were brainstorming how we make a living room feel like more than a living room, and it sort of led us to this ‘Twilight Zone’-esque concept.
SF: So was ‘The Twilight Zone’ the biggest inspiration for this film?
JB: Yeah, absolutely. ‘Twilight Zone’ proved to us that you could have a very contained, locked box story with a group of actors who just had to solve a mindbender, whether it was trapped in a tavern or trapped in a house or whatever. It did that a lot.
SF: Your shooting process was interesting in that things were shot in order. You shot the film as it appeared onscreen. What were some of the challenges of doing that, or did you find it easier than the normal movie-making process?
JB: We had to do that to keep the actors in a reasonable mental state, because they started the movie having no idea what they were getting into. We only shot over five nights, so each night got progressively weirder for them. So if we were to start bouncing around, that would have been nuts for them. They wouldn’t have known where they were coming from. But we had to do it in sequence. It made it difficult because things like the window breaking on the car, we’d have to break a window one night, and then get it fixed the next day, and then break it again the next night, because it’s broken two different ways. So just little logistics like that.
And then the food. Lorene Scafaria who plays Lee, with the glasses who is a great director and writer in her own right, she did ‘Seeking a Friend at the End of the World’, she’s the writer/director of that. She’s amazing. So she had to cook a dinner, and we didn’t have a crew, so she had to cook that dinner that they’re all eating. The next night they show up, and we had to have that dinner again. So we had to use leftovers and stuff sitting on the plates and they then couldn’t eat. So little logistical details like that would come up all the time.
SF: There wasn’t really a script for the film. So how detailed was the treatment that you went in and let you actors explore with?
JB: Well, I had the treatment. That was just for me and Alex, and that was about twelve pages that were really just about all the reversals, all the clues, all the puzzle pieces, all the twists, all the betrayals, all the switches, so that we knew each scene what had to happen. It didn’t have any dialogue. They just created all their own dialogue. Once in a while I’d give them a line, I’d say somewhere tonight you have to say this line and make sure that it was said this specific way. You know, when they’d have a story about their past to tell, I would give them just the bare bones, just the summary of that, and they would tell it their own way. All their own words.
SF: After showing in Austin and Philly, is there a plan in place for a theatrical release yet?
JB: We have a couple companies, we have a couple distributors interested. Hopefully we’ll have a deal soon.
SF: I hope you guys get a limited run in the major markets.
JB: That would be great. If we could be in ten cities, or fifteen cities, that would be amazing.
SF: That movie was just such a mindf**k. I’m still trying to gather my thoughts about it.
JB: That’s what we were hoping. This was actually a really fun audience because it had a lot of women in it, and Fantastic Fest is a lot of dudes. It was great. You saw all those women come up afterwards who were really affected by it. And that’s great to see because that means there a whole other audience than just physicists and science nerds that would be into it. A lot of women come up and they’re like “No, that was a relationship story”.
SF: Oh, that’s another thing! Is all the science is accurate, or at least the theories? Are these are actual theories?
JB: Everything except the comet. The comet is magic. The comet is our piece of magic that says don’t worry too much. This is ‘The Twilight Zone’.
SF: Do you think you’ll shoot another movie with this similar process?
JB: I [laughter]…There are some great things about not having a crew, there are some things that are really not so great. Many times I was missing a crew. I was very happy to move so fast, we could only shoot it this fast because we didn’t have a crew. And, by the way, I did have a crew of one very great DP named Nick Sadler. So he was my crew. But in the future, I would learn the lessons that I learned from this, and I would take the lesson which is trust the actors, trust that the actors will bring something to the script.
SF: So what is next for you, other than promoting the hell out of this?
JB: I’ve got to get this to the world, and then I do have a time travel story that I would love to get off the ground, time travel love story. The experiment is can you do that without Rachel McAdams. Is that even legal?
SF: Maybe you’ll get her after this.
JB: Or I might really have some union issues if people find out I’m not using her.
SF: I love time travel movies. You know, time travel, reality bending, and so few movies do it well anymore. You have to look to the eighties for really good ones. But I mean, I don’t want to kiss your ass too much, but this one was up there.
JB: That’s awesome. Please let people know. It’s our only hope.
SF: Don’t worry. It’s definitely going up on ScienceFiction.com.
JB: Oh, awesome! You know, it’s weird. They make so few actual science fiction movies now. Horror movies, it seems like they make more fantasy movies than science fiction movies. It’s really strange how limited the science fiction genre is right now. I don’t understand it because it is so fertile, it takes people’s minds to such special places. You would think that we’d be tapping into that more.
SF: I love that those things are coming back. I’d like to see more exploring.
JB: It cracks your mind open. I loved science fiction as a kid. It’s what took me to almost spiritual places. These ways of thinking about the world and reality that you don’t get in everyday classrooms.
SF: Speaking of that stuff, how did you first get into filmmaking?
JB: Just ever since I was a kid, I was always drawing and creating stories. I was just looking at this crazy, it’s this eight-page book I wrote when I was five, it’s got drawings and one sentence per page, about a group of guys that were trying to solve this massive fire over the United States. All of the United States was on fire. They were building around the whole fire because I learned if you take the oxygen away from fire that puts it out.
SF: Man. Your stories when you were a kid were way better than mine. I was actually on a podcast last week and the host asked me “How did you get started writing?” because I write movies too, I went to school for it, but it started because I put on a play in my gym class and, my teacher let it happen, but I didn’t have it written down or anything, so essentially it was me telling my classmates to do stupid stuff, and the gym teacher was the bad guy. He didn’t like that too much which was why he made me stop.
JB: But you had the urge, you had the instinct to tell stories.
SF: I love telling stories.
JB: Absolutely. Start any way you can. With your friends, or your gym teacher. Whatever it takes, got to do it.
At this point, we started to go into the wrestling talk, but this is just about everything that I can share with you without spoiling anything. I could literally go on and on about the things that fascinate me about this movie, but I don’t want to give anything away. However, like the director said in our interview, ‘Coherence’ hasn’t gotten distribution yet, so if any of this sounds interesting to you at all, take to your social media accounts and shout from the theoretical rafters that you need this in a theater near you soon.