After several back-to-back viewings of the intricate reality-bending Coherence, an opportunity presented itself to speak with the film's writer-director at length. A discussion started on how the micro-budgeted, big-idea chamber piece was constructed before easing into a number of the themes and ideas that might be shaken out of the experience.
Sitting in his home, where pretty much the entirety of the film was shot, James Ward Byrkit was more than happy to indulge my questions, theories, and assorted tangents. He was even generous enough to handle a few questions on Gore Verbinski's criminally underrated Rango, a film he co-wrote, and helped to storyboard, design and do several character voices.
The below conversation (believe it or not) is an abridged version our chat, edited for clarity in some cases.
Kurt Halfyard: Prepare yourself for a bit of a dork-out here, as I am a hard-science fiction nut, and like my sci-fi films that concern ideas over heroic exploits explosions. COHERENCE certainly scratched that particular itch.
James Ward Byrkit: Good. Let's bypass the typical questions and go for the interesting stuff!
This is an arbitrary measure (one of many, to stay on theme) of ways to classify what separates a good film from a great film. That is, how it measures up on a second viewing, and how one sees - or rather realizes what I did not see - the first time around. The first time around, I'm playing puzzle-box, trying to keep up with plot and logic and assemble things. On the second viewing of the film, it was pretty stark just how much the film is consciously moulding itself together and subtly helping the viewer. I read somewhere that much of the screenplay was improved and, well, I don't believe that. What was the balance between letting the actors run free to get the dinner-party vibe, but also keep the ship tight?
That was the whole thrill of making the movie! For you to realize that is great to hear. For a year my collaborator, Alex Manugian (who also plays Amir in the film) and I had been working and talking about all the things that we needed to plant that would end up being relevant later. And the test was, can we make it sound like it is random the first time you watch it, but the second time seem exactly what the movie is. Every little bit was planned that way, but all I did was tell the actors, here is your general topic: At some point you are going to notice, say, this vase. Use whatever words you want, but at some point in the kitchen, notice that vase. And then, I didn't tell her what anyone else is going to say. I told the other girl, Lorene Scafaria, if someone notices that vase, you tell them where you got it. I just planted to the two pieces of the puzzle knowing that they would at some point in the night they would say it.
So in a way, COHERENCE is in a roundabout way, a very elaborate version of those Murder-Mystery Games that come in a box?
I've never played one of those, but I know what they are, and that is exactly what it was. My way of looking at it was like it was a fun-house. You go into room after room that you have to go through to get to the end, but you can do whatever you want within each room. You don't know what surprise is going to jump out at you. The makers of the funhouse have a hope of what you are going to do. For instance, if that thing jumps out, you're going to take 5 steps back. And if you take 5 steps back, there is going to be something waiting to make you want to turn right. So, that was how we approached every single scene; knowing human nature. Knowing our friends. Knowing what they were probably going to do and then anticipating reactions to the clues set in advance.
There are so many lines of dialogue, perhaps it is my own tunnel vision (if all you have is a hammer everything starts to look like a nail), a character even says, "There is nothing random about tonight" at one point which is beautiful if you are saying that the filmmaking approach is the opposite, but a lot of characters say things that offer major foreshadowing or thematic cues in this film subtly added amongst the overlapping Altman-esque dialogue...
I get the sense that these characters are uncomfortable with one another. They have history, and that breeds tension on many levels.
For example there is a story told at the dinner table where Em tells the story of how she lost the understudy job.
Exactly what I am getting at, the entire theme of the movie is, in a way, rolled out in this scene.
Yes. [Laughs] We almost called the movie, "The Understudy." All of the actors who were supposed to know her history got a note card that said in very general terms, what happened to her a few years ago. They all know it except for Laurie, the one girl. They all knew it so that when Laurie asks, Em, "What about you?" at the table Em (or rather the actress, Emily Baldoni) is thinking, Oh, this must be why Jim outlined that story, and she just kicked into the story naturally. So about 5% of the dialogue had to be there, but how it got out was up to them. I told Laurie, whatever she says, if Em says something about a dancer taking her opportunity, the somewhere work in the line, "It sounds like she is living your life." There were anchor lines. But then someone else at the table says, "I can't believe you said something that mean!" And the rest of the actors were stunned. Then Hugo Armstrong [still in character as Hugh] proposes a toast and diffuses the tension in the scene.
OK, I have got you.
And I will also say that this is an edited version of 5 nights of shooting, and there were many other avenues, cul-de-sacs and stories they told in the fashion. We had the benefit of cutting all of that away, down to the relevant stuff, the part that sounds relevant. It sounds like everything is about the theme, but that is because we removed so many lines that ARE NOT about the theme!
How much of this movie was discovered in the editing room, ahem, cohering-together as it were...?
What you are not seeing are the other 150 paths that they went down. For example a half an hour of scenes where the remaining people in the house went to the door and wouldn't let Amir and Hugh in the door, when they return about two thirds into the movie, the actors wouldn't let them back in because they were getting so freaked out at that point. And I was standing there getting really tired, thinking, how long am I going to let this go on, because I need this to happen, to kick into gear at some point, but I don't want to break the flow or block their instincts.
You have a an advantage that other films do not, in that you are shooting in a single location, they are all in the same house You can edit all these different pathways and play with that a bit? Were there any scenes shot radically out of order, or was the whole thing shot in order?
Ninety-five percent was chronological order because the actors had no idea what was going to happen, and it would have really confused them to jump around to a part of the story where they wouldn't know how they got there. It was probably 99%, actually. We did some reshoots for inserts and close-ups. I had them redo one scene I didn't like.
You are corralling eight actors, well, mainly there are about six in any given scene, where there any points where the actors were simply lost?
The whole goal was to get them, by the third night that they were so disoriented that they were at the breaking point. Feeling like things were getting incoherent. But, that is exactly where you want them. You do not want to ruin it for the actors by giving them too much information, and they were so in it, so wide-eyed, and they were listening to one another in ways you've never seen. Usually on a set, if you know what you are going to say, you wait for your time to speak, so this is fascinating for all these actors trying to figure it out, and as things are getting more dangerous, they are thinking is one of us going to die? Am I going to be hurt or killed off soon? There is a thrilling, palpable tension on set as they try to solve it, and things go deeper and deeper.
I like to believe that the movie is about Em finding herself (I mean that figuratively and literally.) The movie is framed in a lot of different realities, but if you really pay attention, the film is from Em's point of view.
That's right. That is actually the simplicity of it and the only way we were able to keep our heads straight about what we are doing. And it was very simple: Follow this girl from the first shot until the last show, and how does she change from the first shot to the last shot.
In other, rough analogues (they all have their own flavour) of this movie, things like PRIMER or GROUNDHOG DAY (or even EDGE OF TOMORROW) -- this radical existentialist kind of filmmaking -- most of these films work their way to the central character becoming the better person. I feel that COHERENCE has Em become a more empowered person, but the results are are much darker. Was iT always a conscious decision to go that way? I find it oddly delightful, but it is really, really dark.
From the beginning, we knew it had to be a story of a girl transforming. She is evolving in a way, even if she makes some awful choices. By the end she is a completely different version of herself. She takes on a powerful role in a way that she thinks she should. She ends up being wrong. But now she has learned that lesson, and will be a much more powerful version of herself. It had to get dark to be as effective. And we thought it was the most honest version. The one thing, especially talking to friends about this concept, the one on thing that was universal is that everyone wonders if they are living the best version of their life. And almost everybody says they would do anything to get it. Including being brutal on themselves. People seemed to be much more willing to do brutality to themselves than to other people, which is fascinating to me.
Are people just saying that, or are people being honest? It is really hard to disentangle that!
It is also metaphorical. We are often harder on ourselves than we are on anyone else in the world.
In a way, this movie is a fable. In fairy tales and mythology, the comet in the film is a archetype for possible impending apocalypse. COHERENCE is framed more as a personal apocalypse, but nevertheless, like in fables, each of these characters put their faith in talismans to protect them. The characters spend a good chunk of the film almost creating totems, and in a way, our cellphones are our talismans, our link to easy access outside ourself. Actually, I am not sure if there is a question in here...
Well these are items we hold onto to control your identity. That is the whole thing.
You demonstrate right from the first scene, that these talismans, these crutches, are not going to be effective. I'm curious if you can comment further on how the movie plays with these things in very interesting ways. Wedding rings, glowsticks, photographs...
We talked about this a lot early on with the film. What to people latch onto to know what is real. People tend to view physical objects as proof of reality, there is a little bit of that in Inception.
Those spinning tops, yes.
But we thought, let us go even further, let us have the whole thing be about them using these objects to try to hold onto proof of identity, whether it is the vase, the monkey in the box, the colour of the pen, the ring. Everything around them they are using as proof because they end up not trusting their own vision, their own point of view.
It is frustrating in the best possible way in the movie is best shown in a scene between the character Mike and his wife, Lee. It is a really nice, tender scene that stands out amongst a lot of loaded passive-aggressive posturing amongst the group. Everyone spends so much time making talismans, when they could just partner up and just 'feel' one another, regardless of who is who or what is what. This is how badly we process personal control in a situation loaded with fear and uncertainty, even though the anchor is right there.
That scene that you are talking about, was one that was not thought out ahead of time at all. We added it during the shoot because we realized that Mike, Nicolas Brendan's character, was getting so interesting with his self-destructiveness, he is truly a man in conflict with himself, he will subvert himself and take himself down constantly. We had to balance this somehow, and show what is the upside in this for him in this relationship with his wife and it was an incredible gift for his wife having utter unconditional love for him. And the whole time, he could have accepted that, but he was uncertain with himself. Even with his wife sitting down and bringing out her biggest bomb, this love-bomb, I love you, it doesn't matter anywhere else or anyone else. But there is irony there.
This is where I'm picking at the darkness embedded in the movie, not only does the power go out several times making darkness quite literal, but the fear and control tend to drive people, rather than trust. There are movies where you just want to empathize with the characters and the hero goes on a journey, but then there are other movies that are like a lesson, you could really learn something from the places the story goes. My favourite line in the film is from Mike, "The whole night we have been worrying that there is some dark version trying to get us, but what if we are the dark version?" That crystallizes the whole thing.
This whole movie was made for you. [Laughs] That was a line very much scripted we added, because somewhere, at some point in the film we had to just say it. To clarify the whole thing in a somewhat clean way.
If you will indulge me going really nerdy at this point. At the beginning of the film, there are these black inserts in between scenes, brief pauses of blackness, then as things start to ramp up, it is just regular cuts, but then by the end of the film we get back to it. I have my theory as to what and why they are there...
[Laughs] The black cuts, we debated for months and months and months, so please tell me what they made you feel or think about...
At the risk of blowing smoke up your ass - not the intent here - but here it goes. In a similar way that the monolith in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is in a way the 'frame' of cinema, the thing that emanates mystery and power and really is the 'black screen' at the beginning that we enter the film by, or the thing we dive into for the stargate. If I wanted to twist myself into a pretzel, those spaces in those cuts are the audience watching 'different realities.' The audience may think it is watching one clean movie at the beginning, but each of these cuts are from different realities, which I suppose it is when you are assembling it in the editing room, but the 'dark spaces' that the characters allude to walk through in the middle of the film. When things ramp up in the middle of the movie, things get so panicky that you 'cannot see' the shifts, but at the beginning when the comet is coming, the shifts are calmer, more palpable. I could be watching all the pieces being put on the chessboard. OK, I'll stop being so geeky now.
I love it. Once we tried that editing thing, which was based on a very inside wish to have a layer of puzzle going on, for people who watch the film and start graphing and mapping that sort of thing, but we realized that thematically we realized that it is all about the lights going out, these dark spaces. Whether it is the dark spaces between human beings, the dark places in your heart. How you lose yourself to yourself. Then we just fell in love with it, because we tested it on a few people in my living room in these rough cuts, and they were like, "whaaaat is that!?" It created this sense of cosmic significance that we were looking for. Once we realized that it was working in the rough cut, it is going to work. You can only imagine how many weeks the discussion of "how many frames is cut #2?" and so forth. [Laughs]
As someone who edits as an amateur and yes, for fun, I have seen it done, but generally used to cover up mistakes or flow, but here it immediately unsettles, and sets the scene. It is the music between the notes. Sometimes I don't want to indulge the creator with my own pet theories, because I want to hang on to them.
No. No. That was always it, your version is fine! It was talked about.
These choices do not get made by accident. I can totally understand that. But can you talk more about the editing process?
I edited the movie with Lance Pereira who is my favourite editor, he is a commercial editor, he has not done any big movies, but he is super smart, and amazing collaborator, and I sat in this office, this chair I'm sitting in right now, and he sat at the computer, and my newborn son would crawl in the room and crawl all around us. Lance made sense of the movie.
I imagine having someone outside the box to help, I imagine when you are trying to think about something this intricate, you could get swallowed by it.
Exactly. I did a cut and showed it to him, It was two hours long. I went through all the footage and threw the best parts together. But he really took it and hacked it up mercilessly, he went back to the original footage and took scenes from rejected takes, things I didn't even think was going to fit, and he Frankenstein-ed it with another scene, and you would never know the two were not the same scene. He is a genius.
Two things before we wrap up here. You have worked a lot with Gore Verbinski, I'm a huge fan of his work, because even though they are, lately, huge gigantic blockbusters, they are super dense in the way that a Joe Dante movie is dense. They reward multiple viewings. I have a real soft spot for RANGO, and your name is all over that movie.
Yea, I co-wrote the movie with Gore, I did six voices in the film, and ended up storyboarding it and we wrote some of the music together too.
To make a kids version Spaghetti Westerns and Looney Tunes and somehow even CHINATOWN is astounding to me, but a bit of minutiae that I really want to know was who came up with the idea of embedding/homaging the RAISING ARIZONA 'diaper chase' in the film. Rango is even wearing the H.I. McDunnough Hawaiian shirt.
That was Gore and I, yes, but mostly Gore. We reference that chase all the time, whether we were working on Pirates of The Caribbean or Rango. It is an amazing sequence. I think it changed film. Every single shot in sequence is specific. The barrel of the gun, the Huggies shot in the middle of the road, everything was thought through to create something bigger than just an action scene. It has an artistic feeling because it is so beautifully envisioned. It is not just random shots to put together action. So when we did Rango we said, Of course, we have to do Raising Arizona. We cut it to that song. Then we ended up making a song that sort of sounded like it for that scene. Gore loves that scene. I love that scene.
I'm always impressed with how much cinephilia there is in that film. It feels like, to quote Nathan Arizona, the whole goddamn Raison Duh-Etra, of that film. I guess Rango is an 'actor' and all, and looking for his identity. The film is a beautiful potpourri of so many other movies.
That came out of a love of movies rather than a desire to be funny. Because some of those Dreamworks movies that put in all the pop culture references, well, that didn't quite work for us. We weren't doing it for that reason, no cheap gags, we would be talking about some of our favourite movie moments and how that related to Rango, and someone would say, Oh, wouldn't it be like that scene in such-and-such-movie, and that would inspire us to do a whole five minutes. Because we love those movies so much, it had a natural inclination go in with Rango drawing on all these influences, theatrical and movies. But even things like the chase through the canyon, people said because ILM did the animation, we re-did the Death Star sequence from Star Wars.
No, that is THE ROAD WARRIOR set piece to me!
We knew we wanted to draw influences from many things we loved, but lets make it Rango's chase. By combining all those things, it becomes a bigger thing, instead of just a cheap reference, that was the hope.
Like the classic Warner's Looney Tunes. The Warner's cartoons did everything, pop culture gags, fourth wall breaks, manic energy to a purpose, but still having fun. RANGO seems that the most in spirit. That love of the moving image.
Thank you so much.
And to tie a bow on the whole Coen-Brothers thing whether it is the hats in MILLER'S CROSSING, or all the Birth imagery in RAISING ARIZONA (and I'm thinking specifically when William Forsythe and John Goodman break out of prison), it doesn't mean anything necessarily, but it is there to keep reminding the audience of what the movie is kind of about. Not everything means something specific. And with the lights going out, and the darkness, COHERENCE has a kind of "this is our metaphor" and we are going to contort it and twist it and play with it. No question here once again, unfortunately.
Yes, a dark funhouse. We wanted to lead the actors and the audience through it at the same time.
With those blue glowsticks as our guide...
Yea, we called the glowsticks used in the film "The Barrels" as we hoped they would function in the same way as Spielberg used those yellow barrels in Jaws; when the two barrels appeared, you just know that the sharks are underneath. This was our super economical way to implying that reality is bending on itself, this movie came about due to lack of resources. We had a camera, a living room and some actors doing us favours. How can you make a living room MORE than a living room. It makes you think about The Twilight Zone, and Ray Bradbury, and Amazing Stories. And those constraints are sometimes the best things for creativity, and we knew we wanted the lights to go off. I just happened to have a few glowsticks around the house, and they looked so good on film when we didi this test. I was like, Oh, that is it. That is it. Follow the blue glowstick.
Well thank you very much, James for this conversation!
I really appreciate it. Thanks so much. It's all on you man.