After years of working on the Pirates of the Caribbean series and Rango, James Ward Byrkit gets Hollywood, but what he understands most is his audience. Following in the steps of Alfred Hitchcock, Byrkit devises a sci-fi mindbender devoid of CGI and cheap tricks with his feature-length film directorial debut, Coherence.
The film brings eight friends (played by Emily Foxler, Maury Sterling and Elizabeth Gracen, among others) to a seemingly normal suburban dinner party where tension is evident: there's professional jealousy and exes in the same room. As a comet passes over earth a string of events send the eight characters through a funhouse of decoherence, ironically. Perception of time and reality is disrupted when the characters discover a possible alternate universe where the same dinner party occurs in the same house with the same partygoers, but in a slightly different place.
In the end, each character is challenged with the question of trust: Do I trust the people around me? Do I trust myself? But the layers to the puzzle don't stop there. The actors have no scripts, and thus experience the plot unfolding with the audience, which successfully creates the fun discomfort of an effective edge-of-your-seat thriller. Coherence, the winner of various film festival awards including Best Screenplay: Next Wave from Fantastic Fest, among others, premieres to the Bay Area, Friday June 27.
Byrkit sat with SF Weekly to discuss finding his stride, what it's like to work with Johnny Depp, and the making of the puzzle that is Coherence.
You do everything from storyboarding, to writing and directing: How did you launch your career?
When I got out of school, Gore Verbinski was one of the first directors that I storyboarded for, along with Michael Bay and Ben Stiller. But the first time where everything clicked together is when I scrapped together some film and built a little cockpit of a rocket ship and we made a $500 commercial for this radio station here in Los Angeles called KCRW. Without their permission we just made them a commercial -- and they played it. That changed everything. That changed my life. They liked it so much that KCRW came back to me and said, "Well that worked. Why don't we actually give you some money, and you can make us another commercial," and gave us a budget of I think $13,000. I was able to get some costumes and some effects and do this huge epic commercial for them with slow motion and screaming superheroes, and that really opened doors. All the sudden I had people asking how I did things. If you look at that commercial and you look at the opening of the Watchmen, that whole Zack Snyder look, you'll see how it influenced certain things, certain looks at that time.
When did you move from shooting commercials to working on films like Pirates and Rango?
When Verbinski started directing movies, he called me and said, "I know that you've been directing your own stuff now, but I would really love to have you," and Pirates resulted from our relationship. We did the first location scout and went out to the Caribbean together, and came up with a lot of the iconic, key themes in the movie on that trip: Johnny Depp stepping off of the sinking boat, all of those questions about tone and character and sense of wonder that the original Disney movies had. That was so fun that he called me up for the sequels. There was an even bigger role for me, because the scripts hadn't even been written. He and I would come up with entire sequences together: Storyboard them, act them out, and share them with the writers, and that all got incorporated into the film.
What was it like working with these Hollywood stars on Pirates and Rango ?
When we actually recorded the voices for Rango, we got all of the actors together on a stage. Unlike most animated films where actors come in on their own day individually in a booth. We brought everybody together and did the whole thing like a play, over a month. I got to do several of the voices in the movie, so I got to act with Johnny Depp, Alfred Molina, Isla Fisher, and all of these heroes that were there with me. We were wearing all these funny hats and making these ridiculous animal voices together. That was surreal. Standing next to Johnny Depp, I was like, "I'm in a scene with Johnny. Right now."
That must have been exciting. Why make such a drastic shift to the modest filmmaking style of Coherence?
The reason I did Coherence is that I was craving the opposite. I love working on big movies, storyboarding and planning them all out, but you do all of that creative work, sometimes years before you shoot. I missed the purity of being in the moment where it was just me and my camera and the actors: no distractions, no big crew, no big special effects.
You also mention that this film was somewhat experimental: What did you experiment with?
I always wondered what it would be like if you really reduced the crew so that you weren't waiting all day for lights to be changed or people to get out of their trailers. [And] instead of being so tied to the specific words of [a script], I wanted to try this process where I would give each actor individual notes about character motivations and backstory, but they wouldn't know what the other characters had been given. They only knew what they had been given each night, for three nights. In order to get naturalistic performances, I didn't want them to be worried about memorizing lines, just to react in the moment. That was the thrill of making something like Coherence. You get to see the results of an experience and when it works, it's more thrilling.
The film is definitely more of a cerebral thriller than visual. Why did you go that route?
My favorite kind of film is a great Alfred Hitchcock or Roman Polansky thriller where there is a lot of tension but it's fun tension. The first viewing I wanted to get people completely lost in the funhouse so that they would want to revisit it with a clearer head and an understanding of where it's leading. The second time they could actually enjoy everything so much more, and luckily, that's what we've been getting as a response from people who've seen it. People are actually telling me the third time is the best for them, because its given them time to process all of the reveals, the layers and what's going on. All of the moments where you don't think something is going on. People come up to me and say, "I've finally realized what everybody is talking about at the dinner table," Because at a first viewing you might think, "oh, we're just getting to know the characters," but on a third viewing you realize, "oh my god, everything that they are saying is related to what the rest of the movie is. So that's thrilling to hear that this idea of adding layers to the movie actually translates to a certain part of the audience.
You also talk a great deal about the "funhouse", or the "puzzle": What is the puzzle in Coherence? How did that come about?
I wrote the puzzle and the story with Alex Manugian, who plays Amir, and we knew that since we didn't have a budget that we had to make the most of what we had. All we had was a living room. So I said, "How can a living room be more than a living room?" Our reference was Twilight Zone, because Twiight Zone takes these mundane, normal places but gives them a sense that something is happening. We knew that was the basis of something exciting, some kind of reality bending is going to have to occur to make our living room feel bigger. I combined that idea with, I have a friend who is in the Marines and he was in Iraq. He sent me an email about a crazy dream he had about finding a box, this impossible box that had clues in it to parts of our lives that no one knew about or had record of, and how interesting it was to find things from childhood or momentos from when we were in football together or things like that, and just the strangest things in this box showing up. I put that idea together with making a Twilight Zone episode in my own living room.