James Ward Byrkit’s sci-fi thriller Coherence gets its much-anticipated UK release next month. We were lucky enough to get some time with the writer/director to get the lowdown on the film, his influences, and what’s up next for the talented Byrkit.
STARBURST: What made you pick a comet as the cause of the mysterious events in the film?
James Ward Byrkit: A comet seemed right because they are the perfect blend in our minds of ancient legend and modern science. They’ve always been a harbinger of some kind, a sign, something that is clearly special and cosmic but beyond our understanding. And even now, when science is able to study them, they still have this connection to the birth of the solar system and secrets of the universe.
Was it because they have been seen in the past as the carriers of change and destruction?
The comet also signals to the audience that this is more of a fantasy concept than hard science fiction. It’s more Twilight Zone than Primer.
Did you consider alternative things that might mysteriously interact with your characters?
No, the comet was the instant winner. They are just rare enough to be exciting and have an aura of myth and superstition to them that is perfect.
The comet cuts off the Internet and mobile phone communications. Isn’t this the modern-day equivalent of casting your characters on a desert island?
To have the classic “people in a mystery house” set-up ala Ten Little Indians and Clue, there should be a sense of isolation, but not so much that the characters don’t have basic comforts. The desert island concept is a little different, where the focus is on immediate survival and the elements. The tropes associated with the house mystery allow the characters to remain civilized in appearance, with nice food and working toilets, while beneath the surface they are falling apart.
Did you deliberately decide to mix facts with fiction? For example, Em mentions the 1908 Tunguska ‘comet’ that exploded over Siberia, which is true but also talks about the fictional 1923 comet over Finland that makes a woman think her husband is a doppelganger?
Yes, mixing fact and fiction that way is the fundamental starting point of the concept, blurring science and speculation. It’s part of the incoherence that the film is weaving from the beginning.
Did you set out to create a Sliding Doors-type alternative timeline story?
No, but that seemed like an honest reference. The character of Laurie mentions Sliding Doors at one point, lobbing it out there, but no one took the bait.
Do you think we all have a view of reality that can be easily shattered when it is challenged? Do we create our view of reality to keep ourselves sane?
That’s basically the starting point. I loved The Twilight Zone as a kid for exploring this theme over and over. I think most people sense the truth that the reality we have all agreed on is not exactly right, or is really limited. This, I think, was one reason The Matrix resonated so much with audiences. The truth behind the metaphor of the Matrix is even cooler and more exhilarating than the visuals of that movie.
Do you have any favourite films of this type?
After Hours actually has a dose of this, and The President’s Analyst with James Coburn. The Matrix, as I mentioned, is a favourite. Jacob’s Ladder and both versions of Open Your Eyes, aka Vanilla Sky.
What was the most difficult scene to shoot?
We had planned a night to shoot outside my house, in the sleepy dark neighborhood, to show how desolate it was. And of course, that was the one night a giant commercial crew decided to come light up the entire street for a Snickers commercial. There were horses, little people in Halloween costumes, camera cranes, and a million crew people and trucks. So we had to improvise and shoot it as if there was nothing at all on the street.
Which is your favourite scene?
I love when Em and Kevin hug in the dark and then look at each other, silently realizing that they are not who they think they are.
Byrkit on the set of his Pirates of the Caribbean short
Do you enjoy working with a small cast and a limited budget?
That was great, and exactly what I wanted. I do love big crews, just to be clear. Working on Pirates of the Caribbean was so fun because everyone on the crew is amazing at their job. But I really wanted something tiny, so small that there was no waiting around for lights and make-up and cables being moved.
How open-ended was your script? Did the actors know the full outline of the story or did you just give them enough to work on for each scene? How much did the actors and setting contribute to the story?
I always knew the structure of each narrative beat, but the cast had almost no idea what was going to happen each night. They knew their character’s past, and they knew their motivations for the night. I told the actors they could go anywhere they wanted, follow any instincts they had, as long as they were true to the character. So they would constantly show me new things, unexpected reactions that I would incorporate into the story. I had to improvise as much as they were, and that was the thrill of it. Now the idea of actually knowing what the actors are going to say in a scene seems like such a luxury, like you’re cheating.
With a bigger budget what would you like to have included?
A masseuse. My back was killing me every day after holding the camera for five hours in incredibly awkward positions. Aside from that, I think more money would have spoiled the reality of what we were doing. The best thing creatively, sometimes, is to not have money.
What future film projects do you have?
There’s a really cool project called OXYGEN about a girl and a robot and their dark relationship that has sort of a Hitchcock vibe, if Hitchcock were a sci-fi geek. I’m finishing a comic book version of that and a screenplay should follow soon.
Would you like to make more science fiction or horror genre films?
Definitely. I can sense a giant appetite for thoughtful, brain-twisting science fiction among audiences right now. Horror isn’t my strength, although I keep thinking of weird story ideas that often involve some pretty freaky sequences that scare me just imagining them. I think that genre films are crucial to a healthy creative brain, in that they let us explore the hinterlands of possibility, and keep the imagination fertile.
Coherence is released on DVD on February 16th. Find our review here.
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