Interview: James Ward Byrkit from "Coherence"
James Ward Byrkit has to be one of the coolest people I’ve had the chance to interview. I mean, he worked in the art department on Pirates of the Caribbean, and he designed Rango! Those two films alone are some of the best visual films of all time. James has recently written and directed a new film called Coherence, a Sci-fi thriller that will keep you guessing about what’s real and what isn’t. I really enjoyed the movie and am very pleased I got to talk with James about it. Here is what he had to say:
Nick Leyland from The Movie Network: Hey, man, congratulations on your film, Coherence.
It comes out on the 20th of June, right, in New York and LA?
James Ward Byrkit: Exactly, yeah. And then, in a few more cities after that.
TMN: Okay. So, my initial impression before it got into the science fiction aspect of it, was a movie kind of like "Clue" or something, but instead of finding the killer, they end up trying to find out what’s real.
James Ward Byrkit: Yes.
TMN: So can you tell us a little bit about your directorial debut, Coherence?
James Ward Byrkit: Well, I had just come off of working on these big studio movies, like the Pirates trilogy with Gore Verbinski, and then Gore and I had written Rango with John Logan, and I'd spent years on that as the Head of Story and Character Creator, and just all of the things associated with making a huge studio animated movie. And I love those movies, but you're really planning out to such an infinite degree years ahead of time. I was craving the opposite. I wanted to just get back to the purity of being with actors in a room with a camera.
And so my co-writer, Alex Manugian, who plays Amir in the film. He and I started talking about what can we just shoot, what can we just make? I said, "Well, what do we got? We got a living room in my house, and we got a camera, and we got some people who can act. So, we gotta make a movie out of that." And the idea was born and about a year later, we had started shooting. We had about a year to figure out the puzzle of it all, the twists and turns, and the reveals and the clues.
TMN: You know I think that's fantastic, one of the things that defines a great artist is, you give them something very little and see how big they can make it. When people have these millions of dollars, they're stretched almost a little thin, in a way, right.
James Ward Byrkit: Yeah, sometimes obstacles and constraints are the best friends to creativity. It forces you to think of ways to be interesting without relying on the typical big budget solutions.
TMN: Let's talk about how confusing this had to have been to write and direct this film because of its plot.
James Ward Byrkit: It was absolutely insane to plan it out and to chart it out, and to figure out how reality is going to bend this way and fracture this way. We started with something that was pretty basic with this box showing up, and it makes them question, "Okay, well, what is happening tonight? What is reality doing tonight?" But the box also implies a much bigger puzzle. And we said, "I don't think we should run from this. We're gonna have to deliver on the puzzle, and the puzzle implies a huge fracture of reality." And we just had to do the hard brain work of trial and error, and these huge graphs and flow charts and things to actually track it. And it was maddening. At one point, right before we started shooting, we realized that there was a whole version of reality that we had not factored in, that we then had to weave in and use that to inform decisions. So, it was absolutely crazy. Luckily, because it's all about Em... Em's story is the throughline, and so we just focused on that. We said let's just make that a backbone.
TMN: Now, was there any kind of message you were trying to get across through the film or was it just your own creative outlook at something.
James Ward Byrkit: Yeah, I don't know if it's a preachy message, but it's certainly an exploration of what I hope is a universal question that all people have of saying, "Are we living the best version of our lives?" I think almost everybody questions what if I would have done something different? What if I would have said, "Yes" to that person years ago? What if I would have taken that job? How would my life be different if I would have made some small decisions differently or micro-decisions? And I think because everybody has that, that even though this gets into sci-fi and into thriller stuff, it's still grounded in a very human outlook, which is this question about choices in my past, and how did it get me to the present.
TMN: Now one thing our audience is gonna be interested in reading about is some of these awards that the film has won. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
James Ward Byrkit: Yeah. Well, we showed up at Fantastic Fest, which... I've never been to a film festival before ever. So, I had no idea what to expect, and before we got there, we'd literally only shown the movie to a few people in my living room. So suddenly, it's being shown to hundreds and hundreds of the most diehard genre fans on Earth. These people know movies inside out. They're extremely critical and to be embraced there was like being hit by a tidal wave of awesomeness. That was the audience. If there's any audience you want to love your film, it's the Fantastic Fest audience.
So, within 24 hours, we went from being absolutely unknown, just a nobody film. We had 52 'Likes' on our trailer. And we're up against Machete 2, and suddenly everybody's talking about our movie. And, they had to add extra screenings, because every screening they would have got sold out. So, they added multiple screenings just to accommodate people to see it. So, we walked out of there, days later, just on top of the world.
TMN: Tell me about the difference between your artistic vision for a movie like this, doing this and being a director, compared to your artistic vision of films you've done in the past.
James Ward Byrkit: Hugely different. The whole reason I did Rango really was a reaction to working on these big movies, where you plan everything in advance, for years sometimes, and I love it. I loved working on Pirates with Gore. Loved working on Rango, with Gore and John Logan, and I designed Rango and designed several of the characters. I actually voiced six characters in the movie. A lot of work on detail and a lot of planning and you really are controlling every pixel of the screen. Literally, every pixel is up for massaging, and changing, and adjusting. And I was craving the opposite, I was craving just the purity of my theater days, when it was just me and the actors.
And so, I intentionally wrote something that I could just strip down to nothing. Literally, we had... Besides the actors, there was no crew except for my DP, Nic Sadler, and two sound guys. But that's it, there's more actors than crew. And that was an experiment I've always wanted to try. It worked perfectly. We shot over five days in my living room. The actors came in hair and make-up. My producer Lene Bausager was running around in the back, doing paperwork, and all the producer things. But, it was just us. Just eight people, two cameras, and a living room. And the purity of that is absolutely exhilarating.
TMN: Were these all your friends that were cast in the film, or were these people you found or what?
James Ward Byrkit: They were just friends that I knew I could call up and say, "Listen, come over to my house next week. I can't tell you what we're doing. There's no script. You're just gonna have to trust me." One of them, one of the people, Lorene Scafaria, was someone who I had met during Rango. She's actually a very accomplished writer and director. She directed "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" with Steve Carell, and Keira Knightly. And I'd never seen her act. I just liked her and I thought she was so funny, and I had a feeling that she would be great. And I wanted to cast her as the wife of Nicholas Brendon who is just a force of nature.
I just said, I said, "Do you wanna act in a film?" And she said "Yeah, I'll be there." So, these are actors that could just, without seeing a script, they could trust me, and know that I wasn't going to embarrass them. I wasn't going to kill them. I told Lorene, show up, get ready to make a chicken, because you have to serve dinner to eight people as soon as you get to my house. Nobody knew each other either. They all had to play friends and lovers, but they only knew me, they didn't know each other. I had to pick people who felt like they were couples, or who felt like they could be friends.
TMN: Did you shoot it in one night?
James Ward Byrkit: No, five nights.
TMN: As a visual artist how do you prefer your movies to look?
James Ward Byrkit: Well, I love great cinematography and great planned shots. That's how I made a living for years as a Storyboard Artist for Michael Bay and for Gore, is actually planning out immaculately composed shots. The foreground, the mid-ground, the perspective, the parallax. What is the lens? How do all of those micro details add up to an incredibly powerful composition, with a visual of the shot itself is telling so much story. When you make a movie like "Coherence", all of that goes out the window, because the whole point is, nothing's planned. We didn't rehearse a single shot. We didn't block it. We told the actors you can go anywhere in the house, that it would feel right to go. We'll follow you, we'll just adjust. And that's why the camera looks the way it is, because it's literally just trying to follow the action.
The good thing is because I'm sort of versed in composition and had a lot of experience, I could, even in a moment sort of improvise and adjust, and find the rhythm within the moment to create some nice compositions. And sometimes, I get a sense that someone's about to turn their head, and I would sort of glide the camera over here and catch their head turning, just at the right moment. So, it's thrilling 'cause you don't have the luxury to rehearse and rehearse and rehearse, and get this perfect camera move down, but you get the magic of whatever happens in the moment, combined with your experience in making shots look good. Obviously, a lot of it ended up on the cutting room floor, but just enough of it survived to make a movie.
TMN: Like good jazz music, right?
James Ward Byrkit: Yeah, exactly. You're throwing yourself out there without a net.
TMN: I think it's so phenomenal that as an audience member, you don't ever really think about the time that goes into the artwork of it. It just happens and you know it's awesome, and you put no more thought into it other than that. You know?
James Ward Byrkit: Right, right. Yeah, the normal audience doesn't think about the years and years of pained agony trying to figure out just the right color of the underside of Ringo's foot. How does the yellow connect with the green? What does it do your eye? How thick should that lid be, on the wrinkle underneath the nose... Everything is just, hours and hours and hours of the best minds in the world tackling these problems.
TMN: What else can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
James Ward Byrkit: Well, right now, I just had such a good time making Coherence, I just want to do another one. So, I'm writing a bunch of stuff and trying to figure out which one to put the energy into. Coherence takes a lot of time to promote. You gotta go out on the road, it's like being a Rock band with an album, going all over the country, trying to get people excited about it. But, in the mean time... Yeah, I've been writing material for the next album basically, and hopefully, can start working on that very soon. Got a time travel caper story that I would love to do.
TMN: Really? I love stories about time travel.
James Ward Byrkit: Yeah, it's another mind bender with crazy characters getting together and trying to figure out these bent timelines.
TMN: Well thank you very much James for speaking with me and good luck with the film.
James Ward Byrkit: Thank you so much Nick