James Ward Byrkit is a name that you’ll probably be noticing quite a bit of over the next few years. In fact, you may have seen his name before, if you’re the type of filmgoer that stays for the end credits. He was an illustrator/storyboard artist on big films such as Mousehunt, and two Pirates of the Caribbean movies: Dead Man’s Chest & At World’s End. He performed similar duties for Rango, but also co-created the story (with director Gore Verbinksi) and performed several small voice roles. He’s also made several short films of his own.
His first feature, Coherence, has been garnering glowing reviews from critics and positive buzz from film festival audiences over the past few months. The film went into limited theatrical release on June 20 and will be available via Video on Demand on August 5.
I recommend that you see the film at the first opportunity to do so. Recently, I had the opportunity to ask Byrkit a few questions about Coherence.
366 Weird Movies: How was it going from big-budgeted productions (Pirates of the Caribbean; Rango) to doing a low-budget, ‘bottle-show’ type of project?
James Ward Byrkit: It was wonderful. I love working with big crews; you get lots of toys and resources, but I was craving the opportunity… I wanted to get back to the purity of working with actors and a story just as intimate as possible. It was exactly what I needed to love the project.
366: The film is very clever & smart… How long from conception to shooting did Coherence take?
JWB: At least a year of planning and mapping it all out, figuring out all the puzzle pieces and plot twists. We did not have a script. There was no screenplay; there was an outline that we created and then just shared with the actors little bits and pieces each night; they’d get a notecard with things for their character to do.
So we had a really structured secret outline with very clear plot points that had to happen and figured out all the plot twists and character arcs and things like that, but no script.
366: How was the casting process, in terms of finding the right chemistry, the right people for the role, etc.?
JWB: I had to cast people that I knew, who’d trust me, to come over to my house to experiment with me. I took a long time with my co-writer, Alex Manugian (who also plays Amir in the film). We’d look at photographs of our friends and kind of mix and match them and decide who felt like a couple, who felt like they’d be old friends. You really have to cast the right people because they have to be very smart and very quick on their feet. Most of them had never met each other before, so they arrived completely in the dark and within minutes, had to pretend to be lifelong friends, married couples and lovers. It was choosing personalities who seemed like they’d merge well together.
366: Since all of the dialogue was improvised by the actors, were there times when you had to abandon certain paths and start anew?
JWB: Again, we had a very thorough outline, so I knew what I needed to happen each night. We pictured it like a funhouse – you know where the door in and out is, but whatever you do within that room is up to you. The actors were given complete freedom to use their own dialog or go wherever in the house they wanted to, and we had to follow them.
My DP Nick Sadler and I said, “You can go anywhere in the house you want – we’ll adjust to you.”
We didn’t have any rehearsals, we just jumped right in, so we had really long takes. It was exciting; the actors threw their own dinner party themselves. There was no continuity person, no art department to help keep everything straight. They’re just doing it all for real. Sometimes they would go down routes that were completely fruitless, and I’d allow them to do that – you never know, there could be something great. And sometimes I’d have to steer them in a direction, or rewind them and say, “Guys, let’s go back to the table; keep the cameras rolling because we’re going to make this slightly different choice,” and just that one different choice would completely redirect the scene to a completely different route.
366: Considering the film, it sounds very meta… Any chance of a portion of that ending up on disc?
JWB: There’s hours and hours of cul-de-sacs and alternative choices, so I wouldn’t even know how to begin to track all those down and make sense out of them.
366: Have you been surprised by the reaction to the film?
JWB: It’s just been this tidal wave of support we’ve gotten: from the Fantastic Fest crowd; the geeks and nerds of the world; audiences that truly love movies and truly understand movies and know all the references; people who just want to have a good time. We had a feeling that audience was out there and that they were underserved, especially in the science fiction genre. Everything is so effects laden and full of explosions and so lowest common denominator type of fare – we thought there was a smart audience [out there] who would appreciate this. We’re just so happy that they’re slowly finding it and embracing us to such a degree. It’s incredible to be part of that group. It’s exactly where you want to be as a filmmaker.
366: Any hints about your next project?
JWB: I just want to make another movie. That’s the only thing I’m interested in. This one went so well, beyond our wildest dreams – coming together, reaching an audience and the feedback we’ve gotten – I just want to jump back in and make another movie. I’m definitely drawn towards a mindbender or a science-fiction vibe. That seems to be the most creative place to be right now. I’d keep it small but expand the scope. I certainly don’t want to make another one in my living room.
BraneBox – Byrkit’s Project Worksite
The Dissolve – Scott Tobias’ interview with James Byrkit