Interview: James Ward Byrkit from "Coherence"

Photo Credit: James Ward Byrkit
June 5th, 2014

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