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How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

• July 30, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: Facebook)

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.

Despite the growing sense that Hollywood has little patience for originality, the first half of 2014 has given us a strong array of truly convention-bending films. But while Enemy and Snowpiercer, two of the weirder prestige independent movies released in recent memory, both had bankable stars, acclaimed directors, and remarkable settings, the third release that ranks in this year’s triumvirate of great oddities, Coherence, is a much different story.

The work of a first-time director and a little-known cast, Coherence takes place almost entirely in a suburban house, and the magic of it hinges on a bit of quantum physics that upends every element of life you take for granted. What you’re left with is an exciting and intelligent thriller made on a shoestring budget that has a truly shocking and disturbing ending, making it, if not the first, than at least one of the best spiritual successors to Shane Carruth’s magnificent Primer. I spoke with the writer and director of Coherence, James Ward Byrkit, about making sci-fi without any money, giving his actors note cards instead of a script, and why you should not follow his example. 

Just to start, if you can give me a short history of your career as a filmmaker and how that led up to you making Coherence.

I was always the kid who was getting his friends together to make crazy little videos and play projects, getting college bands together. In college, I was doing experimental animation and videos and things like that, so it’s always been something I’ve been gravitating toward. Out of school, I started storyboarding for directors. That was my day job. I would do storyboards for guys like Ben Stiller and Michael Bay and Gore Verbinski and with that money start directing my own crazy projects. I started directing commercials and then a little bit of television and music videos. Gore Verbinski kept bringing me back into the projects he was working on like The Ring and Mouse Hunt. We did The Pirates of the Caribbean films together, that was awesome, and we wrote Rango together—and won an Academy Award!

For those unfamiliar with what storyboarding involves, could you give a quick description of what you were doing for those guys?

Storyboarding is simply drawing the shots and planning the sequences in advance, so that when you’re on set, you have a guidebook to get through the day, especially for complex action scenes. You don’t necessarily have to storyboard for simple talking-head scenes of dialogue, but big action scenes and big complicated effects scenes really need drawings so that everybody’s on the same page. I would come in and help Gore [Verbinski] create and choreograph and design and construct these very elaborate sequences of visual splendor, whether it was Jack Sparrow stepping off a sinking ship or Jack caught in a water-wheel that came off of a mill and rolls through the jungle, or the Davy Jones pirates attacking, or pirate ships getting swallowed by a maelstrom—all of that has to be drawn ahead of time, so that the four million people who are making a movie have something to use as a guide.

It’s interesting, because both of these experiences, storyboarding and writing—when you look at Coherence, it’s such a different movie. There are no huge action sequences, everything is very self-contained, it almost all takes place in one house. How do you think the storyboarding experience and that sense of really knowing exactly how to construct a shot helped you make this very contained movie?

“We thought about how in Jaws, the barrels appearing on the surface of the ocean implied a shark you didn’t see, and how effective it is to see a signifier of something as opposed to the actual thing itself. “

It’s a good question, and it’s why it’s a deceptively complex movie to make. I wouldn’t recommend it to people who haven’t had 10 or 20 years experience making movies, because you can’t just turn a camera on in a room and let people improvise—it’s going to be a disaster. It’s only through doing these much more complex projects where you learn shot-by-shot and frame-by-frame how to construct a compelling scene and what pieces you need to get from the start of a scene to the end of a scene and use the flow of a story and the narrative experience to get your ideas across—only through that experience can you do something as deceptively simple as Coherence. It’s simply not going to work if you haven’t had that experience. So even though we told the actors, you can go anywhere in the house you want, we’ll follow you, we’re not going to block it, we’re not going to rehearse it, I had all those years of experience putting together real movies to be my guide, so I could be ahead of the actors, I could be ahead of the story, I could be thinking several steps ahead like a chess game, figure out where the camera has to be to at least capture the crucial part of the scene, even though I have to improvise just as much as they do. I’m running around the table trying to get in place and trying to get in focus just at that right moment, because this movie is all about the reality of experience. I didn’t want to have to do multiple takes; I wanted to capture the actors’ responses as it happened.

That makes sense, especially because the way the movie’s shot, there’s a lot of close-ups and a lot of framing shots around peoples’ faces—it feels very much like you’re letting the actors really inhabit the shots, rather than constructing these shots around them. The concept that Coherence is based around is a pretty complex bit of quantum physics. Where did you first come up against that concept of parallel potential universes, and then what gave you the idea to take that and frame a human drama around it?

Alex Manugian and I came up with the story together. Alex plays Amir in the film. We’d seen all these movies that were about privileged smug white people having white-people problems and they talk a lot about their relationships and their feelings and an hour and a half later, you’re still watching the same thing—white people talking about their white-people problems [laughs]. And we thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if for the first 10 minutes, you thought that’s what you were watching?” But then it goes absolutely bonkers, and we take a turn into the Twilight Zone. That felt so much more fun and completely new—I’d never seen a movie like that. We felt like we were on a completely thrilling new roller coaster with this idea of combining these two sensibilities. And they really work well together, because those talky relationship dramas usually take place in a house with some moderately attractive actors. And we thought: That’s what Twilight Zones do—they take place in these confined settings that are very mundane and modest, but they have this cosmic element to it that makes everything sparkle and brings everything alive, the potential weirdness permeates every scene. That was just completely exciting.

What was your screenplay like? Was it really explicit in detailing the conversations, or how did it serve in filming this movie?

We didn’t have a screenplay. The experiment I had always wanted to try for years and years was to make a movie and get rid of the two things that I thought were really slowing me down as a director, which were the crew and the script. I had this fantasy that if I could get rid of the crew and get rid of the script, I could actually make a movie. Just me and some actors and a story. And I’m much more interested in a story than I am in a script. There are scripts today that are written so efficiently and so perfectly that they no longer sound like human beings communicating; it doesn’t sound like real dialogue at all. And so Alex and I took about a year to pound out an outline that really was as immaculate as we could be in terms of structure. We said: Let’s have it so structured that we can bury the structure, you don’t really realize that we’re hitting all of the classic structural points because we’re not doing that typical thing in scripts where the hero sums up the theme by page six. Let’s just push it back so you might not even be able to tell who the main character is at first, and then things start to emerge, little by little. It feels random at first, but as you watch it you realize, oh no no no, this is completely planned, everything is there for a reason. So instead of a script, we had an outline, and we would give the actors individual note cards telling them what they were going to do that night, or bits of a backstory they might share that night. We shot over five nights, and every day I would just make sure the actors had a little bit of a preparation sheet so that their character would be ready.

How many takes of the scenes would you generally do?

We always tried to do just one take because we wanted the reality of what was real in the moment, the surprises. They were always constantly surprised—they didn’t know what was going to happen each night. They had no idea what kind of a movie they were making, they had no idea what was going to happen, they didn’t know the lights were going to turn off. The key was to shoot the first time all of this happened to them for real so we could get their honest responses. What we did do many times is we would say, All right, let’s go back and do another version where instead of going to the kitchen you’re going to now go over here. I would let them follow their instincts, and I’d say you can go anywhere in the house you want, you can walk around, you can do anything that your character would do to actually solve this mystery. Sometimes this would lead them down a completely unusable path for an hour or so and we’d have to say, We need to rewind, make a new choice here. It was like one of those choose-your-own-adventure stories, where you go back and make a new micro-choice that leads you to a completely new plot point.

So what was the total size of the crew shooting it?

It was me and my director of photography, Nick Sadler; my producer, Lena Bausager, who was running around doing all the paperwork and stuff to make it legal; and then we had two sound guys hidden in a room, and that was the crew.

Wow, that is lean. This movie must’ve been really cheap to make—are you guys talking budget?

You know, the initial shoot, I’ll give you an idea—my wife was nine months pregnant and I promised her that we would buy a used Prius so that we would have a four-door car. And I had to give her the bad news that we were not buying the Prius—instead we were going to make a movie.

So it was about the price of a used Prius?

Yeah, the initial shoot. Eventually, the post process and all that stuff—to get a film theater-ready you have to spend a lot of money. But yeah, the initial shoot was that.

You mentioned Twilight Zone, which is a really interesting archetype. The other thing that I thought of when I was watching Coherence was Shane Carruth’s Primer, because they’re both very lean and they both have a sci-fi conceit that is applied to a real-world scenario, and then it deals with what happens to peoples’ morality when they’re put in these very strange situations. Did you have any other influences that you were working off of, or anything you were inspired by? 

I was inspired by the play God of Carnage, which was made into a movie called Carnage by Roman Polanski, which, again, is sort of the epitome of the white-people-losing-their-shit story, the middle-class veneer of togetherness that falls apart. It was Carnage meets Twilight Zone. The big difference between us and Primer is that Shane really did a great job of making Primer seem like it had plausible science in it, whereas we don’t [laughs]. We don’t have plausible science. We have a magical common.

I’m familiar a little bit with the quantum physics of it, and the idea of potential parallel universes springing off of every atomic event is something that exists, but the idea that they could intersect is a little out there. But it feels real enough in the movie that I think—I mean, it probably has to do with the fact that you grounded it in real life.

We thought, Wouldn’t that be fun to have a completely ridiculous story, but have elements of it that sounded like plausible explanations?

Were there any other things that you kept in mind making a movie that was dealing with unreality on a very tight budget and with a tight crew, where you really just didn’t have a lot of room to go outside the bounds of reality? 

Yeah, you know, we thought about how in Jaws, the barrels appearing on the surface of the ocean implied a shark you didn’t see, and how effective it is to see a signifier of something as opposed to the actual thing itself. That’s where the idea of the glowsticks came from, that’s where the idea of these puzzle pieces in the movie came from. It felt really fun, and almost like a game movie, to have lots of objects and numbers and photographs and an actual box appear in the story almost like we were living in a puzzle movie—as if someone were controlling the strings and giving the actors game pieces, Monopoly pieces or the game of Clue, really. By not showing the thing, by not having these elaborate special effects moments, we ended up having creative answers. That, I think, is what audiences are responding to now—how much it implied with very little.

The movie has a pretty heavy moral component—it deals a lot with human behavior, how people act under duress. Was there anything that you were really trying to concentrate on in terms of human behavior, or questions you wanted people to leave the movie with in their mind?

Oh, yeah, yeah. It’s all about our own self-conflict and projecting our fears onto others. That part is the superficial moral of the story. But I guess every character has a deeper element to that too; you see the specifics of how they’re in conflict with themselves and how they sabotage themselves. Nicholas Brendon’s character ends up literally being in conflict with himself—he ends up blackmailing himself, he’s fighting with himself, he destroys himself. Emily does the same thing. The question becomes, How far would you go to have the life you think you deserve, or the life you think you missed out on? That’s the universal question that I think everybody has: Is there a better version of my life, if I had made different choices? I think that’s a fairly profound question that will spin you forever if you fall into that spiral, and you think about all these micro-choices you’ve made. And you’re right, you would have a completely different life if you would have made tiny choices different. But you can’t get caught in that spiral, it’s self-torture.

Now that you’ve done it, you’ve shot a movie with barely any crew and no screenplay, would you want to do it again?

No, I would never, never do that again [laughs]. I loved it, I loved every minute of it; it was a miracle that it happened, it was amazing, I loved the people that were involved, I loved how the story came together—there were so many miracles that had to happen just to pull it off. But we got really lucky: If one person had not come through, if one thing had gone wrong, if I wouldn’t have had Lene Bausager, my producer, if I wouldn’t have had Emily Baldoni as my lead girl, if Alex Manugian wasn’t around to help me pound out the story, if my sister Alyssa hadn’t helped me raise the money for the post—all of those things are micro-choices, but they become macro. If any of those things hadn’t come through, there wouldn’t have been a movie. Next time, I can’t have it be so dependent on miracles.

Kevin Lincoln
Kevin Lincoln (@KTLincoln) is a writer living in Los Angeles. He also contributes to The New York Times Magazine, GQ, and Grantland.

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