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Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.
All of Coherence’s superficial elements don’t exactly entice, lest you’re an astrophysicist whose idea of Friday night ratchetness involves Merlot, finely cut cheese, and stimulating conversation. On its surface, the indie film (opening in limited theaters today) is about eight 30- to 40-something, well-off friends linking up for a dinner party, one in which discussions about their careers and relationships occasionally segue into explanations of the “Schrödinger's cat" thought experiment, quantum decoherence, and other scientific topics that most people wouldn’t equate with fun. Indeed, Coherence, at first glance, looks and sounds like a chatty Sundance Film Festival movie directed by the ghost of Sigmund Freud.
But that disposition quickly disappears, and, before long, Coherence is revealed to be something else entirely: a sneaky Rod Serling homage that’s intricately plotted, consistently beguiling, and ultimately one of the best sci-fi movies in years.
Coherence was written and directed by James Ward Byrkit, a first-time feature filmmaker whose past credits aren’t too shabby. He wrote the underrated and wonderfully odd Rango (2011), that delightful kiddie western about a chameleon who wears a tacky Hawaiian shirt and is voiced by Johnny Depp. Byrkit was also the storyboard artist for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007). The guy knows a good deal about working on successful Hollywood mega-budget films, but for Coherence, he scaled everything back considerably—except his imagination.
Openly citing Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone as the film’s major influence, Byrkit’s directorial debut is a cerebral yet seriously entertaining barrage of brain-frying twists. Things mentioned casually in conversations prove to be crucial to the story as the movie progresses. Mundane-looking items like portrait photographs, glow sticks, and a ping pong paddle gradually take on world-altering implications. Just to further complicate matters, the dinner guests come up against alternate realities triggered by power outages. Or something like that. Coherence’s craziest elements are best left for you to discover firsthand.
Adding to Coherence's uniqueness is the naturalistic way Byrkit shot it. Rather than script out all of the dialogue, he let the cast, made up of his real-life friends, improvise the film's many convos. Furthermore, Byrkit didn't let them in where the story was going at any time, causing authentic reactions to all of its what-the-fuck and oh-shit moments, of which there are plenty.
Here, James Ward Byrkit chats about subverting both science fiction and white-people-problems movie tropes, turning Schrödinger's cat into popcorn-ready material, and, because it’s basically the reason why this Permanent Midnight column exists, The Twilight Zone.
I first saw Coherence at Fantastic Fest and it knocked me out, but what’s special about the film is how well it worked the second time I watched it. When you’re constructing a movie as complex as this one, that must be the sole intention, no? To create that kind of re-watchability.
That was the whole goal. Alex [Manugian], who co-wrote the film and plays “Amir” in it, and I spent a year talking about how to give it enough layers so that people watching it three or four times are still gonna get something out of it. The best thing of all about this whole process is that now we’re hearing back from people like you, who have seen it more than once, and just hearing how it’s affecting them and how it’s growing and the experience gets better with each viewing is the best feeling. One person told me he’s seen it six times already. [Laughs.]
You have to be careful, though, to not overplay anything. Is it difficult fine-tuning a script to get it to the point where you feel it’ll have that re-watchability and not go overboard with the twists and turns?
Yeah, exactly. Part of it is because I’ve worked on a lot of films already, like the Pirates films and Rango, and I’ve helped a lot of my other friends make their movies. So I’ve gotten used to the rhythms of what it takes to deliver something to an audience on the second or third viewing. Alex and I didn’t have a formal script but we had a treatment and an outline of all the twists and turns, and that became our puzzle guide.
The whole intention was, the first time you see it, you don’t even realize things that are said casually actually are very intentional and only make sense in retrospect. Even things like the book arriving—we wanted to have fun with this trope in science fiction movies where at one point Ollie the Explainer shows up with a bunch of exposition. We said, “We don’t need exposition in this movie because it’s a Twilight Zone-type story,” and Twilight Zone episodes don’t have any explanations. So what if we throw in this book arriving and it doesn’t explain anything? We just make things worse for the actors and the characters, so that they over-interpret what the book says. If you watch it a second or third time, you realize, “My god, the book doesn’t explain anything!”
I don’t remember that book’s exact title in the movie, but, now that you point that out, I do remember expecting it to answer some of my questions and then, once it didn’t do that at all, me feeling even more bewildered. It’s just a bunch of meaningless mumbo-jumbo.
[Laughs.] Exactly. You can watch the actors try to make sense of it. If you study that scene, you can see them go from, “Oh, that’s not the clue we were hoping for,” to being so hungry for an explanation that it becomes a desperation. They’re basically at a murder mystery dinner night at my house, and you’re hoping, where’s the big clue? Where’s the cop who enters the room and gives you all the information you need to solve the puzzle? And then, of course, it becomes a really bad thing and they turn it into something that makes the situation much worse.
That was all deliberate and based on the knowledge of human nature. I knew all of my actors really well, and I had Alex in their to help guide the energy. I’d also poke the actors and say, “Well, that might mean this could happen.” You can watch the paranoia compound on itself. The whole theme of the movie comes out right there—how we can project the worst of ourselves onto others. That’s why we’re afraid; we’re just projecting ourselves.
The film is very tightly executed and the performances never feel awkward or stagnant.
That’s a testament to our editor, as well, Lance Pereira. You have to understand: Part of the reason why you don’t see all of the improv-y experiments that lead to nothing is because we edited them out. [Laughs.] There’s hours and hours that ended up on the cutting room floor of cul-de-sacs and dead-ends that the actors went down. But I did really allow them freedom to explore for hours and hours at times.
There’s one scene where Amir and Hugh [played by Hugo Armstrong] have been gone for awhile; it’s about two-thirds into the movie. The others actors are so freaked out by this time, and confused and lost, that they wouldn’t let Hugh and Amir come back into the house for, like, 45 minutes, and I let them go and watched their confusion and paranoia play out against two of their fellow actors. Finally, after an enormous amount of time had passed, I said, “OK, guys, you’re gonna have to let them in.” [Laughs.] The story was stalling.
The idea of having one of the screenwriters in the cast is clever, too. With material that’s as heady and complicated as this, to have it be improvised by your actors must make it tough for a director to keep everything on track. But you had Alex there to play along with the other actors and push them in the right directions.
And what we realized was, we had to approach it like a funhouse, where a funhouse has room after room of twisty mirrors and other surprises but there is a path through a funhouse. If you start from a very specific introductory point, you can lead people through a funhouse. There’s only one door into each room and one door out of each room; it’s up to you what you do in each room, but if you build the funhouse, you know what the surprises are and how people will probably react to those surprises.
Their conversations include topics like quantum decoherence and Schrödinger's cat, topics that don’t typically spring up during casual dinner parties. Were the actors already knowledgeable about those things, or did you have to give them research materials and tell them what they’d need to study beforehand?
We shot the film over five nights, and each night before they showed up at my house, I’d give the individual actors a card or a page of notes, and sometimes it would have a story on it. They wouldn’t know when they were gonna tell that story, but they just knew that if it’s in the notes, they should probably know about it. So Emily [Foxler, who plays the lead, "Emily"] got a note about the Tunguska event, the story about Finland, and it was up to her, during the dinner, to feel the right moment to share it as something she had looked up herself. Each actor was prepared that way, but they didn’t know what the actors knew and had prepared for, and they didn’t know how it was going to end.
One of the benefits to that, it seems, is that lack of knowledge helps everything feel more natural. When some of these brainy topics are introduced and sound a little goofy, other actors react to them like any of us would. For instance, when Schrödinger's cat comes up, someone cracks the joke, “I’m allergic,” which diffuses the situation and makes it seem realistic.
The whole goal was to have that natural rhythm. If you don’t have it, there are so many examples of genre movies where people deliver this scientific babble and it sounds totally fake. I said to the actors, “Guys, if you don’t understand something, feel free to say you don’t, or to mock them—just have natural responses at all times.”
If handled wrongly, scenes with Schrödinger's cat discussions can make the viewer say, “What the hell, I came here to be entertained, not for schooling.”
Exactly, and they just check out. Again, part of it was having fun with these tropes and cliches that happen in movies like this. Alex and I would say, “OK, so what’s a fun way to do that trope? Let’s give it a little bit of life or spin on it.” Having fun with it makes it something new, I’m hoping.
The concept, in general, is interesting because it allows for both a lo-fi indie production and minimal costs but also big ideas and a complicated genre-minded narrative. Where’d the nuts-and-bolts story concept come from originally, outside of The Twilight Zone’s influence?
The idea overall came within seconds, to be honest. We wanted to make a micro-budget movie. We wanted to make a movie that would be, all in, under $100,000, or even $10,000 if possible. I was just standing in my living room and said, “OK, what if we just invite some friends over and that’s the movie, here in my living room? What would it take to make that seem interesting?” Then I had this idea of a Twilight Zone-like fractured reality, and then, of course, it took a year to actually figure it out and have cinema-worthy themes and ideas going on. But the initial idea only took about five seconds.
I especially love how openly you’re referencing The Twilight Zone as the film’s primary influence. Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone are pretty much the main reasons why I love what I love and do what I do for a living, dating back to how my birthday is New Year’s Day and I’d watch the New Year’s Twilight Zone marathons on WPIX Channel 11 in New Jersey.
That’s great! [Laughs.] I love that. And the episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” is definitely the biggest influence on the movie, no question.
That’s funny, because I was just about to say how Coherence, to me, is this great hybrid of “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” and the episode “Mirror Image,” the one set in the bus stop with the doppelgängers.
Definitely, and it’s sort of an insider tribute to those episodes, and it’s fun if you’re aware of those, but you don’t have to know about them. I’d say maybe 10% or 15% of the film’s audience have seen “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” or any of the other Twilight Zone episodes it echoes, and they do get the reference.
In a previous interview, you described Coherence as a “1950s drive-in movie with all of the dumb parts taken out,” which is spot-on but also seems like the last descriptor anyone would use when you first read the film’s plot synopsis or look at images from it. On the surface, it looks like one of those talky dramas about a bunch of upper-class people talking through their rich-world problems. Coherence, thankfully, isn’t that at all.
[Laughs.] I appreciate that. We set out to make a B-movie. We didn’t set out to make a talky, indie high-art film. We were like, “No, if this were 1955, this movie would be in black-and-white and we’d be in a drive-in.
We just wanted to combine that old-school Twilight Zone vibe with this updated approach of naturalistic dialogue, a little smarter in terms of twists and turns, a little bit more complicated in terms of character development and themes that relate to a universal experience. We got excited about this, that it did have a little bit of art-house credibility simply because the acting is so good.
I’ve sort of stolen this comparison, because somebody else made it and now I use it, but somebody said “Coherence is The Twilight Zone meets Roman Polanski’s Carnage,” with middle-class white people losing their shit. And that’s exactly what we were doing!
To learn more about Coherence, visit the film's official site.