Fantastic Fest 2013: James Ward Byrkit & Emily Foxler on Coherence
I struggled so much with my Coherence review trying to preserve the spoilers. I should have just said it’s about quantum decoherence. If you know what that is, it’s a spoiler, but who’s going to know what that is? As soon as the film ended I e-mailed the film’s reps to set up an interview and the following day I spoke with director James Ward Byrkit and star Emily Baldoni. Baldoni was Emily Foxler when she made the movie, but her new husband was in attendance with her at the Fest. She and her costars improvised the film based on note cards Byrkit gave them about their characters getting together at a dinner party that turns weird. We tried to keep our interview spoiler free too, because we all really want this movie to come out and get seen, but you may catch on.
CraveOnline: Did the idea start with the science fiction concept, or with the method of filming it?
James Ward Byrkit: It started with a test to see if I could shoot something without a crew and without a script.
But you didn’t know what that idea would be?
James Ward Byrkit: Well, I knew it had to be free, so it had to be in my living room. How do you make a living room feel bigger than just a living room? I’m going to need something weird to happen like a “Twilight Zone.”
When you came up with indicators for where we are in this sci-fi concept, how did you decide what the props would be to tells us that something is off?
James Ward Byrkit: We just knew we needed to be able to track things that were visual cues. I was actually inspired by Jaws, you know how they have the two barrels. That was the inspiration. How do you have something that is not the thing indicate something else? The barrels were a huge inspiration for that.
If people already know what Schrodinger’s Cat is they might be onto what’s going on. Was that a good way to explain what you were about to unravel?
James Ward Byrkit: Yeah, Schrodinger’s Cat actually, it’s so interesting how if you have a group of 50 smart people and you throw out that phrase, five of them are like, “Oh, of course, I know exactly what that is. Doesn’t everybody know?” Then the other 45 people are like, “What are you talking about?” That was just a really fun sort of gift to certain people that, if you are ahead of it, that’s great and then you know something that your date doesn’t know. And if you’ve never heard of it before, the challenge was can we describe it in 30 seconds or less.
I love the term quantum decoherence. Was that too long to be the title?
James Ward Byrkit: [Laughs] That was, when I was reading about these theories that certain scientists believe in including Stephen Hawking, it led to obviously Schrodinger’s Cat. When I heard about decoherence, because they talk about decoherence a lot more than coherence, I thought, “Well, what’s the opposite of decoherence? It’s got to be coherence.” That just felt like the perfect ironic title for something that gets completely incoherent halfway through the movie.
Would you rather people just think this is a mumblecore type indie drama about a dinner party?
James Ward Byrkit: That is a great question. We made it originally to just be a B movie in a “Twilight Zone” style, but our impulses sort of naturally led us to making it more and more naturalistic. I always get frustrated with movies and TV shows that feel so false because nobody’s talking in natural rhythms, that I wanted to see what would happen if we didn’t do that. I get so frustrated that as a writer especially you’re taught to be as economical with the language as possible to get through the scene and a very sparse amount of lines, but that’s not how human beings communicate. Human beings are very messy.
I wish it were how we communicate. I try to do that.
James Ward Byrkit: You’re better at it than most people. You choose your words well, but the way people talk is really messy and people are talking at the same time and they repeat themselves and they go around in circles. I just wanted to capture that.
I’m glad you think so because I’m winging it today. Would you rather people not even know it’s science fiction?
James Ward Byrkit: No, I think you’ll enjoy it a little better if you know there’s some science fiction coming.
Emily, how did you get involved with this?
Emily Baldoni: Jim and I worked together before so he called me and said that him and Alex [Manugian] had been working on this thing and that it was an experiment. No crew, no script and they just wanted to see how it would work out. I really didn’t know much at all, clearly, and I just love these guys. To me they’re geniuses. I’ve seen what they’ve done before and I think it’s just incredible stuff and really wanted to be a part of it. I knew it was going to be fun either way, but they told us this is an experiment. We’ve never done this before. We’re not sure it has ever been done before so let’s just see what happens.
Then we started shooting and everybody just clicked. We had so much fun. We had a blast. It seemed to be working out when we were shooting but we still didn’t know what it was going to look like in the end. Then the first time we saw the movie, I think we were all just so amazed that it actually worked out and looked so good on screen. All that talking and no rehearsing, actors not even knowing what was going to happen next and it just worked out.
James Ward Byrkit: Do you remember the first night we did it? The test night when you really didn’t know there was going to be the knock on the door.
Emily Baldoni: Oh my gosh, all my screams are real in this movie. Yeah, I do remember that. I screamed out loud because my back is towards the door and we’re just talking and we just have some notes on what to talk about and we’re doing our thing. Then all of a sudden there’s that knock on the door and I remember just being terrified.
James Ward Byrkit: And they didn’t know the lights were going to go out. They didn’t know any of that was going to happen. All they knew is I said, “Trust me. Even if it gets tense, you just have to trust me. I’m not going to do anything that hurts you.” I didn’t want a rebellion, so I was nervous how they were going to respond to it because it got very, very, very tense when the lights go out.
Emily Baldoni: It did.
James Ward Byrkit: And then very tense when Amir left you guys alone, and then the knocks came and I could not believe how much people freaked out at that.
Emily Baldoni: Complete freakout but it was thrilling as well. It was so cool to just feel safe to go with those impulses that came up and whatever feelings came up because we knew that Jim and Alex had this very specific plan. They had all these secret storyboards around that we were not allowed to look at that they would keep going back to, making sure that they were going according to plan. I’ve never had so much fun shooting anything, and I’ve hot a lot of things. Never had so much fun, and I was terrified.
Was the story about the big star that took over your character’s dance show based on any real experience, or someone you knew that happened to?
Emily Baldoni: No, that was not from me. That was actually part of my character. We each got a short character description so that we had something to go off and work on before we got together, so that was part of that text that I got about my character, that she had been through this. So I knew that as we sat down for dinner, there would come an opportunity for me to talk about that dance show, that somebody was going to ask me the question. So when Lori asks Em the question, “So what have you been up to?” Then I knew that okay, it’s now my turn to now tell my story. And then just go with it. The reactions after that to the story, they’re all improv, all in the moment. So we each had these short guidelines to follow throughout the night.
James Ward Byrkit: I love that monologue that she does because it is so real, it sounds like it is something that happened to you.
Emily Baldoni: Oh yeah, I absolutely relate. I absolutely relate to it.
That’s why I thought it might be a real actor’s story.
Emily Baldoni: It was a story that Jim gave me but I can absolutely relate to that, being an actor and losing jobs.
Did you have to shoot this movie in order?
James Ward Byrkit: It sure helped because then the actors didn’t get confused at where they were. If you could lead them through sequentially, they’re responding in the moment as opposed to jumping ahead in time at something they don’t know what’s going on. So it was a big benefit. We had to go back and do some reshoots six months later, and there was a lot of jumping around. That got a little bananas.
Emily Baldoni: I was just happy to be going back. There were moments where it got a little confusing because we had to jump around a little bit. We just had to take more time to go through what had just happened previous to that and then dive into the scene. It still had that feeling of improv and going with a moment. Maybe we had certain things that had to be said for the story to make sense. We would have those guidelines but the improv was still there.
Did you have to be sold on this concept? Did you get it right away?
Emily Baldoni: No, I just remember myself trying to figure it out because we had no idea where the story was going, so as the clues started to fall into place, we were really trying to figure it out. Of course, at a certain point when it became clear what was going on, we had to go with it because the key thing with improv is you can’t say no because then you’re just messing it up completely. You have to go with the story, which was thrilling because every time we went with it, there were new clues that would show up and we had to learn new things and figure out new things, so it was a constant journey that you just had to surrender to.
Once the characters figure out what’s going on, they face it head on. Do you think you would be as aggressive as your character is in this situation?
Emily Baldoni: Yeah. I would definitely be the one desperately trying to figure things out. I would be the one sitting there with numbers comparing handwriting and trying to figure it out.
James Ward Byrkit: That was part of the fun was there was a point where they get this set of clues and they’re all sitting around the table. I said to them, “Okay, figure it out.” I just got to watch them try to work it out for an hour. Emily got surprisingly close at one point. I was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. You’ve got to take it back.” She got ahead of it so I had to ask her to be careful.
It was so fun to see all the theories that came out because they talked about it for a long time. They thought there was a puzzle there that they could figure out in the moment. They didn’t know that they wouldn’t get all the clues for a couple more days, so it was fun to watch their thought process.
I’ve always wanted to see that in a movie also, to have the characters not just blow past the clues but to say, “Okay, let’s sit down here and look at it. Let’s actually look at what we know and have some competing theories.” It was neat to see smart actors actually trying to figure it out.
Are you going to change your screen credit to Baldoni now?
Emily Baldoni: Yes, I will have a new name, Emily Baldoni.
James Ward Byrkit: Are you okay with it being Foxler? Because the movie’s done.
Emily Baldoni: Oh yeah, no, that’s totally fine. And on IMDB there will always be Emily Baldoni and then “(Foxler)” next to it so that there’s no confusion, so it should work out okay. From now on, it’s Emily Baldoni.
James Ward Byrkit: I have to tell you a story about how thrilling it was to watch Emily in action. I’ll give you an example. At one point Maury [Sterling]’s notes told him he’s going to go leave to check out. He’s so frustrated, he’s going to leave on his own, which they’ve all agreed is an idiotic idea, but Maury’s so frustrated. Then Emily’s note was “Don’t let him leave.” So they got these two conflicting pieces of direction. Maury’s going to leave. Emily has to make him stop.
So I’m watching and shooting, just watching this whole scene proceed and I’m getting really nervous because I’m like, “How is she going to do this? How is she going to stop Maury Sterling from getting out the door?” It grew and grew in intensity and at one point she sort of body checks him. She uses her height and her shoulder to physically stop him from leaving the door because that was her directive. It was like, “Holy shit!” It’s like a battle I’ve never seen, to see a beautiful girl use her physical stature to stop another person, to stop an actor from their motivation.
Emily Baldoni: Which is great too because that’s such a great thing for him too to be so put down in that way. So it makes sense that that leads into what happens next.
James Ward Byrkit: Exactly. It puts him in a frame of mind that’s crucial. Everything builds on top, even though they’re all little subtle things, they all add up to the end.
Was it exciting to think about how ideas could be more exciting than special effects?
James Ward Byrkit: Yeah, well that was allowing them to talk about it. Allowing them to theorize, allowing Mike to get really worried.
Emily, I felt this was really captivating to discover you in this movie. What is your background in your work?
Emily Baldoni: I have been in L.A. for eight years and studied ever since, in features and also a lot of TV. Training-wise it’s been mostly Meisner where it’s actually a lot of just being with the other person, working off of them and connecting. I’m reacting according to how he’s reacting so I think that’s a very awesome technique when it comes to improv because you just need to be there. That’s number one. I’ve also done the method and just try to jump around and get a little bit of everything.
You have a lot of credits. Have you gotten a lot of steady work?
Emily Baldoni: Yeah.
James Ward Byrkit: “Legend of the Seeker,” did you ever see that?
Emily Baldoni: Oh yeah, I’m sure there’s a lot of people here that would like that. It was a recurring on “Legend of the Seeker” based on the books which we shot in New Zealand. So lately it’s been a lot of TV again, some recurring and some guest stars.
James Ward Byrkit: But I’ve known for years. I met Emily not long after she moved from Sweden and she had an accent and I thought, “Soon as that accent goes away, she’s going to be a leading lady in American movies.”
You had an accent?
Emily Baldoni: I’m 100% Swedish and now you will probably hear it. When people know they’re like, “Ah, there it is.”
I can’t tell at all.
Emily Baldoni: When I’m tired or upset, it definitely comes out.
You’re not exhausted here?
Emily Baldoni: I am actually. I hear it. I hear my accent.
James Ward Byrkit: Once in a while I had to catch her.
Emily Baldoni: I know when we were improv’ing and I got all excited and terrified and I was all revved up with everything, my accent would get really strong and I couldn’t stop it so I was actually stopping myself from saying things because I knew that my Swedish was right there under the surface, but it kind of worked out. I have an okay accent.
James Ward Byrkit: She’s American, so she’s ready. She’s ready for the world.
I imagine Coherence just wrapped so what are you each doing next?
Emily Baldoni: Right now I’m shooting a recurring for “Reckless.” It’s a new show for CBS about Charleston and the law system in Charleston, so I have a few episodes on that so I will be going back to Charleston shortly to continue shooting that.
James Ward Byrkit: I’m hoping to get another movie off the ground with the same people, same producers, a little time travel movie.
Will it be done in the same style as Coherence?
James Ward Byrkit: We’ll take the lessons that worked, which is allowing for a little bit of improv and allowing for a very naturalistic style but it’ll be a more ambitious film.
Are you planning to write a script?
James Ward Byrkit: Yeah, this one will actually have a script and hopefully more than 20% of it will be in focus this time. That’s the goal, anyway.
What do you consider the lessons you want to correct on the next one?
James Ward Byrkit: The lessons were trusting the actors a lot more than is typically thought to be appropriate in modern filmmaking. Most of what we do, a lot of films, you try to make an actor-proof film and I don’t want to do that. I want the actors to be collaborators.