Editor’s note: The following interview will only make sense if you’ve already seen Coherence, the brain-bending thriller that arrived on video on demand earlier this week, and that leaves viewers with dozens of nagging, spoiler-spilling questions. After you’ve watched the movie — and you should, because it’s great! — check back here to get all of your Coherence queries answered.
Coherence director and story co-writer James Ward Byrkit likes to refer to his low-budget, improvised thriller as a “funhouse.” But Coherence isn’t a jump-scare movie, or a “gotcha” shocker full of cheap parlor tricks; instead, this taut, disarming drama plays out like a great Twilight Zone episode, taking an everyday situation (in this case, a dinner party of eight friends) and giving it a smart sci-fi twist. In case you need a quick plot-refresh: Coherence follows those eight friends over the course of one night, when a comet is scheduled to pass over the Earth. Phone service goes down, the power fails, and gradually, the group realizes that something even more bizarre has happened: The comet has fractured their reality into multiple dimensions, each with its own identical house and dinner party. Every attempt to set their own house apart, including a “code” of placing a random object in a box, is mirrored in the other dimensions, as the friends begin to question their own relationships and the nature of reality itself. The film’s top-notch ensemble cast includes Nicholas Brendon (formerly Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Lauren Maher (Scarlett from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies), and Byrkit’s story collaborator Alex Manugian, who guided the improvisation from the inside.
In this extended (and spoiler-heavy) interview, Byrkit — whose résumé includes co-writing 2011’s Rango, as well as storyboarding work on several Pirates of the Caribbean films — tells Yahoo Movies how he assembled his jigsaw puzzle of a movie.
How did the idea for Coherence come to you?
[Alex Manugian and I] were standing in my living room with no money and thinking, “How do we make a movie that’s about something besides the obvious relationship troubles that a million indie movies do?” And that led to this cosmic fractured-reality idea. But then it took a year of planning and charting and figuring out all the puzzle pieces and the character arcs and just making it all thematically cohesive.
You’ve been working on a pretty high-budget level in terms of your screenplays, but you made this film with minimal resources. Did you think about pursuing other funding?
No, I’d been craving that. When I was storyboarding for these huge movies, I was just doing that so I could fund my crazy independent experimental film projects. Especially after [the Pirates films] and Rango, I was just craving getting back to simplicity and purity.
So in terms of the cast, how did you go about assembling this group of friends? Did they know each other prior to shooting?
They are all people that would trust me enough to come over to my house with no knowledge of what we were doing, and no script. But they didn’t know each other. So they showed up that night. [One cast member] was told, “Just be ready to cook a chicken for eight people you never met before.” And five minutes after they arrived at my house, they had to be longtime friends and lovers and married couples. The casting was the key part — Alex Manugian, who plays [girlfriend-borrowing friend] Amir in the film, he and I wrote the outline together. We spent weeks with photographs of our possible friends and connections, saying, “Who looks like they’d be a couple? Who looks like they’d be friends?”
I’m curious about Nicholas Brendon in particular, since I was a big Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan. His character, Mike, is a former Roswell actor, and several other key traits seem to be taken from his life.
It’s an exaggerated version of Nicholas. And we did talk about that. I got together with him and I said, “I don’t really want you playing you. But take all these things that are all in you, and exaggerate them and push them to a level that makes for a compelling story.” And he really got into that.
How much information did you give each of the actors going in?
We shot over five nights, so each day, the individual actors would get a page of notes for what they had to do that night. And it might have a bit of a backstory that they would tell, or a bit of motivation — like, “If this happens, you’re gonna want to do this.” Or, “Somehow get outside tonight.” They didn’t know what everybody else was told to do, so it was all a surprise to them. They had no idea about the bumps and power outages and surprises that were coming.
Were there moments beside the power outages that were genuine surprises for the actors?
I would say just about everything. They didn’t know what was in the box; they didn’t know what the glow sticks meant; they didn’t know when a fight was going to break out. I just basically thought, “What would a person know at this time?”
Were they given any guidance about the tone of the film? It turns from jokey to serious very quickly.
I did not want to do that. And that’s why, specifically, we chose not to give them broad characters. I tried to say, “At a party of smug Northern California white people, what would be the most normal types of people to run into?” [That way], nobody draws attention to themselves as having this incredible unrealistic character.
So you basically just had to start spooking them. Were they legitimately freaked out at the end of that filming period?
Yeah, well, they got the most scared the first night, because that’s when the power goes out, and the knocks on the door happen. And when the note shows up — that really made them understand that, “Okay, this is a funhouse we’re in. We’re not just in an improv experiment; this is a controlled funhouse that has been designed for us.” And once they realized that there’s room after room after room of this funhouse waiting for them, they got really excited.
I also thought it was really funny that Sliding Doors — the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow movie about alternate dimensions — came up in conversation. Was that something you planted, or something that one of the actors came up with on their own?
That’s an example of something that would have been in the notecard that Lauren Maher got. [She plays Laurie, an outsider to the group who comes with Amir and once dated another of the men, Kevin.] It said something like, “At this point, she might reference this movie to make sense of it.” But there were like, twenty things like that they could draw from, and it was really up to the actor to pick and choose what felt natural at what moment. So that was sort of primed by me, but specifically chosen by Lauren.
Did you always know how you wanted the film to end?
Sort of. We always knew it was Emily’s story, and that we wanted to have an emerging hero story. [Emily is the dancer played by Emily Foxler.] We wanted something that felt like an ensemble at first, and you weren’t quite sure who the lead was — except on the second viewing, it’s clear that, even from the first shot, everything is about her. And so we always knew Emily had to go through something extraordinary, and make some big choices. And there was one version that we thought she and Kevin [her current boyfriend played by Maury Sterling] were going to end up with each other — she was going to end up with the wrong person, and they had to make a choice to be happy about it, and kind of look at each other go, “That’s…okay?” But then this other version just seemed much more honest. If you’re going to behave that way and make those very violent choices, it’s not going to wrap up nicely for you.
Something I noticed the second time watching the film is the conversation about the vase that we hear twice. Is that the first clue that Emily is in the wrong house?
I would say that is the first clue.
Let’s talk about the alternate-dimension houses. How many people from the original house are in the original house by the end?
Not the good house at the end-end, but the house that she decides to bail on?
That would be her, Laurie, and Kevin. Because they and Mike went out as a foursome to check out the house. The camera follows them when they say, “We’ve got to check out that house.” So the four of them went out, came back to a new house, and then Mike left after that. So that’s not the original Mike, right? Because Mike says, “I had a napkin.” So you actually get a very clear breakdown of who’s from which house when they’re having that screaming fight at the end, where they ask, “What was the item you had?” You know right there that Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) and Amir are from a house that had a stapler. Beth (Elizabeth Gracen) and Lee (Lorene Scafaria) had an oven mitt, and they’ve never left this house, so this is the oven mitt house. And then Kevin, Laurie and Em are all [in the house with] the ping-pong paddle. And then Mike says, “Mine was a napkin.”
How many “code” objects do we see? At the end, Em pulls a monkey out of somebody’s box.
Yes, and that’s just to indicate the idea that they were right — that many other houses have done this sort of quick code, throwing an item in just for instant recognition. So if there’s a monkey, which we’ve never even heard of before, then clearly this concept is working. [By then], you can figure out that there are probably at least fifty items. Because they’re limited to how many items are actually around them in the house: In the immediate dining room or living room, what are items they would see with their eyes at that moment and choose, that would fit in the box?
Should viewers keep an eye on the door to nowhere?
[Laughs] The door to nowhere is used several times; [Emily] comes in and out of it, or she comes in through it at the end — I guess it’s more metaphorical than anything, and it’s also the door that Hugh and Amir escape out of when they take the box. I will also say, when Hugh and Amir decide to leave the house and take the box with them, if you look very close, [you’ll see] they put an oven mitt in it.
That’s a clue for the sixth viewing. They are deciding to leave this house, they pack up all their photographs in the box, and they put an oven mitt in the box. Because this is the oven mitt house, unbeknownst to Emily, Kevin, and Laurie. If they would have just looked at the table and said, “Why is there an oven mitt here instead of a ping pong paddle?,” it would have gone very differently, but they didn’t. They didn’t notice, and the actors didn’t either. They never questioned why there was an oven mitt suddenly on their table.
So which is the coaster house then?
When I say they were the oven mitt house, that’s the box that they received from — when Hugh and Amir came back with a box, they opened it and said, “Why is there an oven mitt?” So every house received a box, and every house created a box. They received a box with an oven mitt, and then they created a box with a coaster.
Are you able to quantify how many different houses we actually see on camera?
Oh, yeah. It’s actually not that complicated, because we’re following Emily through the whole movie. We just have to track her. She starts in the house that received a ping-pong paddle in their box. [After she goes outside to the dark space], she unknowingly returns to a different house, which is a house that received an oven mitt. And then she decides to leave and go shopping for realities, and she ends up at a house that never even got a box.
So if we follow her, we can track the houses.
Yeah. As much spaghetti as we’ve thrown in the middle, as much of a knot as we’ve tied, it’s actually super simple if you just follow her from shot one to the final shot of the movie.
Are there other minuscule details, like the Band-Aid changing, that are hidden in the movie and not pointed out?
Yeah, for sure. Those are the “Where’s Waldo?” ones, so I can’t give them away. At one point, we were joking that the tagline for Coherence would be “Four hundred and fifty continuity errors, four hundred and forty-nine of them intentional.” But if you look closely, Alex and I were having so much fun going, “Oh, since this is this house, why don’t we do this differently?” If you look at Nicholas Brendon’s buttons on his shirt, he’s got it buttoned a different way. There are little clues like that that only Alex and I knew about, and the actors had no idea why we were obsessing over making this one little thing different. So that’s the fun of watching it twelve times, hopefully.
Is there anything else you want to throw in for people who are watching it multiple times?
You know, yes. The big thing that people tell me about, who have watched it more than three times, is that it starts all clicking into place how every piece of dialogue that seems random the first time you watch it becomes thematically relevant on the third or fourth viewing. So even in the first kitchen scene, when they’re all greeting each other and Emily walks in, they talk about three things: They talk about the arrival of the comet, they talk about Laurie coming, and they talk about ketamine. And you just think they’re dancing from random topic to random topic, but those are the three things that combine to give Emily a plan at the end. Those three things: the comet has arrived, Laurie has arrived — Laurie is jeopardizing her relationship with Kevin — and the ketamine, offer a solution. And she holds that ketamine in the kitchen going, “Okay, I’m going to put all these elements together, and I’m going to take a stand and alter the course of my life and step into this version that I think I deserve.”
I love all the themes woven into the story about the different paths their lives could have taken: Emily and her understudy, Laurie and her boyfriend-hopping. It’s like their alternate lives are already in front of us even before things start to shift.
Exactly. Everything is about that. Everything is about being in conflict with yourself, or another version of yourself existing. You know, Mike has a version of himself that’s on Roswell that a fan of Roswell doesn’t even recognize. Like, “You’re not that guy.” And Lee says, “Wait a minute, that’s not the man I married.” Every little thing is about the big idea of being in conflict with ourselves and wondering about these versions of ourselves that could have been.
I want this movie to be a TV series.
[Laughs] I love it. We’ve gotten approached by several major studios saying, “Hey, do you want to remake this with big stars and make a big Hollywood movie?” And that’s completely unappealing. The power of the movie is in its scrappiness, in the way it was so organically created. But, I would be open to making a completely different version for India or Korea or Russia. I think that would be a great day, just to watch seven different versions of this from around the world.