Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||James Ward Byrkit|
|Written by||James Ward Byrkit|
|Music by||Kristin Øhrn Dyrud|
|Edited by||Lance Pereira|
Coherence is an American surreal psychological science fiction thriller film directed by James Ward Byrkit in his directorial debut. The film had its world debut on September 19, 2013 at the Austin Fantastic Fest and stars Emily Baldoni as a woman who must deal with strange occurrences following the close passing of a comet.
Eight friends reunite at a dinner party one night in California when a comet passes. Kevin asks Emily if she wants to come with him on his business trip to Vietnam, and she doesn't say yes. Kevin's ex-girlfriend Laurie is also at the dinner, and she wants him back. A power outage occurs. The hosts have some glow sticks that they use for light, and they decide to use the blue glow sticks. Everyone goes outside and sees one house up the street that still has power. When they go back inside, a glass is broken, which they didn't notice before. Hugh and Amir go to the other house to ask to use their phone, and a few minutes later they come back with a box. Inside they find a ping-pong paddle and pictures of themselves, including one that was taken that night, with numbers written on the back. On a notepad, Emily writes down the numbers from the box, looking for a pattern, but they can't find one. Hugh says that at the other house he saw a dinner party set for eight people.
The friends realize the other house is an alternate of theirs. They begin to write a note for the other house, only to find the same note already on their own door. Emily, Kevin, Mike, and Laurie decide to go to the other house to see what's happening. While there, they encounter what appear to be copies of themselves carrying red glow sticks, and both groups flee back to their own homes.
Emily's group explains to the others that they met copies of themselves, except the copies were wearing red glow sticks instead of their blue glow sticks. Hugh goes to his car and gets notes from a physics lecture. After reading those notes, they deduce that the comet has created a split reality, and that one of the realities will collapse when the comet passes. The group argues about how to deal with the other house. Beth is wrongly accused of lacing the food with some ketamine she brought, and Mike hysterically plots to kill their doubles before the doubles can kill them. They consider stealing the physics notes from the other Hugh's car. Mike goes to blackmail the other house's Mike, to prevent them from getting the lecture notes.
It's revealed that Hugh and Amir are from the house with red glow sticks. They take the box and go back to the other house, then the Hugh and Amir with blue glow sticks return. They explain that they found two notes at the other house too. They realize that there are more than just two realities, and they switch from one house to another when they go outside and walk through a dark area.
Outside, they hear someone smash Hugh's car window, and they go out to investigate. While outside, Emily has a sweet conversation with her husband, before realizing she's talking to a Kevin from a different reality, then she goes back inside. The group decides to put a random marker in front of their house. As the marker, they leave a random object and photos of themselves in a box, and on the back they write down the numbers they get from rolling dice. They check how their new numbers compare to the numbers from the other house's box, which they wrote on the notepad earlier. Emily realizes that the numbers written on this notepad aren't the same numbers she wrote on the notepad earlier. When she asks other people, she finds that Lee and Beth are the only ones whose memory matches what's written on the notepad, because they're the only ones who haven't left the house since they wrote the numbers on the notepad. Kevin and Laurie are the only ones whose memory matches Emily's memory, since they're the only ones who have traveled with her the whole time. Hugh and Amir remember a third set of numbers, since they switched realities when they switched to the red glow stick house and again when they switched to the current house. Mike remembers a fourth set of numbers, since he switched realities when he went to blackmail himself.
The situation deteriorates further when a blackmail note arrives. Mike mentions that if there's a dark version of their group, maybe it's them. Another Mike arrives to try to kill them, scaring Laurie, who is comforted by Kevin. Emily leaves the house, and looks through several different houses, finding several where things are even worse.
Finally, she finds a reality where no one seems aware of the split and there is a happy Emily. In this reality, Emily had agreed to go to Vietnam with Kevin at the beginning of the evening, and their relationship had stayed strong. She plans to replace this reality's Emily. She destroys a car window to lure the group outside, then ambushes her double with ketamine. Her double is able to crawl back inside, forcing Emily to subdue her again in a bathtub. She then heads to the living room and faints. She wakes the next morning unable to find her double, yet everything seems fine. She searches outside and runs into Kevin. His cell phone now rings, to which he answers "That's weird. It's you calling me." Upon taking the call, he glances at her suspiciously.
- Emily Baldoni as Em
- Maury Sterling as Kevin
- Nicholas Brendon as Mike
- Lorene Scafaria as Lee
- Hugo Armstrong as Hugh
- Elizabeth Gracen as Beth
- Alex Manugian as Amir
- Lauren Maher as Laurie
- Aqueela Zoll played one copy of Emily when there were two of them in one scene
- Kelly Donovan, the real-life identical twin brother of Nicholas Brendon, played one copy of Mike when there were two of them in one scene
Byrkit came up with the idea for Coherence after deciding that he wanted to test the idea of shooting a film "without a crew and without a script". He chose to shoot in his own home and developed the film's science fiction aspect out of necessity, as he wanted to "make a living room feel bigger than just a living room". While Byrkit did have a specific idea for how the film would unfold, he selected improvisational actors and gave them the basic outline of their characters, motivations, and major plot points.
Byrkit told an interviewer, "For about a year, all I did was make charts and maps and drew diagrams of houses, arrows pointing where everyone was going, trying to keep track of different iterations. Months and months of tracking fractured realities, looking up what actual scientists believe about the nature of reality — Schrödinger's cat and all that. It was research, but despite all the graphs and charts, I think our whole idea was that it has to be character-based. We want the logic of our internal rules to be sound, and we wanted it to be something people could watch 12 times and still discover a new layer."
The movie cuts to black at 0:02, 0:03, 0:05, 0:05, 0:07, 0:09, 0:19, 0:27, 0:32, 0:34, 1:06, 1:18, 1:22, and 1:23. The movie's director has said those cuts signify something, but hasn't said what they signify. There was no cut to black around 0:16, which was the point of divergence between realities, although the house was plunged into darkness due to an electricity cut. There was no cut to black at 0:17, when the characters all switched from a house without a broken glass to a house with a broken glass, and there was no cut to black at 0:46, when only Mike switched to a different reality.
Byrkit intentionally chose actors who did not know each other. He told an interviewer that, after working on blockbuster films (such as Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl), "I come from theater where I was trained to really just concentrate on story and character on a stage with actors and so I was craving getting rid of everything, getting rid of the crew; getting rid of script, no special effects, no support, no money, no nothing, and just getting back to the purity of that, of a camera in your hand and some actress (actors?) that you trust and an idea."
"...instead of having a script, each actor was given a page of notes each day with their back story or sort of motivation for the night. But they wouldn't know what the other actors had received so it had a very natural, very spontaneous collision of motivations that ended up being what you see on film; obviously guided by a very strict outline that we have been working on for about a year that tracked all the clues and the puzzles and all the rehearsals and things like that. But the actors weren't aware of those, those things happened because we were sort of guiding them through it."
When asked whether the actors were people whom Byrkit knew pretty well, he answered, "Yeah exactly. They were just friends that I knew I could just call up and say, 'Show up at my house in a couple days. I can't really tell you what we're doing, trust me I'm not going to kill you. It should be fun!' And they didn't know each other before they got to my house and so I had to pick people that seemed to be like they could be couples, seemed like they could be best friends and that I just knew were up to the task of jumping into it."
Interviewer Nell Minow confessed her reaction to the actors' relationships: "I just assumed that they all knew each other very well because they fell into the kinds of rhythms that old friends have." Byrkit replied, "That's just casting great people that could do that. Just five minutes after they arrived at my house they had to pretend to be married and lovers and best friends."
Reviewer Matt Prigge praised the choice of casting and their actions: "Byrkit ... focuses not on brainiacs, as in Primer, but on smart but mostly under-informed NPR types, who know enough to slowly piece all this together but not enough that they don't usually descend into blabbering, shouting and drinking. Indeed, Coherence is largely improvised, with a game cast first believably under-reacting to some weird business with laughter and disbelief, then always maintaining a degree of levity (read: jokes and occasional put-downs) even when stuff has gotten real."
Ryan Lattanzio wrote, "Byrkit brought eight unwitting actors to his Santa Monica home, threw them a few red herrings and set them loose for five days knowing that the film could evolve organically, like great jazz, if he kept his players in the dark. But he and co-storywriter Alex Manugian weren't just making it up as they went along." Byrkit told him that his desire was "to strip down a film set to the bare minimum: getting rid of the script, getting rid of the crew."
Byrkit added, "...instead of a script I had my own 12-page treatment that I spent about a year working on. It outlined all of the twists, and reveals, and character arcs and pieces of the puzzle that needed to happen scene-by-scene. But each day, instead of getting a script, the actors would get a page of notes for their individual character, whether it was a backstory or information about their motivations. They would come prepared for their character only. They had no idea what the other characters received, so each night there were completely real reactions, and surprises and responses. This was all in the pursuit of naturalistic performances. The goal was to get them listening to each other, and engaged in the mystery of it all."
Nicholas Brendon, an actor in the film, discussed the improvisational style of the dialogue with Mandatory journalist Fred Topel, who asked: "I understand the way Coherence was done was that everyone got notecards about their characters and the scenes. What was on your notecards?" Brendon replied, "I can't remember now, but every day we had five different things that we had to convey... but I do know that Jim [Byrkit], and then Alex [Manugian], the other writer, had to make sure that we were all on point. So it was just a matter of getting that information out. ... Since there was no script, I had no idea how it ended. ... When I saw the movie, I'm like, 'Oh shit, this is awesome!' ... To be quite honest with you, I never really knew what was going on fully until I saw the movie done."
An interviewer asked Byrkit, "Did you run into any unexpected problems in filming?" Byrkit admitted, "... you're constantly dealing with unexpected things. One night we tried to shoot outside and we had to make the whole thing look completely desolate and the power being off; that was the one night that we had another movie shooting on our street. So the whole street is completely ablaze with lights and hundreds of extras." Another team was shooting a Snickers commercial. "We would be right in the middle of the dramatic scenes and there would be another knock on the door that would just scare the hell out of everybody..."
Inspirations and themes
Byrkit told an interviewer for Spinning Platters, "Well, we came up with the premise in my living room, where the movie is shot. A couple years ago we were trying to think about what a good low budget, or no budget, movie would be. And, since we didn't have any resources, I had to think of what we actually had. We had a camera. We had some actors who were pretty good, and we had a living room. So we had to find out how to make a living room feel like more than just a living room. And, that led to a whole Twilight Zone type story... I was craving a more naturalistic type of dialogue, where people overlap and it's very messy, where people talk more like real humans talk. And so, we planned the story for a year, including the twists and turns and reversals and betrayals so that we had a really tight puzzle – almost like a fun house that we knew we could lead the actors through."
Byrkit answered one interviewer: "Twilight Zone, for sure. Primer wasn't really an influence so much as it was a sign to us that maybe there was an audience for this kind of movie. The actual movie itself is so different than ours that it wasn't as much of an influence as, say, Carnage by Roman Polanski, or other non-sci-fi movies."
Much of the film's praise centered upon its cast, which Bloody Disgusting and Fangoria cited as a highlight. Film School Rejects gave Coherence a positive review, stating that the film's cast was "remarkably grounded for how complicated and bizarre the story is."
Dread Central commented on the film's themes and wrote, "What's frightening about the story is how willing the characters are to abandon the reality they know in favor of one that may be a little more appealing. Whether that's a byproduct of the comet and the rift it creates or caused by the characters undermining everyone else around them to get the life they really want is the fundamental idea of Coherence and what makes it so unsettling."
Clark Collis of Entertainment Weekly praised the film, granting it a B+ rating: "In an impressive big-screen debut from James Ward Byrkit, eight friends discover metaphysics on their menu when a passing comet creates a set of doppelgängers down the road, enjoying their own identical soiree. Byrkit makes the most of the claustrophobic one-house setting, ratcheting up the dread and paranoia as his characters make a string of seemingly reasonable but ultimately wrongheaded decisions. The star-free cast is great too, with Buffy the Vampire Slayer vet Nicholas Brendon poking fun at himself by playing an actor who used to be on a TV show... Coherence is a satisfying and chilling addition to the ever-growing pal-ocalypse subgenre. And really, you have to love a film that not only explains the concept of Schrödinger's cat but also includes a joke about it ("I'm allergic!").
Stephen Dalton of The Hollywood Reporter also enjoyed the film: "An ingenious micro-budget science-fiction nerve-jangler which takes place entirely at a suburban dinner party, Coherence is a testament to the power of smart ideas and strong ensemble acting over expensive visual pyrotechnics... A group of eight friends gather for dinner... Marital tensions and sexual secrets sizzle just below the surface, but relationship drama is soon overshadowed by metaphysical weirdness when a comet passes close to Earth, shutting down power supplies and phone connections... It slowly becomes clear that the fabric of reality has been radically remixed by the comet's arrival. We are definitely not in Kansas any more... Byrkit only gave his cast limited information about the narrative loops and swerves ahead, encouraging a semi-improvised naturalism that feels authentically tense."
Matt Zoller Seitz, editor-in-chief of Roger Ebert's website, gives the movie three stars and writes that the film "is proof that inventive filmmakers can do a lot with a little... [but] none of the movie's technical or artistic shortcomings prove to be deal breakers. Once Coherence delves into its premise, the viewer is bound to come down with a bad case of the creeps. This is a less-is-more science fiction-horror tale... And it's genuinely more of a horror film than a suspense or "terror" film because, while there's some violence, the source of unease is philosophical."
Ryan Lattanzio of Indiewire praised the film's originality: "Coherence is not just smart science fiction: it's a triumph of crafty independent filmmaking, made with few resources and big ambition. Gotham-nominated debut director James Ward Byrkit stripped his vision down to the barest of bones to achieve a mind-shifting, metaphysical freakout about a dinner party gone cosmically awry. This film explodes with ideas, and it has that thing we always hope for at the movies: the element of surprise."
The reviewer for Salon was ambivalent: "After the fundamental problem of Coherence has become clear, or clear-ish – there's another dinner party, at that other house, that looks an awful lot like this one – the movie becomes slightly too much like an unfolding mathematical puzzle, although an ingenious one that reaches a chilling conclusion. Notes appear before they are written, the significance of those numbered photographs comes into focus through a series of neat twists, and while the characters are half aware that their actions are being shaped by a space-time continuum whose cause-and-effect relationship has gone awry, that's not enough to stop them."
- Next Wave Best Screenplay at the Austin Fantastic Fest (2013, won)
- Maria Award for Best Screenplay at the Sitges Film Festival (2013, won)
- Carnet Jove Jury Award for best In Competition at the Sitges Film Festival (2013, won)
- Black Tulip Award for Best Feature Debut at the Imagine Film Festival (2014, won)
- Imagine Movie Zone Award, Special Mention at the Imagine Film Festival (2014, won)
- Many-minds interpretation
- Many-worlds interpretation
- "The Garden of Forking Paths", a 1941 short story by Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges
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