We’ve all been at a dinner party where the dynamic seemed to sour as the night progressed. One person is being uncooperative, the conversation turns to uncomfortable subjects, or the personalities assembled just don't quite sync up. What if the dynamic not only went bad but also splintered into multiple realities? James Ward Byrkit’s 2013 film, Coherence, chronicles just such a gathering.
Filmed over five nights in his own house, Coherence documents a dinner party gone astray as a comet flies by setting off all sorts of quantum weirdness. The story is small enough to tell among friends over dinner but big enough to disrupt their beliefs about reality. The film is the product of pulling back. After working on big-budget movies (e.g., Rango, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, etc.), Byrkit wanted to strip the process down to as few pieces as possible. Instead of a traditional screenplay, he spent a year writing a 12-page treatment. With the dialog unscripted, the film unfolds like a game. Each actor was fed notecards with short paragraphs about their character’s moves and motivations. Like a version of Clue written by Erwin Schrödinger, Coherence works because of its limited initial conditions, not in spite of them.
Coherence (2013): A story small enough to tell among friends over dinner but big enough to disrupt their beliefs about reality.
Byrkit’s latest project is an anthology of episodes using the same process, actors, and seeming instability of Coherence. The series is called Shatter Belt, and each episode is a different story, like Black Mirror or Soulmates. Byrkit is currently filming and raising money for it simultaneously. I caught him in between takes to ask a few questions.
Roy Christopher: Shatter Belt picks up where Coherence left off, right? The reality-splintering event happened in Coherence and Shatter Belt follows the aftermath.
James Ward Byrkit: So, Shatter Belt is not the sequel to Coherence, but it’s definitely a follow-up, meaning we’re using much of the same process and philosophy and thematic elements and actors of that film. Shatter Belt is a collection of short stories that involve consciousness and the nature of reality, each episode a self-contained story à la Twilight Zone. Like Coherence, the ideas are immediate and pure, unfiltered by studio executives or the Hollywood process. These are micro-budget productions of giant concepts. Like Coherence, there is almost no crew of any kind. No art department, no costume department. No special effects. The actors have to be on their A-game to even get through a day because of the flexibility required.
After years of trying to get smart, challenging, sci-fi projects greenlit the old-fashioned way, it became clear that again, my only option was going to be just picking up a camera and to start shooting. No permission needed.
RC: The no-permission approach to filmmaking has as long a lineage as the giant-production model. As many people are, I am intrigued by the end result of films like Coherence. The elegance of the final product betrays its complexity.
JWB: “The elegance of the final product betrays its complexity.”—that might be one of the best descriptions ever of what’s really going on. These micro-budget projects will by necessity look scrappier and less polished and give the impression that we are just winging it. But if anything, there is more thought, more layers of meaning in every scene. It’s the nature of being unfiltered by the studio process that allows these projects to achieve a strange purity of vision, even with all of the restrictions on production. I’ve worked for the last several years writing for other people, and it’s been rewarding on a certain level, but having the ability to tell a story without executive oversight brings an entirely different power to the forefront of the process. Shatter Belt is the most challenging project I’ve ever done, and yet already feels the most rewarding. There would be no way to make something so unique within the Hollywood model.
Jim Byrkit and Patton Oswalt on the set of Shatter Belt.
RC: As much as Shatter Belt shares with the Twilight Zone, it also seems to overlap with Fringe, Black Mirror, and in some ways even the X-Files. I’m saying that from way outside the project. Do you see it fitting in with those as well?
JWB: I love Black Mirror because it’s true science fiction, meaning that it postulates reasonable scientific and technological advances and how they might affect people. While Shatter Belt stories could have some technology propelling them, the focus is a bit more on the weird relationship of our conscious minds to the rules of reality. So, it’s all about priorities, and I can only hope that we find our singular tone like X-Files and Fringe managed to do.
RC: Weirdly, it seems that in making both of these projects you’ve had to grapple with the same problems that an Everett many-worlds interpretation of quantum realities presents. I know you spent a year plotting out the possibilities of Coherence, but how do you keep these stories from spinning off into complete chaos?
JWB: This is a question that might be better saved when we really do roll out a Coherence sequel, which has been in the works for a year. And yes, that’s often the main focus, keeping the stories relevant and connected even as the chaos creeps in. I find weeks of letting the stories play out organically in my head during long walks will slowly reveal an overall shape and recurring ideas that can then be the beginning of a structure.
RC: Do you know where or when we will be able to watch Shatter Belt?
JWB: We have absolutely no idea where Shatter Belt will land, because we specifically did not take out the idea and pitch it to anyone before we started. Interestingly, our Chinese fans have already been the most supportive, and we may try to make a sale there before anywhere else, due to the popularity of The Night the Comet Came (Coherence) there.
RC: What else is coming up?
JWB: This is pretty all-encompassing for now, although there are always several things swirling around, calling like sirens from the ship-dashing rocks. David Goyer and I have a time-travel series based on an incredibly popular title that is waiting for the right time to travel. Right now, the focus is on raising money for Shatter Belt and getting a few more episodes shot so that the shape of the series starts to reveal itself.
Thanks to Jim Byrkit for taking the time and to Alyssa Byrkit for her continued assistance.
You can help get Shatter Belt made and learn the secrets of Coherence by renting the Coherence Explained video featuring James Ward Byrkit answering viewer questions, a discussion between him and Patton Oswalt, and a visit to the Coherence house. Do watch or rewatch the film first. You can also contribute to the Kickstarter campaign and receive behind-the-scenes updates on the making of the show, among many other rewards.
By the way, if you enjoy interviews like this one, my new anthology, Follow for Now, Vol. 2: More Interviews with Friends and Heroes, is now available in paperback and open-access .pdf from punctum books. Thirty-seven interviews with creative minds of all kinds, including thinkers like Carla Nappi, Rita Raley, Dominic Pettman, Ian Bogost, Jodi Dean, Mark Dery, Douglas Rushkoff, Tricia Rose, and Dave Allen, and musicians like Tyler, The Creator, Matthew Shipp, Sean Price, Rammellzee, and Sadat X, as well as writers like Ytasha L. Womack, Chris Kraus, Pat Cadigan, Bob Stephenson, Simon Critchley, Simon Reynolds, Malcolm Gladwell, and William Gibson. “Relentlessly stimulating and insight-packed, Follow for Now is the kind of book I’d like to see published every decade, and devoured every subsequent decade, from now until the end of humanity,” writes Maria Popova of Brain Pickings. Here’s a bit more about it.
Hope you’re well,