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10 Years a Comet: A "Coherence" Reunion

Updated: Mar 26

By Elizabeth Gracen:



First of all, I can’t believe that it’s been ten years since the very talented James Ward Byrkit first invited me to join seven other actors for an evening of improv for a film idea he was considering. It would turn out to be a fortuitous moment where I met what would become my “comet cohorts” and would serve as a most unique acting journey that I’m pretty sure I will never experience again—at least in this particular timeline (Coherence humor). 



Hosted by the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in downtown LA, the venue’s event sold out 3 shows and Q&A sessions on the evening of February 3, 2024, to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the film. It gave the entire Coherence cast, cinematographer, director, and producers a perfect excuse to see each other again, reminisce about our experience, and celebrate a film that has received international acclaim as “one of the best sci-fi movies of the century.”* As you can imagine, a good time was had by all.

Left to Right, Standing: Maury Sterling, Hugo Armstrong, Elizabeth Gracen, Alex Manugian,

Seated: Nichols Brendon, Lorene Scafaria, Jim Byrkit, Emily Baldoni, Lauren Maher


If you haven’t seen Coherence—a mind-bending film about eight friends, a dinner party, an astronomical anomaly, and the strange goings-on that ensue, it is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, and you can pick up your own copy of the film on the Oscilloscope Laboratories distributor website



Word to the wise: you might not want to watch it alone if you are easily “spooked," but I heard from a fan at the recent event that it’s a perfect theme for a film-viewing dinner party—especially if you include hijinks of your own making. After a bit of research online, I found a Reddit thread that suggested that you could make the dinner truly trippy by adding glow sticks to the dining table and playing eerie music to set the mood. Maybe you go all in and change shirts when someone goes to the bathroom and insist that you’ve been wearing it the whole time. Some even suggest that edibles should be involved . . . and if you’re really in the know, you might want to add a “whisper of ketamine” to the menu. You’ll have to watch the film to get all the references, but I think it sounds like a great party. In fact, I know it is.


James Ward Byrkit

Conceived during a typical creative brainstorming session between Byrkit and his writing partner, Alex Manugian, who plays “Amir” in the film, the duo entertained Byrkit’s  “What if?” idea based on the concept of being “watched” through their office window by a version of themselves. Over the next year, they expanded the idea into a mysterious quantum-physics-inspired puzzle of a film that continues to have audiences pondering the possibilities of perceived reality.


Considered the ultimate mumblecore cinema magic trick, Coherence debuted with great success in 2013 at Fantastic Fest and serves as Byrkit’s first feature film as a director. It quickly became a critically lauded sci-fi classic that rates 89% on Rotten Tomatoes and continues to be honored on sci-fi best-movie lists, with Indiewire declaring it one of the 62 Best Sci-Fi Movies of the 21st Century. 


With a budget of only $50,000 and a determination to venture a cinematic experiment that shaved away the typical trappings of crew and script, Byrkit instinctively curated a cast of his friends to film in his own home over five nights, working from a 12-page treatment and the bare-essential film requirements of professional audio and DSLR cameras, with luminous magic fashioned by cinematographer Nic Sadler. Before each night’s shoot, Byrkit emailed each actor “clues” that had to be interjected into the upcoming night’s work—a supremely structured improvisational game, where no actor knew what to expect. It made for a fresh, exciting atmosphere where literally anything could happen. 


“It seemed very far-fetched when I started,” said Byrkit. “So many things had to coalesce for it to work. It felt like a long, unlikely journey, but it all came together just a month before we did it—basically because my wife decided that she wanted to have a home birth and told me that I could have five nights to shoot it in the house before the baby came. I mean, what are the odds that the actors would be available? How was I going to make it all happen that quickly? . . . And then it all just fell into place. Ten years later I’m just filled with gratitude all the time. Just overwhelming gratitude . . . because it turned out even better than I hoped.”



The anniversary event was the first time since film production that the entire cast was available to get together. My comet pals indulged me that evening, answering questions for this article, further cementing my appreciation for their talent, our collective experience, and our binding connection as artists, friends, and fellow players.



“As a performer, it was amazing, because I was totally in my skin. I didn’t have a choice. You had to pay attention. I genuinely did not know what was happening. I mean, you had a little clue like, ‘You’re going to say this when they say that,’ but the experience was so visceral and authentic, and I think that plays in the final film. It transcends every time you see it. It’s totally infectious,” said Hugo Armstrong, who plays “Hugh” in the film.





Emily Baldoni, who plays “Em,” had the unique experience of knowing just a tad more than the other actors as the film production progressed; but like the rest of us, she had no idea what the final film would reveal. “To me it all felt like eight toddlers coming together and playing in the sandbox, trying out new toys. It was nothing but play. Sometimes terrifying play, but it was fun. It was joyful and experimental.”


Emily Baldoni & Maury Sterling, "Coherence"

Maury Sterling, known for his role of “Max” in the series Homeland, plays “Kevin” in the film. When I asked him what he remembered most about the experience, he said, “I thought it was a terrible idea at first. When Jim called me and said let’s get eight actors together to improv, I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? You’re going to let eight actors just improv . . . with no containment?’ I should have known that there was an absolutely painstakingly creative, meticulous spine behind what we were doing. He knew there was a structure. Our improv was hanging off this incredibly choreographed skeleton.” 


Lauren Maher, the “naughty girl” in the film, serves as a perfect nemesis for my character, Beth, who takes a dislike to Maher’s “Laurie” from the moment she walks in the door. 


“In real life, you know that I adore you,” I told her at the event. “But for some reason, I decided from the get-go when we started filming that I was going to be mean as hell to you to see what would happen. I treated you like such a harlot. You were wicked!”


“Oh yeah, I was the odd man out for sure. It was so much fun,” replied Maher. “Because Jim wasn’t giving us a lot of story information, I remember there would be times where I would mention to him that the continuity was all off with what I was doing from the last shot, and he would tell me that it was fine, that it didn’t matter. I would be thinking, Really? Is that professional? I mean, normally that is not fine . . . but I had no idea that I was shooting a scene in an alternate reality!” 


Nicholas Brendon in "Coherence"

Nicholas Brendon, who played “Mike” in the film, flew in from Virginia to attend the event. He told the Q&A crowd after one of the screenings that he had been up in the air about coming back for the event because of his recent health issues, but as he was sitting in his car at a drive-through to get coffee one afternoon, ready to call Jim and tell him that he wasn’t coming, he flipped through his socials and a random article popped into his feed that listed Coherence as the top sci-fi film of the decade. “I mean, I had to come back. It was a sign.” 


Writer and director Lorene Scafaria stepped into the project just before filming began, replacing Byrkit’s very pregnant wife. “You know, I don’t consider myself an actor. I was working on a comedy punch-up with a group of writers for the Gore Verbinski film Rango (Byrkit served as co-writer, artist, and actor on the film), and I think Jim thought I was funny. He called me up and said, ‘I’ve never seen you act, but I feel like you can,’ and he invited me to join the production. He told me that Nicholas Brendon was going to be in it. I was already a huge fan of Nick’s from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so I told him ‘yes!’ The whole thing was just so much fun. I got to play Nick’s wife, and we really hit it off. It felt like we were husband and wife who had actually been together for so long. I was blown away by everybody in the cast, and I really had no idea what were were doing or how it would look in the end. I remember attending the screening with a friend and saying, 'We have to be nice. We have to say that it’s great, even though it's probably not going to be great.' And then, honestly, ten minutes in, my friend was on the edge of his seat, leaning forward. He turned all the way around to say to me, ‘Is this amazing or what?’ It was amazing, and by the end I was even more blown away by the unfolding.” 



Having been part of the Highlander franchise and witnessing the international love for that film and television series, I gradually came to understand why a story and its characters resonate with people, especially in the fantasy/sci-fi community. But, I was curious . . .


Why does Coherence hold sway over its fans?


"I don’t know a lot of people who are willing to put in the fanatical, detailed brain power into working something out so far in advance like Jim did," said Armstrong. "Something that you can actually plug people in to and just kick the blocks off and watch the thing roll. One of the really cool things about this film is that it doesn’t do anything but respect the viewer’s intelligence enough to be four steps ahead, trusting that the viewer is going pay attention. So, by the time you leave the movie, no matter how much of the puzzle that you’ve figured out, you’re the one who’s figured it out. There’s a wonderful cerebral participation that is happening simultaneously with this sort of physical interaction that all of us are going through on screen."

Written & Directed by Lorene Scafaria

“I think it's really grounded. It’s about people and relationships. It actually sticks to its own rules. As a director, it inspires me to keep things as fresh as possible and give people intentions that maybe the other actors don’t know. Also, it's a micro-budget film, but no mater what you make (Scafaria's impressive film resumé includes Hustlers, The Meddler, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, and directing credits on episodes of Succession), it’s never enough money or time. So it’s inspiring in that no matter what level you’re working at, what scale you’re working with, it’s a reminder of how much you can do with what you’ve given.”




So, what have my comet buddies been up to these days on their own special timelines?


Maury Sterling in James Ward Byrkit's new production, "Shatter Belt"

Maury Sterling has recently appeared in the second episode of Byrkit’s new brainchild, Shatter Beltanother mind-bending series of episodic stories that journey to the edge of consciousness and back. But Sterling has ventured behind the camera as a producer since the Homeland series ended. “I was on Homeland for a long time, and when that ended, I knew I needed a new skin. Being a producer has been really rewarding and exciting.”



Emily Baldoni reunites with Hugh Armstrong in the first installment of Shatter Belt, playing a mysterious agent from the future. But the majority of her time is devoted to her own young children and to her lifestyle brand, We Are Amma—a company dedicated to celebrating mammas—to support, uplift, and nurture them. The company’s Cocoon nursing cover has met with great success and has allowed her to wear the entrepreneur hat and dive into studies about the sacred feminine. “Our motto is ‘A nurtured mamma changes the world.’ I’m now learning about ancient technologies of circle and ceremonies and the blood mysteries. It's amazing and empowering. I’m interested in blending sound, movement, healing touch, and all the things that gather women in circle again, like we’ve done for eons."


Hugo Armstrong & Emily Baldoni in Jim Byrkit's "Shatter Belt"

Hugo Armstrong continues to work in theatre productions and as a voice-over actor. “It’s funny, but I’ve been doing a lot of short-film projects lately that have introduced me to a whole new generation of young filmmakers who are awesome . . . and of course, every one of them knows about Coherence. The film inspired them and gave them confidence to make their own movies.”


Lauren Maher’s life has taken a giant leap forward since the film. Now a licensed psychotherapist focusing on anxiety management and trauma therapy, she has written an incredible book, Mindfulness Workbook for Panic Attacks.


“My next step is to create really accessible mental health tools that people can use. I want to create online content, because I feel like a lot of people can’t afford therapy or don’t have access to it. My passion is helping people learn how to regulate their nervous system in a very accessible way. I draw on yoga training . . . even some acting techniques. I want to help people answer the questions: How do we become embodied? How do we take back control of our body, mind, spirit?”


Alex Manugian continues to write and flesh out new ideas with Byrkit, as well as teaching classes in script analysis at the prestigious Pepperdine University. I'm excited to announce that he is joining the Flapper Press roster of writers in the near future, and rumor has it that he's also planning his own directorial debut with an upcoming genre film, a ghost story set in Massachusetts. Can't wait!


Nicholas Brendon continues to act and write, but he's also has branched out into fine arts as a painter. His vibrant work is now available nickybrendon.com.


Nic Sadler continues to make beautiful art and stir the pot as activist and artist. When I checked out his LinkedIn page, I couldn't help but laugh at his "About," which says: "I make stuff. You might like it. If you don't, please don't tell me."


As for me, here at Flapper Press we continue to feature and support artists, writers and visionaries from around the globe. I'm also spinning all my creative plates, finishing up Ms. Meriwether— a documentary feature film about the incredibly fabulous Lee Meriwether—and I continue to film and archive work for the ongoing The Gen Z Collective project; we're proud to be launching a "get out the vote" push in the coming weeks. I've also opened Fortuna Thrift & Vintage with my friend Maria Sarno, and I've been working steadily on principal photography with a crack team of producers on Natural State of Drag, a documentary feature about the long history of drag in Arkansas.


And as for our fearless leader?

What has the creative mind of Jim Byrkit concocted next for our entertainment?


“I’m shopping Shatter Belt at the upcoming Marché du Film market at Cannes, hoping to get funding to continue the series. We might also revisit a Coherence television idea that is based on a whole different idea from the film. We’ll see what happens.”


As we finished our final Q&A session for the night, there was really only one question left unanswered:


Will there be a Coherence sequel?


"Alex and I have been trying for years to figure out what that would be. We really have tried," said Byrkit. "For the original film, within five minutes of talking about it, we were like, 'Yeah. I'm gonna do it. That's going to work.' There's a feeling you get when you know it's right, and we're waiting for that feeling."


Well, comet lovers, here's hoping that the stars align into another brilliant astronomical anomaly and that that special Coherence feeling finds its way back to us.


Until then, we remain ever watchful, glow sticks at the ready.



 

Elizabeth Gracen is the owner of Flapper Press & Flapper Films.

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