By Elizabeth Gracen:
As an actor and performer, I’ve been lucky enough to be part of a few productions that really checked all the boxes for me in terms of challenge, creativity, and camaraderie. I can count them on one hand, but they are golden: my ongoing collaboration with the Lineage Dance Company, my years working with HIGHLANDER: THE SERIES & HIGHLANDER: THE RAVEN, and one very special indie feature film production that quickly found a loyal following in the SF community: COHERENCE.
COHERENCE is the experimental film brainchild of Jim Byrkit and his writing partner Alex Manugian— a story about eight friends at a dinner party who experience a strange and troubling night due to the influence of a passing comet. It is an intimate, mind-bending film that deals with friendship and the mysterious realm of quantum physics. The film quickly found footing on the Science Fiction film festival circuit, where word of mouth launched it into an ever-growing fanbase and a place on the Top 100 lists of best SF films of the 21st century.
What is really amazing is that in these crazy, restrictive days of Covid-19, COHERENCE has found yet another “alternative reality” to exist in. When Martin Lang, drama teacher at Saint John Bosco High School, and long-time friend of Jim Byrkit, brainstormed on how Lang was going to keep his students engaged and active for a school production at the end of 2020, Byrkit offered up COHERENCE. Lang took the bait, and the adventure began.
How would they adapt this brainy, talky SF movie into an entertaining, virtual play for high school students to produce and perform?
As you'll hear in the film interview, the endeavor was a true creative and logistical challenge for both teacher and students, and the end result was an exciting success and proof that ingenuity and hard work can produce the most amazing things. As always, the intelligence and chutzpah of Gen Z never fails to impress, and with strong support from educators like Martin Lang and the generosity of artists like Jim Byrkit to help bolster and inspire these young people, the future of theatre is bright despite the challenges we now face.
I sat down with Jim Byrkit, Martin Lang, and the cast of the play COHERENCE to discuss their experience and thoughts about the future of theatre.
James (Jim) Ward Byrkit is a writer and director best known for his debut feature, COHERENCE and for co-writing the Academy Award–winning animated feature RANGO. He's the conceptual artist on the Hollywood blockbuster franchise PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN and happens to be a great friend of mine. He makes delicious pizzas and pancakes too. I don’t think they give awards for the latter, but they should.
EG: I can’t believe it’s been almost 8 years (!) since we filmed COHERENCE. As an actor, it was such a fulfilling experience to work on something so cerebral with such an unconventional approach to filming it. It was a joy to work on and great fun to work with you and Alex. Would you please tell our readers a little bit about yourselves and the journey that brought you to creating COHERENCE?
JB: COHERENCE was a labor of love. I think a lot of people can relate to feeling like there are obstacles at every turn and getting to the point where they have had enough “NO” thrown at them. The dream of making a movie was so powerful, I just had to risk everything and make it. With Alex’s encouragement, we committed to making a micro-budget feature in my living room, because the one thing we had in our toolbox was a collection of friends who were great actors, including the incomparable Elizabeth Gracen. I had this theory that if I could just get rid of the two things that were always slowing down a shoot—the script and the crew—we could shoot a movie in five nights. This bit of insane logic led to the most joyous, stressful, and ultimately rewarding project I’ve ever done.
EG: I’m not sure you would classify the film as a cult classic yet (there’s still time), but it certainly garnered a position on many “Best of” lists and has a devoted following in the sci-fi film community. Can you talk about how the film was received and why you think it found popularity in the sci-fi community?
JB: It’s amazing, but there’s never a week when someone doesn’t reach out from a corner of the world to say the film touched them, and the story of how we actually made it inspired them even more. I’ve worked on so many bigger films, but this is the one people watch five, ten, twenty times and just want to discuss every aspect of it. Something about how we just went around all of the obstacles and made our own vision happen really moves people, especially when the result felt cosmically vast and imbued with mystery. Every film festival we went to garnered an outpouring of support and, amazingly, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive. I receive the most touching notes how it sparked someone else’s dream. Last year, Emily Baldoni (who plays Em) and I were having lunch and the waiter just about had a full blown existential meltdown when he recognized her and then realized who I was. Apparently, his science professor at UCLA had recommended the movie, and it had become incredibly meaningful to him. So clearly something has taken hold, and every year the response and fan appreciation actually seems to grow as it reaches more people.
EG: I recently did an interview with the drama class at St. John Bosco High School and Saint Joseph High School about their adaptation of the film into an online play. How did that come about, and what is your impression of what they produced?
JB: Honestly, it was SO MUCH BETTER than I expected. I had seen a college version performed, so I thought I knew the level to anticipate. But WOW. I was blown away. It’s a reflection of the kids but also very much due to the director, Martin Lang, who has a history of outstanding high school performances at Bosco. He’s a great friend, and one day I casually, almost jokingly, suggested COHERENCE as a pandemic-friendly play for his theatre department. The next thing I know, they are casting and testing all sorts of video-conferencing technology to make it happen. What a joy to see people take it and make it their own.
EG: What’s next for you? What wonderfully mysterious project can we expect next?
JB: That is a good question. I’m back to trying to figure out how to get around all the NO’s that the existing structure likes to throw at creative people. Alex and I continue to write together, and we have a whole slate of mind-bending ideas that need to be made. We always dreamed COHERENCE would be remade for different parts of the world, and we have sold the rights to India and China and can’t wait to see those versions. My dream is to get a television series off the ground that touches on the themes of COHERENCE and goes deeper into the mysteries of how we interface with the perceived world, the heartbreaks and triumphs that come with questioning unperceived truths, and the joy of creating something by tossing aside the rulebook.