Sci-fi puzzler 'Coherence' raises the bar for high-concept, low-budget filmmaking
When we actually shot it, before they would show up each day, I gave each actor a note card of their character's motivations, or back story. Little bits and pieces that they could use that night. But they wouldn't know what any other character got, so it was all a surprise to them how everybody else reacted. And none of them knew how it was going to end.
SFBG Did the actors help create their characters?
JWB I kind of gave them a general background of what their character was, and what their history was, and what their problems were. Basically everybody is in secret conflict with themselves, or with each other. That's the whole movie: These people who, in the first 10 minutes, they just look like they're having a party — but there's all this unspoken conflict going on either between each other or with themselves.
SFBG Can you talk about the unusual editing choice you made, to have scenes abruptly cutting to black?
JWB Part of it was a rhythmic theme, and part of it was a clue. For the people who watch the film multiple times, there's definitely a pattern of cutting to black that starts to inform what's going on, which I'm not going to give away [laughs]. Going into black is such an important theme. The lights go out, they're plunged into blackness. There's an even darker space when they go outside. And then, the blackness between characters. So when we tried it as an editorial thing, it was so effective that we committed to it and it ended up being something that took many, many, many weeks to perfect. And it still baffles some people, obviously, because it's so jarring.
SFBG Coherence is a relationship drama, but it's also a sci-fi film. What inspired you to include those elements?
JWB Well, we basically didn't have any money [laughs]. I had a camera, some actors that I knew, and a living room — and that's it. So how do we make a living room more interesting? It got us thinking about Twilight Zone episodes, and how those are often set in very mundane, normal places, and yet there's this bigger feeling to them because there's a cosmic story, or a slightly supernatural element that has permeated their reality. And that got me really excited, to think of a fractured reality, and therefore the living room became much bigger.
SFBG Sci-fi without special effects is kind of a genre on the rise.
JWB I love it. My biggest hope is that someday [Coherence] could be on a double or triple feature with Primer (2004) or Timecrimes (2007), or another super low-budget homemade movie. It's a really exciting realm to be in. I think people went down the wrong road when they started assuming science fiction meant only big visual effects.
SFBG And wait, did you say you filmed it in your living room?
JWB Yeah! We didn't have any money to rent another house. It was very challenging because my wife was nine months pregnant and she was planning on having a home birth. She said, "You're gonna have a film shoot in our house weeks before I'm due? That's the craziest thing I've ever heard!" I said, "I'm sorry, honey, but if I don't do it now, we can't really do it after the baby comes." And she said, "All right. You have five nights." We shot five nights, and then a week later, Emily [Foxler] came back to do some pickups around my house, walking around the neighborhood in the darkness. We ended that shoot at one o'clock in the morning; two hours later my wife went into labor. *
COHERENCE opens Fri/27 at the Presidio. For additional theaters, check http://coherencethemovie.com.