The Binge Interview: Lorene Scafaria on “Coherence”

An unforgettable indie thriller by the title of Coherence has emerged fairly out of the blue as one of the summer movie season’s word-of-mouth hits. The feature-length filmmaking debut of James Ward Byrkit, Coherence‘s buzzy success is due in part to it being the kind of movie about which its fans can only say, “I can’t really tell you anything about it without ruining it but JUST TRUST ME AND SEE IT!” A nifty, ingenious gem of a mindfuck, it is ostensibly the story of a dinner party between eight guests that is disrupted by a comet passing by overhead, an astronomical disturbance that has unforeseen consequences for the gathered friends.

Just as fascinating as the movie itself is the approach Byrkit took to making it. From the press notes:

COHERENCE evolved from an experiment to see just how little traditional movie elements were needed to create a compelling and narratively ambitious project. The elements in question were basics such as “crew,” “budget,” “script,” and “time.”

Filmmaker James Ward Byrkit began brainstorming the idea with collaborator Alex Manugian as a way to test the limits of the improvisational process. What if a story had twists, reversals, puzzles, and existential mysteries… and the actors had to figure it all out as the shoot unfolded? What if there was no one present during filming except the camera operators? What if all limits were removed and the performers could go anywhere, do anything their characters needed to survive the experience?

Producer Lene Bausager signed on and the experiment was launched. With surprising results at every turn, the filmmakers realized they were on to something quite extraordinary. COHERENCE was shot consecutively over five nights without a screenplay. Actors were presented each morning with individual cards that explained their character’s motivations and stories to share for the upcoming night’s shoot. With this unique process, each actor had a general sense of what they needed to accomplish, but had no knowledge of what the other actors had been told.

The result was an improvised, real-time experience done without rehearsal or camera blocking. Byrkit kept the story on track with the aid of a detailed treatment, outlining crucial character conflicts, story progression, and plot reversals, developed with co-writer Manugian. Over five nights, the actors lived through a devolving nightmare that brought out perfectly nuanced performances and more unexpected story twists.

Coherence would be a compelling narrative by any standards, but its accomplishment as a filmmaking experiment renders it all the more extraordinary. Personally speaking, I had no clue about Byrkit’s improvisatory filmmaking techniques until well after I’d seen it. Full disclosure: my primary interest in the film initially was that it costarred my pal Lorene Scafaria in the role of Lee, a Skype executive co-hosting the dinner party in the home she shares with her husband Mike (Nicholas Brendon). I first met Lorene when I interviewed her during the press tour for her directorial debut, the seriocomic apocalyptic romance Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (you can read the transcript of that meet-cute Q&A romance here). In addition to Seeking a Friend, she wrote the fantastically funny and charming Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, as well as episodes of Children’s Hospital and Dana Fox’s beloved but short-lived Ben and Kate; she’s also directed several episodes of New Girl, which was created by her friend Liz Meriwether.

Although it was my fandom of Lorene that first compelled me to watch Coherence, I was utterly swept away from its first frames. It is unquestionably one of the most mind-bending, batshit-original movies I’ve seen this year. And so, I decided this would be a great opportunity to ring up Lorene to discuss her one-of-a-kind experience making Coherence, the emotional and psychological strain of trying to keep her cool around Nicholas Brendon, the sad fate of the big-screen adaptation of Bye Bye Birdie to which she was once attached, and much more.

I actually watched Coherence twice on Saturday.

Lorene Scafaria: Oh good!

I watched it the second time to try comprehending it better, because the first time I totally tuned out during the explanation of the whole Schrodinger’s Cat thing. I seriously do that all the time—the one important thing in any meeting or movie, I always blank during because my brain is a jerk. The second time I watched it with my fiancé, followed by Seeking a Friend for the End of the World because he hadn’t seen it yet. So it was basically a Lorene Scafaria Movies about Astronomical Objects and Their Effects on Human Behavior Double Feature. That was my Saturday.

That’s very exciting! They’re definitely different kinds of movies. I think Coherence is a think-piece, and I think Seeking a Friend is a feel-piece…

Let’s coin that term right now: feel-pieces.

Feel-pieces! I’ve also seen the movie twice, and I still feel like I need to catch up. I’m going to see it again with my mother. She’s been asking me about the ending, and I’m like, “Yeah… I gotta watch it again, I can’t explain this well enough.” At the time when we were filming, I wasn’t even aware of what it was about or what was going on. We filmed in order, and Jim sort of told us what we needed to know for our character. And I wasn’t in a lot of the scenes because my character kind of stays in the house…

And also takes a nap!

I take a full nap! [laughs] I think that was my favorite part of the job, the hours that I was “taking a nap.”

Can it still be considered a “disco nap” if you actually take it in the middle of a party?

In the middle of the party that I’m throwing! I just wind down. I mean, my character had had some ketamine at that point, so I suppose that’s why she got a bit sleepy.

I really expected her to come back out serving a James St. James Party Monster moment, like the whole movie was about to take a detour into club kid territory.

Well yeah, and there’s the glow sticks [used by the characters to identify themselves].

Right! There’s glow sticks, there’s ketamine. All the signifiers are there.

It’s basically a small rave, that’s what the movie is about. It’s really about the Limelight in 1995.

It’s a continuation of Go and Groove and all those mid-’90s rave movies.

Oh my god, yes! And Party Girl! I used to love Party Girl, that was like the best movie ever.

Yes! It’s a kindred spirit to those movies.

It’s a lot like Party Girl. Someone said to me the other day that Coherence is like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf meets Inception, so I liked that combination.

That’s incredible. So what made you decide to take such a leap of faith with this project? Not only does it move you in front of the camera, but it was such a high-wire act with the improv stuff—plus I hear you had to cook?

I did have to cook! That was crazy. I mean, I think it was more of a leap of faith on Jim’s part, because he had no idea if I could do anything acting-wise. I still have no idea! Maybe that’s why my character took a nap. He realized during filming: “I should just put her to sleep.” Jim worked on Rango with Gore Verbinski, he was a writer on it and a storyboard artist and Gore’s right-hand man. I was lucky enough to be part of a Rango roundtable. It was Patton Oswalt, a bunch of Simpsons writers…and me, of course. [laughs]

It was the most fun experience I’ve had doing something like that, it was really rewarding. There was a bell in the center of the table Gore would ring whenever he liked something, so you were working really hard to get him to ring the bell. Jim was so great and lovely. It was probably a year after the roundtable that he called me up and asked if I’d want to play a character in this thing. Basically he just told me I’d play Nicholas Brendon’s wife, and I said, “I’m in!” I was such an uber fan of Buffy. I actually had a trading card of Xander that I kept on the front dash of my Saturn for years.

He was like your north star!

He really was my north star! He was my Saint Christopher. He definitely guided me home a few times. So when Jim said I’d be playing his wife, I got really excited. I also thought it would be fun to do something like this. He said it would be improv, and if I’ve had any acting training it’s been in improv; I was in a couple of troupes between the ages of 16 and 20. So I was like, Maybe I can handle this? Then, I show up. He’d made a short version of this film sometime before with the same other seven actors with his wife playing the part I played, but she was nine months pregnant at the time when he was going to make Coherence again for real. So, he asked me to play the part that his wife had played. And it was kinda funny, because obviously the other seven people had already met each other, and then I showed up and had to host a party for seven strangers! I was like, Well, I guess it’s a good thing that I’m kind of an extrovert.

And then Jim said that I had to cook the meal on camera! I know how to make this 40-clove garlic chicken where you put it in a crock pot and seal the edges with dough, so I told him, “Oh, it’s a cool thing and might look neat on film because it’s like a process!” Then of course none of that made it into the movie. But I did realize that I was actually cooking dinner for all the actors—like, that was really going to be our meal. We had a real six-hour dinner party, and I made the chicken. So then I break the dough seal and open up the crock pot, and the chicken is so beautiful and perfectly cooked—and then I cut into it and discover I’d left the plastic bag of giblets inside. [laughs] There’s a line that remained in the movie where someone makes a reference to the chicken tasting like tuna, and the reason for that is because I poisoned everybody. So that was my contribution to the filmmaking.

It was so much fun, though. I certainly had the most fun the first two nights when we were actually throwing a dinner party and all hanging out. After that, I feel like I just kinda said “Oh my god” 400 times.  [laughs] I had no idea it was going to turn out so great! Jim is so talented and I wanted to be involved because I love the way his mind works and obviously wanted to be Mrs. Brendon, but while we were making it, I was like, What is this? What are we doing? We were all in our socks because Jim’s wife didn’t want shoes in the house, so I almost couldn’t take it too seriously at the time. It’s microbudget/no-budget filmmaking in someone’s living room and you only have half the information. So when I went to see it for the first time, I truly was blown away even though I was in it. I actually got lost in it, because I was discovering things just the same as any other audience member. Then I was just so proud of it that I had a screening myself. I was very excited to share it with people because movies like this need word-of-mouth.

So the cast really was diligent about respecting the process Jim had in mind? You weren’t secretly comparing his notes?

Oh, no! There was no cheating involved. It really was exciting, because we actually were scared when we were scared. He would bang on the door or the lights would go out, and that was really happening as far as we knew in the moment. It did have this eerie feeling. At the time of the shoot I was doing press for Seeking a Friend, so I was just completely somewhere else. I also had the flu, so I really had no idea where I was during those main five days of the shoot. But I was having such a blast.

Not only is Jim such an inventive storyteller and so great to work with, but what a great environment to put actors in and have us bounce off each other like that! I mean, we were all swinging for the fences, so I think the editor had his work cut out for him to make something cohesive. But they did such a great job, and it really looks great too. When I watched it, I was genuinely inspired. I was like, Well dammit, what can we do with this living room next? What stories can we tell in another isolated location like this? I was deeply impressed. There was another movie this year called Locke, did you see that?

I did, I loved Locke.

I thought that was so inspiring too. I went into it thinking, This couldn’t possibly work on the right levels. But it just did. I have to hand it to Jim for pulling something like that off. And people genuinely seem to be interested in it, which is great.

It’s basically Locke meets Party Girl.

It’s a lot like that! Jim will love that summary. It’s a lot like Titanic meets…

My Dinner with Andre.

Yes! Anytime something is like My Dinner with Andre, it’s a success.

So your character in Coherence is throwing a dinner party, and I feel the Real Housewives have forever altered the cultural landscape of dinner parties. Like, as bad as things get in Coherence, I feel like I’ve been desensitized to displays of emotional violence at dinner parties. While I was watching, I kept mentally mashing it up with various Real Housewives dinner party fights.

That’s amazing. It’s true, though! That’s why the dinner party scene in Seeking a Friend captured, for me, what would be going on if everyone was facing something like that at the same time. Dinner parties are already kind of a tense situation. I mean, there’s wine, so there’s bound to be trouble. You get people around a table and everyone starts to get a little catty. Taboo subjects you’re not supposed to talk about—politics, religion, money, sex—inevitably come up, so it starts to get weird really fast.

It honestly took me until the second viewing of Coherence to be like, Oh, that was the theme! That’s the reason why we were all sitting around a table kinda acting like stuck-up white people! [laughs] And then of course the sky opens up and the tension is even more real. I thought that was a great idea, because dinner parties are kinda the worst. It’s also the best setting for any kind of drama or tension. Do you remember the American Office episode where Jan and Michael throw a dinner party?

That was unbelievable.

That has to be the funniest episode of that show ever. “Oh my god, they haven’t even started cooking yet? We’re just going to be here for the next few hours making pleasant conversation? We’re going to have to make it to dessert with this group of people?” Dinner parties are a minefield, they really are.

Someone should edit Amy Schumer’s nonsequitur-spouting character from Seeking a Friend into Coherence just for fun.

I wish I watched more Real Housewives! Well… maybe not, but for this conversation I wish I’d watched more Real Housewives to understand. I think I get it!

I’ll send you one of them. There’s a really infamous one where a psychic shows up and starts, like, soothsaying the other guests…

Oh my god, amazing.

…and it turns out she was in the inspiration for the show Medium

Perfect!

And two of the cast members are former child stars Kyle and Kim Richards, and Nicole Brown Simpson’s best friend Faye Resnick is there, and Kelsey Grammer’s then-wife, and…yeah. You just have to watch it.

I need a clip. For some reason, anytime you get someone holding a wine glass whatever they’re saying just sounds significantly worse.

It’s definitely amplified. So, did you get a chance to fangirl out on Nicholas Brendon before you started to film so you could be natural with him on camera?

I don’t know that I was too cool! I think I made my love clear. [laughs] I’m still waiting for his call. We just hit it off right away, which was not surprising to my 15-year-old self. We were definitely the two who were trying to be the funniest. I can’t say if we were the funniest, but we were certainly swinging for the comedy fences together. We really did have a great time, and I told Jim to please create a show for me and Nicholas to play a husband and wife so we can live happily ever after. That’s my hope, anyway.

Did you have to make a concerted effort not to picture him from the Buffy swim team episode in that speedo?

Oh my god!

Because that would be so difficult to not think about!

It’s really good that I didn’t have that fresh in my mind before going in.

Thank god.

He’s still so cute. It’s a problem. And he’s so funny, but he’s also good at making those dramatic turns. I mean, he scared the crap out of me in the movie. I was deeply impressed, even though I was aware of what he was capable of. Every actor in it blew me away, really. Emily Foxler—

Oh, she was incredible.

She is an absolute star. I expect to see her in a lot of things. And Hugo Armstrong, the guy in the beard? I am such a fan of his. During filming he genuinely terrified me. I would say he does the most intense yelling in it, and he’s a very tall man in an overcoat, so…

I was wondering about that, because you’re right next to him when he gets into some full-fledged red-faced yelling. I was concerned for you!

It was a lot! At that point we had worked for six or eight hours straight, and with something like this—it’s like a Judd Apatow movie, into the sunset. You’re talking and working the whole time; we all had sore throats. Poor Jim, by the end his back was practically broken and he was just lying on the floor. In a way, it was the most intense kind of filmmaking you could do, and yet it was over so quickly.

You suffered for art.

Right, except I didn’t even know what we were suffering for at the time! Little did I know it was for a very good cause.

It was for a very good cause! I love this movie so much. Well, we’re just about out of time, but I wanted to ask you about something I saw on your IMDb: is it true that you’re writing an adaptation of Bye Bye Birdie?

Aw man, no, that’s not happening anymore. I probably wrote the sixth or seventh draft of it. My version was going to be an updated version, like a modern-day Bye Bye Birdie, which seemed totally interesting at the time. Then I think they were debating whether to go back to the original version after all of that. I have really high hopes that it will come back around, because the script was great, we had a director…then we lost the director, and I think that’s what stopped it.

I was working on that at the same time as Seeking a Friend, and if you had told me that Seeking a Friend would get made and Bye Bye Birdie wouldn’t, I’d have never believed it. I was like, Of course they’re going to make the huge musical for hundreds of millions of dollars and not this other weird movie about dying! [laughs] But Bye Bye Birdie fell apart first, which was definitely even more incentive to get Seeking a Friend made. I was like, Well, I can’t just not be celebrating something for the next four years of my life. So yeah, Bye Bye Birdie isn’t in the works. I do have one other thing I’m working on, a script I wrote about my mother. Write what you know, right? So that’s the next rock to try pushing uphill.

Can’t wait to hear more about that one! But still, what a bummer about Bye Bye Birdie. That’s the only musical I was ever in in high school, so I was so excited by the idea that you might be the writer bringing it back to the big screen.

Who were you in it?

I was one of those guys who had like eight little roles: I was the mayor, I was in the barbershop quartet, that kind of thing.

Oh, cool!

And it was 2000, so I remember thinking, Why isn’t there a big movie of this right now set in the age of Total Request Live? It would make so much sense!

It makes so much sense! At the time people were probably thinking someone like Justin Timberlake would be great in it, but there are so many people who could do it. And again, a modern-day version actually seems fun! I wouldn’t normally go for that, but the themes of this musical were ahead of their time. Celebrity has only multiplied, so I think there’s a great way to do a modern commentary on it. Plus, I was in it high school too.

No!

I was, I played Ursula. I was screaming my head off. [laughs] So I felt the same way about the project. At least get it made. I know things get remade into the ground, but Bye Bye Birdie was such a great musical but not a great film, aside from Ann-Margret being extraordinary. I would love to see that on the screen.

Fingers crossed. Thanks for your time Lorene!

Thank you Jason!

Coherence opens in San Francisco and San Jose today. For more information, visit the official website.

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