A skilled artist in his own right, Arizona born James Ward Byrkit carved a career through his behind-the scenes-work on the Pirates of the Caribbean series in his role storyboarding for the films, before making his own way into directing in the advertising world. He would work again with Pirates director Gore Verbrinksi on Rango, before making his magnum opus in Coherence – a low budget sci-fi about alternate dimensions and questioning who we really are. I reached out to him and discussed if we’re the actual versions of ourselves, or just sub-standard copies.
JON HOLMES, FINALBOSS: Is it true that you were the first person Gore Verbrinksi hired on Pirates of the Caribbean?
JAMES BYRKIT: I was Gore’s storyboard artist, and so whenever he would get a job the first thing he wanted to do is start creating a frame. So yeah, bar the executives who were already there, I was the first person he hired. I had moved onto directing commercials. And so I really wasn’t storyboarding anymore, but I got that call from Gore, who said “You’re not going to believe this; they want to make a 100 million dollar Jerry Bruckhiemer version of Pirates of the Caribbean”… so I said I’ll be right over.
FB: Did you know it was going to be massive? Did you know that this movie based on a theme park ride was going to be ginormous?
JB: Yeah. That’s what was so exciting about it, because everybody else thought it was going to be a terrible idea. All the Disney films that they had been trying to churn out based on rides were not working.
FB: I remember it was quite laughable at the time, and then it came out and everybody was like Oh shit, this is actually pretty good.
JB: So it was looked at as a joke, and as a money grab – but because I knew Gore and I knew he was going to make it amazing, I instantly knew that we were going to blow everybody away.
FB: You mentioned being the storyboard artist – when did you start drawing?
JB: I think like any little kid who starts drawing dinosaurs when you’re 4, or 5. I just happened to start doing a lot more than most kids, where most would do it for 20 minutes I would do it for two hours, three hours.
FB: Very detailed tyrannosaurus.
JB: I was a storyteller to be honest. I would draw, when I was 5, multiple pages of a story telling it almost like storyboards. I didn’t know storyboards existed, but even back then I had this story about this giant fire that erupted and took over America. In my brain it said U – S – A imprinted on the country. I had learned fire will go out without oxygen and so naturally, as a five year old, the solution was they built this giant building that covered America and that’s how they put out the fire.
FB: I’ve genuinely seen worse disaster movies.
JB: I’m still trying to get that movie off the ground.
FB: Do you still draw?
JB: Oh yeah. All the time.
FB: As a creative or as a person being paid for it?
JB: I draw for myself to give ideas, and to give others an idea of what a project could be. Once in a while a director that I know will see if I’m available and see if I want to work for a couple of weeks. It’s usually the hardest part of a movie. Sacha Baron Cohen asked me if I could work on the Brothers Grimsby. I worked on Baby Driver for a few weeks for Edgar [Wright].
FB: And there are some extraordinarily big names that you’ve mentioned in the last five minutes.
JB: Well. Those are people that I respect, and so I love being able to be in their playground for a couple days, or a couple of weeks.
FB: Is it also true that you were the first person to sketch Rango?
JB: (Thinking back)…Yes.
FB: That’s bananas. That’s so good.
JB: I did the first drawing of Rango, and designed maybe 5, or 6 other characters. And I ended up doing a bunch of voices – I did the original voice for Rango when we were figuring out the movie and then we showed that to Johnny Depp.
I don’t want to be another person in line for a line that leads nowhere.
FB: You talking about working with some really big artists, you mentioned Baby Driver – which was an unconventional heist movie, shall we say – and working with Edgar Wright, who is an unconventional, fantastic director. From what I’ve seen of your career, all these movies that I’ve brought up are unconventional. What’s your reasoning for that? Is that just a resistance to be not just another guy working on another movie in Hollywood?
JB: Yes. I did grow up in a small city in Arizona that felt a million miles away from the centre of the universe, and so far from my dream of being in the film business so I’ve always felt like an outsider.
I never had any access to what other people were doing, so I always had to do things around the edges. When I was in college I had a little band with some close friends, and we saw what other bands there did, playing covers at bars, say; and we did exactly the opposite. “Let’s write all our own music and just have a concert in our backyard!” And I realised 20 years later that’s what we did for Coherence also.
Let’s just make it. Let’s stop trying to go that path everybody else is on. I don’t want to be another person in line for a line that leads nowhere.
FB: But do you recognise that there are certain rules that you have to do in top Hollywood? I think it’s amazing that you managed to make Rango. It’s this strange, gimpy, spasm of a movie and it’s just fantastic.
JB: I think a spasm of a movie is what we’d want to call it! I give all the credit to Gore Verbrinski, because he had a moment after the first Pirates movie where he could do anything and he chose to do this crazy very personal movie that was almost like an indie. It was like getting together with five or six friends, and making it in your house – and we did: we worked out of Gore’s house, and that’s why for four years I gave up my own directing career and merged with Gore and the others working with Rango because it felt like something special and couldn’t be repeated.
FB: Following that, you worked with Disney a lot in your career – are you still working on Pirates?
JB: No, it’s not the same since Gore stepped away. They didn’t have the same magic for me.
FB: Perfect! Because I’d say Disney 10 years ago doesn’t have the same magic it has now. What do you think about the Disney business model today?
JB: Ha! I am not qualified to have any insight on that to be honest. I’m rooting for them. There’s no evil genius – nobody there is bad. It’s just the system and the expectations of getting their stock holders maximum profits. That’s a system, that’s not a bad person. That’s a monolithic impediment.
FB: Do you feel that watching their movies?
JB: Has there been a good one lately? I’m really looking forward to the new Star Wars. Again, I’m rooting for it. I’m not expecting it to be great but I’m really hoping to be surprised and moved. I really like Frozen. There must be some good ones.
FB: I didn’t expect us to go down [The Frozen] route.
JB: Oh yeah. I thought it was really well done. I have a seven year old son who responded to it. I thought the Snowman song was genius. There’s elements of genius: The sister relationship trumping the standard hero story for example, was superb.
FB: Loose segway – you mentioned Star Wars. I’m a massive fan of Coherence. I know there wasn’t really a script… how did you convince your actors to do it? I know some of them were friends, and people you knew, but how did you go “We’re going to shoot this thing, come be in it?”
JB: Luckily, I had worked with most of them, so they trusted me. If you work with someone and it goes well, then it builds up a trust. I also made it sound fun. I said it’s going to be low pressure, high enjoyment, a lot of surprises, fun people. If you’re an actor and you have a creative bone in your body, that’s a pretty hard offer to decline.
FB: I assume as an actor within the industry, within Hollywood, that is something you want to grab.
FB: Did you have much experience with improv?
JB: By no means was I an improv specialist, but because of all my years of working with actors I understood the psychology behind it. I felt very confident that I could manage it.
FB: Was the bottle setting intentional, or simply through a lack of budget? Do you relish something like that as a writer/director having that submarine setting?
JB: It was definitely originally through budgetary constraints, when Alex [Manugian, co-star and co-creator] and I were trying to choose our story, we knew we had to have limitations that were realistic. The living room just felt like the obvious storytelling arena. We assumed at first that it would be a true bottle situation, but then it got kind of exciting to say there’s no reason to have that limitation. If they want to go outside, let’s go. It’s not expected. In a movie like that, one that sets up that limitation, it felt satisfying that the camera would actually follow them blocks down the street in complete darkness. So breaking the limitation became much more exciting than staying in it.
FB: I know that you meticulously planned it, that you added notes and told actors that this is going to be your beat and this is your mode for this scene – but without a screenplay did you approach it like a murder mystery and work backwards?
JB: In the writing process, we had the concept first – which was simply seeing these faces outside the window. And we thought it would be much more of a horror movie. For the first month or two we thought that it would be like a body count movie. But the more we went down that path, it became clear that it simply wasn’t as interesting as a slower psychological burn where they have to figure out an existential mystery. And then we figured out what an ending would be and worked backwards from that.
FB: You said about how you shot so much footage that you had maybe 24, 25 hours worth. You said how you shot maybe 5 hours each night over 5 days. You saying then about how it was going to be a Horror movie, did you ever want to make an alternative cut? Did you think you could have made X, Y, Z movies with the other shoots?
JB: The problem with that is we only have one ending. So how do you make that stuff tie in to your ending if they don’t telegraph that? And so that’s why there’s tons of footage and interesting scenes, but why we only ended up with the scenes that fed in to the ending that we had chosen. There aren’t multiple possibilities of how to resolve the story, so the ending really dictates what kinds of scenes remain in the final cut. Absolutely you could cut five other versions of it; but none of them would be nearly as strong as the one we ended up with.
FB: Your planning for that must have been meticulous, just to get to that point.
JB: That’s right. That was months of working with Alex, and plotting it out and saying “Do we really need this?” “Do we really want a book showing up halfway through?” and “Should they talk about going to the police?” …There were so many paths that we thought about that we ended up cutting to create this feeling of a messy realistic night of conversations that seem random, and seems to not be following any Hollywood rules… but actually is a highly structured plan. There is an inciting incident, an Act 1, there really is a Mid Point, an All Is Lost Moment and all of those things line up with classic Hollywood screenplay structure.
The movie is a result of an explosion of love of filmmaking, and frustration with an industry.
FB: One of my favourite thing about films are the people – Sci-fi, Horror, whatever, when you focus on the people – with the effects in the background. So much of Coherence is about trust/mistrust. Your movie is a bubble, we have to believe your characters for us to believe the film. I know you’ve said a lot of times it’s a lot like a Twilight Zone episode, obviously Twilight Zone could rely on that sense of dread of the Cold War at the time. Did you have anything that was happening with you at the time?
James laughs, sheepishly.
JB: There was a lot happening with me, but it’s not specifically mirrored in the character choices. It’s more the movie itself is such a reflection of what I was going through, and my frustration of not being able to get my own project off the ground, not being able to get anywhere in the Hollywood system on my own. The movie is a result of an explosion of love of filmmaking, and frustration with an industry. So it’s basically me saying: alright, if I’m not going to be given a chance and no-one’s even going to consider giving me one, I’m going to take this football and I’m going to kick it 8 miles – and even if nobody sees it… I will know.
I’m up here without a net, I don’t have a crew to help, a script, or money to solve problems – I don’t have anything except my friends – and most directors would never consider doing something this challenging. And that’s what was powering us, to feel that we were doing something that has never been done before.
FB: As a creative to hear that, is both very reassuring and daunting.
JB: At the time it just felt like an Ocean of No. You’re just surrounded by No. You’re drowning in No.
FB: Has that gotten better for you?
JB: I am now on a liferaft on the Ocean of No.
FB: You went down the festival route with Coherence. Would you recommend it?
JB: For a certain kind of film, absolutely. For me, it was all about going to FantasticFest. I had a feeling that that was our people. And that came true. Audiences took to it and it absolutely exploded at that point, so that changed everything for us.
FB: I watched the film two nights ago, in prep for this. I had forgotten how truly actually scary and anxiety-inducing it is. I’d forgotten totally. The bit where she meets her boyfriend from the other universe, honestly, I’m holding my breath until the scene ends.
JB: I can’t tell you how much that means to hear that. It moved me to think about [the scene]. I wondered if it was just me getting excited about it, or if I could transfer it to an audience. The key for me was with no dialog, the moment of realising what they’re looking at had to be done with no dialog. I wondered if doing it with just their eyes, slowly realizing it and slowly backing up from each other would be as powerful for other people. I have tried other things that were so subtle that I was the only audience for it, so I was really nervous about that scene that it would actually impact people at all.
FB: Answer this how you will: on the basis that you didn’t have a script, for a film that I’m talking about five, six years later, that you went in to it with your balls out and your eyes closed – does that make you a fantastic director, or some dude who planned really hard and got lucky?
JB: Well… we would probably have to go off record for me to tell you what I really think. I think it’s a combination of all of the years that I have put in to various aspects of filmmaking; the storyboarding side, the writing, the directing, the theatre years, the empathy with actors, all of the frustrations of how long it takes to shoot something with a whole crew – I think it’s a combination of being incredibly well prepared and being very lucky to have those actors and the support I had around me from the people who helped me.
To be honest, it’s a huge dose of luck combined with a mountain of preparation. As much as I was primed for the challenge, it wouldn’t have worked without other people being great. I don’t think if I were to try it again it would necessarily have worked out as well as it did.
FB: Right. Do you think it was somewhat situational then?
JB: Yeah. Because the most likely outcome of any situation like that is an absolute train wreck. If it has any legacy, I hope that it encourages people to try their own thing with their own house with their camera and their friends.
FB: Did you ever fear that it could have been an absolute train wreck?
JB: After the first night! The first night of shooting was one of the worst nights of my life.
FB: That bad, huh?
JB: Yeah. I had convinced myself for months that we were going to do this extraordinary thing. I had convinced my wife who was about to have a baby, that I was going to spend all of our money on this frivolous, creative exercise. I had convinced my producer to fly from London to be in LA. And after the first night I had to hold my head and say “Oh my God, I’m an idiot”. I was delusional. Why did I think I could make a movie in five nights? I thought almost nothing was useable from the first night.
FB: Did you tell anyone that or was that purely on you?
JB: I probably told Alex. I probably held most of it in and then suffered into the night, and then the next day convinced myself there’s still time, there’s still four nights left to shoot a movie. We can reshoot things, we can save this somehow… and then the second night went better. And the third night even better! By the fifth night, it was completely golden. By pushing through and trusting the initial instinct and the plan, we managed to pull it off.
If you are looking for more insights on how to get into the film industry – or the media industry in general – be sure to check out our other success story interviews!
Jon Holmes is a writer based in the UK. Alongside his work writing for film, he is a multi-accoladed filmmaker in his own right, and also performs. He can be followed on Youtube at Hans HS and on Twitter on @jonnyjonjon1