James Ward Byrkit has been working in the movie industry for decades; his credits include huge blockbusters, some hidden gems, even a worldwide cult favorite. There are often roadblocks to getting films made—usually financial ones, but sometimes it’s about timing, or just having the right people involved. But it’s what he loves most: taking a vision from his imagination, or a dream he had the night before, and turning it into something visible to share.
The secret about making movies, he says, is the same thing for any creative endeavor: just start.
ES: Jim, you’re known for your work on big budget films as well as your indie sleeper hit, “Coherence.” What’s happening with your latest venture?
JWB: For my current project, “Shatter Belt,” I’m following a dream I have been having for years. It kicked into high gear a year ago, mid-pandemic. It seemed like nothing was happening in the film world. Projects were being cancelled right and left, all creative endeavors seemed to be roadblocked at every step.
I thought to myself, I don’t want to roll over, I don’t want to hibernate. I need to make my dream happen right now.
ES: What does that mean for you?
JWB: That means I have to come up with a new way of thinking about it. Why is this time going to be different than every other time? How do I reframe this situation?
Instead of playing within the traditional Hollywood rules of pitching idea after idea to big studio producers and waiting for their permission to proceed, I wanted to make my own thing. I don’t want to get endless feedback that completely misses the point of my story. I don’t want to spend months of my life on amazing projects that ultimately get shelved. And I don’t want wait for someone else to tell me if it’s good enough.
ES: So, how do you go about it differently?
JWB: Basically I decided to treat the entire project like a heist. There’s a prize. And there’s a plan to get that prize at any cost. With some grace. Somewhat of a Danny Ocean approach.
ES: Danny Ocean, as in, “Ocean’s Eleven”?
JWB: He’s got the unstoppable spirit.
It’s all about putting a small, excellent team together and going in. With all the fun of a caper. Executing a perfectly planned creative event. And it’s unbeknownst to the powers that be, the ones that control the resources.
So now, instead of spending my time pitching, I’m just proceeding. I’m looking for partners, trusted collaborators, who are ready to make something with me. So much in Hollywood feels like waiting for permission. I’m skipping over the waiting part.
ES: Okay, so walk us through the specifics of how you get from the kernel of an idea to making an actual film. What happens first?
JWB: Almost every morning I wake up with a new idea for a show. This is just how my brain works—story after story that I can visualize completely. It’s an endless supply of content.
So I make a list of my top 5-6 story ideas from the pile of ideas I’ve had over the last few years. I revisit ideas I’ve had for feature films, and consider if they could be told as a 25-minute episode, rather than a full-length features; go deeper into the story ideas that I really love. Ask myself, what would be affordable? What’s doable on a small budget? What is a story I can tell in 25 minutes instead of 90 minutes?
I work in a visual medium, so the next step is weeks and weeks of making lists, charts, diagrams. Who are the actors I know who would be great? Who are the crew who I could call to work with me? What’s the personnel I need to pull this off? What are the projected budgets?
It’s a lot of brainstorming, very quickly. To get a practical sense of what’s possible. There are a lot of drawings, a lot of quick storyboards. Seeing if I can imagine how to do the actual shots, and what elements are needed.
For my current project, “Shatter Belt,” it’s a fun game of priorities. Where can I get away with not spending money? What’s most important to me? Where do I actually need to allocate resources?
It’s a checkerboard. Some priorities fall to zero, and some are 100%, there’s no way around it. Because if you have an infinite budget, everything is 100%. If you don’t, you have to make choices.
Power tip: Home in Evernote is the perfect place to see everything you need for your project at a glance. Organize all your notes on a particular topic into one notebook—for example, “Story ideas” or “Contacts”—and add the widget to your Home dashboard.
ES: And are you writing the script at the same time?
JWB: I try to take a stab at getting a complete draft of the script as quickly as possible. For “Shatter Belt,” I imagined what Rod Serling must have gone through when writing “The Twilight Zone.” He had to have a new script ready every week. There was no allowance for creative noodling, or being late. He was contractually obligated to churn out a new script for a new episode every week. So I said, all right, that’s my challenge. I’m going to put myself in Rod Serling’s shoes and just…do it.
JWB: Well, yes, as a motivator for myself. This is how I approached it: What if I had to shoot in a week? I wanted to create pressure to get it as good as possible, as quickly as possible. Otherwise, you could spend six months trying to make a perfect 25-page script, and end up with nothing.
I would give myself literally one week per script. It has to be done, and it has to be shootable. For me, that first exercise is really important to jump start the whole thing.
ES: As you said, you work in a visual medium. How much of your process is the list-making, and how much of it is sketching storyboards?
JWB: In the early part of the process, it’s 80% words, lists. As we get closer to the actual shooting, that will flop and become 95% visual elements. All the writing will have been done by then. All the lists will have been completed, and I will have shifted almost completely to the visual by then.
The visual elements might include images taken from the internet. Tests that I’ve shot myself. Drawings that I do. These get compiled into a deck or look book that will serve as an immediate reference guide for the project.
And then comes the transition from idealistic abstraction to boots on the ground. Time to pull off the heist.
Power tip: Use Evernote on your iOS or Android device to capture any sketches, images, or docs and save them to your Evernote account. Once in Evernote, any text on a page—including handwriting—can be searched, so it’s easy to find something you saved days, weeks, or even months earlier.
ES: Is that difficult, moving from one part of the brain to another? It seems like that could be challenging.
JWB: I love keeping one foot in the infinite creativity of the imagination and one foot in the extremely practical, nuts-and-bolts execution. When you bounce back and forth between those realms, sometimes you actually come up with more creative ideas. The two realms inform each other. In the way, for example, a costume designer will get inspired by actually going to the fabric store and seeing what’s available. Just seeing samples, touching them, sparks a ton of new ideas.
ES: That makes sense. And now at this point you’re handling both sides.
JWB: Right. The next phase has two prongs: one practical, one creative. I want to have progress on both.
The first is to start putting the word out to potential financial partners; having multiple conversations, to share the vision and drum up interest in supporting it. It’s a microbudget project, but even with small budgets, you need to have a game plan for what things will cost and how much is needed to cover it. During a pandemic, there are significant added budget line items to include, as well as increased contingency costs. Getting trusted partners to help with the financial side is essential in practical terms, because, well…we need money to get this thing made. But it also provides peace of mind in going forward.
Power tip: Working on a big project? Capture all your to-dos with Tasks in Evernote to make sure nothing falls through the cracks and give you peace of mind. You can even set priorities with due dates and flags so you know what you need to work on first, and why.
The second is to start shooting tests. I had actor friends come over to my house, and we started shooting a rough draft of one episode. Shot the whole thing in a day. This was just to get it up on its legs, to see what’s possible. Test the concept. See what issues arise, how difficult it’s going to be. See if things that I thought would be compelling on camera are, in fact, as interesting as I hoped.
The test shows what’s going to work, and what I might need to re-think. I did another test shoot in my house, thinking it could be a potential location, thus saving some costs. With that test, I loved the acting but I hated my house! I realized that this episode doesn’t work in a house like mine. But I didn’t know that before I shot it.
ES: It’s almost like you’re a researcher, proving a hypothesis.
JWB: The test phase is critical because I believe in iterations. The more you can iterate, the better. Even if it’s a Lego version, or a stick-figure version, or a puppet-show version, or a table read with some friends, it doesn’t matter. Everything is going to teach you. Everything is going to show you something, and inspire some sort of creative solution.
ES: Creativity begets creativity!
JWB: That’s how my film “Coherence” started, as a camera test. I brought eight friends over to my house to test two cameras, to see if they could edit together. Then I thought, as long as I’m doing this, I should also test this other concept: to get rid of the script. That test went so well, I thought…why don’t we just make a movie like that?
ES: And we know how that turned out! That movie has a worldwide following. “Coherence” still shows up on all sorts of “Best of” lists every year.
Okay, so the process that works for you is to brain dump all the initial concepts but then move on to the next steps right away.
JWB: I try to get out of the initial whiteboarding stage as quickly as possible, and into practical execution. On any level.
I see so many filmmakers and other artists stop themselves from taking that first step, because they’ve convinced themselves they shouldn’t start until all the open questions have been answered. Five years later, they still haven’t taken the first step.
ES: A version of “analysis paralysis.” Okay, what comes next?
JWB: Next, it’s time to look for a cast. In our case, once we had a little bit of financing secured, it became time to execute at the most efficient level possible. There were just three of us wearing multiple hats, to put together all of the elements needed for a successful shoot. On bigger budget movies, you have a huge team of people filling all these production roles. For an indie project, it’s a lot of bootstrapping.
We put out a breakdown for the roles needed, and the agents and managers submit names of actors they think would be appropriate. Much to our surprise, for this project, almost all the roles received thousands of submissions—one role received over 5,000! That triggered a huge surge of watching reels, reviewing head shots, scheduling interview calls, and holding auditions.
ES: That seems like a very Hollywood process. Could the average person do this, without big film industry connections?
JWB: Definitely. It’s all learnable, with a bit of internet research into the paperwork required and the organization skills to get it done.
ES: How does one process the submissions of thousands of actors for a shoot that is happening in four weeks? That sounds kind of daunting.
JWB: You have to go quickly. Block out several days of your life to focus. Just as with budget allocation, set priorities on what you require for each role so that you can cull through as swiftly as possible.
For example, we decided to prioritize union actors. Not that we wouldn’t look at non-union actors, but the priority went to Screen Actors Guild actors. Make lists, make charts. Everyone has their own system of keeping track of who their favorites are. You have a couple days of meeting them—during the pandemic, this was done online, through Zoom or the Breakdown Services portal. You meet your favorite candidates, get to know them, run the scene. You agonize over how many great ones are out there. It’s tough. Now you’re talking about the top six out of five thousand, which means they are super talented, amazing, and have a wide variety of standout strengths.
Power tip: When you have lots of meetings to keep track of, connecting your Google Calendar with Evernote means that all the relevant info—like attendees, timing, and other details—can live alongside your notes, images, research, and even follow-up tasks. So everything you need is at your fingertips, right when you need it most.
ES: It’s seems like a fantastic problem to have; thousands of people who want to be in on this project that existed only in your mind six months ago.
JWB: It has been enormously gratifying to get such a positive response from so many people who want to be part of this.
ES: Do you ever go back to your original brainstorming just out of curiosity, or for comparison?
JWB: I do. I’ll go back to the very first notes and sketches I had for the project and realize there are a couple details that I forgot about that are really relevant. Things that were part of the original gush of inspiration, what started it all.
This is the key for me: Creative inspiration + practical execution.
The trick is not to get stuck in the limbo between the two. If you’re not making the transition over the threshold to execution, you could delay your dream…forever. So for me it’s about starting.
James Ward Byrkit is the award-winning director of the sci-fi cult hit, “Coherence” and the upcoming series “Shatter Belt.” Find him at jimbyrkit.com and on Twitter @jameswardbyrkit.