Colin Strause and Liam O’Donnell Interview: Skyline, science-fiction, the studio system and more

In the run-up to the release of Skyline on Friday, we caught up with co-writer Liam O’Donnell and co-director Colin Strause about the making of the film…

How excited should we be about Skyline? Quite excited, if those trailers are anything to go by. The second film from special effects gurus-turned-filmmakers Colin and Greg Strause (should we mention AVP: Requiem? Maybe not), looks like a far bigger film than its small budget would suggest. And when we caught up with Colin Strause and co-writer Liam O’Donnell, it was hard not to get a little bit more excited.

Despite having hit the town hard the night before, they were full of passion, enthusiasm and reverence for classic sci-fi films of yore. If Skyline is anywhere near as good as their pitch, we could be in for a treat…

It seems like you’ve done something very different with Skyline: Shooting most of it in your own apartment, financing it yourselves …

Colin Strause: It’s been such our own baby from every step. We got to do whatever we wanted to do. And you know, it was kinda funny. It started out as a really small movie. Because, obviously, you’re doing a little independent film, and we kind of solidly did a Paranormal Activity. And we’re like, well, we’ve got better cameras than that guy. And Greg’s got a cooler house. We’ve gotta be able to do something kind of neat here.

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And then we’re at a lunch and kinda talking ideas, and we already had some concepts laying around. We liked the idea of this light thing that attracted people. You know, usually the aliens come down with laser beams and start blowing shit up. It’s like, what if they just used the simplest weakness of human nature? It’s like curiosity killed the cat. We can’t stop but look at something like that.

And by using something so simple to overtake all of humanity, that just seemed like a really cool story. And having this high-rise building in LA was one of the sickest views of the entire city. You know, it basically gives you front row seats to the end of the world. And that was kinda the concept of the film.

Liam O’Donnell: It’s a little shock and awe, with the way that they take us out. But I think it’s very surreal from our very humble origins. I mean, I personally would have been ecstatic if this played at like a midnight screening at Toronto, or something like that. But the fact that it’s getting this huge release …

CS: The fact that it turned into a studio movie is just kind of wild. Most independent movies, they go to festivals, they maybe get a 500 screen release, if they’re lucky. The fact that we had huge support from Universal for Comic-Con. You know, it’s on over 3,000 screens. So, it’s gonna be a big release.

It’s like … this is pretty full scale action here. And it’s a little unheard of, actually. I can’t really think of another independent movie like this type of scale that happened this quick and got released on this many screens. It’s a pretty unique situation.

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And it does have a Roland Emmerich feel. You can’t help but think of Independence Day when you see aliens and big buildings. But Colin, you’d worked with Roland Emmerich on 2012

CS: Yeah, and I won a BAFTA on The Day After Tomorrow

So, did you talk to him about your plans?

CS: No, we’ve always been like … Independence Day is one of those movies that’s been pretty ingrained in us as just being like … that is really the quintessential epic event movie. I remember going to see shitty movies in the theatre just to see the Independence Day trailer. Because that was before Apple …

LO: Before the Internet, really …

CS: Before the Internet. So, you had to pay the ten bucks to go and watch the trailer. And it was an event. People cheered.

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LO: I remember people applauding at the end of the movie too. I think it was something from the Clinton era, because we didn’t have a real war. People were like, “We beat them!”

CS: Yeah, we showed those alien scum! [laughs] And there’s definitely a part of us that likes that type of movie. But there’s also like … Aliens is one of my favourite movies as well. And we like that kind of claustrophobia. You know, those are the type of movies we like to watch. And we all have very similar movie tastes. So, when it came to making this movie, it was kind of like …yeah, it’s basically Independence Day meets Dawn Of The Dead.

You know, where it’s in Dawn Of The Dead you have a worldwide event happening and you’re following a group of survivors in a mall, this is the same thing. There’s a worldwide event happening, but you’re following a group of survivors in a high-rise condo. But then the difference is, I think, people are probably going to be expecting that from the movie.

[Mild spoiler-y chat about the film’s ending coming up in the next paragraph]

What I’m hoping is… to me the thing that was the most exciting part of the project is actually the last twenty minutes of the film. Like, when people realise what this movie is actually about, what it’s setting up and what it’s … It’s kind of like a secret ending in the film, and the entire arc of the movie, I don’t think anyone will ever get [it] while they’re watching the movie. And then when it’s over, they’re gonna go like, “Oh, shit, that’s what this movie was really about?” That’s what I’m actually most excited about seeing with an audience.

LO: Are you sure you wanna say that, though? [laughs]

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We can play that down. If you don’t want to raise expectations too much …

LO: Yeah. [laughs]

[Spoiler-y bit has gone now!]

CS: I think it’s gonna be one of the cool things. And that has been one of the most frustrating things with the marketing. Where the movie goes, you can’t show. You know what I mean? So, it’s kinda like … fuck!

I want people to think it’s just Independence Day because that is one aspect of the film. But there is also … it’s a survivor story. And there’s also a great love story between some of the characters, and them dealing with their own issues. Their whole world changing emotionally while the whole world is changing physically. And having the bridging between all those different storylines and everything, and on top of it trying to make the movie relentless and fun and just … this thing does not slow down.

That was one of the things we wanted to do also with the movie. There’s almost a thousand effects shots in the film. Which is a staggering amount of work in a movie like this. I think people are gonna be thinking, independent movie: it’s gonna have like fifty effects shots …

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LO: … you’ve already seen them all in the trailer. That’s just not the case.

CS: Yeah. You’d have to have a thirty minute long movie trailer to show every shot in the film. There’s like a ton of work in this thing.

I don’t if you’ve seen it yet, but Monsters

CS: I have seen it …

It’s a great film. But it’s got to be more economical with its special effects …

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LO: It’s a very different … the only thing in common I guess would be creatures. But they’re just very different films in general.

CS: We kind of went with the more is more. [laughs] Usually less is more, but it was one of the things … the fucking world is ending. Literally, this is the end of the fucking world. You want to see that. You’re in this building, you want to see that. You want to get the sense of the hugeness of it, but at the same time the intimacy of when these creatures come down for the clean-up crew and get all the stragglers.

I mean, what the fuck do you do, you know what I mean? That sort of intensity, where a movie goes from huge to small, huge to small, that was the important thing. We wanted to make sure …

I thought Cloverfield worked very effectively in how they handled the creature, but at the same time part of you was like, “Man I really wanted to see that thing more.” They did some really great shit, but it was fleeting glances and stuff. Where in this movie, I don’t think anyone’s ever gonna say, like, “I never really got a good look at that creature.”

And it’s all in the daytime, which is also, to me, kinda scary. Because at night time, when you have something that’s taking over the whole world, it’s a little easier to not know what’s happening in the darkness. And I know that can be scary on its own thing, but we wanted in this movie to be like, “No, it’s daytime and you’re gonna see that there’s nowhere to go.”

LO: Yeah, it’s not a dream, it’s not a nightmare.

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CS: Yeah, it’s not a nightmare, it’s not like the sun’s gonna come up the next morning.

LO: Yeah, the characters don’t wake up the next day and it’s like, “Oh, it was all a dream.” I can dispel that as not the twist ending. [laughs]

We mentioned Monsters and there are a few other big alien movies coming out. Battle: Los Angeles and Super 8. Did you think when you were making it, “If we can just get out before those guys …”

CS: When we started making the movie, we had no distribution. We pre-sold some of the foreign territories … that wasn’t until the Berlin Film Festival. And we were already like a third of the way through our shoot when the Berlin Film Festival even happened.

So, we started making the movie with absolutely no fucking clue if it would ever be released. We just kinda rolled the dice and were like, “You know what? we gotta at least try it. We’re gonna make it, let’s pray for the best.” But we just kinda stuck to our guns, and said, “We’re gonna just fucking do this thing.” And if we can pull off what we think we can pull off, we know it’ll land somewhere.

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LO: We felt ours was different than any other take.

CS: Yeah, I mean Battle: Los Angeles is basically Black Hawk Down with aliens. I Am Number Four

LO: Twilight with aliens…

CS: Yeah, Twilight with aliens. I don’t wanna see those things and knock …

LO: Ours is Dawn Of The Dead with aliens.

CS: Yeah, ours is Dawn Of The Dead with aliens. [laughs] So, there you go. Each movie is its own kinda thing. And no one knows what the fuck Super 8 is. But I’m sure that’s gonna be awesome, because JJ is … you know, I love JJ’s stuff. So it seems … you know, District 9 was Apartheid with aliens.

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LO: [Laughs] It’s your favourite old movie: Apartheid.

CS: But you know what I mean. Each of these movies, to me, can stand alone. You know what I mean? It’s not like a romantic comedy with a little twist. I think each of these … just because aliens is a common theme doesn’t necessarily mean …

LO: They’re not really the same genre, it’s just kind of a similar … it’s a creature, but each one is kind of doing it in a different way.

And after this and AVP: Requiem, some people may see you as sci-fi filmmakers. But hearing about your rumoured future projects they sound quite diverse. A sword and sandals epic …

LO: It has a big fantasy, the sword and sandals. I wrote the script. It’s called War Of The Ages. And It definitely has a big fantasy … I guess it’s not fully sci-fi, but it is kind of a mythological fantasy element. So, yeah, we nerd out and everything.

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CS: Yeah, and then our other movie’s an American James Bond meets disaster movie. Where it’s kinda like … you know the James Bond movies are always about him trying to stop the disaster? What if the horrific, giant thing happens at the beginning, you know what I mean?

It’s almost flipping it around, where you’re combining a big effects disaster action film with really cool suspense and drama and all these other elements to it. And those are the sorts of movies we want to see.

I want to make a movie that if my friends come over to my house and we’re sitting around, what do we want to throw on the Blu-ray player? You wanna throw on Fight Club. You wanna throw on Aliens. You wanna throw on Predator. I’d like to throw in Skyline or one of these other movies that we do. Because we just want to make fun shit that people want to watch …

LO: It’s just the most fun stuff to make. It’s the most fun way of sitting there imagining this crazy scene and then with Josh, my co-writer, him actually doing the pre-vis and the brothers working with him and we’re seeing the animatics come together. And then we’re filming it, and then we’re doing the effects for it.

And you’re just, like, from this kind of little idea of, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if that alien grabbed a helicopter with its tentacles and comes over the side of the building?”, and then all the way to the sound mix of that whole moment coming to life. It’s the most satisfying.

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And with these new projects would you do the same thing you’ve done with Skyline? Work outside of the studios while you’re making it?

CS: Absolutely.

LO: Absolutely.

You wouldn’t think about going back to the kind of thing you had with Requiem?

CS: You know, we slagged the studios pretty hard the last couple of months, but all I say is two things: one, I don’t want them involved with us creatively. I don’t want ’em, don’t need ’em.

LO: It’s good to have it developed and made outside.

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CS: Yeah. We’re the filmmakers. We’re the guys who know what’s cool. Let us develop the projects, and then you as the distributor, if you think we made a shitty product, then don’t put it out. But we need distribution. There’s no such thing as independent distribution. But we want to be independent filmmakers. And we know how to make these projects at such a fraction of the price than most other people can.

It’s like, it also lets us be riskier. We can do more interesting projects because we’re not spending eighty million or a hundred million dollars. Literally, Skyline was filmed … I mean no-one’s gonna believe it, but the production budget was a million dollars, and all in was like ten million dollars, with visual effects and sound. And I think people are gonna look at the movie and not understand how it didn’t cost eighty million dollars.

LO: By the way, we reserve the right to retract the entire statement if someone gives us a sweetheart deal. [both laugh]

CS: You know, but we had so much fun making this movie, I just don’t want anyone raining on our parade. Making movies is hard enough as it is. It’s a fucking nightmare. And it’s really difficult, it’s really stressful. And that’s when everything goes perfect. And then you add in all these other layers of bureaucracy, it just … it’s the reason some people direct a movie and then they take three years off before they do another film.

Whereas, I feel great. Our movie hasn’t even come out and it’s like, I wanna get the next movie going right away. We’re already in development.

LO: I’m not even allowed to enjoy myself …

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CS: Yeah. We’re just going to push in. Because it was fun. And I don’t need two years off to get that horrible taste out of my mouth before I feel like stepping back in the ring. I think that’s an important thing. I think that’s something directors should feel.

And so, would you guys see yourself working on special effects on other films, or do you see yourself as filmmakers on your own projects from now on?

CS: We like doing both, though. We had a great time working on Avatar, working with Fincher on The Social Network. These are our idols. I love working with them. And, actually, to me, it’s just as exciting working on our own projects as it is working on other people’s. You get to do different things. It is kinda neat.

You know, we love Fincher, but The Social Network maybe isn’t the type of movie that we as directors would make, or Benjamin Button. But they’re the type of movies we loved working on because they posed whole different creative challenges. And that’s just kinda exciting to us.

You both seem very into movies. Is there a film you’ve seen this year that’s blown you away?

CS: Man, I haven’t seen shit this year. [laughs] It’s like, I wanted to see Inception in the theatre and I couldn’t. The only movie I’ve seen this year that I really liked was Kick-Ass.

LO: Yeah, Kick-Ass.

CS: I finally got to watch it like a week ago.

LO: We’re both the jerks that didn’t see it in the theatre and saw it on home video and were blown away.

And similar to you guys, they made it outside on their own and then sold it to a distributor after they finished.

CS: Yeah, that too. That’s a risky movie, you know what I mean? It was cool. I wish I was able to support that risk in the theatres. But we were so busy working I wasn’t able to go see it. But we bought it on demand, so they get my couple of bucks, you know. [laughs] Better late than never, I guess.

Colin Strause and Liam O’Donnell, thank you very much.

Skyline is released on Friday 12th November.

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