Liam O’Donnell interview: Skyline, Beyond Skyline

We chat to writer-director Liam O' Donnell about the process of making both Skyline films, and the future of genre cinema...

Liam O’Donnell wrote and produced the critically-mauled sci-fi hit Skyline in 2010, and he’s spent the better part of a decade working on the well-received follow up film, Beyond Skyline, which also marks his directorial debut. We talked to him about his experiences on both movies, and whether there might be a resurgence of big budget original genre films.

Can I begin by asking how you originally became involved with the first Skyline movie? You co-wrote and produced that one, didn’t you?

I’ve been working with Greg and Colin Strause, the owners of Hydraulx VFX and the directors of Skyline, since 2005. I started writing their directors’ treatments for music videos and commercials and kind of graduated to helping them write film pitches and eventually screenplays. Before Skyline we were in the process of pitching on a lot of projects around town and really just not getting anywhere. Greg and Colin had just used the Red cameras for the first time on a 50 Cent music video I wrote called ‘Get Up’ and they loved them so much they bought a couple. So we decided we were going to shoot some stuff ourselves.

The first project was a pitch trailer for a script we developed together called War Of The Ages – a massive time travel battle movie that pitted all of history’s greatest conquerors against each other. Shockingly, this was an incredibly expensive thing to try to shoot independently! Just from wardrobes to cast to horses – there’s a reason period epics cost a ton of money. 

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So, lesson learned there, we started thinking along the lines of Paranormal Activity – shooting something in Greg’s new penthouse condo which overlooked Los Angeles. It seemed like an ideal place to watch the world end, so that really was the genesis of the story. Waking up one morning, seeing something strange outside your window and then everything just unravelling before your eyes.

After we came up with the general concept, the co-writer Joshua Cordes and I wrote separate three-page treatments. We took our favourite bits from each and got to work. Colin and I were both obsessed with Lost at the time, so you can see some of that influence in the flash forward opening and the mystery of the blue lights. But from the very first time we pitched the logline, we all knew it was kind of special. Everyone saw the potential of this low budget setup with huge visuals and it just took off right away.

I confess, I would watch the hell out of War Of The Ages

How do you feel about Skyline now, looking back on it? What did you learn from the experience that helped you when developing the second movie?

When you run into a critical buzz saw like we did on the first Skyline, it can really leave a bad taste in your mouth. I let that get to me in the early goings. One of the shittier days was on the opening weekend with my father in town, my wife and I drove him to the Mann’s Chinese to see it with a bunch of friends. On the drive there I was refreshing Twitter and just seeing tweet after tweet saying it was the worst movie ever made. So by the time I got there I couldn’t bring myself to go in and went across the street to a bar instead. And never got the chance to see my movie at the Mann Chinese and maybe never will! 

So after I kind of sobered up from that initial drubbing, I realised I couldn’t let that negativity take away from what a crazy accomplishment it was. We shot a teaser at Greg’s condo on Thanksgiving Day, 2009. Less than a year later we’d managed to make a movie that got a worldwide release, a massive comic con campaign, and did a lot of business across the world. So I tried to be the Skyline ambassador in a way, I made myself available to whatever fans we had and went on podcasts and just sort of owned it. 

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We were one of the first films that was part of Relativity’s deal with Netflix so Skyline was on there for almost three years. So it wasn’t until early 2013 that it finally played on the Syfy channel. When it aired I watched it live and had a great time with it again. That experience inspired me to really take on writing the script for Beyond and take a shot at directing it.

There’s some many different lessons from Skyline that went into Beyond but first and foremost was that I didn’t want to box my imagination in the way we had in the first one. We had a building with a finite amount of usable locations and that sort of drove the entire story for Skyline. For Beyond I just wanted run wild for the first draft and then refine, reassess, and figure how the hell we could actually make it.

There’s definitely a feeling, when watching Beyond, that you embraced the kind of ‘nothing to lose’-ish spirit it takes to just say “we might as well really go for it!” How long did it take to fully complete Beyond? Hydraulx were also juggling other projects like Death Note, Midnight Special and X-Men: Apocalypse in the meantime, right? Were there periods when you had to tinker with it on the side?

Once we landed Frank [Grillo] in the fall of 2014, we had to shoot pretty quickly because he had so many other projects in his schedule. So we started production in December before our creature suits were even finished. Which is why the wide shots at the Temples have CG aliens in them.

We had a two-month hiatus in the middle of production where Frank went to shoot another movie, then we finished everything in Toronto, the only place in North America you can shoot on real subway tracks, in May 2015. For the next 16 months, I pretty much worked on it non-stop. It was a very small post crew from editorial to VFX. So we’d cut for a few weeks and then lock a cut, then I’d go into VFX reviews for a few weeks, rinse and repeat. And yes, Hydraulx always had a bunch of other, much bigger projects with much more pressing deadlines so it was a lot of feast or famine. 

We finished a version of the movie in October 2016 and tested it, which was the first time I’ve ever been a part of the testing process. The results were encouraging but there was definitely a pacing issue and the overall fun tone wasn’t there yet. So that’s when we hired veteran action editor Sean Albertson. What was great about Sean was that he went back and watched everything and in some cases put back stuff that we had given up on. So it ended up being very much the same story but just tempered into a more playable version that really moved. That also gave us some extra time to work on some of the VFX and even add a couple of crazy new shots.

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One of the main notes from the testing was that people were wondering what was next. Originally, the film just had a very happy simple ending. I suppose that was reaction to how divisive the cliff hanger was from the first film. But this being a sequel people were expecting some kind of setup for another. So we figured it was cool opportunity to add another flavour to it. I shot the new bookends with Lindsey Morgan in February and we finally completed the film in July.  I love how the film really earns its ‘Beyond’ title in the end and goes out with a really big bang.

Speaking of Frank: he’s previously been attached to a remake of The Raid, which of course starred Iko Uwais, and then Iko pops up opposite Frank in your film, dishing out some glorious carnage. Is it more than just a coincidence that these two ended up on screen together?

It’s definitely a coincidence but it’s even weirder history than that. Frank was attached to the Sony version of The Raid remake which was looking to shoot at the same stages in Indonesia we ended up using. So Frank had already seen photos of the area beforehand. 

On my first scout of Indonesia with Producers Matthew Chausse and Greg Strause, we heard that Iko and Yayan were possibly available. A movie they were on stalled right when we arrived so it was really just pure luck for us to be able to swoop in and land them.

During the fight rehearsals and shooting, Frank really bonded with Iko, Yayan and the whole fight team and would always rave about The Raid films. I mean we all did of course.

After we wrapped I believe the Sony version of The Raid remake fell apart and then Frank and Joe Carnahan’s company War Party came aboard, partnering with XYZ. I actually met Carnahan for the first time last week at Cinepocalypse in Chicago and he did not disappoint! He’s like a big Irish version of Frank who spouts A+ diatribes about everything under the sun. I loved every minute of it. From what I heard the he’s working on The Raid script and he’s very excited about directing it.

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So long story short, I guess the Frank/Iko pairing was fate? I’m just really glad it happened and that I was lucky enough to shoot it.

Mid-sized budgets for genre movies at the major studios seem to be almost non-existent at this point, and because they’re spending, y’know, hundreds of millions on the big comic book and franchise projects, there are arguably fewer risks being taken, narratively. We’ve seen with a couple of the new Star Wars movies, there’s been a little tentative step towards pushing things a bit, then bricking it halfway down the line.

And even with stuff that does snag a fair-sized budget – I’m thinking of anything from Jupiter Ascending to Valerian, or even something like the remake of The Thing, which cost just under $40 million, if I recall, and faced a lot of second guessing from the studio – there’s a kind of weird, occasionally pre-emptive, push-back that tends to spread when a genre film takes risks, to the point where it maybe ends up suffering more than it should. Edge Of Tomorrow did quite well, financially and critically, but there were still disappointed rumblings around the release. 

What’s your prediction on the future of genre movies? Is it micro budgets and creative freedom, or will there be a resurgence of investment in risky genre storytelling?

I think the trends would point towards what you’re suggesting – Blumhouse on one end and blockbusters on the other. But even within this spectrum I think there’s a lot of reasons to be optimistic. Blumhouse has been spending more money on films like The Purge series and expanding beyond just horror, and making some stone-cold classics like Get Out. Some of these bigger branded properties have been taking bigger risks and making masterpieces like Fury Road and Logan.

I haven’t worked on a studio film for a while so I can’t really speak on the current creative environment. But I have been very encouraged by the return of the mid-budget R rated actioner ala John Wick. Something like that only gets made with a really committed star pushing it, which is like reason 1,001 why I love Keanu. Same with Vin Diesel and the last Riddick movie.

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Both Skyline and Beyond were made on the foreign pre-sales model outside of the studio system. In that world, I think there’s a lot of opportunity in the 10-20 million dollar budget range. For starters you can do a lot more with that kind of money now than ever before. And you can cast a wider net with talent. Once you start getting north of 15 million and especially north of 20 million, you need to land a star on a very small list of actors who are all getting offered a ton of roles all of the time. 

Obviously, a lot of things have changed in the past seven years. The first Skyline was a big wide release while Beyond is a limited run. But there’s a lot of advantages to the limited model especially with a good streaming partner in your second window. Streaming in general is another source of optimism for me. You look at something like Death Note – though branded of course – was a pretty risky mid-budget movie that no one else in town would make at that number. If we are fortunate enough to make a third Skyline, I would imagine it would most likely be directly for a streaming studio. 

While I love the theatrical experience, the best theatrical experience I’ve ever had has been at film festivals. The best genre fans in the world are the ones seeking this stuff out.  Having seen Beyond nine times now at festivals across the world, interacting with fans, and breaking bread with other filmmakers has been truly invigorating and inspiring. As long as a film has a festival run before streaming, I think I’d be satisfied. That, or of course they just paid me really, really well!

You mentioned a third potential Skyline film, there…what are the chances?

Yeah, well I take it with a grain of salt, especially before Beyond‘s release. But I wrote a pretty fun pitch for part 3 and there’s been interest expressed so we’ll see. Like any project it comes down to delivering a script everyone is happy with that can be made at the right number.

The world we created is pretty weird and wide open with a lot of different avenues to explore. Over ninety percent of humanity has had their brains inserted into alien bodies! There’s no going back from that. Each movie has been pretty different so we just want to continue doing something unexpected each time. To think we could go from a couple of people stuck in a penthouse to a martial arts infused war film all the way to full on space opera is definitely our kind of crazy. So fingers crossed!

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I read somewhere you were working on a Mad Max-style martial arts film? Is that your next project? 

Yeah, hopefully, it’s one of the next projects. I came up with this idea while I was sick one weekend in Indonesia in early 2015. I had so much fun filming the martial arts scenes in Beyond that I wanted to create a true martial film from the ground up. And I had spent a lot of time scouting all these other incredible locations that it all inspired this weird post-apocalyptic setting. 

It starts with a cataclysm that leaves a young boy stranded on an island, everyone and everything around him is dead. He tries to survive by venturing into the nearby jungle where he’s almost killed by tigers. But over time he learns how to hunt and survive by watching them. Which kind of plays upon the mythical origins of the Indonesian martial art, Silat.

Years pass and the boy is fully grown into a lethal badass when a pack of hunters show up, kill his adopted family, and take him prisoner, flying back to the now post-apocalyptic civilisation where he’s forced to fight in a new kind of gladiatorial combat. And that’s just the first twenty pages or so. If you like how ambitious Beyond Skyline is and how it feels like a lot of movies in one, I think you’ll really like this one too. 

That is definitely one of my favourite things about Beyond. Have you ever seen Versus, the Kitamura film from like 2000?

Yes! I saw that one back maybe 12 years ago, I think. Lot of martial arts in the forest with portals and zombies. I remember enjoying it!

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There’s that sort of vibe where it’s a bunch of different movies in one: a yakuza thriller, a prison escape caper, a sci-fi romance, a post-apocalyptic fantasy, a zombie movie, a total martial arts fest. Love that level of ambition. When it works, it’s so much fun – and you made it work so brilliantly in Beyond.

Yeah its interesting you mentioned that movie because it’s one of the few I’ve seen that blends so many genres, it definitely had to have inspired me on some level.

I don’t watch nearly as much Asian cinema as I’d like to but most of the bigger martial arts hits the past couple of years seem to be either period films or crime sagas. So I’m trying to bring back the sci-fi martial arts film, at a high production level with a lot of international talent. 

Of course, Marvel uses martial arts all the time in their movies and tv shows but I want to see more original sci-fi martial arts action movies like a Versus or The Matrix. So hopefully The Last Savage can fit in there somewhere.

Liam O’Donnell, thank you very much.

Beyond Skyline will be available on DVD and Blu-ray from 8th January, and on demand from 15th December.