With the world premiere of Beyond Skyline about to take place Sitges Film Festival on 6th October 2017. I wanted to find out more about the sequel and the film’s director Liam O’Donnell. The film looks to contain fantastic mixture of elements including aliens, martial arts, survival and action. I got to interview Liam to find out more about him and what to expect from this action-packed sequel.
Hi Liam, thank you for taking the time for this interview. May I start by asking how you got into film-making?
I had a lot of great influences. My older brother Kevin is an incredible actor, (he actually has a part in Beyond Skyline), so my parents took my siblings and I to a lot of his plays and theater in general growing up. I think that exposure along with a healthy diet of movies, comics, pro wrestling, video games, and action figures gave me a very active imagination and the desire to tell stories.
In college, I did an internship in the U.S. Senate. It just so happened that my uncle, Lawrence O’Donnell, who used to work in the Senate and then went on to write for The West Wing was filming his first big television show in DC at the time. So that was my first time visiting a set and experiencing all that on location, seeing how hard everyone was working and how exciting it all could be. I signed up to a screenwriting course the next semester and was hooked.
After I graduated, I moved out to LA and worked a bunch of small jobs, wrote and directed local cable commercials, ad copy, infomercials, short films, documentaries, often times my only payment was food or weed – but I’d just do anything I could get my hands on.
Eventually, I met Greg Strause through mutual friends and we just sort of clicked. Him and his brother Colin were directing a lot of commercials and music videos while running their VFX studio Hydraulx so they needed someone to help write their pitches on all the different jobs coming their way. So within a month or two I went from directing a low budget local cable spot to working on a massive Gatorade commercial.
After that I just started coming in to their office every day and if there wasn’t a new treatment to write, I would pitch them movie ideas and began writing them scripts to direct. So it all kind of progressed organically, but Greg and Colin really empowered me at a time when I desperately needed it to start writing professionally.
Can you tell us about the previous films you have worked on including Marvel’s Ironman 2?
In early 2006, Greg and Colin were slipped the script for Aliens Vs. Predator 2. We were all such a huge fans of those movies that we sort of lived at the office for a few weeks, working on the pitch non-stop. So they went in with a rock solid bible and incredible artwork and they got the job. So at 24 years old, I had a front row seat to prep, scouting, casting, shooting, editing, you name it on a forty million dollar studio film, which happened to star my two favorite monsters. The whole thing was pretty surreal but that really was my film school and it exposed me to working with everything from stunts to practical monster suits, made by Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis at ADI, which became a real passion of mine.
After that I started to get more hands on as a producer. I produced a short proof of concept film, Offline directed by my friend Matthew Santoro. And then I started writing and producing proof of concepts for Greg and Colin at Hydraulx. That’s where we came up with Hydraulx Entertainment, to make our own films independently.
Around that time, Marvel Studios put out an open call to various VFX studios to pitch their versions of what they called the Feebles Sequence for Iron Man 2. This was for the scene in the beginning where Gary Shandling’s Senator Stern character presses Tony Stark about how other countries are making their own Ironman suits but Tony throws it back in the Senator’s face, playing his own captured footage of how comically bad the other countries attempts were.
Marvel just sent out this general idea and told people to go for it. So we wrote four or so different gags and filmed them on real locations using our friends as the actors. Then we did all the VFX and sent them to Marvel. And they loved it. I got to meet with Jon Favreau who was awesome and ended up just keeping what we did.
That experience just further fueled us to keep making our own material. Which eventually gave birth to Skyline, something that we could create and control ourselves. It was a pretty simple concept of Paranormal Activity meets Cloverfield – a thriller set in one location but with a front row seat to the end of the world, giving us lot of scope and crazy visuals that flexed what Hydraulx could do.
The entire production was whirlwind, going from concept to a wide release in less than a year. With a huge panel at Comic Con, trailers during the World Series, billboards in Time Square, it was all very cool and exciting. But ultimately, it probably wasn’t the best path for that particular film. I think it would might been best served as a midnight movie on the festival circuit not sold as this big mainstream alien invasion blockbuster. But in any case, without that huge marketing push we wouldn’t have had such a big international box office and there would be no sequel. So I can’t complain and the ride was truly awesome.
Beyond Skyline looks very action-packed compared to its predecessor, Skyline. Can you tell us about what we can expect to look forward to and how it differs from Skyline?
In a lot of ways it is a reaction to the first film. Rather than being trapped in one location, I wanted to always be moving forward, changing scenery, giving the movie a really propulsive energy. And we learned so much making Skyline that for the next one we wanted to use a more balanced approach and spend more on the production side.
And it also just reflects my personality – I am a huge action fan first and foremost. I grew up in love with Terminator, Die Hard, and Mad Max so that was the sort of classic action tone I wanted to steer towards. While of course delving more into our brain ripping aliens from outer space. So it hopefully never takes itself too seriously but it’s a more muscular action experience with in camera alien suits, stunt work, and fight choreography.
For the look, I wanted to shoot it anamorphic with as many in camera flares and effects possible. And I wanted a DP who was going to push me past an overly safe feeling writer’s directorial debut. I loved Christopher Probst’s work. I was told he was a genius and a madman. Both are true. When I met with him, he just started talking about how every shot in Aliens was pulled off by heart and I knew he was the guy. We have very different personalities but we’re a great team that really balances each other out. Working with a fastidious maniac really helps keep me calm and focused!
Can you also tell us about the exotic locations used and the places where the film was shot?
Originally the back half was supposed to be New York, then Shanghai but those were all sort of generic urban city battle endings that became very common place in other movies by the time we were gearing up for production. So we decided to set it somewhere more remote, in a jungle amongst an ancient ruin and that felt more unique and also led to greater insights into the characters from there. The specificity just made everything better.
Our first scout of Asia was in Indonesia. We had a really fantastic team of fixers and producers who helped get us some of the most beautiful locations on earth. Our first three days were at these rice patties on top of a waterfall outside of Jogjakarta. It was so remote that they had to build us bathrooms at the location. And it involved an elaborate fight between four main characters. So it was a pretty daunting thing to jump into on the first day for a first time director, especially shooting my first martial arts scene. But there was a moment when I thought about how my dad would give me shit about wasting time playing video games and watching wrestling and now here I was getting paid to direct two guys smashing each other through a hut, ECW style. It all kinda came full circle.
The following week we had the privilege of shooting at Prambanan Temple and Sewu Temple. And that was truly special. These temples are not just Indonesian treasures; they are truly world treasures, UNESCO World Heritage Sites. You feel it when you’re there. And I’m not a super spiritual person but those temples feel holy. That added a lot to the climax of the film.
But it was also rainy season. One day we showed up to a riverside location and the set was eight feet under water. Two days in a row at Prambanan we were rained out halfway through the day. So we had to constantly be creative with our schedule and figure out smart ways to fill the rest of the scenes in at Infinite Studio’s Batam backlot later.
Beyond skyline has a fantastic cast that includes Frank Grillo (last seen in Wolf Warriors 2), Yayan Ruhian & Iko Uwais (from The Raid films) and Jonny Weston (Chasing Mavericks). Can you tell us how you pulled together such a unique cast?
Like a lot of people, I loved Frank’s performance in Warrior. He reminded me of my friend Matthew’s father, Charlie Santoro, who was police detective in Quincy, Massachusetts. Just a real authentic blue-collar tough guy with a great big heart underneath. So I watched everything he did and wrote the role of Mark for him. And I was lucky enough that responded to it and we started working on the character together. The first act especially has a lot of great contributions from Frank, who is incredibly smart story wise and has a great feel for blocking too. I wanted my lead to be someone more seasoned like that so I could learn as much as possible.
On our scout of Indonesia, one of the producers suggested Iko and Yayan, which I flipped out over as a massive fan of The Raid films. They arranged a meeting with their manager at the time and the next thing we know we’re on a rice patty with them rehearsing a brand new fight scene that I wrote in overnight because of course there needs to be more fight scenes if you cast Iko and Yayan.
Iko’s whole choreography crew, Uwais Team, delivered some amazing choreography that really changed the nature of the back half of the movie. I remember showing Allan Holt, my creature effects supervisor and his team the choreo for the first time and they nearly fainted, like “we didn’t know the suits were going to have to take that kind of punishment!” But everyone quickly got on board, especially Frank who started training with Iko and the guys non-stop.
For our female lead, we cast Bojana Novakovic who was great in Devil and Edge of Darkness. We met for coffee and ended up talking for over two hours. I love how her mind works and how she approaches her material. She’s a brilliant writer and can move from flat out hilarious to deadly seriously in an instant. She proved to be a great resource to me, someone I could go to for advice or to punch up a line on the day.
Jonny Weston was a later addition to the cast. We shot all of the back half of the film first and then took a brief hiatus because Frank had to shoot another movie. So Jonny didn’t shoot until four months after we started. That was a case of just watching Chasing Mavericks and saying, “yup, this is Trent, this is my guy.” He embodied the character, he’s got a raw physicality but he’s also a real sweetness to him, like a big kid coming into his own, which is the character of Trent.
At the very end, we shot new bookends for the film and were able to land Lindsey Morgan from The 100. Again, I just wanted to work with someone I was a fan of and thought she had a ton of swagger and presence on that show. This new role was suddenly going to be the first person the audience would see in the entire film, it had to be someone who could hold the frame. I sent her a trailer and the script and she was like, “Whoa! Frank Grillo? I am in!” And Lindsey fit seamlessly into the movie, so much that we ended up using every single thing we shot with her.
One of the thing’s Producer Matthew Chausse really pressed me on was casting up every single role. But we really surpassed all expectations, from consummate pros like Jacob Vargas and Callan Mulvey, who brought so much to their characters, to the iconic Antonio Fargas, Pamelyn Chee who has some of my favorite moments and Betty Gabriel who had a small role for me but is so talented, she’s gone on to become a phenomenon with Get Out. And that’s without even talking about my suit actors who did some of the hardest work in the movie.
Can you tell us what you will be working on next, after Beyond Skyline?
As a producer, I’ve got a couple of different projects at Hydraulx that we’ve been working on for some time that hopefully move forward this year. As a director, I’ve been developing a couple different projects that I am very excited about. One is directly inspired by my time in Indonesia; it’s a martial arts Mad Max/Conan pulp riff that I’ve been building from the ground up the past two years. One is a more dramatic sci-fi thriller in the vein of Ex Machina and the third is something much smaller set in the jungles of Borneo. Now that I think of it all three have scenes set in the jungle so I guess that’s been my biggest take away from Beyond Skyline. Sure it’s hot and wet and filled with scorpions, snakes, you name it but I fucking love shooting in the jungle.
It has been a please doing this interview with you. Thank you very much and we wish you all the best with Beyond Skyline.