Interview with Skylines writer and director Liam O'Donnell
by Bobby Blakey
Back in 2010 the alien invasion flick Skyline was unleashed in theaters and did well enough to spawn a franchise that I have had a great time with. With the 2017 sequel Beyond Skyline, co-writer of the original film Liam O’Donnell took on dual roles as both writer and director bringing a more action element to the sci-fi series. Now he is back with the latest chapter Skylines and I had the chance to sit down to discuss the new films as well as some of the beginnings of the franchise.
Bobby: Where did the original idea of Skyline come from?
Liam: The initial idea was just kind of based on that location that it was filmed in. The co-director Greg Strause bought this penthouse overlooking the city. When I first went to visit I saying there has to be a movie we could do here. I lived on the bottom floor and he was on the top floor so it really became the kind of locations that building could provide. So started working with the co-writer Joshua Cordes and put it all together really quickly.
Bobby: I know you never know if there will ever be a chance for a sequel, but was there already some ideas that you might have had you wanted to go with should you get the opportunity?
Liam: Really it was just trying to pull it off. It such a challenge to just make one movie let alone trying to see where it could go. It was really about the ending. Because it was written more for the location it wasn’t as organic like I have this movie idea, we just knew we wanted it to end on this helipad. Everything was about forcing them up onto that helipad where they are eventually brought up onto the ship. That was the ending to us. There was so many things we could do on the ship it kept becoming more and more to answer more questions. We kind of had this brain thing because it made sense with them using their optic nerves to enter our brain. The brain thing ended up becoming the answer to what the movie was and once you go there it just kept growing and growing. The studio was happy with the movie relativity and they asked what’s up for the sequel? Even back then I think it was August and it came out in November, we started brain storming what a sequel would be and the idea I wanted was more of a Die Hard on the alien ship with full action.
Bobby: As things have evolved the second film was defiantly more on the action side and I was so excited to see Frank Grillo as well as the Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian from The Raid showing up. And now with the new one you have brought in marital artist Daniel Bernhardt along. Now the franchise has a more action and martial arts vibe to it as well. How hard is it to expand into these new ways while still making it cohesive to what you started with?
Liam: It’s really difficult, but I think because the franchise has humble beginnings there is a lot of freedom. When you do a movie and it’s a huge hit there is a lot more pressure to deliver the same thing. Because our first movie was mixed but it did well I have had the freedom to continually add stuff to it. In some ways throwing the kitchen sink at it. That’s what’s been really cool is that each time we are just going to kind of switch genres with like part two was action with martial arts and kaiju and part three we are going on this big huge space
adventure bringing in like an Aliens, Starship Troopers, Pitch Black vibe. That lent itself to figure out what characters would go best for a story like that moves away from ordinary people and into military and scientists which offers up a different kind of arc type of character. Daniel Bernhardt is just so perfect for this badass kind of fighting machine and looks like he just stepped out of a video game.
Bobby: With these last two films, once you went into the more action direction did you always plan to incorporate the martial arts aspect?
Liam: It was supposed to be a war more. I wanted the third act of Beyond Skyline to be like Apocalypse Now, but when we went over to scout those temple locations the possibility of Iko and Yayan was floated to me. The movie they were working on had fallen apart so they had these two month open so we did everything we could. We flew to Jakarta, but told their manager that we were already going to be there. (laughs) Once we got them as a gift from the movie gods we just started adding fights. Iko’s intro fight was added a week before we started filming because I thought it would be cool to introduce him that way. Once you get a taste of all that, this is just the most fun thing to do so I wanted to keep that flavor even though we were moving in a different type of direction and story. So in Skylines there is a new kind of alien introduced and the way we filmed them was using very athletic martial artist and parkour who could to all these movements to attack the cast. It gave us a little more variety and flexibility while still keeping the Beyond Skyline flavor into this new film.
Bobby: This latest chapter being off-world most of the time looks to utilize real sets, green screens and visual effects. I know you come from a visual effects background, but different was it from shooting the previous films in the more Earthly settings?
Liam: The first film had one green screen day, which was the ship at the end. The rest was all on location and visual effects added. The second one actually had more visual effects and green screen that part three. We were supposed to do most of the alien ship practically but we weren’t able to get it done in time and became a big nightmare for me in post. For part three the lesson from all the stuff we went through to get that ending done was we always built like three walls. For the cavern we built this massive cavern set but kept reshaping it with the moving the walls. We could keep using them and light them differently and have them walking on different places which was very useful. There is only one fully green screen set in Skylines, everything else has some sort of practical and camera element.
Bobby: I appreciate that this film although felt bigger in the space scope that it still felt grounded like the previous films.
Liam: You know you are stepping off the shoulders of some real masters, I don’t understand why there aren’t more movies like Aliens. It was such an intellectual movie script wise and execution, but there just haven’t been that many missions to the alien home world in the last 40 years. I think it can be really daunting as a viewer thinking “please don’t suck”, but for me because everything was so set based it was a benefit to stage the action that way. Trying to bring in different kinds of fight scenes that I don’t want to giveaway but just more variety. I figured out to do them on this budget and schedule was to do them really intense but not overly long. It was something I learned on the second one where I would shoot all these really long fights and then get the pressure to make them shorter anyway. So in this one I tried to hit those beats you want with kind of like character driven splash pages in each action, but they keep the movie moving. That’s the trick to blending science fiction and martial arts films as martial arts films tend to have really simple stories so you have more space for the fights. With a sci-fi story there is so much other stuff going on that a long fight scene kind of derails things.
Bobby: Are there plans for future entries into the Skyline series and do you have a martial artist wish list of you might want involved?
Liam: Depending on how audiences react to Skylines I would love to do another. I just have so much fun making them. There is also a martial arts film called The Last Savage I have been trying to get made the last couple of years that is like a post-apocalyptic gladiator type film. It’s my dream project and I wrote it for Iko and would love to work with him again. I would also love to work with Tony Jaa, Scott Adkins and Joe Taslim who I have met a few times and is a really great guy. Of course the guy who isn’t really thought of traditionally as a martial arts actor, is Keanu Reeves who is a hero of mine.
Bobby: Cool, I have been a fan of these films since the original that I saw in theaters and really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me.
Liam: Thanks so much.
Check out Skylin3s in theaters and On Demand now from Vertical Entertainment.