Liam O'Donnell, director, Skylines (2020)

Liam O’Donnell: ‘I wasn’t trying to make a pandemic movie with Skylines (2020). It just turned out that way!’

What film director Liam O’Donnell has achieved with Skylines (2020) is just about every film student’s dream…

Starting out as a completely independent film venture, based heavily on the locations they happened to have access to, the film series has grown into a treasured collection of science fiction action movies. All three films are available on either Netflix, Amazon or iTunes and star huge names such as Lindsey Morgan, Rhona Mitra, James Cosmo and Alexander Siddig.

The trilogy’s director Liam O’Donnell shares his filmmaking secrets with presenter and actress, Aiysha Jebali as they discuss everything from writing the treatments to post production spending and everything else in-between.

These films certainly pack a punch with phenomenal stunt artists from The Raid (2011), James Bond: Skyfall (2012) and Captain Marvel (2019), alongside actors like Daniel Bernhardt and Cha-Lee Yoon being willing and more than capable of doing their own action sequences too.

FF: Would you like to introduce yourself?

LO: Hello, I’m Liam O’Donnell, the writer and director of Skylines (2020).

The Skylines franchise and the aspirations for it

FF: Can you tell us a little bit more about your action-packed sci-fi movie?

LO: Yes, it’s part three in a franchise of films; an alien invasion saga that started in 2010 with Skyline. Part Two was Beyond Skyline (2017) which is on Netflix right now. Lastly, we were lucky to get a third one made, Skylines (2020).

FF: Fantastic. So, what was your inspiration for this trilogy so far?

LO: It’s always been what’s right in front of me as we go. For the first movie the co-director and producer had just bought this penthouse apartment overlooking Los Angeles. We looked up there and said to each other, ‘We have got to film a movie in here somehow.’ It was all based on the practical locations of what we could do within the apartment, and then what else was in that building, which was a parking garage, parking gate, stairwells, a pool deck, and of course a helipad. It was very much something that developed organically from there.

I asked myself: ‘How do I create a narrative around that? How do we create a cool alien menace that we hadn’t quite seen before?’ The whole idea of the siren light, it was all a little bit of a riff on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) with the beautiful alien lights, but these ones were a siren calling you to your doom. Skyline (2010) was going to be a one and done chapter to us; we didn’t quite have a sequel idea, but in post production the studio was happy with the movie and they started asking us about it.

SPOILER ALERT [Beyond Skyline]

So we all sat down and hatched a treatment for what we thought part two could be about. It ended up being similar to that, but it just took a long time to get there, and then in part two, I ended it. They walked off into the sunset, they had beaten the aliens, it was over.

Actors Jonathan Howard, Lindsey Morgan, Daniel Bernhardt
Actors Jonathan Howard, Lindsey Morgan, Daniel Bernhardt in Skylines (2020). Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.

We did a test screening of an early cut that ended that way, and everyone said, ‘What, that’s it?’ So we went from the first movie ending on a big cliffhanger that pissed people off, to a movie that had a ton of closure that also pissed people off. It was like the story of Goldilocks – I realised, ‘Ok, I have to find the right balance.’

We were able to land three legendary UK actors in Alexander Siddig, James Cosmo and Rhona Mitra. come in and ground everything and make it feel real, and you’re willing to go on this adventure.

I came up with these bookends, with the Rose character played by Lindsey Morgan, and that seemed to be a nice balance. It also allowed me to do one more genre mash, and I was having so much fun doing so many different things. Now I was getting to do a full-on sci-fi Star Wars-type scene to end the movie. I just felt that if I never got to direct another movie again, I still did everything that I wanted to do in that one movie. That ended up inspiring what could be possible for a third one, to do a completely different genre again – to do a grand space adventure.

FF: I have to say, I enjoyed Skylines (2020), the newest one. I haven’t seen the previous films though.

LO: That’s great. I’m happy that you didn’t. I’m glad, I hope it works for people that haven’t seen the others.

FF: I think it definitely works as a standalone film. I didn’t even realise that there were previous ones until I went and did some research, so I think that’s good. If you watch the previous ones, then you’re continuing the story, and you’re familiar with the background, but if you’re watching it for the first time, you don’t feel like you’ve suddenly been thrown into a sequel and you don’t understand what’s going on.

The treatment of treatments and staying relevant

FF: You mentioned your treatment before… What would be your best piece of advice for someone who’s trying to write treatment for a studio?

LO: I’m doing one right now, and I’d say it’s different for each movie. Sometimes it comes quick and the actual shape of the movie comes to you immediately. I’m only halfway through a treatment right now. I actually went into the script and started vomit drafting the first act, because I felt that was going to give me a better understanding on what the full treatment would be. It’s always a little different. I find narrative models are always very helpful and references are always very helpful. With the second movie there was no narrative model, and that’s why it’s such a unique, freewheeling weird movie.

Beyond Skyline (2017) is a Night of the Living Dead (1968) style movie; the first one was not a ‘Living Dead’. It’s the inciting incident that means everyone is stuck here, and then there’s distrust, and it’s all going to end up in a very dour, dark ending. Then I think this third movie was very much a classic space adventure movie. So, narratively, in the first act, there’s a couple of beats that you’re going to have to hit where you’re going to have to explain the mission, you’re going to have to put the team together. You have to have the refusal of the call. But we’re going to set sail on this adventure by the end of the first act.

Rhona Mitra, actor, model, Skylines (2020)
Rhona Mitra, actor, in Skylines (2020) from Liam O’Donnell. Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.

Sometimes those are helpful as the jumping off point, although you then have to obviously get into the weeds and make it more unique. But I feel, to me, the best movies and the best hooks are the ones that come within a quick flash, where you can feel that shape and build everything around it. It definitely is different each time.

Indie movies vs. studio films: easier in many ways

What I like about working in this independent space and doing something like Skylines (2020) – as opposed to maybe the studio version of the movie – is the many questions I don’t get asked. In a studio environment they ask questions and I don’t know if they’re relevant. They keep going, ‘Why does this movie have to happen right now? Why does it have to come out right now?’

I don’t think that’s actually a relevant question, but it sounds smart when you say it in a meeting. There’s no reason why any movie has to exist. There’s no reason why any movie has to come out right now. It’s just about why it seems important to you – what inspires you – so why not try to make that movie?

Sometimes I feel studios can overthink some things and try to make themselves feel smart in the room. It’s not necessarily the most important thing to a moviegoer when they’re seeing the movie. If you’re just open, and embrace things as a filmmaker, then it is going to feel relevant to the moment.

I feel, strangely enough, that Skylines (2020) is super relevant, but it wasn’t as if I was trying to make a pandemic movie, it was just what was inspiring me at the time. Some of those things can just be accidents, not to rail on about that, but I do think you can overthink things, and sometimes it really is just about telling the best story that you can.

FF: Also, I think that given the time that it takes to make a movie, by the time you go through post-production, it can be a year before you’re out. So where you saw your film may have been relevant, even in the landscape that you were writing in, that may have completely changed by the time of release.

LO: There is more, not to get too into that topic, but in Skylines (2020) there’s obviously some commentary on xenophobia… I would say it mostly concerns anti-immigrant and anti-other sentiment. That was obviously influenced by the world we’re living in, and everything that’s happened from 2016 – 2020, but I remember I had some lines in the script that were more overtly referencing building walls versus building bridges. I remember even on set thinking’I don’t think anyone’s going to want to hear that, it’s 2020‘.

I had it there, but I knew I would have dated myself too much if I tried to be too overt in some of those references.

Lights, camera, ACTION!

FF: I’m a total action fan. I will take action in any form. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got people involved for the stunt side of things, because again, that’s something that we don’t hear enough about

LO: I’m a huge action fan too. It can all come down to hiring just the right people, and I feel that’s one of the lessons that I learned in part two. Knowing that it was going to be a war movie but it wasn’t going to be a martial arts movie, when we went over to Indonesia, the producer that we had dinner with suggested Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, and I was like ‘Oh my god, The Raid (2011) guys. They could be in this movie! That’s insane!’ Immediately it just had to happen. So I did everything I could to get them in the movie, and luckily, that worked out.

Jonathan Howard, actor
Jonathan Howard, actor, in Skylines (2020) from Liam O’Donnell. Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.

They added this insane level of choreography to what was otherwise just men in suits playing aliens, which is the most fun part about Beyond Skyline (2017). I knew I wanted to do more of that in part three, but I also wanted to do a different type of creature, because we were going to have the big guys in their suits, pretty big and lumbering, but I know better now what they can do in those suits. They’re limited, they’re moving at a certain speed, and they have to be CG.

So I wanted to have a new type of alien that could move fast, and be a little bit more nimble and easier to shoot. We had shadow-type creatures that were stuntmen in leotards, who were these talented hardcore martial artists, and they all came from real deal stunts, all out of Berlin. One of them is Cha-Lee Yoon, who plays the character Zhi, he’s part of the group. The other one is Phong Giang who played the matriarch.

Our big baddie in this one, when her face opens, that was all Phong’s face who’s actually acting her out. I was saying her lines on set, and he would be moving his face to it. So it was this fun collaboration for me, because anytime the director gets to say lines on set and act out, you’re nerding out on yourself! Then John Clarkson is the other guy, he was doing our second unit action stuff. We would film a lot of the action scenes with Lindsey, and a lot of the other cast on the main unit, and we would get all the masters on this side. Then the second unit would come and get her overs on to the aliens.

I do think you can overthink things, and sometimes it really is just about telling the best story that you can.

That was the only way we could make the schedule work. So even if her stunt double in the movie is being used more for scheduling, you can still do a lot of the stunts with just the actress. Her big wirework thing where she kills the two aliens at once, that was all her in camera, because there was not going to be any second unit in that hallway. A lot of it was schedule based. The main unit was all this direction, second units all that direction, and that was a huge headache for the first scene that we filmed, which was her running through the warehouse, because I’d never worked with the second unit before.

I just thought to myself, “Okay, we’re going to get better at this,” and we did. We ended up trading it off and figuring out what was best to do on each unit. When you’re filming big creatures, they have a tendency to fall over and fall apart. And they’re very time consuming. So a lot of that went to the second unit and I could pop off in between stuff, or go during the weekend when they were filming, and have a little bit of fun on both units. But you just can’t get away with doing action on an indie budget, unless you hire an awesome team, and you have actors that are willing to go crazy with very limited prep time.

FF: I can see that. I think that everyone did a fantastic job, the action was very believable and well executed. As I say I was absolutely glued to the screen when Zhi was fighting.

LO: It was a lot of fun to build the tension in that scene, and then from my point of view Daniel Bernhardt is a black belt who’s been doing action movies for 30 years, and then Cha-Lee is probably the fastest person I’ve ever seen. John Clarkson was handling the cameras. We in the main unit shot that graphic novel coverage where they’re building tension, and then he does the axe kick. Then I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll check in with you guys at lunch.’ It was all done. They’re just so fast, and they just kick the crap out of each other for a whole day.

Liam O'Donnell's Skylines (2020) sci-fi action thriller
Liam O’Donnell’s Skylines (2020), a sci-fi action thriller. Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.

Budgets and film sets: how to make them work for you

FF: You mentioned that you had two films previous to this… Am I right in assuming that you were able to build on garnering your budget for each film? Or was it roughly the same all the way through? How did you go about financing a sci-fi film?

LO: It’s roughly the same budget for all three films. It’s within the ten to thirteen range. I think the second one was maybe fourteen, but the first one could have been finished cheaper. It could have been much cheaper, actually. We shot it for under a million and then it got bought by Universal Pictures and Relativity Media. It was in post where we spent more money on the sound and VFX than I think we would have if it had just been an indie project that we needed to finish ourselves. I think of all the post budgets, that one’s probably the highest, and it also had the smallest production budget.

When looking at part two we thought, ‘Well, we have a bunch of assets that have already been built, we have these spaceships, we have these alien creatures, we have a lot of the sound effects… even though we’re indie filmmakers. So we’re going to reuse whatever works.’ Turns out it’s a good idea! Part two was more about looking at that budget pie, I want to use a lot more on the production side. I’d rather have the visual effects, maybe not be at the same super-high level on every shot, but still have a good look and a consistent level.

Sometimes I feel studios can overthink some things and try to make themselves feel smart in the room.

I’d rather have a more action-packed movie than have such a low shooting budget and then need a huge post-production budget. That was an imbalance that I wanted to correct in part two. There were issues with part two where I wanted to build one amazing set and keep redressing it, which was put into the script because the first act takes place in a subway tunnel. The second act after that took place in a spaceship, and the third act took place in underground bunkers in Southeast Asia. So my concept was, we’re going to build this amazing subway set, and then we’re going to redress it to be an alien ship… then we’re going to redress it to be a bunker.

It ended up not working out that way. Maybe I didn’t have the vision at the time to prove that that method could work, but it could have, and I still believe that would have been the smartest way to have done it. We ended up looking out some different things because we got to shoot in an actual subway station in Toronto, and on subway tracks in Toronto. The place where we ended up filming in Indonesia had a bunker set that was already standing from another project that we redressed and reused.

So it didn’t quite work in practice, but the philosophy was still something that I used for part three, which was to make one big canyon set and then completely redress it and reuse it a bunch of times for the planet. It even got to the point where, once we had used it so many times, I started looking at our spaceships and I was thinking, ‘We could use the spaceship for some more alien planet.’ We ended up putting a bunch of liquid latex and alien cobwebs on top of the existing spaceship set. We were looking for more environments for us to use within that Cobalt 1 environment. So, for me, all of that starts with the writing.

The first movie I ever worked on was Alien Versus Predator: Requiem (2007) as a consultant, and they built a big sewer set. It was an amazing set, they spent all this time and all this money on it. It was awesome. But then that was it, they just didn’t come back to it again. That stuck in my head – if you build a set that awesome, shouldn’t you just keep redressing it and keep using it, especially if you’re on this indie budget?

You kind of have to go in with a mindset of, ‘Ok, this is going to be a corridors movie.’ Because if you look at them and break down most alien movies, no matter where the environment is – whether it’s on earth like AVP 2 (2007) was or not – guess what? You have to find corridors because that’s where those films work. We had to put them into sewers, we had to put them into hallways. I was thinking, ‘Well, if a subway tunnel is a corridor, a spaceship is a corridor, and a bunker is a corridor.’ By using environments and trying to break them down to what their essentials are, and how they work cinematically, you can use them efficiently to make something that looks a lot bigger than it costs.

FF: I’m very impressed by how much was achieved on that budget, because the visuals are amazing.

Actor Lindsey Morgan in Skylines (2020)
Actor Lindsey Morgan in Skylines (2020). Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.

Casting: getting the right person for the job

FF: How did you go about finding your cast? Did you have a casting director 0r did you handle it all yourself? What was your process for that?

LO: Well, with Lindsey, for the second movie, we had filmed her for that and it was going to be recurring. So we had that one figured out. I was a big fan of hers from The 100 (2014-2020). But I was racking my brain on who could fit the little girl when she was older. I was literally just going through IMDb and looking at faces. I was like, “Oh, Lindsey Morgan.” I remembered her and I felt she fit with Frank Grillo; they have the same presence and attitude.

So sometimes it’s just a case of do-it-yourself, where you’re just looking at faces and getting inspired. But for this movie, aside from personal relationships and people I was friends with, Daniel Bernhardt’s agent contacted me and turned me on to Daniel. I thought “He’s perfect for Owens.”

Then we have the casting director from part two we’re still friends with who gave us a bunch of different ideas. Because it was a UK co-production, this time we had a UK casting director. That was where I think the film broke open and we got unique and interesting. We were able to land three legendary UK actors in Alexander Siddig, James Cosmo and Rhona Mitra. They elevated it; they were a cheat code for that first act of the movie. You don’t need to have seen these movies, because these three amazing actors come in and ground everything and make it feel real, and you’re willing to go on this adventure.

Matthew Chausse, producer and ‘genius’

That to me was the coup of this movie. It was a tribute to my producer, Matthew Chausse, who you should interview as well, because he’s a real genius when it comes to actually funding indie movies. He can speak way more eloquently on how you get financing and how you get funding for an independent movie. He can weave that labyrinth better than anybody.

When you get close to filming, you can get nervous and you think to yourself ‘We just need anybody to fill these roles.’ But with him, it was almost in a battle scene where the guy in charge is like ‘Hold, hold fire!’ Because we waited, and because we were patient, a lot of great things happened to break our way. As I say, Alexander, James, and Rhona totally elevated the movie to a different level.

FF: You can probably tell that I’m British. I’m from Scotland, but when Americans and Brits come together in films, where they’re from isn’t as relevant necessarily to the story. There are quite a few shows now that are being done with the BBC and HBO and I’m loving them. It was something that stuck out to me on your film. I was thinking ‘Oh, there’s an accent I know!’

LO: Jonathan Howard’s accent is great, he’s got such a great Northern accent, but he never gets to use it. There’s that annoying American thing, when you’re hanging out with a British person, that you just keep copying their voice after them. But it helps me come up with adverbs for him, because certain things just sound great with that Northern accent, and so he would just keep adding these little bits of levity and these little flourishes. Once you get one of those distinct voices in your head, it’s just become so easy to write for them.

Diversifying your cast

FF: I’m a huge fan of Alexander Siddig as well. Definitely.

LO: He should be in way more things. It’s absolutely absurd. Not to speak ill of another actor, another movie, but it was one of the reasons why I couldn’t enjoy that live action Aladdin remake? Because how do you make that movie and he is not Jafar? He literally is Jafar. It feels like the animated Jafar was based on him. That was annoying to me. I feel he could be Doctor Strange, he could be in every property, maybe Doctor Who… He is such a lovely and lovable guy.

Actor Alexander Siddig in Skylines (2020)
Actor Alexander Siddig in Skylines (2020). Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.

FF: I have colour as a North African, and I think sometimes people can overlook you for certain things. It’s a bit strange, because you see other people going in for, for example, a role that I don’t know that is supposed to be an Arab role, but then they would pick someone who isn’t you. It can be a bit strange. You want to ask, ‘Why didn’t you find someone who was from there?’ There’s a small enough number of roles as it is that are specific to certain ethnic backgrounds. So for those roles to go somewhere else sometimes feels a bit strange.

LO: Luckily, that’s happening less and less, but yes it’s frustrating. Especially at the big studio level, because the fact that an independent movie can do that is embarrassing. Because when you’re in this indie film world, if you’re talking to other filmmakers, you have to have a certain cast person at the top of the line to get an original movie made. They give you this list, and it’s four people long, and if you can’t get them, then the movie doesn’t get made.

Studio movies, they have $100 million in marketing behind it. It’s literally their job to make new stars! So there’s no excuse as far as I’m concerned from their end. It’s part of the reason why I feel so fortunate in making these movies, and I take the responsibility to make each one a new movie. If you wanted to get this movie made as an original movie, with our cast, there’s no way it would happen on an indie level, but because it was the sequel, we were able to get a woman of colour as the lead movie in this sci-fi adventure. There hasn’t been a Latina woman of colour superhero movie yet. We’re the first one, so that seems inexcusable.

FF: I completely agree with you. That’s another reason I subconsciously enjoyed your film, because I can see that it’s a female lead, and she’s a powerful female. Although obviously she has her team, she is the person who is going to save the planet, right? Also, she’s a woman of colour as well.

So I think that that in itself is a great representation, which we are working towards more now. But there’s still room for improvement, and it’s always good to see films coming out and doing well, and getting distribution like yours. Then, obviously, you’ve got other people on the cast as well. They’re from a diverse background.

There’s a huge gap in representation for Asian background people as well and that’s something that you’ve also made sure to have included. So I think it is a very inclusive film…

LO: I wanted to slip in a little thing that the Asian guy has a girlfriend, because in film Asian guys never seem to have girlfriends. They’re in the group, but they’re never kissing women. It’s always like this, they put them in the film but the white guy gets to make out with the girl. It was just this nice little thing, and he’s a very good-looking guy. You can look at him as a good-looking guy.

James Cosmo, film actor

James Cosmo, actor, in Skylines (2020). Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.FF: Thank you so much for coming on. Honestly, we need people who are willing to share their experience, because that’s how we learn as filmmakers. Being good with money, that seems to be the unicorn honestly, for most indie filmmakers, that’s the mystical thing that seems difficult to figure out.

LO: I wish I could talk more about treatments and hooks and stuff. It is interesting, because sometimes you think ‘Oh my god, this is a no brainer thing that that’s going to work’, but it doesn’t, it doesn’t seem to excite people.

Then there’s other ones that don’t seem like they’ll happen, and they go well. Speaking more nakedly commercial, I want to make genre films with action and chills and thrills and fun. When I see indie filmmakers that are trying to dig deep, and make things that are intensely personal, that is a completely different challenge. I do try to make them all personal as I go, but I think it is different if you’re willing to have an alien punch a guy’s head off.

FF: At the same time, though, the characters are all very grounded. Even the alien is grounded in a human way that’s relatable, in terms of being a brother and so on.

LO: I love him. I actually named my fourth child after Trent. We just had him in August. And he has a lot to live up to!

FF: Congratulations! Anyway, thank you so much. Definitely stay in touch, because this doesn’t have to be a one time thing. Next time you’re making a film, you can always come and let us know! I’m sure our audience would love to hear more.

Credits

Transcription & Edited by: Ben Kelly
Second Editor & Artwork: Richard Williams
Opening words by Aiysha Jebali
Images courtesy of Vertical Entertainment