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An Interview with Director Liam O’Donnell, Beyond Skyline

An Interview with Director Liam O'Donnell, Beyond Skyline

Taking place in a concurrent timeline to Skyline, before kicking into high gear, and rarely slowing down for the remainder of its duration, action/sci-fi hybrid Beyond Skyline stars Frank Grillo, alongside Bojana Novakovic, Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, in a fight to survive with their brains intact.

After co-writing and producing Skyline in 2010, Liam O’Donnell spent the better half a decade working on his directional debut; the well-received follow-up, Beyond Skyline. Attack from Planet B talked with Liam about his experience on both movies, and the challenges associated with making a hybrid genre film.

Ken Wynne: Hi Liam. Thanks for taking the time to to answer a few questions. It really is appreciated.

Liam O’Donnell: Absolutely. Let’s go for it!

Ken: Before taking on the directorial reigns for Beyond Skyline, you were involved with its predecessor, Skyline, as co-writer and producer. Unfortunately… it wasn’t well received at the time.

Liam: No. [nervous laughter]

Ken: How do you feel about Skyline now, in hindsight, and is Beyond Skyline a reflection of everything you had learnt during that experience?

Liam: Yeah, I think that’s fair to say. It is a lot of reactions and lessons learned from the first movie. It’s funny because a lot of people that didn’t like the first one, seem to really like the second one more. But then I’ll see different people that saw the first one when they were slightly younger, because it is a PG-13 movie. Say they saw it around ten or thirteen, and now they are twenty… “Why is it so different?” They like that first one more. So it’s just interesting were people land and what works for them. I look at the first movie as more of a DC movie, and the second one more of a Marvel movie, if that makes sense? [laughs]

Ken: Yeah. Absolutely! [laughs]

Liam: And the first one… It kinda hides that it is a B movie, in that it doesn’t get crazy until the last act – the last reel. We just wanted to embrace that more [with Beyond Skyline] from the get-go; less about the thriller-tension-paranoia aspects and more into just a full-on action-adventure.

An Interview with Director Liam O'Donnell, Beyond Skyline

Ken: Was directing a natural progression from writing and producing [Skyline]?

Liam: I think it’s something that I guess I’ve had the ambition to do, but I… I think I had a healthy fear of it. And respect of it. Because I knew how much work it was, and I knew how much I had to learn. How far I had to go. So I did wait until something that was perfect for me. I think doing a sequel in general is a really great opportunity for a first-timer because, like you said, you have something to build off of and kinda react to. So that helped, you know? Just having a lot of these crazy visuals already built helped me. But yeah, I co-wrote the first one. I produced it. I had pretty intimate knowledge of every aspect of making that movie, and I certainly had an opinion about everything whilst we were making it. [laughs]

I had a really good working relationship with Greg and Colin Strause, the directors of [Skyline], and now the producers of this one. We’ve been collaborating since 2005 so that worked really well. Greg was really involved in the prep. During the shoot he actually had to leave early because of other work for Hydraulx so that was, to me, a big vote of confidence; that he just handed me the reigns and was like “go for it”. And then when we got back, and we started setting up post and the visual effects, Colin helped come in and get everything in gear and help me how to actually manage so many visual effect shots, and take me through that process. Then he eventually had to go on to other movies as well, so at each point I had that great support on how to get the movie up and running.

Ken: With the sequel, not only have you have expanded upon the original mythos of the first movie, but you have incorporated a lot more different genres; including martial arts. Was this decision made before production began?

Liam: No, no, no… [laughs] Not at all! It was one of those things that was just a total gift from the movie gods, I guess you would say. The script… I had written the third act to be in Laos and I had really wanted to do a remote jungle location. Play into the Vietnam war, touch upon some politics, and just say, well who would be prepared for an aerial invasion if it happened again, and have some conflict between the people that would live in that country, and our American heroes. So that all kind of fit perfectly but shooting in Laos… We looked into it, and then we were looking around at Malaysia, and then Indonesia. And in Indonesia we met with the owners of Infinite Studios there, and it all seemed to work out really well.

They said they had read the script, and they sent us a bunch of stuff for the locations. Then, when we were out to dinner with them in Singapore, they were like “well, what do you think about the character ‘Sua’ and ‘The Chief’? Have you thought about who you are going to cast for that?” Now, at the time we were negotiating with Frank [Grillo]… When you are in an indie movie it’s all about that lead role, and then everything else after that kinda falls into place. I was focused on that, and I hadn’t thought about those other roles…and then they said “what about Iko [Uwais] and Yayan [Ruhian]” from The Raid movies? I think I laughed, like “yeah, right! We are not going to be able to get those guys!”

“No, no… Not only do I think they would be interested, because you are shooting in Indonesia…but they are available. They had a movie that just stalled and I think that could work out.” So we just jumped on that opportunity and flew to Jakarta to meet with their reps, sent them everything, and they said “we would love to do it, but we also want to choreograph fights for you.” I was just like “of course. Absolutely!” Because I’m such a fan of them as performers, I would have had them in the movie without martial arts! You know? Without a doubt! I think it is pretty cool watching Iko just shoot machine guns and throw grenades! [laughs] He doesn’t need to do silat [Indonesian martial arts]!

So, originally I was just like, yeah, whatever I could do to get him in the movie. I emailed Frank saying “you are not going to believe this, but we got The Raid guys!” Frank had been attached to do The Raid remake even before [Beyond Skyline], so he was very aware of them, and aware of the franchise.

An Interview with Director Liam O'Donnell, Beyond Skyline

“You guys have to fight now!” “When you’ve got two alpha dogs in one movie… You guys have to have a ‘get to know each other’ fight!”

In the script it was a standoff, and they came to an understanding. “No, if I’m watching this movie and I see you guys together, I just need to see you test each other out and fight”, and Frank was like “I love that! Absolutely, let’s do it.” And so that became the first two days of the shoot. It just helped a lot because, especially for a first-timer like me, they choreographed everything so well. We were in the gym rehearsing it and there was no ambiguity. Whereas the scene before it, that was actually shot first; I was still nervous. You know, I was coming up and it was a scene with four actors, a baby, the crew, and we are in a very remote location up above this waterfall, outside of Yogyakarta. Trying to get the performances, and the tension, I just over shot that scene. I had so many different takes; I was so nervous. And then luckily it rained! It rained right around lunch, as it does in the rainy season in Indonesia, and after that rain it was like, well, we can’t keep shooting this scene! We gotta turn the camera the other way for continuity. Let’s just start shooting the fight! And I settled down completely once we started shooting it, because we had all been practicing it so much. I just felt like I had gotten within the groove of, OK… I know how to do this now. [laughs] You know? So it became such a great advantage, and something I just completely fell in love with. I want to shoot martial arts every chance I can get at this point.

Ken: Beyond Skyline has a strong, unique cast; perfectly suited to the action genre. Were there any challenges in casting for this movie; scheduling conflicts for example?

Liam: Oh, well, there was a ton! [laughs]

Ken: Yeah? [laughs]

Liam: Yeah, just from Frank’s schedule, he was coming off of The Purge: Anarchy and he had three other movies to shoot the next year… That was why we shot earlier than we wanted to. We started shooting at the end of 2014, before our monster suits were even done, so we had to use CG suits on location for the end battle. Later, we built a backlot on set and did all the pick-ups, all the fighting, with our monster suits. So, that was a challenge! Bojana [Novakovic] had to work on a play in the middle of January [during] our shoot, so one of the reasons why, in the third act, she [hides underground] with the girl is because I had to schedule it around her play. She was actually supposed to be in the bunker with Iko when the alien came down and attacked them. But I think it all worked out nice and, again, what a luxury to have someone like Iko in a supporting role, because he has so much charisma and star power, you know? He can just take his own two-and-a-half minute sequence in the middle of the movie, which is unique. You meet someone halfway through a movie…you don’t normally just give them their own set pieces. So that was just a great luxury of having him, and I think it ended up being good for Bojana too because her role increased towards the end. We gave her just enough without stretching her character beyond the brink of any believability. I mean we aren’t really too concerned with too much believability in this movie, but it has its own internal logic. [laughs]

An Interview with Director Liam O'Donnell, Beyond Skyline

Ken: Let us talk about genre, because Beyond Skyline is the type of motion picture that sees the entire city of Los Angeles assimilated by ‘brain-sucking’ aliens, a childbirth taking place on an alien spacecraft…

Liam: That’s right!

Ken: …and then that same spacecraft crashlanding in Southeast Asia, before ending with a kaiju-inspired battle…and it all works perfectly together. Did you have any further ideas, that you were hoping to include in Beyond Skyline, but couldn’t due to budget or time constraints?

Liam: There is obviously some different things we tried with the ending; different versions. [Beyond Skyline] had a bigger battle when they are fleeing the big ‘monster’ at the beginning. They were firing rocket launchers at it, which is why that rocket launcher is where it is. That was set up by a guy who tried to take out what we call the ‘alpha tanker’. So when Frank ran up and saw that rocket launcher, we had tracked that from earlier. There are a couple of different things there… We had tried one version of the ending where another spaceship came, during the Kaiju battle, and so our hero ‘tanker’ had to kill the Kaiju and then fire the [evolving human/alien DNA] up into the spaceship, but it just became too crazy and chaotic. And I think it asked too many questions, like “where are all the other ships?” So we kind of shrunk that down a little bit, and I think that was probably for the best. I think that got too crazy with scope.

But as far as some of the other character beats… One of them was a nice scene in the script with Trent and Audrey in the subway tunnels, and we got a bit of backstory on her being a cancer survivor. It was going with the theme of fighting back. It is the fighters that survive! And then there was a scene on the ship, after [Trent and Audrey] had freed themselves from hanging upside down, where they talk about exactly what happened with Trent’s mom and Mark’s wife. But that scene just became a situation of…it’s hard to talk about backstory when you’re on an alien ship and there are people dying all around you. That was more of a writing issue. The earlier scene in the subway, that I really wanted to have, was a scheduling issue. We just didn’t have the time to really shoot the scene. I got two takes from one camera angle, and when we tried another angle, we were kicked off the subway tracks…and that was it. That was the wrap of the movie. So it was one of those [scenes] that I think would have been good for the characters to have a little bit more to hold onto, but overall the pacing and the flow of the current cut is still superior than having those in anyway. I’m pretty happy where everything ended up.

I think there are a couple of kills too, at the end… I posted a few of them on Instagram, of Frank, Iko and Yayan; each [character] had one extra kill sequence that I would have put back in. But because each shot of the alien is a CG shot, you know, you have to replace his eyes and, in this case, [add] CG blood, so…they are not free! [laughs] In the first cut that I showed the producers, during the end fight scene – the martial art scene – they were like, “this is just alien knife porn!” [laughs] “But that is what people want to see!” That [end scene] was originally twice as long. It was every single take, every single angle… It just kept going on-and-on-and-on. People were like, “what is wrong with you?”

An Interview with Director Liam O'Donnell, Beyond Skyline

Ken: Could we see a third Skyline release in the future? The momentum is definitely there! Or are there other projects you’d like to pursue first?

Liam: Yeah, I mean there is interest in three. I’m writing it right now. Again, it takes another strange direction as you could probably guess from the ending of two, and goes much father into the the post-apocalyptic future – into different locations I would say. Maybe not Earth. [laughs] I not sure if I’m going to direct it. I’m writing it and we’re hoping to get that set up somewhere in the next few months. I’m signed up to direct two different things right now. One is from the script I wrote based off the experience of living in Indonesia, and shooting martial arts. I wanted to make my own *real* martial arts movie from the ground up, but kind of keeping with the action/sci-fi hybrid genre. It’s a post-apocalyptic, martial arts movie set over in Asia, and it’s called The Last Savage. That one I’m really, really excited about. That’s like my dream project.

I’m also signed up to do a lower budget, creature/action movie over in Indonesia; a fully Indonesian movie. And that is just from some of the relationships I made over there. They have Infinite Studios, Screenplay Infinite Films, and their own studios – all these teams built together – and they brought me a project that just kinda made sense. They had never done a creature movie over there before, and I’ve been doing those for twelve years so I was like, yeah, this could be something really cool, and that’s called the ‘Gaganto’. It is based on the extinct ancestors of orangutans, which are like these eight-foot, nine-foot humongous apes in the jungles of Borneo.

Ken: Liam O’Donnell, thank you again. I look forward to your next project: The Last Savage!

Liam O’Donnell’s Beyond Skyline is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Signature Entertainment. Release date: 8th January 2018

Ken Wynne

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