Liam O’Donnell is a producer, director and writer who has worked on movies like Iron Man 2 (2010), Skyline (2010) and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007).
He makes his directorial debut with Beyond Skyline which will be invading theatres this year.
Liam recently stopped by The Action Elite and chatted with me about the movie, using the cast from The Raid and working with Frank Grillo.
Check it out below.
The 2010 movie Skyline ended with quite the cliff-hanger; does Beyond Skyline connect the dots at all or is it more of a standalone feature?
Hopefully it will be both. I want it to be accessible for audiences who haven’t seen the first, so it’s designed sort of as a standalone feature but it is connected to the first film in a rather pivotal way. Some people thought we shouldn’t address the cliffhanger should just go and completely do our own thing but I felt it was important to the people that did like the first one that we tied it all together.
Was there always a plan for a follow-up?
We found the story for Beyond, which is still very much the structure and the seed of this idea while we were in post for the first movie. Skyline was such a quick turnaround from script to post to screen. We came up with the idea midway through November in 2009 and it was in theatres in November 2010. The ending kept evolving all the way through, from the second draft of the script, to the day of filming, and of course even more in post. Originally the coda on the ship was meant to be this really mysterious “Twilight Zone” sort of ending where we revealed that she wasn’t dead and that someone or something was off-screen whispering her name.
[quote]If we were going to do a sequel then we had to explore more of the mothership[/quote]
We just really liked the world of the ship and everyone we showed the early cuts to wanted to learn more and more about it so we kept expanding that and the visual effects grew and grew. One of the chief criticisms was by the end it sort of outgrew its place structurally because it started to feel like it was the beginning of another act. I understand all those complaints but to me it was still my favourite part of the movie by far. I knew that if we were going to do a sequel then we had to explore more of the mothership and all the fun alien house of horrors that you could do up there.
Even before Skyline came out, I locked on to the idea that we should start the sequel with new characters on the same night as the invasion depicted in the first movie. That way we could see some of the things from the first movie from a different perspective before heading up into the Mothership and getting a more global view of the invasion.
So that was always the seed and we wrote a treatment for Beyond before Skyline came out. Even though the first movie was a bit of a disappointment domestically as the year went on we kept seeing better news from Russia, China, and other international territories where it performed really well. So there was always discussion about the sequel over the next couple of years. Every couple of months I’d revisit the treatment and spruce it up a little while we were waiting for someone to pull the trigger on funding the script. In early 2013, I got to a point where I just felt like the window was closing. So I made the pitch to Greg and Colin, who weren’t considering directing it, that I would just go ahead and write the script on my own if I could direct it.
The general seed was we’ll start in LA, we’ll be on the ship and then we’ll go across the world to another location in Asia. I wanted to do something different and deliver a little more of what people were expecting from the marketing of the first film.
The first film at its heart was very much a contained thriller but we had such cool action imagery that you couldn’t help but market it that way. Even the colours are candy coloured but it’s not really an action movie. For me at my core I’m more of an action fan, so that’s where I wanted to go with it; I wanted to make it more of an adventure and a journey.
It’s kind of the anti-contained movie; the characters almost never stay still, so once they’re moving you’re constantly in perpetual motion throughout the entire movie.
You mentioned that this film goes international; it’s been filmed in Singapore and Indonesia. What made you want to choose those locations?
I wanted to shoot something in Asia to just completely change the scenery. That was originally the draw, just looking at different locations for inspiration and how it could be different. The treatment had a big city battle but so many movies in that interim from when we started talking about Beyond Skyline had already done these big city battles; Pacific Rim, Man of Steel, Avengers, etc. So I kept asking “what can we do different? And how can we make it more specific and personal?”
My wife is actually from Laos, so I’ve been hearing stories from her family and seeing pictures from there over the years that it sort of clicked in my head. I thought there was an interesting parallel to having lived through the horrors of the Vietnam War. If you were a Lao farmer back then and all of sudden this foreign machinery flies over your land dropping the most amount of bombs that have even been dropped on anybody in the history of mankind… that was an alien invasion in a way. There were towns in Laos and Vietnam where they dug tunnels just to survive. So in my mind, that was kind of fertile ground to mine and explore how those characters may be a little more prepared for such another invasion.
So the script was set in the jungles of Laos. We looked at a couple of different countries to shoot it and we ended up talking with Infinite Studios which is owned by Mike Wiluan and they have studios in Singapore and Batam, Indonesia. So me, my producer Matthew Chausse and Greg Strauss (director of the first film; producer of this one and owner of Hydraulx) did a scouting trip over there and it was just obviously perfect for what this movie needed to be.
We were actually going to shoot some LA stuff for Singapore but that didn’t work out but the Batam stages were quick access to some jungle locations that we used for our third act. Then we did a trip to Yogyakarta which is a beautiful city in southern Java and we shot a lot of the climactic battle at two temples called Prambanan and Sewu temples and we kind of blended them together. They are a fictionalized version of those temples set in the golden triangle of Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.
During that first scouting trip we had dinner with Mike Wiluan and a couple of the other Infinite people and we were talking about casting the roles of the Survivors and I mentioned what a huge fan I was of Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian from The Raid. They said “well we know them, they would be great for this!” I was like “are you serious?” and that was maybe back in September of 2014 so it was very quick to when we ended up shooting in December.
Quickly after that me and my producer Matthew met with Maia (Gareth’s wife) in Jakarta, then we had our first meeting with Yayan and Iko and brought them to the location. This was pretty surreal as we went to our first fight location which was in a waterfall in Yogyakarta up in these rice patties. I just met these guys this morning and they’re really humble, really enthusiastic and just everything you could hope for as fans of them.
They take their shoes off in the middle of this muddy rice patty and just start fighting
So we get up there and I kind of pitch to them what I want the fight to be and they take their shoes off in the middle of this muddy rice patty and just start fighting (laughs). Then they turn and look at me and ask if it was OK, which was just amazing that these two world class performers would even care what I have to say. I said, “Yeah, it’s the best!”
I was just talking with Frank Grillo last week and we were laughing about how the movie was kind of a traditional disaster/action movie. There was a big war scene at the end but it wasn’t martial arts.
Once Iko and Yayan came on board they wanted to choreograph these fight scenes and they have these ideas; they ended up bringing their whole choreography team which included a lot of talented guys. I’d like to give a shout out to Very Tri Yulisman (Baseball Bat Man from The Raid 2), Yandi ‘Piranha’ Sutsina and Danang who is a great coordinator that works with all those guys. The whole team was just a ton of fun to work with.
So within a really short amount of time we added a bunch of fights. We even got an extra day of shooting with them earlier on and added another fight to it (laughs). We only did a couple of takes and it turned out great but I’m still trying to fit it into the movie because of the run time. So it might end up being on an extended cut, I’m really hoping that some version of it gets finished because it’s a pretty cool intro to those characters.
Frank Grillo seems really excited about this project and it looks like he went through some serious training for the role; what kind of training did he have to go through?
He’s always in excellent shape; the way I came about zeroing in on him was because of Warrior in 2011. He was my favourite part of that movie and he reminded me a lot of the kind of the people I grew up with in Massachusetts with that small town authenticity and he just seemed real, like a guy who knew everything about fighting and that world. He does because he’s been training/boxing for twenty something years. I always say there aren’t that many American action stars and he is very much an American action star.
When I started in 2013 people were asking who I would cast and I was saying I just think this guy is going to be a pretty cool action star; when The Purge: Anarchy happened it felt like there was a little bit of a parallel for some of the things and I almost felt like I’d missed my chance. I wrote him a letter imploring that I’d written this for him and how much I respected his work and how much he reminded me of my friends’ father who was a police chief in Massachusetts. Their relationship is kind of what I was taking some of the basis from; he really responded to that and I sent him the script. We talked on Skype and then we started working on it together and came up with a lot of great ideas that seeded the father/son relationship which is really the heart of the movie.
Training action-wise, he came in in great shape and when he found out that Iko and Yayan were in on board he was super excited. Originally in the script, when Frank and Iko’s characters met, they kind of had a standoff but it never came to blows.
I thought now we have to do a “nice to meet you” fight and Frank’s response was like “I love that!” so that was our first two days of filming, was our “getting to know you” fight between our two alpha dogs all through these muddy rice paddies atop a waterfall.
A few people have asked me “why do they fight? They are both heroes in an alien invasion movie!” I said “I don’t want to see a movie where they DON’T fight; I don’t know what you’re talking about!“ (laughs) It’s the rule of action movies! The two alpha dogs must fight before they find any common ground. I don’t know if it’s actually a rule but I believe it nonetheless.
During the first month of prep they were all training in a tiny dirty sweathouse gym in Yogyakarta where we did all of the choreo for the main martial arts scenes. Frank and Iko immediately hit it off. They had a really cool bond and he kinda took Iko under his wing but Iko also took him under his wing (laughs) as far as the fighting goes. They both had a great relationship that I think you can see in the movie.
You can see from the pictures on Frank’s Instagram that they both had a close bond.
Yeah, I think they have a bit of a man crush. (laughs)
One of my favourite moments from the first movie and also one of the coolest pieces of alien technology: the machine that sucks the people up into the ship. How was the alien technology developed since the first film?
We get to see a few more things, yeah; obviously we get to see more of what the ship is and we get to see more of what the root of the light is and how it kind of functions and where it came from. I’m not crazy about trying to over explain alien technology, to a lot of people’s frustration on the first movie. I like leaving something to the imagination and let people kind of fill in the blanks and come up with different theories to figure it out. The biggest expansion would be the pilot aliens and their whole personality and their entire situation.
The lead character Jarrod became one at the end of the first Skyline; but we had to redesign the creature almost completely because I wanted to do practical suits. I didn’t want to do it all CG. One of the main reasons behind some of the original design was that it was CG. It had really thin limbs and a disorientating bug-like face; but I felt that the face was too bug-like for the story had to be in the sequel. I needed more empathy and emotion from the Pilots so you could connect with them a little bit more. I redesigned them with Keith Christensen, a really talented artist who really nailed their overall look and then our creature effects supervisor Allan Holt oversaw the team that built them from the ground up.
You mentioned there are a lot of special effects in this movie; can you talk us through putting the effects together?
Yeah! Well most times a movie like this would have been pre-vized meaning you sit with a team of animators and block out rough animated versions of what these crazy battles and action scenes would look like. It is really a lot of help in some ways to get everyone on board when filming so they can see exactly what the end result should be. We didn’t have the budget to pre-viz this movie and the prep was very short, there were a lot of storyboards but it still essentially came down to me trying to piece it all these plates together myself. And that just takes a lot of time, combing through hours and hours of footage with the editor. I don’t think many VFX movies if any have been done with this many shots without any pre-viz and there’s a reason for that as it takes longer and it’s very challenging. At the same time I do think it makes it a little bit more organic and integrates the VFX more into action.
When you’re creating a fully digital shot, you have so much control, everything can be lined up perfectly and you can’t help but wanna make it perfect – and we certainly do our share of those. But I really enjoyed incorporating a little more gritty and grounded camera work because that makes the visual effect feel like it’s part of the photographed environment.
It’s not like this is a shaky cam crazy movie; it’s not one of those but it’s a more organic visual effects film than I think people would be used to seeing.
Good, glad to hear that as we all hate shaky cam…
Yeah. This is definitely not shaky cam especially not with the fighting. We did a lot of Steadicam and then our DP Christopher Probst is just a world class operator who kind of gives you energy without going overboard. He’s got a real eye for composition and storytelling. He’s going on to do some really cool stuff right now and I’m just a huge fan of everything he brought to the movie.
I am lucky enough to have Colin and Greg Strause as my Producers and VFX Supervisors, they’ve forgotten more about VFX than I’ll ever learn. They’re such experienced filmmakers in their own right, the story of each shot is incredibly important to them. Hydraulx has artists in Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Louisiana that have been working really hard on it the past nine months. It’s an incredible privilege to have so many talented people working together and making your dreams a reality.
I know everyone keeps asking this but is there any word on when we’ll get to see a trailer or a release date for the film?
This is a 100% independent movie; the first movie got released by Relativity/Universal. This one we financed it completely independently and we have a trailer which we had in November and used for AFM. We haven’t taken the movie to any domestic distribution yet because such a pivotal amount of the story needs to be filled in for the visual effects. But we’re getting there and by the end of this month we’re hoping to take it to domestic.
The trailer is really great and I’m super excited about it and been oh so close to leaking it because of all the fans harassing me (laughs) but I’m taking the advice of my producers and waiting until we have a domestic partner and come up with a real game plan. Hopefully we’ll have this seen theatrically by as many people as possible. It’s taking me a lot of patience so I understand why people are getting impatient about it. The good news is we’re working on the movie every day and its getting toward an end point. It’s going to be finished and we’re just trying to present it in the best light possible so that it can be seen by as many people as possible.
If this entry does prove successful do you have any plans for a Part 3?
Of course! For Beyond Skyline we started back at the beginning in pre-invasion everyday life to take you on a journey to see the larger scope of the invasion.
For a third one I’d wanna start ten years or so later to see what would happen a decade after something like this. I think that’s what’s cool about where we take things. There’s no going back and I think that’s exciting.
For my next project, I really want to direct a full on martial arts film. I caught the bug on this and really want to build something unique from the ground up. Hopefully with some of the same collaborators I had on this one.