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Sci-Fi with a Vengeance: An Interview with 'Beyond Skyline' Writer/Director Liam O'Donnell

October 16, 2017Ben MK

With a premise that features two of the most badass actors in cinema today — Frank Grillo and Iko Uwais — taking on brain-harvesting aliens in hand-to-hand combat, Beyond Skyline is the kind of movie that knows its audience, delivering everything from city-wide mass destruction to gory kills, and even some kaiju-on-kaiju action thrown in for good measure. Never mind that it’s a followup to 2010’s critically-panned Skyline. Beyond Skyline manages to live up to its title, and I sat down with its writer/director, Liam O’Donnell, ahead of the film’s North American premiere at Toronto After Dark, to talk about the long journey to getting this sequel made, the casting, and where the series could go from here.

Beyond Skyline has been about seven years in the making. Even back around the original's release in 2010, there was talk of a followup. Why did it take so long to get Beyond Skyline off the ground, and how did you go from co-writing the first one to directing this one?

O'Donnell: The first one happened really, really quickly, and I remember once we were finished the movie and gearing up for release, IM Global, the foreign sales company, asked us about a sequel. And so Joshua Cordes, the co-writer of the first one, and I kind of brainstormed. The first movie hadn't come out yet, and we had this big acquisition from Relativity [Media], who were spending 30-40 million [on] P&A, so we wrote a pretty big treatment of what that sequel would be, thinking we'd probably do a 40-million dollar budget.

Now, interestingly enough, it's still kind of the basic treatment for what Beyond Skyline ended up becoming. But basically, in each version, we wanted to start with new characters on the same night of the invasion for the first act. That wasn't something that kind of came later. It just seemed like with the way that the first movie ended, that you would need a new in to get in there. You couldn't — which I guess you could criticize is one of the problems with the ending of the first movie [laughs] — naturally just pick it up right where it left off.

It's not like a Halloween 2 situation. But even back then before the first movie came out, I just felt like it was a great opportunity to spend a little bit more money and time down in the streets and see all this cool stuff that we'd done from up in this penthouse POV. You know, there's so many things that happened in the three days for the first movie that we could explore. Now, that ended up getting condensed and condensed and condensed even further into the edit. So I had it in three days in the script, and then shot a lot more stuff in that first act, but it became one of those 45-minute first acts, and I had to bit by bit let go of continuity and just condense everything into one day.

And I think it still works pretty well. They're in the [subway] tunnels for a long period of time, so if you're a continuity freak, in my mind, you could intercut it. So that's kind of like the genesis. And this is even a tidbit [that] I don't think I've ever told anyone: we talked to an actor back then in 2010 about shooting an Easter Egg scene showing them going into the subway. But it was just so close to release. The movie was already done, and no one was going to pay for it, and he was kind of a pretty big star that it probably would have been very confusing to see him in the first act and then never see him again.

Are you allowed to say who he is?

O'Donnell: Yeah, do you know Sawyer from Lost? It was Josh Holloway. We just had one meeting in the fall of 2010, and [the] Marvel [Cinematic Universe] was already out at that time, and everyone was just thinking about cool ways to set up sequels. And so we thought, in the very first act of Skyline, we wanted to maybe film an extra sequence there of seeing a light coming down and these guys going down in the subway, and they just miss it. And that would be the pickup in the sequel. So we had one meeting with him, but then obviously nothing came of it.

And after the movie came out, you know, it had a lot of negative reviews and negative reactions, [so] it just seemed obvious [that] this 40-million dollar treatment that we were thinking about wasn't going to happen. And then it seemed to go on ice for a little bit, but it made so much money in Russia and China we would continue to get calls from them.

And so we kept amending the treatment and trying to figure out ways to make it more global [and] to make it on a smarter budget, but then we were also hoping to get paid to write the script. And eventually it just got to a place where it seemed like I should just write it myself. Within that struggle of three years from 2010 to 2013 we had a bunch of different projects get really close to the finish line and nothing happened, and I just kind of looked [at this] big whiteboard of all the different things, and I said, "I just think Skyline 2 can get made." I think if we stopped trying to bargain or deal with people on financing the script and we just write it ourselves, then I think we could raise enough money to get it made.

So at that point it was at a smaller budget range, and everyone's at different places in their careers, so the [Strause] brothers were not going to direct it. So when I came to them, I said, "I will write it myself, but if I do that, I want to direct it." And they said, "Yeah, absolutely, go for it." I'd been working with them since 2005. They're the only bosses I've ever had. I've been with them for twelve years now, so it was obviously a big vote of confidence from them. And even throughout [the production], they were barely on-set. They were pretty hands-off in a lot of ways and let me kind of figure out the movie myself. So then I got a script basically in-shape within a year. And at Cannes 2014 we start raising serious money for it, and we had to go out to talent.

I had written it for Frank Grillo. You know, he was the guy that I pictured in the role, and who I wanted. I just kind of wrote him a really honest and sincere letter, and he responded to it. We Skyped and we went back and forth on some notes on the script, and he came on. But because his schedule was so packed — he had just finished Purge 2, Purge 3 was coming up, he had Stephanie, he had Captain America 3 — we were threading the needle really.

So all of a sudden we had to start shooting about a month, maybe two months more before we wanted to. Even [with] our end battle sequence that we shot on-location, the actual practical alien suits weren't done yet, so we have a lot of CG aliens there, and then we would shoot all the fill-ins in the backlot with the practical suits. And then the amount of time this movie took is just really based on the CG involved and exploring some things in the edit, pacing-wise. We [also] had to take a hiatus at the beginning of 2015 for Frank to shoot Stephanie, and then when he came back we finished the movie in Toronto, actually.

I noticed the subway scenes in the trailer!

O'Donnell: Well, you know, lower Bay is the subway set for every movie ever made. I mean, I thought it was something I could just do on a stage or set. But there's just not really that connective tissue, and so we came here for just these little connective tissue shots, which to me was the difference between making it look like a low-budget movie and a real movie. I felt like, especially in the first act, if you just kind of sense that they're not really on subway tracks, that it was just going to blow you out of the water.

We finished in May 2015, and then we would be editing, and then we'd have to wait for the new effects to catch up. And so we never were not working on it. A couple of big sets that we wanted to build couldn't get built for the right dimensions, and we ended up having to do green screen, and it was very time-consuming. But it ended up working out. [laughs]

You've assembled a pretty awesome cast for the movie. Tell me more about the casting of Frank Grillo and Iko Uwais, and what they bring to the film, in terms of an onscreen dynamic and the tone of the movie. Also, now you have an R-rating, as opposed to PG-13. How does that all come together for this movie?

O'Donnell: Well, the first movie was R-rated on its first pass because of the brains. And so the MPAA rejected it and we had to add these crazy sci-fi colors to the brains. And then everyone starts asking, "What does that mean?" And it was just to get that PG-13 rating that we had mandated. And so from the beginning, I really wanted it to be R[-rated]. It's not a super gory movie, but there's just those little corners that you had to cut for the PG-13 [rating] that I didn't want to have to deal with when you're dealing with brains being ripped out of bodies.

But I wanted to cast people who I was huge fans of. And with Frank, he's super gritty and authentic, and so he really grounds the first act way beyond what I think what any other actor would have done. It starts off with a very grounded father-son dynamic, and then it's very much like a disaster movie, [with them] trying to get out of the city and survive. And then we kind of slowly elevate him more and more in a little bit of a superhero-type direction, which I think is fun.

And Iko had this other movie that is finally actually coming to the screens this next year: The Night Comes for Us. He was on an earlier iteration of that that fell apart, and we happened to be there, and he had the two months open. And he came on, and immediately I just started rewriting the second half for him.

Frank and Iko have to fight each other, first of all, they have to! If you're going to have two alpha dogs, they have to test each other out and establish boundaries. We shot [something] even longer than what's in the movie, but it just ended up overstaying its size. You know, The Raid's fight scenes are so massive and so big, but within [Beyond Skyline]'s kind of structure it had to be tighter and shorter, because of the way everything held together.

If you go in expecting The Raid 3 with aliens, [Beyond Skyline]'s not that. But if you go in expecting like some awesome martial arts scenes to enhance the movie, then you're going to have a great time.

Now, the story takes place in parallel with the events of the first film, but obviously you widened the scope of the original and brought in new elements. Did that present any challenges in terms of maintaining continuity, or do you view Beyond Skyline as more of its own thing?

O'Donnell: I wanted to do both, because I kind of looked at myself as the ambassador of the first Skyline. It felt like I championed it, and I want[ed] it to work both ways. There are some challenges to continuity if you're a real stickler on timeline, like I said earlier, but it's also designed to just be a standalone. It starts in parallel, but then once you reach about the 30-minute mark, it goes past. And then in the end, it goes way past. So we earn our title of Beyond! [laughs]

So there are definitely some challenges. A lot of that came in the editing. There are a couple shots in the marina sequence towards the end of the first act that I really wanted to coincide with first movie, but just budget-wise and story-wise, it didn't make sense for the ship to be exactly in the same place it was in the first movie. So you kind of have to give a little bit of a license. But, chronologically, the general beats of what happens all kind of fit together.

And then there's also re-casting, because we were over in Indonesia, and the role of Elaine was so much smaller that it just didn't work out [with the original actor] schedule-wise. Eventually I did a re-shoot, which filled in more of [Jarrod and Elaine's] backstory. And so I needed an actor to play Jarrod. We actually used a friend of ours who was the first Jarrod in a proof-of-concept that we shot for Skyline way back in 2009. So it all kind of came full circle.

That kind of ties into my last question. It's probably safe to say that audiences will want more after seeing Frank and Iko team up in this film. Are there any ideas for where the series could go from here — even further Beyond Skyline?

O'Donnell: I did a pitch for Skyline 3, which doesn't have a title yet, but I did a pitch for that at Cannes, and we're talking to some financiers. It's another situation where I want to go in another direction and go more in the space direction. And actually maybe visit the alien planet and take things in a more classic Aliens or Starship Troopers kind of direction.

But also, after this big, open war ending, I want to kind of try to go back to [something more] tense and claustrophobic, [like] going into alien caverns on the other side of the galaxy. Something like that, without giving anything away. [laughs] But those are the kind of things that we're talking about right now. I don't want to jinx it [laughs] but it's definitely exciting. And you can kind of tell by the end of this movie how it would be very different from even this one, and miles past the first.

Beyond Skyline is receiving its North American premiere at Toronto After Dark 2017.

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