Chasing a seemingly elusive dream may seem impractical to the most logical people during the most reasonable of circumstances. But those goals become more feasible during arduous times, as seen with the new action sequel, ‘Beyond Skyline.’ The successor to the 2010 adventure movie, ‘Skyline,’ marks the feature film directorial debut of Liam O’Donnell, who also wrote the scripts for both installments. The scribe overcame challenging obstacles to achieve his goal of helming a feature, just like the protagonist in the adventure follow-up diligently worked to save, and repair his troubled relationship with, his son during the alien invasion that began during the original film.
Vertical Entertainment is set to distribute ‘Beyond Skyline’ in U.S. theaters on December 15. The release comes after the horror movie had its North American premiere at this month’s Toronto After Dark Film Festival
‘Beyond Skyline,’ whose events run concurrently with its predecessor, follows Detective Mark Corley (Frank Grillo), who’s still grieving the loss of his wife. He has become estranged from his son, Trent (Jonny Weston), who’s also still struggling over learning how to cope with the death of his mother. The invading alien race is still descending upon the Earth, and leaving destruction in its path.
When most of the population of Los Angeles is taken hostage by the tumultuous occupying aliens, Mark decides to force his way onto the ship in order to save his son. But after the ship subsequently crashes in Southeast Asia, the detective must forge an alliance with a band of survivors there, including Sua (Iko Uwais). Together, the new allied humans must discover the key to not only saving Trent and his fellow hostages, but also how to take back their planet, once and for all.
O’Donnell generously took the time recently to talk about writing and directing ‘Beyond Skyline’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the helmer discussed how making his feature film directorial debut on the horror sequel was an incredible experience, in part because the producers had faith in his creative approach, and he was able to cast the actors who he had envisioned playing the roles while he was working on the script. The filmmaker also expressed his gratitude over the drama being accepted to play at this year’s Toronto After Dark, as the festival team not only supported the movie, but fans also embraced the sci-fi franchise’s second installment, as well.
The conversation began with O’Donnell explaining why he decided to write the screenplay for the new sequel, after he co-scribed the the script for the original film, and how he came up up with the idea for the second installment. “Well, we kept rewriting the first film in post (production), so the ending kept getting bigger and bigger on the ship. That became really fascinating to me, as well as to Greg and Colin (Strause), who were the directors of the first movie, and the producers of this film. We thought it would be a really interesting world to further explore,” the writer-director revealed.
“So with this movie, I wanted to spend more time on the ship, and really show the aliens, and the fact that it’s a house of horrors up there,” O’Donnell explained. “But I felt right away, even back then, that (this new film) needed to start with a new in, due to how few survivors there were at the end of the first movie.
“Having a fresh perspective would give us a chance to see some of the cool things that we didn’t see in the first film, from a street point-of-view. Everything was so contained to the pent house in the original movie that with this sequel, we wanted to go further down into the city, and see the invasion more first-hand. I did keep the story somewhat contained during the sequel’s first act,” the scribe admitted. “I wanted to take the audience through what it would be like for a group of survivors who are in the downtown area try to get out.”
Since ‘Skyline’ took place over the course of three days and had a rigid timeline, O’Donnell “tried to plant a bunch of different things in this film. As the drafts for this sequel went on and on, I had to keep condensing the events from the first movie, and make them feel as though they happened in a day in this new film.” But the filmmaker promised that the characters in the new installment in the series do make it up to the ship.
“Like I said before, I wanted to explore that house of horrors, and pay off some of the things that were set up at the end of ‘Skyline.’ But from there, I wanted to go somewhere completely different, and go on a more global adventure,” O’Donnell promised the fans of ‘Beyond Skyline’s predecessor.
“I feel like when we settle on crashing in the jungle of Southeast Asia, the imagery of old ruins and temples there felt really exciting and different. It didn’t feel as though I was chasing the urban battle vibe that’s present in a lot of other movies in the genre,” the writer further noted. He added that the feels like going in a different thematic direction “brought us to film in Indonesia, and helped us get to work with Iko and the rest of the actors, stunt performers and crew who live there. So in some ways, filming there was a happy accident that made the movie so much better than what it would have” if it didn’t shoot in diverse locations across the world.
O’Donnell also mentioned how he “co-wrote the script for ‘Skyline’ with Joshua Cordes, and (the story) was really based on the location that we had. We didn’t have any money-we shot everything before post (production began) for $500,000. We filmed in Greg, the co-director’s, penthouse, which overlooked the city,” the sequel’s helmer revealed.
“I happened to rent a unit in the same building for a few years around that time, but I had just moved out. So I knew the building, and everything that we could do there, and (the directors) knew what we could do with CG. So we knew our parameters, but in some cases, we were limited,” O’Donnell also shared. “It wasn’t like a normal writing process, where you’re just imagining things-we had all of our sets made beforehand.” So the filmmakers didn’t film any of ‘Skyline’s scenes on green screens until the last day, when they shot the ending on the ship.
“That was the biggest change in the writing process from the two films. For this new movie, I scouted the L.A. subway, as well as the marina,” the director divulged. “But the ship itself, as well as the jungles in Asia, were all in my head, until we got to the set. So I kept revising” how the locations would look. “So this new film was a more traditional writing experience (than the first movie), and I got to sit there and imagine my favorite version of what something could be. Sometimes it’s great to have that before (you begin writing), so you’re not limited.”
After discussing his inspirations for the development of ‘Beyond Skyline’s screenplay, O’Donnell then delved into the process of making his feature film directorial debut on the action-driven follow-up. He admitted that “Writing is still what I’m most comfortable with, so it informed everything, directing-wise.”
The filmmaker added that “There were moments in prep where I would keep getting notes. So I would go back, and put all of the different ideas that we would come up with, visually, in storyboards, the production design or my notes, and give them to my DP (Director of Photography, Christopher Probst). But there was a point where I thought, I have to get away from this, and just direct, and really trust this other part of the process.”
Overall, O’Donnell felt that directing “was a pretty incredible experience. I had Matt Chausse as my main day-to-day producer on the set. Greg and Colin were also there for the development…In what I thought was a total vote of confidence, they let me go and make the movie.” The helmer added that “In post (production), Colin was also helped as a visual effects supervisor, and really helped us get everything up and running. He helped me figure out the designs. So they were good mentors and producers.
“But at the same time, it was very much my movie, and they let me run with it. So that was obviously a great advantage,” O’Donnell further shared. “To move into that directing space was definitely a challenge, but I found out right away that it’s the best job in the world. You get to move through these processes that on their own, are really fun. I really do love working with producers and other writers, and coming up with stories and trying to make them as cool as they can be.”
The filmmaker also admitted that he doesn’t know if he’ll ever feel the same excitement of “actually going into production, including going on my first big scout for locations in Indonesia, for the first movie I directed. Also getting to work with actors, stuntmen and all of the different departments on the set was exhausting, but it was also exhilarating. But then before you know it, it’s over.”
O’Donnell also noted that “When you then go into post (production), you meet an entirely different type of personalities, as you begin working with editors, composers and sound designers. It’s a whole different journey. Now, even at the very end, I’m working with concept designers, poster artists, trailer editors and distributors, and I’m enjoying the experience. You have this one job, but you get to move through all of these different disciplines that all of these other people are great in, and they’re helping you get through this one goal.” While he added that while “Getting to write and produce is awesome, being in that director role, and working with all of these smart people, is the best thing in the world.”
Like the helmer previously mentioned, ‘Beyond Skyline’ stars such actors as Grillo and Uwais. He then delved into the process of casting the main actors in the adventure movie. “It all comes down to Frank, who’s really the lead. When you’re making an independently financed movie like this one,” casting can be a challenge.
“The first film was also independently financed, but was then acquired by a major studio, which helped pushed the project. With this movie, we basically wanted to do the same thing, but we wanted to go with a bigger budget. So we needed a bona fide action star for the lead role,” O’Donnell explained.
“So I wrote the role for Frank after I saw ‘Warrior.’ I further became a fan of his work after I saw ‘The Grey’ and ‘The Purge: Anarchy,’ and then began to feel like he was right for this role. So I deliberately wrote the character within his reelhoue. and thought it would be something that he would respond to,” the director admitted.
“So we approached him, and sent him the script with a letter I wrote about how big of a fan of his work I am. I also told him how he inspired me to write this (screenplay), and how exciting it would be for me to collaborate with him. We ended up Skyping and talking about the movie. We then worked on the script together, and that all happened while the film was still in development,” O’Donnell revealed.
Once Grillo did agree to play Mark in ‘Beyond Skyline,’ it “went into fast-forward. He had a really tight schedule that we had to fit into, but we already had all of the momentum for all of the financing to get the movie made,” the filmmaker shared.
“From there, the other movies started coming in. With Iko, he was attached to another movie when we began casting, but the other project stalled. So he became available, and we flew to Indonesia and spoke with his rep. Everything fell into place quickly,” O’Donnell divulged.
Once Grillo and Uwais officially joined the cast, “we had the validation of these really cool action stars, who already have a lot of fans. But the sequel was obviously going to take a very different direction.”
The helmer added that “For our first day on the set, we were on location in Indonesia, and we were right near a waterfall. We were shooting a four-way fight scene between Frank, Iko, Bojana, who’s our female lead, and Pamelyn Chee, who plays Kanya. That was an incredible experience for me, as a first-time feature director, as I spent my life watching movies and playing video games. I had to manage all of the chaos during that brawl.”
Being able to work with Grillo and the supporting actors “on not just the action and special effects, but the entire story, was definitely a new step for me. It was incredibly challenging, but also incredibly satisfying. I loved being able to build these characters with the actors. I’m legitimately a big fan of everyone who’s in the movie, and I loved the things they brought to this film,” the director declared. “They all worked together as an ensemble, and have these different energies that all compliment each other really well.”
O’Donnell then expressed his appreciation over the fact that ‘Beyond Skyline’ has been accepted into acclaimed festivals, including Toronto After Dark. “We’ve only done two festivals so far-we went to Sitges first. But that crowd at the late night screening in Spain was rowdy. I had just flown in that day, and I was there by myself, so it was a surreal experience. The audience was clapping in places that I had never imagined anyone would. They made me feel incredibly welcomed.”
The filmmaker added that “In Toronto, the (Scotiabank Theatre) is massive. (The festival’s director and founder,) Adam (Lopez) and his crew were incredible hosts to me. They perfectly set the film up all the way, which helped defy expectations, and made it play really well in the room. We also had a lot of fun during the Q&A after the screening, and I was pretty shocked and humbled at how many people stayed behind for it, and asked such great questions.”
As O’Donnell looks back at the first ‘Skyline,’ as well as the two movies he worked on before the action adventure series, including ‘Iron Man 2’ and ‘Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem,’ which had wider theatrical releases, he’s thankful that he has been able to bring ‘Beyond Skyline’ on the festival circuit. While he’s grateful for the opportunities he received from, and the experiences he had while, working on the bigger studio movies, he feels like he has gained more by making the indie franchise.
“I’ve been able to meet and interact with fans, and that’s been a lot better for my soul as a filmmaker. I think I’ve learned a lot more at the festivals than with my earlier work. I’ve been getting to see ‘Beyond Skyline’ with audiences who really love this kind of movie, and that’s been an invaluable experience. I couldn’t be happier with the way things turned out at Toronto After Dark,” the helmer enthusiastically exclaimed.