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SKYLINES Writer/Director Liam O'Donnell Talks Writing, Casting & Working in Quarantine [Interview]

By Marina Antunes [12.17.20]


Frank Grillo might not be back but the follow-up to Beyond Skyline has it's own set of ass-kicking prowess in the mix.


Picking up where the sequel left off, Skylines the third movie in the unlikely franchise that keeps on giving, Lindsey Morgan plays Rose, the young girl with alien DNA who has grown at an alarming rate into a badass military leader and fighter. When a deadly virus starts to spread among the aliens left on earth, the resistance find an opportunity to send a team of highly trained personnel to the alien homeworld in an effort to end the war once-and-for-all but, of course, political machinations are at play and things are never as simple as go there, kill the aliens, and come home safe.


Featuring a top not cast of nearly completely new faces, writer/director Liam O'Donnell has delivered another fun action-packed sci-fi offering that is both entertaining and hugely satisfying. It's big, and a little goofy but it has heart and perhaps most importantly, the cast is committed to the material and their passion shows.


I recently had a chance to catch-up with O'Donnell and we talked about writing action, casting, and finding a silver lining to finishing a film in quarantine.

Vertical Entertainment will release Skylines in select theaters, drive-ins, on-demand, and digital on December 18th.





Quiet Earth: When did you know there would be a third movie? Did you go into Beyond Skyline knowing there would be "a next one"?

No. when we got together for the final little scene and I had this international team of badasses, I knew there was something there but I didn't know how to get there. I felt like we would have to go pretty far in the future and when we did the first cut, they all just walked off into the sunset and once we did a test screening, people starting asking what happens to this girl and if she's going to die tomorrow. That's when we came up with the idea for the wrap around. That's when we brought Lindsay in. I worked with her for the day and it was the last day so it was kind of rough, but she had the right attitude. She was required to have this emotional depth, and be a leader and a soldier and seeing her with her brother... I kind of believed at all. So I was like, well we've already kind of done a time jump the future to get here so it just felt like I had my way in.

Did you have a break between finishing Beyond Skyline and starting on Skylines? When did you actually start writing the new film?

I wrote like the pitch, a five page pitch which is one of the easier and cleaner ones that's ever come together, because sometimes there's really bad, within three months of filming that last day [on Beyond Skylines] so we had it before the movie came out.

The Beyond Skylines release was supposed to be a big China release first and then and ended up getting caught in red tape so it didn't have the big theatrical release window and it really became a VOD movie and I thought there was no way we'd get the next one out but Vertical, who was our partner, to their credit, they really pushed the movie and it ended up outdoing expectations. So they were the ones that made it possible. But I had to be talked into it.

During the festival run I was just flying around and drinking beer and watching the movie and working on the new one and then I got my laptop stolen and I was really depressed. I didn't have it backed up so I didn't have the first draft. But producer Matthew Chausse was like "the gun's in my hand. You have to start writing this in January." So I'm like three or four months later I had a script and that's pretty much how that came together.



I'm curious about what you're writing, not necessarily the process, but what it looks like on paper, because the there's a really interesting quality to your films. They have great catchphrases and there's a lot of action. Do you just write "action sequence here" or do you specify what that looks like?

I always try to write out as much as I can, but it definitely depends. When it's something like your cavern attack when you have more actors and they are all pulled in different directions I wrote that out. Once you turn that over to the stunt team and the actual choreographers, they only double it anyway. I feel like maybe I should write less but I always do want to like try to figure out the cool ideas and set pieces but in contrast... there's a fight at the end between two human characters, it's a surprise so I won't say their names, but I think the script simply read “he grabs her from behind and pushes her, she kicks him and he falls against a door.”

In that case, we ended up casting some amazing fighters and those two roles are two of the best on fighters in the world. So we just let them go wild and completely unleashed. So it really does depend.

I do like to have a lot of white space on the pages I like to have very punchy, short sentences. When I started, I would write four or five blocks of action description and sometimes when you're trying to condense the pages you start cutting some of that out a little. But in general, I find, especially with action, you're saying catch phrases and there's a rhythm and I feel like we've gotten better with the rhythm of our action. This movie is shorter punchier, character driven.



And I'm assuming that that changes too, depending on who you have? You always manage to get together an amazing cast of actors and I'm curious about one: how did this cast come together and two: how does the process of actually directing from movie to movie change because of the different people that you have in these roles?

Yeah, I mean, it's kind of cool because the second one, I actually wrote it for Frank [Grillo] and getting Yanyan [Ruhian] when we went on Asia was like a gift from the movie gods. So that was a very interesting formula, the combination of these really authentic gritty, Western actors with these really amazing martial arts icons, so I wanted to keep that going. Daniel Bernhardt was a great fit because he's so natural and I love what he's done in the John Wick films but I just felt like he could do more and that there was a side of him that wasn't getting shown quite as much. And then because it was a UK co-production, we had access to these amazing British actors. And then our casting director Colin Jones in the UK was able to land these amazing actors, the mother load with James Cosmo and Rhona Mitra. They're the best part about the VNM is that they're all within that first act and they're 100% grounding it as a camp outside of London. And they all can make all of my sci-fi gobbledygook dialogue actually work. Cheat code: the best thing you can do as a director is hire the best possible actors. I was very, very lucky.



How does your approach to directing change to meet the needs of the various cast?

John [Howard] did and Lindsey [Morgan] obviously didn't have the same background of someone like Daniel Bernhardt. I kind of knew Lindsey could do it inherently but the luck of the movie was Jonathan Howard because he was a last-minute replacement. We had a scheduling difficulty with another cast member and he came in with no prep time and very little rehearsal time, but he's been doing Thai boxing and a lot of stage combat and just he really picked up choreography quickly. Part of it is luck, but casting those types of actors and then also hiring a choreography team who can make almost anyone look like they could do it, is important.

You finished the film in quarantine. How much was left by the time the lockdown came into effect and you were under gun to finish?

We finished in February and then when I came back March everything was locked down. So we were able to do everything that we needed to do all over the summer. It really just came down to visual effects on Frame IO and Cine Take and we I was able to work with friends that previously weren't able to work on other films and artists that we've met on previous films along the way. We were going to do all that remotely, do the score remotely in all of those things, but at the very end we didn't have the budgets went to rent two sound stages because it would have been me on a stage in LA and the team in London on another stage. So we did a whole testing protocol basically for me and everyone that was gonna be around me and I went to London in October for a month to finish.



There were certainly a lot of challenges with finishing the film during a pandemic but I'm curious if there were any advantages, if there was a silver lining anywhere in there?

I actually opened my own shop and was working with freelancers and VFX artists directly so I felt like I was able to focus on that a little bit more and kind of learn more about actually managing a small effects company and directly supervise the artists and now I'm thinking about ways that I can be even more efficient.

You leave the door open with Skylines for another movie and perhaps even the return of Frank Grillo. Is that actually the project that you're going to work on, or if you're going to look for something new in another universe?


I would love to be in a place where I could choose my own destiny but I'm just very happy to work so whatever gets made next I'll throw myself in. I've learned not to count my chickens before they hatch but I have a movie called Abomination which is a WWII, Arctic set survival creature adventure horror film. It's a little more mature and there probably won't be bloopers in the end credits. And then there And then there's The Last Savage, the post-apocalyptic martial arts thing which I mentioned he last time we talked and that I've been wanting to do for years. We definitely haven't closed the door on this franchise and we'll just wait and see how the audiences take it.

Vertical Entertainment will release Skylines in select theaters, drive-ins, on-demand, and digital on December 18th.



Recommended Release: Skylines



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