Interview: Liam O’DonnellOctober 29, 2017
Recently we had a chance to talk with writer/director Liam O’Donnell about life in the movie business and his new film Beyond Skyline.
Did you always want to be a part of this crazy movie business or did you discover that interest later on?
Liam: I think it’s a bit of both, to be honest. As a kid I really loved movies and it was around the time of Michael Crichton and Jurassic Park that I realized that people actually wrote them, so when that movie came out I had to read the book and I started reading a lot of his books. I also had an uncle, Lawrence O’Donnell, who wrote scripts and ended up working on The West Wing and while I was never on set or anything it was another reminder that hey, that can be a living, and that made it seem somewhat plausible. My brother was also an accomplished actor in the theater, he went to Julliard, so I had a lot of good exposure to the arts. I think the final push for me was when I got to do a set visit on my Uncle Lawrence’s show called Mister Sterling and decided that yes, this is the coolest job there is. Then I decided I was going to go to L.A. and possibly do entertainment law and write on the side because I was still afraid to take that leap. However, I soon started writing commercial and video treatments and then they let me direct them because they were a little production company. That is how I progressed, reading a lot of scripts, trying to find ways to make them better while at the same time writing my own scripts on the side.
You’ve done writing, producing and visual effects. Was directing a natural progression or was it simply something you always wanted to do?
Liam: Anybody who writes or produces has at least the thought about directing. I did some directing early on and it wasn’t great, I didn’t have control over it and then getting to work with good visual directors I realized how far I still had to go. I decided to focus on the story, get better at that first, and not rush into the directing aspect of it so that I end up making something that doesn’t really work. Then the opportunity arose where I was able to write Beyond Skyline on my own and I presented it by asking if I could direct it as well and they were like yeah, go for it, so I kind of seized that and because I didn’t have to present something totally new to the investors being a sequel I got to slide in under the radar, so to speak. I did try to surround myself with the best people possible though because I knew I still had a lot to learn.
What was it like building the cast for this movie?
Liam: It was pretty unique. I’ve been on other movies where once you get to a certain budget number, the cast gets more and more important, and we were right there. I had written it for Frank Grillo and once I saw Warrior I thought this could be the next American action hero. Once he actually responded to it I began Skyping with him, molding things more towards his character, which was gritty, grounded and authentic and once you get someone like that it changes the perspective of the whole movie. He became a sort of talent magnet, for example, he and Bojana Novakovic had worked together before so she was excited to come onboard.
As the writer and director, how do plan out the action sequences? Are they fully scripted or do you give yourself some leeway to change things on the fly?
Liam: I do script out more action than some people, I like to try and write the set piece, especially if there are a lot of moving parts. There was a pretty big set piece in the alien ship towards the climax of that sequence and it had people falling from the top, people fighting at the bottom, people swinging in the middle and that had to be one hundred percent scripted out. However, when you have characters back to back kicking ass, you can give that to a great DP, a great fight choreographer, actors like Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian and let them expand on it, as opposed to the aliens where there was nothing really there, and even though I had the scenes in my head they still had to be all scripted out.
What were the biggest challenges for you in terms of getting Beyond Skyline made?
Liam: Wow, there were a lot of challenges. First was financial and the producers did an insane job at getting the movie done with the numbers that we did. Personally, it was just a series of difficult challenges to overcome. One of our actors had a play they were contracted to after they were cast so they had to fly back to New York so I had to work the schedule around that. Another day the set got flooded completely so I had to find another location. The beautiful temples you see at the end, two days in a row we got rained out so we ended up filming on a backlot set to fill it in. Ten days into shooting Frank pulled his hamstring really bad and I had like three days left to film in Indonesia and he was in almost every scene and that was a great example of how I thought at each stage I was home free when in fact I never was.
The original Skyline came out in 2010. At what point did you begin thinking about a sequel?
Liam: It was in post. The first movie was very influenced by Lost and mystery box thinking, I had been watching a ton of Lost at the time, and we thought it would be cool for the trailer to not really tell you it was aliens. I think if that movie had shown at a lot more festivals you would have had many more people enjoying that concept but right away it gets this big acquisition from the studio and they just put the aliens front and center. While we were in post editing the final scenes, which just got bigger and bigger, we kind of wished we had expanded the alien part sooner and actually, it was two or three months before its release that we started working on the idea for a sequel.
What has the fan reaction been like so far?
Liam: It’s been pretty incredible for me and I’ve been pretty amazed seeing people respond to it the way they are, embracing the sort of excessive spirit of the movie. I think people are enjoying that it isn’t predictable, not everything that is set up in act one is perfectly wrapped up in act three, it’s a continuing and evolving story and you don’t know what is going to happen next. I’m pretty humbled, excited and it’s very rewarding for me and everyone who has worked on this thing, for three years, really. I think if it was going to be another beat down like the first one I probably would have just gone and lived in the jungle for a few years, joined a monastery or something. I know it’s not going to be for everybody, I like to call it a two to three drink movie, I think you should go in with a little imbibement and enjoy it and hopefully a good time for a lot of people.
So what projects do you have coming up next?
Liam: The project I’ve been working on I think I’m going to be able to announce pretty soon. It is a martial arts/science fiction/gladiator film set in Asia because I got that taste of martial arts in this movie and I came up with this idea during production when I was sick one weekend. This is really my baby that I’m trying to push over the next few months…you know, maybe I should just say the name, it’s called The Last Savage and I definitely would like to do it with some of the people I made this film with over in Indonesia so we’ll see what happens.
I want to thank Liam for taking the time to talk with us