Liam O’Donnell is the writer of all three films in the Skyline series, and he directed franchise follow-ups Beyond Skyline and the newly released SKYLINES. I chatted recently with O’Donnell about his newest film. We talked about what it was like telling a science fiction story with a pandemic subplot, why every director should hire Alexander Siddig, and where the series may go in the future.
You’ve written all three films in the series, and you’ve directed the past two. What has it been like shepherding the story from the beginning and then taking over in the director’s role with the second film?
Liam O’Donnell: It’s been a lot of fun, to be honest with you. You know, the first one was kind of unlikely in itself. We shot it really, really cheaply and in a really contained environment that dictated a lot of the writing. It was like, you have this space, you have this building compound: make a movie around it. And so there were certain ideas that we, you know, wanted to do that we kind of couldn’t. And we had to kind of keep trying to figure out how to keep everybody stuck there until the end.
And so to be able to get to do a sequel and kind of be able to cut loose and be freed from that containment—I mean, the movie was almost, like, anti-containment. There were so many locations. It was so much forward propulsion the whole time that it was an incredibly challenging first-time movie to make, because there’s so many, like, little stitches to put things together and kind of like shoe leather, as they say. Like, scenes where people are walking from point A to point B.
So, for part three, there were some of those lessons put in there. I really wanted to make something that had a completely different feel and a different scope. But I wanted to learn from some of the lessons in part two, and we were able to complete it in a shorter schedule while still, you know, being in some ways more ambitious.
The first two films are kind of dealing with the invasion itself, and this last one is 15 years post-invasion. Were there ideas and specific set pieces that you really wanted to tackle in SKYLINES that was quite a bit different from the first two?
Liam O’Donnell: Yeah, I mean, the set pieces are always kind of fun, but to be honest with you, there’s a couple of scenes in the second movie that were in the script that I had to cut because they just didn’t quite work. Because you’re dealing with the invasion within a three-day time period that, like, any type of backstory or scenes about anything except the trauma of that situation doesn’t really work.
So, what was really nice for me to make this third one was to be able to write and then direct scenes that were just sort of intimate, character-based scenes that I guess most filmmakers would take for granted. Because your first movie is usually just a few people walking and talking, but mine was this crazy alien war movie. So in part three to have scenes like in the General’s office, where you have this great actor like Alexander Siddig delivering this oratory type call to adventure to our hero was like nothing I’d ever gotten to do before. And then even, you know, like where Rose is reuniting with Trent and they’re having this warm relationship and talking about some of their conflicts and showing that they’re brother and sister but they still love each other. I never got to do anything like that.
And then Jonathan Howard’s Leon and Rose, they’re kind of seeing where they’re bonding on the ship as they’re going through the wormhole where he gets to kind of tell us what the invasion was like to a normal person, like an average everyday person from when he was a kid. It was a fun type of scene, the type of thing that I really enjoyed. Just, you know, not the crazy set piece, not all of the action, but just two cameras and two actors and kind of focusing on the emotion between the two of them. Those were the kind of scenes like, “Oh, this is fun too!” You know, it was a new muscle to flex, I guess.
I spoke with Alexander Siddig earlier, and he talked about what a fun set it was and how you really allowed him to kind of take the role wherever he wanted to. Can you talk a bit about what it was like working with that cast and kind of getting those smaller, more intimate moments that you were just talking about?
Liam O’Donnell: Yeah. Well, Alexander is such a lovely, lovely man, a lovely gentleman, and a pro’s pro. I mean, I was just telling another director, “Oh, and by the way, you should hire Alexander on every movie that you ever do.” Because he comes in, you know, obviously fully prepared. But not only that, just like stands next to camera…but not in a way like, “Hey, get to work!” Just, he’s there to work. And, you know, his first take is incredible. So you’re like, “Well, where do I even want to steer him with this?”
I remember the first day it was like, “Well, I don’t know. It’s just the best thing I’ve ever seen. Let’s move on.” And so I got more comfortable with him and the role. It wasn’t shot 100% in order, but kind of in order, and without giving too much away his character has a bit of an evolution. So, when we’re kind of working on the second half of the movie is where I felt like we had a lot more room to test the waters on sort of how delicious his performance would be in certain scenes. And we tried some really big ones and then kind of scaled things back and found that sweet spot of where things really seemed to work for our movie. There’s always a bit of comedy beneath things. Even when it’s very intense and serious, you know, we kind of…it’s not a parody. It’s not camp. It’s not necessarily tongue in cheek. But it’s a slight acknowledgment of just how crazy the world is. And I felt like Alexander, you know, personified that so well, especially in the back half of the movie.
Yeah, absolutely. I really loved the humor, especially early on. He’s got such a—as you said, it’s not campy in the slightest, but he’s very sly and very genial, and I really enjoyed that in his performance and in a lot of the other performances as well. There’s a sense of humor to it, but it still takes itself seriously, which I really enjoyed.
Liam O’Donnell: Yeah, we believe in ourselves. We believe in the movie. Everyone believes what’s happening is real. But, you know, there is just some absolute absurdity to some of the situations where it’s like: “Well, I was born on a spaceship, genius.” You know, like, “Okay, right. Forgot about that.” And then Alexander is kind of channeling a Paul Verhoeven style villain in some ways, you know, that Ronny Cox is so fantastic at. And he just would sink his teeth into it and wouldn’t let go.
So, I was just, you know, I was pinching myself behind the monitor…one of the things I learned from part two to part three is not to openly laugh and giggle as much behind the monitor because it makes people uncomfortable if the director’s just sitting there giggling. They’re like, “Wait, this isn’t a comedy. Why are you laughing?” And I’m like, “Because I love it! It was tickling me.” So I was able to hide that a little bit more but still hopefully keep a fun and loose set and let everybody feel like they had the freedom to bring who they were to the roles. Because I find that the old adage of “directing is 90% casting” is one I definitely agree with.
Yeah, the atmosphere on the set really comes across on the screen. Everybody seems like they’re having a lot of fun, and it seems like there’s a lot of camaraderie. And that always translates, I think, onscreen. You can tell when people are enjoying themselves and enjoying the story they’re telling. So I really loved that about the movie.
Liam O’Donnell: Thank you. That’s so good to hear.
Science fiction always has something to say about the real world, even when it’s in the future or you’re on a distant planet. But SKYLINES feels really relevant right now, especially with the virus storyline and with this sense of waiting for someone else to come and fix the world. How do you view SKYLINES and its themes against the backdrop of everything that’s going on in 2020 right now?
Liam O’Donnell: Yeah, the pandemic storyline was definitely not intended to be relevant. But it is interesting the way you just phrased that, of wanting a savior in a way, which is obviously a long-standing part of our collective consciousness. But I’d say the themes that I wanted to express were…I liked how nuanced the world was, you know, taking everything from where things ended in part two and having the human brains and it could even be your own brother. But he’s now in this completely different, distorted body that is different from what you knew. It’s not like it’s as simple or as neat, I guess, of an allegory as other science fiction films. But I like that about it. I like that it’s nuanced, and I like that it’s asking more of the audience to actually have sympathy for something that looks like a monster rather than something kind of superficial, you know? It’s not an easy thing to just be like, “Oh, yeah, that’s a human being in there.” You kind of have to earn it.
So, those themes and that there would obviously be some intolerance and bigotry and how that could manifest itself, that was all very much intentional and things that I wanted to explore, I think. And it was something I talked about with Lindsey [Morgan] a lot, you know, because she’s of a mixed background where she’s Latina and Irish in heritage. And there’s a little bit of her where she was talking about how she didn’t feel like she fit in anywhere. And that kind of helped her, you know, relating to Rose, who is of a hybrid background. And, you know, my own kids. My wife is Lao. I’m Irish. So, my own children, I kind of see that same thing in wanting to make a more inclusive universe where heroes are going to fight the people that are kind of…you know, that’s one of my favorite lines in the movie. She’s like, “You’re going to have to fight for it,” and we’re not going to back down from those kinds of people.
Yeah, exactly. Picking up on the sense of othering, I really enjoyed the pilots’ speech. It’s almost like an English dialect that makes you think a lot about the interaction between the human brain and the alien physiology. Can you talk a little bit about the sound design and the creature design for the pilots in SKYLINES?
Liam O’Donnell: Yeah. So the creature design was something that we picked up from in part two to make him obviously something that we can do practically in-camera. And there’s more than maybe a little Predator homage there because that’s my favorite movie and my first R-rated movie growing up. So, there’s that, like, I wanted to make them a little bit more heroic in their shape rather than the way they looked at the end of the first movie.
And then in the second one, you know, because it was like the invasion happened right then, the creatures, it didn’t feel right that we would do subtitles or understand what they were saying. So, we had a lot of growls and sort of Frank trying to see what he was trying to say and communication all non-verbally and through eyes. And that worked. There was talk back then about subtitles, but it just felt too soon.
And so even on this one for the script, I would write the scenes with his lines in there, and then I would delete the lines. And even up until the edit where I was like, “Okay, we’re definitely going to do the subtitles,” I kind of had the lines in there, but I didn’t want to clutter the script and have people feel like, “Wait, why is the alien saying ‘Fuck yeah’?” And I’m like, “Yeah, just trust me, that’s gonna work.” So then, you know, in the edit I kind of voiced Trent myself, with Barrett Heathcote, our editor. I would have a mic and we would do all the lines. And we found that by having the subtitles and doing a distorted—we did a rough, distorted version of it, like you kind of still needed to hear the beats of what the English would be for some of the comedy to connect. If it was too distorted and too garbled, you know, the “ck!” of a “fuck” or something is not going to hit on the right spot and feel the same intention.
So, we did a lot of work on that, to be honest with you, and then our sound designers took what I did and made it all better and found a different version. But we did notice if we tried to do it in full English and we took away the subtitles, then your brain just keyed upon the fact that their mouths don’t really move. So the subtitles are kind of a nice optical illusion where your brain, because you’re having to read and look at his eyes at the same time, you just imagine that his mouth is moving.
The film has quite an open ending. Can you tell us anything about a fourth installment in the story where we see where things go from there?
Liam O’Donnell: Yeah, it’s a tease for a reason because I still have to figure out what that would be. But I’m definitely excited by the possibility. We actually shot two endings for the movie in case the one that we had wasn’t going to work. But thankfully everybody signed off on it, and emotionally I felt like it was where the story wanted to go. It was what Rose needed. You know, she evolves into a really interesting place in this movie and really kind of finds herself and loves herself. But there’s obviously this part of her backstory that’s missing and that needs some sort of closure and reconciliation. So I felt like that was a great place where we could, you know, possibly explore if the audience supports us for another chapter.
SKYLINES is now available in select theaters and On-Demand. If you want to learn more about the film, check out our review!