Interview: Liam O’Donnell (‘Skylines’)

Three years ago, I was lucky enough to get to speak to writer/director Liam O’Donnell about his then-new feature, Beyond Skyline. While that interview is sadly lost to time, I had the pleasure of speaking to him again recently for the latest installment in the franchise, Skylines

First off, I’d like to say that I’m so glad we didn’t have to wait another seven years for a new entry in the franchise! I was really excited when I saw the film announced and I have impatiently been awaiting its arrival ever since then. I love your use of narration and flashbacks, especially at the start to catch people up to speed in case they hadn’t seen the last two.

I never try to take it for granted that people have seen the other films. We’re obviously kind of this unlikely sci-fi franchise. It’s not like Star Wars where it’s entered the pop culture consciousness and everybody knows what happened in the previous chapter, so I want every film to work as a standalone. It’s tricky. In the first draft, I had a much bigger space battle, but that’s going to happen every time you get a first chance to write it. It started with the narration, it went into a big space battle, and then it ended, but it didn’t feel quite right.

Of course, the obvious solution was just staring at me the whole time. Let’s have [James Cosmo] narrate the whole space battle, that way we can kind of condense this big action beat because he can just kind of tell you exactly what the stakes are while we’re moving through it. The great thing about that opening for me is that Lindsey [Morgan] came in so prepared to hit that emotionally right up front. A scene like that can be a really tricky spot, you know? I felt like we found a really nice balance. You never want to start a movie with your lead crying tears right away. You want to earn it. I felt like she, in such a short period of time, gets you to this moment where you can see how much pain that she had to go through to make this decision and then the movie begins.

The combination of her performance, the summary of everything from the previous two movies with your flashback montage, and the narration works really well. It does a great job of setting things up for where you’re going to go with the story this time around. In a way it also kind of feels like we’re not only getting up to speed on the last two movies, but we’re kind of getting the summary of a movie that we didn’t see. Skylines almost plays like a Skyline 4, instead of a Skyline 3.

I agree. There’s definitely a movie in-between them. We’re kind of dropping everyone in the deep end at the beginning. Also, James Cosmo did our narration, which makes the writing sound a whole lot better. That was kind of fun for me and I like movies that feel like that sometimes. X-Men: Days of Future Past is another one where it was like “Wait, did I miss a movie in between these?” It doesn’t feel like a sequel to the one before it, but you catch up as it goes along.

It’s always fun and it’s a good way to keep the fans on their toes, in addition to anyone that’s just coming into this movie out of the blue.

From the people out in the blue that I’ve heard from, they all like it and it works for them because it isn’t really reliant on the other movies. That was important to me. I wanted it to play well for everybody because to me the best sequels, like Terminator 2 and Road Warrior, you can watch out of order. They can be the first movie for you and it still works great. I love that and want these to play that way.

I agree. Lord knows I saw enough sequels out of order when I was a kid. The best ones can stand alone while also building upon what came before. I think you do a great job of doing that both in Beyond Skyline and here in Skylines as well.

Thank you! That was definitely important for Beyond as well and I think that narrative lent itself to that because it was starting at the same time. Then we had the flashback. For this it’s like “Okay, what’s the Skyline version of a Lord of the Rings opening? Let’s do that.” I love Fellowship of the Ring and that’s definitely my favorite of all those movies. There are some homages to that here, starting right at the beginning.

I’ve always been a big fan of mythic opening narrations, be it in the Conan films or Lord of the Rings, so I really appreciated your take on that here. We also get some returning characters, which is always a plus. Obviously Rose is older this time, although we did get to see this iteration of her a little bit in the bookends in the last one.  We get to spend way more time with her this time, which is great, and we are also gifted a new cast of characters played by the likes of Alexander Siddig, Rhona Mitra, Daniel Bernhardt, and James Cosmo. What made you want to advance the story by so many years at the start and focus primarily on a new group of characters? I guess the easy thing to do would have been to just bring back the entire previous cast, as long as schedules aligned. So what brought on the time jump? Was it just the fact that you wanted this tale to stand on its own more or you just wanted to shake things up a little bit? You also changed genres up between these films again as well.

It’s a little bit of a mix of all those things. There are always practical realities to deal with. Some schedules didn’t align. Then there’s also the character archetypes that fit within this story. They are not like the average day people that were in the first two stories. This is now further in the future and these are all elite experts in their fields. They’re not like the everyday cops or subway drivers from the last movie. It is a shift in archetypes, you know what I mean? That necessitates a different approach to begin with, but at the same time you don’t want to stray too far.

Bringing back Yaya [Ruhian], who was in Beyond Skyline, was sort of a late addition. I felt like we were missing too much of Beyond Skyline and we’re we lucky enough to get him again. He was available and I thought he could really fit into the Dr. Mal plotline, so I rewrote that for him. Now it’s one of my favorite moments in the whole movie. It’s always a balance. But yeah, I had a lot of fun introducing this new cast. Like you said, we’re switching up genres each time, so now we have generals, scientists, and military Badasses. It is a different world.

I love how you’ve just completely changed up the subgenre in each one so far. It’s a great way to keep the story fresh in an on-going series. The first one was more of a disaster/survival film and the second is like a hybrid late ‘80s science fiction/martial arts action movie. This one is very much a “soldiers and scientists on a mission” flick. I really dig that about it.

Movies are so hard to get made. They’d pretty much be close to impossible if I wanted to try to make them as originals each time, so I kind of try to make an original movie each time as a sequel. It’s also a little bit of the pressure that we put on ourselves, so that we’re kind of giving back to the sci-fi community. I would never just do a rehash of any of these. I feel like that would be letting everybody down. Whether you like the movie or not you have to respect the fact that we’re going to hustle to try to give you something new each time.

It’s hard to talk about the latest threats that are present in the film without diving into spoilers, but I really loved the way you shook things up once more on that front as well.

We’ll just say that there are new creatures. There are a couple of new tricks and creatures. Part of that is that I still love my suit aliens and I wanted to have them play a part in one of the plotlines, but I felt like if you’re going to an alien planet, you have to have some new tricks.

I really dug the design of the new creatures and their abilities. It was a really…I don’t want to say a nice change of pace because there’s nothing wrong with the pace to begin with…but it was a nice way to add a completely different design element into a film that is already filled with practical effects and suit work, which is something I absolutely love.

They are kind of built on the same assets. Anytime our suit actor Pilot aliens are jumping or doing anything through the air, it’s a switch to a fully CG asset. We took those assets, ripped them apart, added pieces to them, and that became the base asset for the new alien. Then it was all about trying to figure out an interesting camouflage skin that would lend itself to the shadow camo that I was trying to figure out. I wanted to make it feel like the shadows behind you could come alive and pull you away into the dark.

I think you did a great job of realizing that. I really love those new creatures and how different they are, which is nothing small. These days, even when we do get films of this type that have lots of different creature elements, there’s an unfortunate tendency to make things a little too similar. There’s nothing worse than a monster movie where all of the different creatures still feel very same-y. That’s just not the case at all with this franchise, which is wonderful.

Thank you! That’s something I’m actually really proud of. To do two digital creatures like that was really difficult. The UK company that did all the shadow shots and developed the look for me did a really great job. The other creature I really like…again I’m giving spoilers…but it’s our main baddie that we call “The Matriarch”. I really love the way that she turned out. She’s really performed well on camera by Phong Giang, who’s one of our action stunt team. He does stunts out of Berlin and he did a lot of that facial animation. It’s a suit and CG combination creature, so I kind of assisted him on set bringing that together. I just feel like, from the three movies, it might be the most seamless blend of practical effects, CG, and performance to create most realistic creature that we’ve got.

What do you have coming up next? I know you’ve still been working on getting The Last Savage made and the last time we spoke, you mentioned a “Bigfoot in the jungle” movie that you were considering doing.

The Last Savage is still one of my babies and one I’d love to do. Derek Kolstad from the John Wick movies did the most recent draft with me and it’s really great. Hopefully with Skylines coming out, I can convince people that I could actually do it for the budget that I said I could. The other movie, Gigantic, is kind of not happening at this point, but there is another kind of bigger creature adventure story that I’m still circling. This one would be set in the arctic, instead of the jungle, and the name of that is Abomination. I’ll let you think about what that could be about. Those are the two that I’m circling, along with possibly another Skyline adventure. Because who knows!

Well, I wish you luck on getting all of those made and hopefully I can talk to you for each one of them when you do.

Absolutely! Thank you so much!

It’s a shame about Gigantic being in limbo, but I’d say what sounds like a Yeti movie being subbed in for a Bigfoot one is a very even trade. I’m sure Abomination will be a winner. Add in a potential Skyline 4 on top of that? You absolutely have my attention, Mr. O’Donnell. The Last Savage, sounds like the best of the bunch, whoever. A post-apocalyptic fighting tournament movie where the hero was raised by tigers as a boy? SOLD. Liam O’Donnell’s movies might not be for everyone, but thus far they are absolutely for me. Since you’re reading this site, they might just be for you too!

In the meantime, you can check out Skylines in theaters, at your local drive-in, or via most VOD platforms. If you’re also interested in catching up with the other two entries, Skyline is currently streaming on HBO Max and Beyond Skyline can be found on Netflix.

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