Interview: Skyline Screenwriters Liam O’Donnell And Joshua Cordes
Watching the trailer for Skyline you realize how incredibly insane the whole concept is: giant, organic alien spaceships in the sky; huge, elephant-like extraterrestrials on the ground; blue beams of light shining down on cities around the world; and tentacles shooting out of everywhere. It couldn’t have been an easy job putting it all together, but that’s where Liam O’Donnell and Joshua Cordes came in.
The screenwriters for the project, O’Donnell and Cordes worked together quickly to write the script for what they call “biggest independent movie of all time.” Speaking with them at the Hydraulx visual effects workshop in Los Angeles, we discussed possible influences for the film, their work schedule and bribing neighbors in director Greg Strause’s apartment to keep them off their backs.
How did you guys come to this project?
Liam O’Donnell: We’ve been working with them for a long period of time. I’ve been working for about five years, might be six, but I started writing their treatments for commercials and music videos, so we’ve been developing different projects for a while. It was like we had that conversation and we’re trying to think about movies that we could do in Greg [Strause’s] house. I was like, “Well, what if we take that kind of ‘end of the world’ concept and throw it out the window. And then Josh has been animating with them for…
Joshua Cordes: Ten years?
LO: He doesn’t want to give away his age. [laughs] So he had written a script and we’ve been trading notes back and forth on our scripts for the past two years, and it was a gritty horror film. I was like, “I really like what you did with the characters and the horror,” and I knew that that was going to big a big element for this. So I was like, “What do you think of that idea?” He immediately had a lot to say. That very night I did a three-page treatment and [Josh] did a three-page treatment and they lined up on the bigger beats. So we just took the best parts of each one.
JC: Perfectly illustrated.
LO: Yeah, it was pretty quick. It was like, “Oh, you want to do that? All right!” and then, “Oh, I like your characters.” Josh sort of came up with this coastal-tension thing, which ends up being almost autobiographical because he’s from the New York area, I’m from the Boston area. So coming out to L.A., that first yeah, especially that first weekend, it’s kind of a big “Oh, yeah!” - a kind of sense of fun that you sort of want to lead in to a sci-fi/horror kind of thing.
JC: Kill all of the people you just met! [laughs]
LO: I lived there with another friend of mine, we lived on the fourth floor. Greg’s place is the penthouse, so I knew the building. And [Josh], of course, had been over there and been drunk in the hot tub and knew where these places would all come together [laughs]
JC: That’s pretty true.
LO: So we didn’t need to live in there while we were writing it because we were very familiar with the apartment. But we went over there to block out scenes.
JC: It was kind of a cool cheat sheet because it’s like, “Oh, I have a cool idea for an action sequence, let’s go run it through the set right now.” When we were writing it, he’s a night owl and I’m a morning guy – or at least I used to be a morning guy – but what would happen is, I would wake up, my girlfriend wakes up early, so I would get up early with her, go to the gym. Then at 7:00am I’d start writing and then at 3:00pm I would send what I did to him and he’d work all night and then in the morning I’d have his stuff. And then we’d talk about what we did, bring it all together and it just worked great. We thought we were going to kill each other. It was great.
It seems natural that you would fight, creating this kind-of two-headed monster.
JC: We argued more over Halo than we did when we were writing the script so it was kind of nice.
Did you guys take any direct influence from other alien invasion films?
LO: I re-watched all of the Romero zombie movies before. I went a little classy, I watched Hitchcock’s Lifeboat because it was kind of that self-contained thing. I was trying to think beyond what I really like – I like 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead, the original and the remake. So I wanted to kind of get a little bit beyond that.
JC: The original Dawn of the Dead, it’s in the top five. Whenever you think of people trapped in a cool place for a set period of time it just comes to mind. Worshiping all of these movies so long – it’s all floating out there somewhere in your mind. It was kind of fun, though, because even though we had restraints with our sets, we could go bananas with everything else.
LO: It’s the obvious thing. We liked Independence Day a lot when that came out.
JC: Oh yeah, The Thing is my favorite all-time movie.
LO: Obviously Alien and Aliens we’re huge fans of. Loved parts of the War of the Worlds remake. There are some awesome set-pieces in that movie.
JC: It’s terrifying…okay, the last five minutes were bullshit.
LO: There are some awesome scenes.
JC: Oh God, why did the son have to live! But that’s pretty lofty. I like the original War of the Worlds too.
JC: We kind of had our own action beats, like the tentacle stuff is kind of a surprise reveal – where someone escapes, it’s like “Oh! Not so fast.” That was some of the stuff that they incorporated, but then specific features and stuff, that’s the creature design guys taking our ideas and just running with it. There’s definitely shared back and forth. And the brothers [Strause] are super involved in the creature stuff. They like making things more difficult. I like things to be easy. “No, it can’t have proportions like anything on Earth.” I’m like, “Great, have fun animating that, guys.” [laughs] I’m also the animation supervisor on the movie, so it’s been challenging because the brothers want pretty wacky creatures. It’s really give and take. I couldn’t be any happier with the monsters.
What was the timeline like for the script?
JC: I just remember with the success of Paranormal Activity, [the Strause brothers] just went, “Man, those guys just went out and did it! That’s awesome!” They were trying to foster simple projects and you get you get your interests and things cool off. And then they’re like, “We have cameras! We have an apartment! Let’s just do something.” And we were like, “Cool.” That was in November and we wrote our outline…I’m trying to put it all together…your honor. [laughs]. We wrote our outline and then on Thanksgiving they shot a teaser to stir up interest and get initial funding. Basically they used the footage and our treatment, our script, to get the presales overseas and based on our treatment they did a little teaser trailer. I keep saying they shot it on Thanksgiving because I was like, “Dude, it’s Thanksgiving. That’s messed up.” [laughs] But I stopped by and brought everybody…well, I didn’t buy everything; I picked up a bunch of McDonalds. And I was like, “Okay, I’m going back to Thanksgiving dinner.” Then December was the hard writing period and then January was revising it and shooting in March. That would have been a much more concise answer if I had just gone over it in my head [laughs].
I know you guys can’t get into the production budget too much, but will people be shocked when they see what’s up on the screen?
JC: At the end of the day people pay $12 or $16 and they will be just as entertained. Less money, more money, it doesn’t matter, but people will totally be shocked because it was such an efficient model. We had 20 people in a room with a bunch of cameras, we shot it for dirt cheap, there were no trailers, no nothing, all the stuff that bogs down. There was no [group of] 50 people doing who-knows-what-they-do. All that money’s up on the screen, baby.
LO: If there’s room for hyperbole, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, our executive producer, said he thought it was the “biggest independent movie of all time.”
JC: Sounds about right.
LO: In its price range, obviously. We had a tax break. I don’t know if the truth will ever come out, but it was an amazing stretch. It was a tribute to [producer Kristian James Andresen] and his brothers and the creative ways they came up with.
JC: Basically pissing off all of the neighbors in Greg’s complex is how we achieved this movie.
LO: That’s actually not fair because some people were like “Oh wow, cool!” and other people were like, “We’re gonna get you.”
LO: Yeah, we had to pay people off.
JC: That was where most of the budget went. We had to give gift certificates to restaurants, people whose cars we were never even near saying, “You dinged my car!” How much is it going to cost to shut you up? But again, too, a lot of people were cool and they got it.
Are you guys putting together anything else now?
LO: Skyline 2 – we finished the treatment two weeks ago. Which was really kind of crazy.
JC: We’ll be filming that, what?
LO: We’ll be filming around the same time Skyline 1 was last year. My girlfriend has already pre-broken up with me [laughs]. So yeah, we did the treatment for Skyline 2, we can knock that out in similar fashion. We have another project that’s going to be more straight action/sci-fi – and I’m not sure I want to give too much else away about that. Josh has his own project.
JC: Yeah, kind of a small horror movie, grimy, little urban thriller. A little less family friendly than Skyline. I love sci-fi, I love everything, but horror movies are what do it for me. So, you know, do this little cheepy on the side and go back to doing these bigger cheepies on the other side.
Are you going to make it through Hydraulx?
JC: Well, it kind of doesn’t have any visual effects, so it’s not their model, but I have their support, they have all the gear and toys I need. There is a visual component, but we’ll see. Uncle Greg breaks out his pocketbook and it will make everything easier. Some of the scenes kind of disturb him so I have to kind of talk him through it and tell him it’s going to be okay [laughs].
For full coverage of the Skyline Preview, click here to see my recaps, interviews and more!
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