Liam O’Donnell interview

A bit of a departure

As some of you may know, I’m often to be found killing time on the Twitter. Someone else who happens to be similarly inclined is Liam O’Donnell, co-writer and producer of Skyline. After reading my review of his flick (which you can see if you click here where it says “Skyline“) Liam kindly agreed to an interview.

Most critics who reviewed the movie were somewhat less favourable than me, and post-mortem articles and interviews have been done to death if you’ll pardon the pun, so my thanks to Liam for consenting to one more.

As the site grows, this may become kind of a regular feature here. As always, feel free to comment.

(5W)Firstly, tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your background? You’ve worked in visual effects before writing Skyline; is this a step you have wanted to take, or did you get into writing more by accident?

(LO’D)I always wanted to write. It was just a matter of gaining the courage and confidence to pursue it professionally. I actually don’t have a background in visual effects. All my visual effects work has [been] working on story consulting, mostly of action scenes and set pieces. So out of the group on Skyline, I was actually the only one who didn’t do VFX and constantly asked, “can we do that?” with Greg, Colin, and Joshua nodding their head, “no problem!”

I went to college for political science and was planning on studying entertainment law. But I deferred for a year and came to Los Angeles in 2005 to just gain as much experience as possible. I ended up meeting Greg and Colin [Strause – Skyline directors] within six months of moving here and we’ve been collaborators ever since.

I started writing professionally on commercial and music video treatments, which are highly detailed pitches that directors submit to win jobs. For a commercial, you usually receive a storyboard and some copy, then meet with the directors and brain storm ideas, then write a couple of pages on their vision and how they’re going to deliver the best version of that concept possible.

Music video treatments are usually a lot less formal and a lot more creative and therefore more challenging. I got into the music video world as budgets were really shrinking, so it was good training for a low budget feature work. You had to imagine something striking with a good visual hook that could be accomplished on an incredibly low budget.

All the while I was developing feature ideas and working on my screenwriting. In the beginning, I just read as many scripts as I could and tried to absorb the different styles and formatting I responded to. But like a lot of first timers, I was way too precious with my work. Now, I don’t hesitate to burn it down to find something better.

Colin and Greg have spoken about what they called “the Black Monday lunch”, where they first pitched Skyline to you and Joshua Cordes [co-writer]. How was that meeting from your side of the table?

Anytime you’re meeting with your friends and collaborators and things just start clicking and firing on all cylinders… it’s a fantastic feeling. We knew we had a concept we could accomplish on our own with relatively little money that we were all passionate and excited about. Moments like that are few and far between and chasing them is what keeps me going.

You have referred to Skyline as “Dawn of the Dead with aliens”. Was that a conscious reference point during the script development? What other inspirations were there?

Dawn of the Dead was definitely a conscious reference point, but Night of the Living Dead was probably even more so. In either case, they’re two of the best horror films ever made and they do an amazing job at telling an epic story of the end of the world from the human perspective. But the characters in those films receive just the right amount of information about the bigger story to make intelligent decisions whereas I think we let ours down a bit by not giving them or the audience the necessary exposition. It makes it hard to put yourself in the character’s shoes and ask what you would do if you don’t agree or understand why they’re pursuing something.

The other references are pretty obvious to anyone who watched the movie: Starship Troopers, War of the Worlds, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Independence Day, etc. but because of the high rise in Los Angeles setting, Die Hard was actually a prevalent reference for us as the opening follows a similar setup. Unfortunately, we forgot to add Hans Gruber.

How did the writing process work for you and Josh?

We work very well together and produced the first draft extremely quickly. I write late at night. It allows me to spend time with my family during the day and work when they’re asleep. Josh is up at the crack of dawn, so we just kept handing it off to each other and had a finished draft in a month. But I think that speed ended up hurting us. While it got everyone excited, we started rushing into production.

The movie was very much born out of the frustration of the studio development process and how long it can take to make a film. I wrote dozens and dozens script notes and pitches with Greg and Colin over the years for different studio projects or producer’s meetings. And suddenly two years pass and you haven’t made anything. So they went out and bought all this camera gear and we knew we were filming the movie in Greg’s condo. The only thing holding us back from shooting RIGHT NOW was finishing the script.

You really need to time to fail and correct mistakes and figure out the best possible way to tell your story. The last rewrite I did on War of the Ages took twice as long as the entire development of Skyline. It goes back to not being afraid to burn it all down to find something better but if you’re already casting the movie and moving into production, you have to hold on to something.

What’s the latest on Skyline 2?

Greg was just in Japan last week for premiere of Skyline at festival there and lo and behold it was very well received and there was a lot of excitement for the sequel. So you never know. It’s done great business overseas and performed decently on DVD and Blu-ray. Our original story for the sequel was a much bigger movie but there are ways to retain the same ideas on a lesser budget.

I know everyone would love for another chance to finish the story, which hopefully would redeem Skyline in a way. We’ll have to wait and see. Even if it never happens, the year I spent working on Skyline was a life changing experience. I met a lot of great people, some now lifelong friends and in the end got to make a movie with my best friends. From the highest of highs to the lowest of lows it was all worth it.

What can you tell us about War of the Ages? From the Brothers’ description*, it sounds like it could be The League of Extraordinary Generals (with apologies to Alan Moore).

Interesting you mention that because I believe we share one the same inspirations in DC’s Justice League. I know I am not the best writer in the world so I am always looking for an advantage. How do I write a better sentence? “Batman punches Superman”. That’s a very simple and some might say childish sentence but in the right context it can contain a tremendous amount of power. So for me War of the Ages was my chance to get to play with the power of iconography.

The characters and the overall story came to me very quickly.   But the hardest aspect of making a concept like this work was building the world and mythology where all these different leaders from different time lines could co-exist. I borrowed liberally from several ancient myths and just had a lot of fun pitting these massive egos against each other in an epic battle for the chance at immortality.

Tonally it’s somewhere in between Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s action packed with a warrior’s journey at its center. There’s a large fantasy element but it’s definitely not above having some fun with the concept. So while the characters are all grounded in history, it aims more towards their legendary status than purely historical.

The way the Brothers plan to develop, self-finance and produce their own projects reminds me of George Lucas and Lucasfilm. Would you be involved with that long-term?

I am involved in that long term and have been since I started working with them. We’ve been fortunate to work with other talented writers as well, developing our different ideas so we’ve actually built up quite a slate of projects at the moment that we’re all excited about.

Because of how we made Skyline and the amount of movie that was on screen for the budget, the Brothers are very much in demand as producers right now. So there will also be films outside of our development that we produce as well.

After alien invasions and sword-and-sandal epics, what other genres do you have your eyes on?

Hydraulx Entertainment’s only real mandate is that the film has a strong visual effects element so it allows us to tell lots of different kinds of stories. We’re developing a great children’s adventure, a sci-fi comedy, action, horror, basically every genre I could ask for.

As for what I’m writing next, I am finishing a draft of a sci-fi action film with Joshua that we’re developing for the Brothers.   It’s sort of an American James Bond film where the villains actually succeed at the end of Act 1 and now he’s got save what’s left of the world.

(*There’s more on War of the Ages in this interview with the Strause Brothers at Movieweb)

Go ahead, punk. Make my day.

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