Joseph McCabe reaches for the Skyline in an interview with the directors, writer and CG animation supervisor
So how does Skyline , the indie apocalyptic thriller from special effects maestros turned directors Colin and Greg Strause, differ from the countless other alien invasion films we’ve seen? The answer, according to the filmmakers, is in Skyline ’s particular type of invasion.
“It originally started off as a concept that Colin and I had,” says Greg, who – joined by his brother, their writer/second-unit director/CG-and-animation supervisor Joshua Cordes, and co-writer Liam O’Donnell – speaks with SFX at the team’s Santa Monica-based special-effects company Hydraulx. “We were spit-balling ideas and scripts we were developing, and we were just, like, ‘What if aliens were to come to Earth and basically take advantage of us in a way that we hadn’t seen before?’ It was kind of inspired by the Greek mythology of the Sirens that would sing to the sailors and lure their boats to crash into the rocks. We had the idea of, what if the aliens let these bright, glowing orbs come down from their ships that emitted this beautiful, pulsating pattern of light. And if a human sees that light, they become entranced, and enter a zombie-like state and it would cause a physical reaction and draw everyone in to where this light source was. It would pull everyone out of their houses into the open air where they were vulnerable and then everyone would be out in the open and whoosh! They could suck you up in a very efficient way. We thought it was a cool new take on the alien invasion genre.”
When they conceived of the film, the brothers were growing increasingly frustrated by the difficulties of getting a Hollywood genre project off the ground. But they found inspiration in the smash-hit success of the low-budget indie thriller Paranormal Activity .
“We were all sitting around spit-balling ideas at a restaurant at lunchtime,” adds Greg, “and this was the week after the first Paranormal Activity came out. We were saying, ‘If Oren Peli can shoot a movie in his house, we’re going to shoot a movie in my house. My condo.’ It kind of started out like that.”
Despite Skyline ’s modest budget, the directors enjoyed some benefits denied them on their previous film.
“We had a week of rehearsals with the actors in the location,” says Colin. “We didn’t have a single day of rehearsals on Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem . So that was kind of different.”
Greg nods in agreement. “That was one thing that was different. We were this tiny, modest, independent budget, but we had some luxuries on this that we didn’t have on our $40 million studio movie. Not only were we able to do it really efficiently, but we were also able to do things in a better way than we were allowed to on the last one. We wanted to rehearse and just because of the way things went down, it was not allowed and that hurts the film. In this case, it was really good that we got to do some of those fundamental steps. We got to do a full cast read-through, we didn’t get to do that on the last movie. We pre-vised all the action scenes, so every action set piece was fully pre-vised by Josh and the CG team, so that would parallel a big-budget studio tent pole. The unconventional thing was we green lit the movie ourselves without a script. We cast it without a script.”
Despite their interest in doing something different with the genre, the brothers freely acknowledge the film’s influences. They number among them films and filmmakers who’ve inspired their careers.
“Within the first two months of me moving to LA when I was just a 20 year-old kid,” says Greg, “I started working on the X-Files TV show doing visual effects. Just fresh off the boat, we migrated to getting into sci-fi work.”
“And Terminator 2 is the movie that got us out to LA, adds Colin. “When we do a lot of the blocking of our action scenes, there’s a little bit of Cameron in there. He’s kind of our idol and the inspiration for these big visuals. We wanted to make the movie fun and there’s some scary stuff, some really good character beats, but also we really just wanted something where there’s airplanes flying around, to feel like a ride to the audience, [like] when you see a movie like Terminator 2 , those types of films, Jim’s the best in the world at. We hope you get a little bit of the same vibe out of this thing.”
“Another thing we wanted to do was embrace convention,” says Cordes. “There are certain things that you need from your alien movie. But also we tried to do things a little different, like how people just become filled with all this information about these aliens that just arrived. We didn’t want the egghead scientist in the room outright explaining things to you. No laptops that mysteriously connect to their mainframe and bring them down.”
“But also too,” he laughs, “we like to have fun with the convention, or the cliché, by setting up a scene that usually plays out a certain way and then going another way.”
Co-writer O’Donnell joins in. “From the history of sci-fi, we were referencing everything from Twilight Zone – “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” to Hitchcock's Lifeboat to Romero movies… There’s pretty much a bit of every movie you love in sci-fi, horror and action in your head while you’re creating this.”
“You try not to ape the stuff you love,” says Cordes, “but you try to embody the spirit and capture it.”
“We had a set of parameters we wanted,” says Greg. “One thing we wanted was a really big alien, like a King Kong/Godzilla-sized alien. It’s always easy to make ’em look cool when they’re that big. We also wanted one of them that wasn’t bound by the rules of gravity, so we have a couple that can fly around. They all share a common thread in their DNA, of being able to emit this light energy that can entrance people. That theme is connected not just between the creatures, but also the ships as well. It keeps everything connected even though you've got some variety of species throughout the film.”
As befitting a contemporary sci-fi saga, even an independent one, Skyline ’s creators already have other chapters to tell, should the film prove successful enough.
“The original idea was there was a pretty finite ending to the movie,” says Colin, “and then we were kind of going through it, and about a month and a half out from shooting we realised we built so much cool mythos and all this cool stuff...”
“We just started making the movie bigger,” says Greg. “It is a six-piece epic...”
“Four!” laughs Colin.
“Nine!” says Cordes.
“Originally it was a trilogy,” says Greg.
“We figure,” says Colin, “there’s enough story for the first three to be on Earth. But it is fun when you start thinking about that. Originally it was just going to be one movie and we thought, ‘Wait a minute, we've done so much cool stuff here…’ And you can’t have a three-hour movie, so you’ve got to cut it off and go, ‘Okay, this is what we can do for this one, but we’ve got enough cool ideas for a couple more.’”