This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 363: With Filmmaker Liam O’Donnell .
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #363 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing Liam O’Donnell, another filmmaker who moved to LA and worked his way up and is now writing and directing feature films. He just completed the third film in his sci-fi epic, Skyline series, so we’re gonna talk about that and how that all came together. So stay tuned for that interview. If you find this episode valuable, please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes or leaving me a comment on YouTube or re-tweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook.
These social media shares really do help spread word about the podcast, so they are very much appreciated. Any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcast and then look for Episode Number #363. If you want my free guide, How to Sell a Screenplay In Five Weeks, you can pick that up by going to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. It’s completely free, you just put in your email address and I’ll send you a new lesson once per week for five weeks, along with a bunch of bonus lessons.
I teach the whole process of how to sell your screenplay in that guide. I’ll teach you how to write a professional logline and query letter, and how to find agents, managers and producers who are looking for material. Really is everything you need to know to your screenplay, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. A quick few words about what I’m working on. We’re still plugging away on The Rideshare Killer. I’m recording this right before the new year, so not a lot to report over the last couple of weeks, but we are definitely making progress. We got back the second pass on the trailer and the second pass on the score. I’m doing notes on those things over this next week.
I’m starting to do some real rewriting on the noir thriller that I’m trying to put together that we’re hoping to shoot next year. That’ll start to take up some time in the next few weeks as I really wanna get the script in shape and make sure we’re all happy with it. I’m gonna be reopening up the contest in a couple of weeks. We’ll start taking early bird submissions February 1st. Again, this year we’re going to be concentrating on low budget projects, so scripts that could be produced for less than one million US dollars, but we are also gonna be opening this up for a short film section, and it’ll be very short film section. Again, these will be concentrating on short films that could be produced on a low budget, definitely less than $10,000 and probably even maybe a thousand dollars.
I got to think that through, talk to some short filmmakers and kinda figure out what the budget range is on something that I think I can really get produced. I do run into filmmakers quite often looking for short films, so I’m hoping I’ll have an avenue to really start to promote these two again and get some of them produced. So stay tuned with more updates on that. Those are the main things I’ve been working on over the last couple of weeks. So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m interviewing filmmaker Liam O’Donnell. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Liam to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Liam: I’m happy to be here. Thanks Ashley.
Ashley: So to start out, maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?
Liam: I grew up in Cohasset, Massachusetts which is a picturesque little beach town, about 40 minutes South of Boston. I think like most kids I got interested from, you know, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg films kind of blew my mind. Then James Cameron’s Predator, well, not James Cameron’s Predator, but Predator- Arnold Schwarzenegger and then Terminator II was kind of the movie where I was like, “How do they do that?” I got really fascinated by visual effects. I went to Boston University and I took a screenwriting class there, but I wasn’t a hundred percent committed to it. I was a political science major, but I caught the bug when I was in that class and I was like, “Do you know what, I’m gonna go to LA. I’m just gonna go for entertainment lawyer or just defer a year.”
I decided to defer a year and go out there with my friend, Matthew Santoro who is a visual effects concept designer. The two of us lived together in a really crappy Hollywood apartment with a very low rent, thankfully back in 2004. We ended up meeting Greg and Colin Strause who own Hydraulx Visual Effects and pitching them a bunch of ideas. They liked my writing, they liked his art, and so we became the heads of their pitch department for their commercials, music videos, and eventually PVP II came across their desk. We did the pitch with them for that and they ended up booking that movie. That was like 2006. They just were generous enough to fly me up on set and be kind of an onset creative consultant.
I’d be working in the trailer with Joshua Cordez, the previous artist, and we’d be doing the notes on the next action scene that they’d be filming the next week while they were filming that day. So I’ve done a lot of on-set experience, a lot of getting creative feedback experience and then trying to make a lot of different people happy at the same time.
Ashley: It sounds like you were getting a real good background in special effects, really understanding how special effects are made and created and are used in films.
Liam: Yeah. I mean, just from like, I think the first commercial that we booked with Fresca. It was a bunch of women that were in Fresca bubbles, like ballerinas, singing and dancing around. That was supposed to be how Fresca felt in your mouth. I wrote a treatment out of what their idea was and then a day later you see someone doing the animation for it, and it kinda blew my mind. Then being on set and then they’re all just filmed on green screen, some beautiful camera moves and then boom, the commercial happens. So yeah, right from the beginning kind of getting through the process and how, you know, in a lot of times it is, I don’t wanna say… but the actual filming of it can be fairly simple and it gets kinda built up as this incredibly complicated process.
And it is, but it’s all about hiring really, really smart people who help you from the direction standpoint. You don’t need to be a visual effects genius to make visual effects movies, you need to work with visuals effects geniuses [laughs].
Ashley: Yeah. How did you guys get this job at this special effects company? Maybe just walk us through that. I get a lot of emails from people just looking, how do they get that first break? How do they get their foot in the door? What was your in with the special effects company?
Liam: Well, in the meantime, Matthew… I think for me, the benefit was that I was paired with this guy who did amazing visuals already. We were friends, and so he was helping opening doors that I think if I just moved out, and was like, “I wanna be writer on my own,” never would have happened. That’s one huge benefit. Two was like, in the meantime, we’re working at what I like to call a pot-hand production company, where they were literally feeding us with… it was very, very indie, feeding us with like burritos and pot. That would be what you’d get as your salary. They were doing local cable commercials, so like filming with the 24P camera. I was getting experience directing those.
I directed the first thing was a local cable commercial, then I did a makeup infomercial. Stuff like that where I was making a tiny bit of money, but kind of getting that sort of experience. Then with them, the guys who owned that company were friends with Greg and Colin, and we were just social friends first, but I had this pitch for this really personal esoteric sci-fi film and went to dinner with him and just gave him the pitch and he read it and was like, “This is too crazy, but I really liked the writing.” I think he just remembered that, that when he had another, I think it was E-bay China commercial, and he didn’t have another writer to do it, he sent it to me sand that ended up working really well.
I don’t think we even got that job, but the next job was the Fresca job and we booked that and then we like started booking more and more stuff. So then I guess the other tip I would give people is… I made myself… I was 22, 23 at the time. I had no family, no lights, nothing. I just started showing up to their office every day and they were like, “Oh, do you need a space?” and I was like, “Yeah, that’d be great,” and they gave me a laptop. I was just working in the corner of their office trying to keep a low profile. Then eventually they were like, “Well, what are we paying you?”
Liam: They weren’t actually paying me. It was like… A hundred bucks a day, it was a lot to me back then. I just kinda would be like, “Do you wanna go for a walk?” Because they’re working on visual effects, they’re working on the stuff that’s actually bringing in revenue. I was like, yeah, “We’ll go for a walk and just pitch movie ideas and talk about movies and talk about different things that we could do.” Then they’re like, “Well, you should write down movie ideas.” I was like, “Oh really?” That was the first script that I wrote with them was called Singularity, and it was a black hole movie on earth. We’re very much… they had just done Day After Tomorrow. So it was like, we wanted to do our own big disaster movie, which ended up kind of feeding into, I think what Skyline actually became, which was our own independent small version of a disaster movie that we can film and control ourselves.
Ashley: So let’s dig into Skyline. We’re looking at Skyline’s is the 2020, the third installment of this trilogy. Maybe just back us up a little bit and kinda just tell us what is the premise of Skyline and then bring us up to date on the current Skylines here in 2020.
Liam: Sure, yeah. I mean the first Skyline from 2010 was literally just, it’s a bunch of people waking up after a night of partying and seeing bright lights outside and slowly revealing that aliens have come to earth and that they’re mesmerizing and trancing people and mass abducting them onto the ships. In the very end we revealed that they’re basically here for our human brains as the resource. That was kind of very much a zombie movie script-wise and story-wise with a sci-fi gloss sheen. It was very much written to the location because the director and producer, co-director Greg Strause, that was his penthouse that he had just moved into. I went up to that penthouse and looked around, we were like, “There’s a movie here. We have to figure out what it is.”
So it kind of naturally all came from there and we ended up making a deal with that building and all the different set pieces all came from the different locations that we had access to, like the parking garage, the polo deck, and of course the helipad on the rooftop. It was very much like making a movie within the limitations of what we had and how we can kind of shape it and contain it and force them to be stuck in this in this high rise.
Ashley: Yeah. Now when you were starting out and you guys made this first film, did you envision it as a trilogy? The first film was more successful than you guys had expected, so you went on and made a second one? What was the thinking there as far as doing a trilogy versus just a one-off indie film?
Liam: Definitely not a trilogy. It was a little bit of a one-off until we were in post and you know, Relativity and Universal words distributing, and I think it was Tucker Tooley at Relativity and Robbie Brenner and Ryan Kavanaugh. They were asking us whether a sequel would be. They really liked the film. So we started brainstorming and we had like a real big version of what Beyond Skyline was, where it was like probably a $40 million movie. Of course the movie came out and it was successful globally, but domestically they had really high hopes for it, and it did about half of what they were expecting. It didn’t end up getting some type of blown out, big sequel. It ended up being like the foreign buyers in the indie film market kept asking about a sequel.
We had this treatment that needed to be kind of pared down and made more suitable and have it all kind of be figured out and time was ticking. It’d been like two years, people would like keep the tires on it, and then, you know, we were kind of trying to get people to pay for the actual script because we had the treatment, but we wanted them to pay for the script. It was like, I think it got to 2013 and I was like, it’s kinda now, or never. I went to them and said, “I’ll write the script out, I’ll spec it out, but I’d like to direct it if I do that.” They said, “Okay, yeah, go for it.” Because I think at that time it was like a little bit of, yeah, they said, now or never like a diminishing asset. Like either give it a shot or it’s not gonna happen again.
So 2014, we ended up having a script that we really liked and written it for Frank Grillo, who at that point, I thought was someone that I was just a fan of. Then all of a sudden, boom, Purge: Anarchy comes out and he had this big, huge hit. I felt like, man, we might not be able to get him, but thankfully, we were able to thread the needle on his schedule and land him into that film, which was a big break for us.
Ashley: Yeah. I’m curious too, just when I looked at the trailer and I was researching this interview, it very much looks like a War of the Worlds, Independence Day. I’m just curious as a writer and the creator of this, how do you give it unique spin? Clearly there is a sort of canon of films that are similar, but what is your unique hook and how do you give this movie a unique twist to differentiate it from all the other similar ones?
Liam: Yeah, I mean, that’s… each one is definitely like… I don’t even try to hide my influences and I try to relish them and embrace them and make them sort of drunk on movies in a weird way. But it is kind of like you always come back to embrace what is the unique part of these movies and these franchises. And it really is to me like the alien human hybrid aspect to it, and the fact that we… the first one, they were ripping out the hero’s brain. The movie ends with the literal hero of the film getting his brain ripped out in front of his girlfriend and then stuffed into an alien being. So it’s like, that’s our unique hook and then embracing that in the second one that, yes, we have the War of the Worlds father-son type story, but what if the son in War of the Worlds, we actually intercut to him in that part?
Because he kind of just goes away and then magically shows up at the end. We intercut to him and then we literally rip his brain out of his body and stuff him into an alien being, and then when his son kind of shows up at the end and this is a real thing, he’s in the alien creature at that point. That went into part three, which is obviously very inspired by Aliens and Starship Troopers and Pitch Black, but really embrace the fact that we have this team on a mission and it’s actually led by the hybrid aliens. It’s not led by the humans. The humans are part of it, but there’s inner turmoil and inner politics and distrust between the group because Lindsey Morgan who plays Rose, she was exposed to all of the alien light while she was in the room and ended up growing and having all these kind of fantastical powers and her adopted brother is that son from the second movie who was a human brain put into an alien body.
Those two are really the heroes, it’s not the humans. So, yeah, it is always kind of like just leaning into the uniqueness and what I like about it is that we’re kind of unapologetically strange and we never try to put the genie back in the bottle or the toothpick back in the bottle. The world basically ends at the first movie and we kind of go with that. There’s never gonna be like some happy ending that undoes the damage from the first film. It’s all about dealing with that trauma moving forward.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. How can people see Skyline? Do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like?
Liam: Yeah. In all English-speaking territories, we are available December 18th on iTunes, Amazon, On Demand, VOD. We’re in select theaters, which is generally, usually for Beyond Skyline and that meant just 10 screens worldwide. As of right now all we know it’s gonna be a hundred screens and drive ins and stuff like that, but as the lock-in gets worse, as the lockdowns are getting worse. I have no idea. But I would encourage people to see it in a drive in if you could. That’d be awesome. I’m hoping to get to see it in a drive in, but yeah, it’s definitely like the similar type of release to Beyond, and then I think within a month in January we should be on Blu-ray and DVD as well.
Ashley: Perfect. What’s the best way for people to keep up with what you’re doing? Twitter, Facebook, a blog, anything you’re comfortable sharing, I’ll round up for the show notes.
Liam: It’s Liam Odin, O-D-I-N at Twitter and Instagram, and there’s a kind of Skyline’s Facebook page that I run too, where I update the three of those. I think it’s Skyline’s film for one to three for the [inaudible 00:18:36] for Facebook.
Ashley: Got you. I’ll track those down and put those in the show notes. Liam, I really appreciate you coming on and talking with me today about this film. Good luck with this film and good luck with all your future projects as well.
Liam: Absolutely. Thank you very much, Ashley.
Ashley: Thank you. We’ll talk to you later. Bye.
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On the next episode of the podcast, I’m gonna be interviewing John Suits, who has been on the show twice before in Episode #44 with his film, The Scribbler and Episode #309 with his sci-fi film called 3022. Now he’s back on the show to talk about his latest film Breach, starring Bruce Willis. John also directed the Die Hard battery commercial, where Bruce Willis reprised his role from the iconic eighties film, Die Hard. We talk about that and how doing this film with Willis actually helped him land that commercial, which is kind of counterintuitive. I actually thought when I was preparing for this interview, I kinda figured he did the commercial and then the commercial led to the film.
But they really weren’t all that connected, but I do think there was a little bit of helping him getting the commercial since he had already worked with Bruce Willis. But he explains it all in the episode. It’s a fascinating story. John is a real doer, he’s out there constantly making films. I highly encourage you look him up on IMDb. He’s done, at this point, dozens of feature films, but in any event, we have another fascinating interview with John next week. So keep an eye out for that episode. That’s the show. Thank you for listening.