Skyline brings an infusion of visual innovation into what is, otherwise, fairly familiar science fiction terrain: aliens attack the earth, the earth fights back. Although the film is purported to have some unexpected twists and turns, it is the story of the making of the film that is truly unusual.
Brothers Colin and Greg Strause are the definition of self-made men. They are self-taught visual effects artists who moved to Los Angeles and built one of the most prominent effects houses in the industry, Hydraulix. The company has provided visual effects for a variety of ground breaking blockbuster films, including: 300, and Avatar. In addition to their effects work, the brother’s have also directed several commercials and music videos and made their feature debut with AVPR: Aliens vs. Predator – Requiem (though we forgive them for that).
Inspired by the success of Paranormal Activity, the Brothers wanted to produce a feature on their own – one where they would be given full creative license with “no notes from pencil pushers.” They have created a production formula that marries their self-made “in the family” style, with the large-scale, “disaster movie-sized” visual effects that the brothers are known for. With Skyline, the brothers seek to, as co-writer of the film Liam O’ Donnell says, “have their cake and eat it too.”
Production operated like a small-scale independent film would. The brothers’ own the cameras and all of the post-production equipment used to create the film. They shot the large majority of the film in Greg’s home. The crew is made up of long-time employees and friends, and most of the people associated with the film functioned in multiple roles.
The brother’s brought on their long time visual effects supervisor, Joshua Cordes, to write the screenplay and partnered him with Liam O’Donnell, who had worked for the brothers, writing commercials and music videos. Cordes not only wrote the script, but worked on the pre-vis, was the second unit director, sometime camera operator, and is now working on the final visual effects, as are the brothers themselves. Producer Kristian James Andresen doubled as the 1st AD for the film.
The project began at a lunch at Houston’s restaurant about two weeks before Thanksgiving. The brothers called the production company “Black Monday” in honor of that lunch, where, feeling fed up with the red-tape and bloat of the entertainment industry; they decided to “do their own thing.”
At the lunch, Greg pitched his brother Colin and the two co-writers for the film, Cordes and O’Donnell, on the idea of shooting something at his house for 50K. They began to develop the concept for the film and wrote the script to fit the location that they had vs. writing a script and then finding appropriate locations – again in the vein of Paranormal Activity.
They shot a teaser trailer on Thanksgiving Day in Greg Strause’s LA high-rise, which served as the location for the bulk of the final film. Still completely self-financed, they started casting in December, using the trailer and the script to pitch the actors. Snubbing the studio trend for blockbuster invasion films, they cast established but lesser-known actors, including: Eric Balfour (24), Scottie Thompson (Trauma), David Zayas (Dexter), Donald Faison (Scrubs) and Brittany Daniel (The Game).
Most of the actors were simply offered the part after a very simple casting process – in fact, David Zayas’ role was written with him in mind specifically. Donald Faison, however, tells a funny story of coming in and giving a comical read to the less-than-thrilled Strause Brothers, then needing to return to read again, like an action hero, before he was offered the role. Faison also says that he essentially is playing Greg and Colin Strause. He is “Terry” a “special effects genius, and everybody works for me (Faison), and being that I play Greg and Colin Strause, I’m the leader.”
Everyone working on the film was paid no more than union regulation rates, in lieu of large initial salaries; the cast and crew worked on deferrals, “points,” and a stake in the film’s final profits. This is a fairly common practice for independent films, the difference being that if the initial buzz about Skyline is any indicator, these stakes may end up paying off very handsomely, indeed.
The brother’s took the script and the “thanksgiving trailer” to the Berlin Film Festival and were able to secure international pre-sales for the film, which helped them to continue to finance the production. At that point, they were able to show a portion of the film’s conclusion, which brought them to Relativity Media and eventually Universal for distribution.
The film unleashed its initial marketing blast at this year’s comic-con, to great success, and a splash of controversy. Hydraulix was doing the effects for another Los Angeles based alien-invasion film, Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Battle: Los Angeles. When the Sony caught wind of Skyline, which has a planned release date four months prior to the Battle: Los Angeles release, they felt egregiously mislead by the brother’s.
We were able to see that Hydraulix is continuing to do work on Battle: Los Angeles, but the brother’s said they were not legally able to say anything more than “they are very different films.”
Skyline‘s basic premise is that:
Strange lights descend on the city of Los Angeles, drawing people outside like moths to a flame where an extraterrestrial force threatens to swallow the entire human population off the face of the Earth.
The idea sprung from a visual idea that the brothers had, in which aliens would “lure us out of our homes, out of our places of refuge with a beautiful, pulsating light”; like the quintessential “moths to a flame.” Once you look into the light, you are pulled to the ships in the sky, leaving all the buildings on the Earth intact, and nearly all the humans abducted. So the long-term franchise question becomes, what happens to those who are left behind?
As for story: the film follows a group of friends who awaken from a late night of partying in Los Angeles to find themselves with a “box seat to the end of the world.”
The film’s writers tell us that there is not necessarily an over-arching political or sociological message inherent in the film. It is simply an engaging and exciting sci-fi/action movie, set against a stunning visual landscape. As the brothers say, it is “an event,” these are organic creatures, functioning as living beings do – in other words, ensuring their own survival. It is about how human beings handle “the event.” If there is any underlying theme to be found in the story, it is, according to writer Joshua Cordes, the tale of a “thirty year old man-boy, manning up and becoming a father – metaphorically.”
With a scheduled release date of November 12th, Skyline will have come full-circle from initial concept to theatrical premiere in one short year. The concept was planned as a franchise and there is a sequel already in development, which the brothers plan to shoot in spring of next year. Their ultimate goal is to create the “live-action Pixar.”