Movies & TV / Columns

Liam O’Donnell On Directing the Sci-Fi Action Sequel Skylines, A Potential Fourth FIlm

December 19, 2020 | Posted by Bryan Kristopowitz

The 411 Interview: Liam O’Donnell


Liam O’Donnell is a writer, producer, and director who has been involved in making movies since, according to imdb, 2007, when he worked on the visual effects for Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem. O’Donnell’s directorial debut was the awesome sci-fi action horror sequel Beyond Skyline, which came out in 2017 and starred Frank Grillo and Iko Uwais (check out my review of that flick here). O’Donnell’s latest movie is Skylines, a sequel to Beyond Skyline and the third movie in the Skyline franchise. Skylines will be in select movie theatres and drive-ins and on various digital and On Demand platforms starting December 18th, 2020. In this interview, O’Donnell talks with this writer about making Skylines, working with actors like star Lindsey Morgan, Rhona Mitra, and Daniel Bernhardt, and more.



Bryan Kristopowitz: Did you always intend to direct Skylines?

Liam O’Donnell: It went back and forth a few times, actually, because of scheduling and competing projects but I always wanted to direct it. At one point I was just going to write and produce but then the project stalled out and it looked like Skylines wasn’t going to happen. But producer Matthew Chausse was able to set it up as a UK co-production and secure stages for us in Vilnius, Lithuania. So, piece by piece it came together and really surpassed all expectations and, thankfully, I was able to eventually come on and direct it. However, it made for a more condensed prep time for me and had me constantly staying up every night until 4am working on the next day’s shot lists and blocking. The first two weeks of the schedule were pretty fleshed out but stuff like the big armory battle set piece were not pre-viz’ed – even the action choreography came very late in the process – so that was really the hardest and most elaborate set piece I’ve done and the one I am most proud of how it came out. It’s a lot of moving pieces with action, drama, horror, humor, and hopefully emotion by the end.

BK: What is the proper title for Skylines? Is it Skylines? Is it Skyline 3? Is it Skylin3s?

LO: SKYLINES! It was a very deliberate hat tip/salute to one of my favorite films by one of my favorite directors in James Cameron’s Aliens. That was the name on the script, slate, director’s chair, you name it. Then in post I was told we couldn’t clear the title because of a German Netflix show, that’s a completely different genre and medium, which was frustrating. So we opted for Skylin3s because it was the closest thing to our original intent and reminded people it was part of a bigger franchise. And even though that title became a bit of an internet punchline, it did kind of work in raising awareness and I liked how easy it was to search for our stuff on social media. But then a few weeks ago Vertical said the 3 was causing issues with the title on VOD portals so for English speaking territories we could change it back to Skylines. Of course I’d already finished the movie with the title Skylin3s in it so I just kind shrugged at that point! All 3 of the films have different titles in different territories anyway. I just definitely didn’t want it to be Skyline 3 because I think it’s more of standalone than that. I really try to make each one work on its own so that if you come across one on a streaming app or cable TV years down the line you can just enjoy it on its own.


BK: Where was Skylines filmed?

LO: We filmed in Vilnius, Lithuania. The space ship sets and the alien planet of Cobalt 1 were created on the stages there. We built the tent village on the backlot. We filmed the bunker exterior on location at a former Soviet bunker built during the Cold War which was really cool but also eerie. I didn’t want to do any interiors there! The air inside was chilling and it just felt existentially heavy to me. We also shot at a warehouse that doubled for our bunker interiors and Dr. Mal’s lab.

BK: How was Skylines cast? What was it like working with Rhona Mitra? What was it like working with Daniel Bernhardt?

LO: Well obviously we built this around Lindsey first and then once it was a U.K. co-production and we changed the setting from post-apocalyptic Los Angeles to London that really focused us on the rest of the cast. We had a great casting director out of the UK named Colin Jones who, along with our producer Matthew Chausse, helped us land these legendary British actors like Alexander Siddig, Rhona Mitra, and James Cosmo who really ground the first act and set the table for Lindsey and the whole movie.


I loved working with Rhona who really got into the playfulness of the film and started ad-libbing one liners and asking for more kills. It was an embarrassment of riches to have someone who has that kind of star presence and badass charisma leading our b-story on Earth. And I really liked the energy of her and Lindsey on screen together. We’re used to seeing seasoned male action stars paired with up and comers but you don’t really see it with female action stars so that was pretty cool to me and it had a unique feel to it.

Daniel Bernhardt was one of the first people I cast. I’d been a fan of his for years and he just fit the character of Owens perfectly. And it helped that he was Swiss, adding to the European vibe of this chapter. I generally opt to embrace everyone’s accents in these movies. From Iko in Beyond to Ieva Andrejevaite who plays Alexi in Skylines, I like the authenticity of a lot of different accents which is what these movies are like behind the camera when we’re making them with such varied, international crews. Jonathan Howard has a great Northern British accent that I love as well. He was the last person cast in the film and really tied the whole thing together with his ability to do action, comedy, and drama – giving Lindsey’s Rose a really great counterpart to bounce off of and grow with over the course of the film.


BK: How did Lindsey Morgan get cast as the character “Rose”? She’s fabulous.

LO: Well, it’s kind of crazy when you really think about it because she’s so perfect for the role. But we’d already shot all of Beyond Skyline and the character of Rose was primarily played by a very young talented actress named Alaina Jayaraj so when we decided to add a prologue and epilogue with an adult version of Rose we needed to cast someone who obviously resembled her as well as embodied the legacy of the character and (fingers crossed) would have so much presence that you would actually want to see her as the lead of her own movie. So to say we lucked out is a massive understatement. I’d seen Lindsey on The 100 and was instantly a fan in the same way I was a fan of Frank Grillo. I think they have very similar screen presences and an authenticity to everything that they do. So once I thought of her as Rose it all clicked. And I was super happy she agreed to do it. Then we filmed her for one day on Beyond and I was really impressed and inspired to create a third move around her and her character and her dynamic with her alien brother Trent.

So I wrote the Skylines treatment before Beyond Skyline came out and then after it started getting really nice reviews and selling above expectations on home video and getting a Netflix deal, I went ahead and started writing the script around Lindsey’s Rose and how we could deliver on the promise of “bringing the fight” to the Harvesters and actually going to the alien planet this time.

BK: How did you decide on the look of Skylines? The movie looks and feels huge.

LO: Thank you. We had a really great team behind the camera. We started with Cedric, our production designer out of Belgium, trying to figure how we were going to translate this ambitious script into something we could actually shoot for the budget. I learned a lot of tricks from my great team on Beyond Skyline that we built upon here including liquid latex and slime but really wanted more in camera sets and finished Styrofoam alien pieces than I had in the last film. There was a point where I wanted to build Cobalt-1 as a massive backlot set and film everything at night! But then I was told that the name Lithuania actually means “Land of Rain” so we wisely decided to build a massive cavern set on the stage with lots of rocks and pillars and movable walls and such so that I could redress it and reshape it for all of the scenes we had on Cobalt.

Our DP, Alain Duplantier, is a real visual genius with a great sense for color. He and his gaffing team had sky panels lighting the entire stage which they could quickly control and change the direction of our blue sun and any other alien lights we needed. But I think the big step up for me was just working on the dolly more and really focusing more on my close up and reaction shots from the actors – trying to get more emotion and realism from their performances in the midst of all the big VFX and action. By getting tighter in those moments – especially in the second half when Rose really gets put through the ringer – it gives more contrast to the huge explosions and space battles.

BK: How long did it take to make Skylines, from finishing the script to completing post-production?

LO: The bulk of the screenwriting and revisions were over the first half of 2018. Then, it was trying to secure financing. We didn’t start prepping until early 2019. Filming began in May through July. Editing was from September through February of 2020. Then it was VFX, sound design, music, ADR all done during the pandemic from March through October, which was obviously very lucky for us to be able to do everything at that point remotely. Very proud of how everyone dealt with the obstacles and how our VFX team managed to do something like 1200 shots in less than 8 months.

BK: What was the hardest part of making Skylines for you, as a director? And how was making Skylines different from making Beyond Skyline?

LO: Production was definitely challenging from a time and money standpoint, and there are always curveballs thrown your way. You show up to a set and it’s not exactly what you needed. I remember one day Rhona Mitra’s flight was delayed so we had to film half a day without her – in a scene that was heavily featuring her. So we ended up shooting the most setups of the whole film that day because I was just creatively covering every other angle but hers. Then she showed up at the end of the day and was such a pro we were able to knock everything out like clockwork. But definitely blocking and staging these elaborate set pieces, especially the end one because it was at the end of the schedule and it had so many moving parts including lots of moments of drama and emotion in the middle of the chaos. And because I wasn’t really done with it until the final VFX shot of the film came back – because so much was dependent on that VFX living up the performances we’d filmed on set.

The biggest difference between making the films was a lot like the films themselves. Beyond was much more difficult because it had so many different locations and we had to film all around the world and find lots of ways to really stitch it all together, and we had a lot more green screen VFX so post was longer as well. But that experience taught me so much, it was really the best possible first experience because it was so hard and took so long to finish, it was like making three movies. So Skylines really benefited from that. It was a more cohesive script and allowed me to have a more focused plan of attack from the beginning.

BK: You’ve been involved with the Skyline franchise since it started. How did the property change over time?

LO: Yeah, it’s been a pretty wild ride. The first film and the third are complete opposites in some ways. The first was all about trying to be a realistic depiction of an alien invasion through the lens of some everyday people caught in the middle of it. There was a big military air battle scene but it was mainly from the POV of our characters in a single penthouse apartment with very little exposition explaining just what the hell was happening. On Beyond we started embracing more a Die Hard action movie direction – again with some everyday people but one of them happens to be a John McClane like cop in Frank Grillo’s Mark Corley who is capable enough to throw a wrench into the alien’s plans and rescue the girl who will prove to be their greatest weakness in Rose. Now in part 3, funny enough, the story is kind of told from some everyday survivors at the beginning but then we’re brought into a world of military experts and scientists where we can embrace different kinds of archetypes and characters and have fun in different way. For me the lesson has been that as much as these movies are buoyed by their cool visual effects, action, and spectacle, character is still the most important part and with Lindsey’s Rose I think we have our best and most complete character yet.

BK: How did you figure out the balance between the plot happening on the Harvester planet Cobalt-1 and the plot happening on Earth? And how did you come up with the name Cobalt-1?

LO: It’s always kind of tricky balancing plot lines. We had a little more action on Earth with Yayan in earlier cuts. Some of the scenes were spread out more. But I find it helps to make each intercut longer and more consolidated rather than have lots of cutting back and forth. My editor Barrett Heathcote and I worked a ton on that third act, figuring out that balance and trying to make it as lean and fun as possible without losing any character or emotion.

Cobalt-1 came from the fact that our Harvesters are blue so it felt right to name it after a shade of blue. And the number was of course a tip of the hat to Alien/Aliens’ LV-426. I also think Cobalt was an armor type or color option in Halo 3 which was the last video game I really got obsessed with before I started having kids. Just always loved the word Cobalt.

BK: How did you figure out the balance between the science fiction aspects of the story, the action aspects of the story, and the horror/”man-in-suit” monster aspects of the story? Skylines really seems to have everything in it.

LO: Thanks! I think that’s all part of writing the script and trying to come up with the best story I could for the characters. Adding a lot of variety to the action and tension and the horror was definitely something that I tried to be conscious of. Then, when we’re designing the action and blocking the scenes I am always trying to add stuff to make it better. Beats like Rose hiding behind the big severed claw and then the alien just picking it up and tossing it – that was a spontaneous thing but I knew how to cover it for the VFX and that even though it was a big idea to add on the day – we were able to tell that whole story in just three shots. But I guess I don’t really think of the science fiction, action, and horror as separate elements, really. They all work in unison as long as we’re telling a good story.


BK: How did you figure out the balance between practical effects and CGI effects?

LO: That’s sort of based on experience of working on films with a lot of practical effects like Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem and then working on the first Skyline, which was all CGI, and then trying to find the balance in Beyond Skyline and trying to improve upon it. In Beyond Skyline we made the Pilots and Harvesters practical suits because I wanted to get as much in camera as I could, but their legs were always digital replacements or enhancements and those cost a lot in post. So for Skylines we bought Digi-legs which were a great stilt system that creature designer Allan Holt found for us and then wrapped them in practical skins so our Pilot legs could be all in camera in this
one and save us time and money in post.

Some of the things we do digitally in these films, if I had more time on set I would want to do practically, like blood squibs and explosions and muzzle flashes. I’d also love to work with a fully animatronic alien head on one of the movies. But I was really happy with how our digital eyes turned out and how our fully digital Matriarch face turned out. Overall, I think the Matriarch is the best creature FX in the whole trilogy. From design to performance from Phong Giang to execution from Lipsync VFX on her tentacles and face – I am really proud of how she turned out.

BK: Any moviemaking heroes?

LO: Yeah, I think it’s pretty obvious from these movies I really love the films of James Cameron. Though the story of Aliens was a big touchstone for Skylines, Terminator and Terminator 2 were the movies that really made me want to make movies. I was ten years old when T2 came out and seeing those special features with the T-1000 just blew my mind and made me think anything was possible. Just rewatched Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark and Point Break recently which still kick so much ass. Love George Miller, Paul Verhoeven, John Carpenter and really all the great genre directors of that late 80s early 90s period.

Of course, I am a Lucas and Spielberg kid so they’ll always be gods to me. But more recently, I absolutely love James Wan. His story and the trajectory of his career has been really inspiring for me. And Leigh Whannell as well. Just breaking in with something so clever and DYI with Saw but then continuing to get better and better with each film as well as making new franchises and trying new genres. They’re badasses. The most popular thing I ever tweeted was predicting Jordan Peele would win an Oscar several years before he did. Loved Key and Peele and thought his commitment in the “Continental Breakfast” segment was just a sign he was destined for greatness.

And as far as people I’ve gotten to work with in my sort of generation, I really love Timo Tjahjanto. He’s just a very unique voice, a charming dinner date, and a delightfully deranged filmmaker. He’s so much darker and scarier than I could ever be but, like Wan, he’s got great horror timing and a mastery of creating violent, haunting images that stay with you.

BK: Any upcoming projects you can tell us about?

LO: Yeah I am hoping to film an arctic set survival horror adventure film next year called Abomination. There’s a lot of uncertainty right now but it’s a smaller cast and a sort of ideal movie to film during this time so, hopefully, that works out.

The Last Savage is a dream project of mine that I’ve been working on since Beyond Skyline. That’s a post-apocalyptic science fiction martial arts adventure that I wrote for Iko Uwais. Derek Kolstad from the John Wick films worked on the last draft with me and it’s really fucking cool. I am hoping that Skylines might help get that one made as it reads really ambitious.

BK: What do you hope audiences get out of Skylines? Do you suggest people watch Skyline and Beyond Skyline before checking out Skylines?

LO: My number one goal is to entertain the audience. I want people to have a kick ass time with the movie. It’s my favorite kind of film to watch, a nice blend of compelling characters with some timely themes but overall a joyful blend of escapist action and throwback fun. I don’t think they have to watch the other films but it’s definitely a bigger journey and I think a more emotional experience if you do. It’s such a crazy story on both sides of the camera to go from such grounded, humble beginnings to flying spaceships to other planets and saving the world. It certainly wasn’t designed as a classic trilogy but I am very proud of everyone who helped make it what it is and happy with how it all turned out.

BK: Will there be a Skyline 4?

LO: That depends on the audience! I’d love to make another one. In a way, I feel like we’re just hitting our stride. I love the characters and the world and think there’s a lot more for us to explore if we get the opportunity. And old favorites could definitely return in the next one.

BK: Will we get more outtakes on the eventual Skylines home video release? And what was your favorite outtake?

LO: No, I think that was all the outtakes we put on the disc, though we did have a lot more. Like I said we fixed our alien leg stilts so we had less physical comedy outtakes this time which are always my favorite. So as a favorite I guess I have to go with Lindsey saying “Fuck you, Liam!” In that scene she’s flexing every muscle, pretending she’s driving the tanker alien and waiting for me to yell out a cue for her to shoot the tanker’s tentacle. But I got too engrossed in the scene and waited too long to call it and she almost feinted so I deserved a good fuck you. And I thought it was fitting to end the movie on because it was like giving voice to the entire cast and crew, like “Hey, dude, we’ve humored you and done all your weird alien shit now for a year and half! now fuck off, the movie is over!” Until the next time…



A very special thanks to Liam O’Donnell for agreeing to participate in this interview and to Priscilla Rios for setting it up.

Skylines will be in select movie theatres and drive-ins and available via various digital and On Demand platforms starting December 18th, 2020.

Check out the official Skylines website here and official Facebook page here!

Check out Liam O’Donnell’s Twitter page here!

All Skylines courtesy of Vertical Entertainment. Liam O’Donnell image courtesy of Liam O’Donnell.