BU Alum Hits the Big Time with Skyline
Writer’s first feature film debuts tonight
Before the release of his first film, Liam O’Donnell was already being asked about a sequel.
O’Donnell (CAS’04) is the coauthor of the sci-fi film Skyline, which rolls into theaters today.
“We brought the film trailer to the Berlin Film Festival, and they were asking about the sequel there,” he says. “We have a kernel of an idea, but we’ve developed a treatment and people are excited. When Skyline is released in theaters, I want to see what part the audience is most excited about, because we have a general idea what it might be.”
O’Donnell, a political science major at BU, moved out to Los Angeles shortly after graduation, with aspirations of going to law school, not becoming a screenwriter. While in LA, O’Donnell became friends with Colin and Greg Strause, the directors of Skyline and owners of visual effects company Hydraulx, which orchestrated the explosions and monsoons in the box office blockbusters Avatar, Iron Man 2, and The Day After Tomorrow. The Strauses also directed AVPR: Aliens vs. Predator—Requiem.
O’Donnell soon began working with the Strauses writing storylines for Fresca and Coke China commercials. He went on to write music video storylines for rappers 50 Cent and Usher.Just before Thanksgiving 2009, the three were having lunch with Joshua Cordes (Skyline cowriter) throwing around ideas for a project they could create together. “The brothers own all these great spaces,” O’Donnell says, “and we had these awesome cameras and wondered what we could do to take advantage of that.” The result was Skyline.
The film opens with alien ships cluttering the Los Angeles skyline. Soon, extraterrestrials begin swallowing humans, threatening their entire existence. The film, which stars actors Eric Balfour (24), Scottie Thompson (Star Trek), Donald Faison (Scrubs), and Brittany Daniel (Dawson’s Creek and Sweet Valley High), is being released by Universal Studios today, November 12.
O’Donnell, now the head of development for Hydraulx Entertainment, is at work on a sequel to Skyline. He says he drew on his BU experience in writing his first feature film.“They told me that I would learn on the job, and I had only written the first act of a script before I really started working,” O’Donnell says. “But the essay writing of political science definitely crossed over, like writing a proper introduction, theme, and organization.”
BU Today talked with O’Donnell about the making of Skyline.
BU Today: How did a BU political science major get into writing and producing?
O’Donnell: When I was at BU, I took a screenwriting course for one semester. I’d always been interested in writing and science fiction from writers like Michael Crichton, and writing was something I had always wanted to do. I thought I could become an entertainment lawyer. I was accepted into law school, but deferred for a year to go to Los Angeles. I went out to there in the summer of 2003 to take classes at UCLA.
Within six months I was working at smaller production companies, and I started writing treatments for commercials, which are basically mini-scripts. I began gaining confidence this way. I worked with the Strauses on a few projects, and we realized we wanted to do something independently. Films like District 9 and Paranormal Activity got to take risks because they had a low budget, and you can’t take those risks with a big-budget movie, because you have to send every idea up the corporate ladder.
How did you prepare to write the script?
As soon as we had the concept, we wanted a different take on the subject, like a siren or a mythological invasion. We thought of this blue light, a syndrome that makes you look, and then pulls you out and sucks you up into the ship. It’s a simple fire in the sky. We thought it would be interesting to suck up an entire metropolis, and that was the basis for the whole movie.
I wrote a three-page treatment in one night. My cowriter, Josh Cordes, did the same thing. The next morning we lined them up, and then we just took the best from both. We worked tirelessly for a month writing a 35-page treatment, and then we had the script.
What was it like working with a cowriter?
It really opened my eyes working with such a talented writing partner. We got all our fights out in the beginning. One of us was working on the script every 24 hours, because I’m a night guy, and my partner is a morning guy. We’d keep adding to what the other had done.
When it’s your own team, you’re not having a real conflict, because everyone wants the movie to be a success. If you disagree, at the end of the day you have the same goal, so you figure out how to get to there. Everyone has a different idea, but the best idea wins. We didn’t have any real major disagreements. Once rewriting begins, you try to make everything as tight as possible.
You had a low budget for this film. How did you deal with that challenge?
It was almost unbelievably low—the physical production was $500,000, and the budget was under $10 million. We shot it in Greg Strause’s apartment, which has a great view of Los Angeles. It’s a 20-story condo building in Marina del Ray. One of the codirectors lives in the penthouse. About two years ago I lived on the fourth floor because, hey, I’m just a writer, not a director.
We figured this would be the scene for the movie, and we had different settings, like the pool, the garage, the rooftop. It was extremely challenging to do. Every time you have boundaries like that, you focus on the story. The biggest advantage was that I had lived in that building. I knew the set when writing the story. That was almost like cheating—it was great—because we could walk through the set while writing the script. We would do blocking videos and act out scenes before we filmed them.
The most challenging part of the movie was seeking people’s advice. They can see things better than you, but I thought we did well in addressing those challenges each day, but not giving in to an easy fix.
Did the neighbors want to kill you?
Yes. It’s an upscale building. The neighbors are used to luxury. We had a crew of 20 people, mostly large males. The vocal minority are always the ones that complain, but there were a lot of people who were positive.
You’ve worked on music videos with rappers Usher and 50 Cent. Do tell.
Both were really cool. Usher is the consummate professional, doing dance moves take after take. I worked with him on the Moving Mountains video, where the stunt double couldn’t perform the stunt, and Usher ended up doing it at 4 a.m. I thought that the guy kicked ass.
50 Cent is crazy. We had fake glass that he was supposed to punch, but he ran through it. Dove through it, fell all over some of the crew, but no one was hurt. I loved the enthusiasm.
What advice do you have for people trying to get into the film business?
If you want to be a writer and do films out in Los Angeles, you have to take the jump. Get used to the rejection, and believe in this dream. Surround yourself with people that challenge you. If you’re the only one within your creative circle who’s trying to get there, it’s going to be hard. A movie is a team effort. Believe that you can all achieve this.
How was your time at BU?
I came from a really small town; there were something like 60 people at my high school graduation. At BU, I didn’t feel like I was being coddled, and it taught me to take responsibility. It taught me that life is not an idyllic campus, and you have to make your own way in life. I’m thankful for the way that prepared me for Los Angeles.
Skyline is in theaters today, November 12. Movie times are available here.
Amy Laskowski can be reached at email@example.com Comments