After visual effects gurus-turned directors Colin Strause and Greg Strause made their directorial debut with Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem, they knew they had to find an easier way to make movies outside of the studio system. Just three years after Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem, they found a way to make that happen with their upcoming sci-fi thriller Skyline, which will be released in theaters nationwide on November 12.
We were recently invited to Hydraulx in Santa Monica, the visual effects company that the Brothers Strause have owned and run for several years, where I learned quite a great deal about Skyline. But first, we were invited into their posh screening room to take a look at some footage from the movie.
The first clip we were shown featured stars Donald Faison as Terry and Eric Balfour as Jarrod, which was essentially the scene shown at this year's Comic-Con. Donald Faison and Eric Balfour are up on the roof of an apartment building in Los Angeles, and they see several creepy blue streaks coming from the clouds, all over city, with Eric Balfour taking pictures of the event. As we move closer, we learn that these blue streaks are actually high-tech vacuums, which are sucking human beings right off the street and into these enormous space ships.
The next clip featured Donald Faison and Eric Balfour in the parking garage of that same apartment building, trying to plan their escape with other characters, including Brittany Daniel's Candice, who has some tension with Terry. As they try to make it out of the garage, they discover that they can't...When a gigantic alien foot crushes one of the cars, blocking their escape path.
The next scene introduces us to David Zayas' character, Oliver, as we see just what the aliens actually want...To get inside our heads...Literally. The last scene we were shown was up in Oliver's apartment as they watch the chaos unfold outside, with the military now involved as we see them try to nuke one of the main ships...Although we weren't shown if it was successful or not.
These scenes were all a lot of fun to watch, and it seems the Brothers Strause have really upped the ante with their visual effects in this movie. After the footage, Colin Strause and Greg Strause were joined by cast members Donald Faison, Brittany Daniel and David Zayas as they all answered questions from the assembled press corps. Here's what they had to say:
Can you take us back to the earliest stages of this movie?
Colin Strause: It's been, what 11 months now, I think? We basically came up with this idea about two weeks before Thanksgiving. We shot a teaser, on Thanksgiving day. We had a concept for it and one of the reasons we called the production company Black Monday is because we had this shitty meeting. We were so tired of the process and literally at that Monday lunch, we said we should just do our own thing. One of our agents at CAA had worked on Paranormal Activity and he said that you guys should just do a little independent that you can control and don't have anyone else to tell you what to do, and it would be pretty liberating.
Greg Strause: We were sitting around the lunch table and I pitched Colin and Liam O'Donnell and Joshua Cordes, the co-writers, an idea they all rejected quickly, but the essence was we'd shoot something at my house for 50 grand and this is what it morphed into. Then, from there, we came up with the concept and we shot this teaser test, to make sure we could shoot it in our unit, with the lighting. Part of it was, 'Could we actually pull it off?' Liam had actually lived in the building for a couple of years as well, so we knew every inch of the building very intimately. When we were actually writing the script... normally you write a script and you find locations that would work for it. This was the case where literally every scene was written for exact places in the building. We know that this one doorway takes you to the surface to the swimming pool and there's only one way out of the pool... We were literally able to map the movie out like that. We started casting in early December and we started shooting the movie with nothing, at that point. We were self-financing everything, we had no idea about distribution or anything. We just started shooting through it and then, at the Berlin Film Festival, the script combined with that teaser we shot on Thanksgiving Day, got us some good pre-sales from Berlin. We showed our buddy Brett a little bit of the movie and that brought us Relativity and that brought us Universal. The whole thing exploded from there.
Can you talk a bit more about the casting? It sounds like this whole thing went really fast. Did you have a full script ready when you were casting?
Colin Strause: Oh, yeah, we did.
Greg Strause: We had a draft in December. We did a draft in a month.
Colin Strause: It definitely made it a lot easier because there's no one else to talk to. It would literally be four or five of us in a room and if we liked someone, that was it. Normally, you'd have to go to the studio, you'd have to get their head casting to approve, and the junior executives to approve it, then the president to approve it, the chairman... It's amazing how many a*&holes you have to go through to get a single decision made. It's the most frustrating part of the whole thing because you can't do anything and you wait until the end and you get stuck with who you get. We wanted to do something a lot different with this. For David Zayas' role, we actually wrote the role for David, and it was awesome that we actually got David in the movie.
David Zayas: They didn't tell me that (Laughs).
Colin Strause: It worked out and it was such an interesting process. Literally, all the actors would come over here, we did the casting just down in the conference room and it was really intimate and really simple. The whole process, I think, lasted less than three weeks.
Brittany Daniel: I think I met with you guys and you said, 'Do you want to do it?' And I said, 'OK.' It was the easiest casting in the world.
Can you guys talk a bit about the alien genre itself and why you think people find it so fascinating these days?
Greg Strause: One of the things that's fun about the genre is that it plays to ideas that are big visual concepts. There was this notion that Colin and I had, and we never really turned it into a story, but it was one of those ideas that we just put in the storage banks, the idea that one day aliens would actually lure us out of our houses, out of our places of refuge, by using this mesmerizing, pulsating light. That was the nexus of it and I didn't have a story around it. That was Liam and Josh, who did such a great job. We called it the Sirens, based on the Sirens who would sing and get the sailors to crash their ships into the rocks. We thought, what if aliens did that? It would be a really cool M.O. for those guys and once we're outside, they abduct us. We've been working on alien movies since 1995 or 1996, fresh off the boat from the Midwest. It's just something we fell into and we're sci-fi fans so you just migrate to what you like.
What sets Skyline apart from other alien movies? Is it the tone? Style? Story?
Greg Strause: For this really small independent, I think one of the things that sets it apart is we've been able to bring some really big disaster-movie-sized visuals to it, which is one of the things we're really excited about. There are also some really interesting subplots about the aliens and their motives and how they navigate and what they're after, which will continue through the sequel.
Colin Strause: I think just the scale, too. It's not like it's just attacking one cities. By Act Two, 99.999% of humanity is gone, so it's not like this is a little battle. You're basically wiped out and how do you survive the next day or so if 99.999% of the world is gone? It's not like cities are completely destroyed or anything, it's just that they're all vacuumed up. You have boxed seats to the end of the world. We were over at Greg's place talking about this and we're sitting in his living room. You think about the nuke in Terminator 2: Judgement Day and how sweet that would be to watch that thing go off from right here. You can see the shockwave. One of our partners, during the Northridge earthquake, he was up on a mountainside and he could actually watch the earthquake hit. He saw all the lights move up and down. He said it was so amazing, watching an event that big and you just happened to be watching when it hit. It was mind-boggling. So, we thought, if we're in this building and something that big is happening, why not do it from that vantage point? It's a neat perspective.
For the cast, can you talk about your characters and how they fit into the story?
Brittany Daniel: I play a character named Candice. I'm kind of the self-absorbed, L.A. socialite girl. Throughout the movie, she sort of has her comeuppance. She realizes that the world doesn't revolve around her. She doesn't save the day, but she definitely takes part. I live in this building so I help all of us get out when we need to get out, and kick a little ass. It was fun.
David Zayas: I play Oliver. He's the concierge of the building. He guides them in when there's a party and everything. After the event happens, he's one of the sole survivors of the people that work in the building and joins up with the rest of them.
Donald Faison: I play Greg and Colin Strause in this movie, basically (Laughs). I am a special effects genius and everybody pretty much works for me. This goes down and, of course, being that I'm Greg and Colin Strause, I'm the leader (Laughs).
David Zayas: You get to argue with yourself a lot.
Donald Faison: I punch myself a lot. No, I play Terry and he's based on these two guys.
You said the word sequel earlier. Was this developed as a franchise?
Colin Strause: Yeah. I mean, it wasn't originally. Once we got the first draft in and adressing our own internall notes, going through the development process, we thought it was really fun and cool and we just never wanted to end it. There's a commercial side to it, but there's also this ownership, this possesorary thing where, once you see it through from treatment to script, you think, 'I just want to keep going.' We've already gotten a 40-page treatment for the sequel and we'll probably shoot it in the spring.
David Zayas: I can't wait to do the sequel.
Colin Strause: One of your first days, what'd you run that first day, like 20 miles?
David Zayas: All I know was there was a point where I just said, 'You know, I'm about 15 years older than everybody here.' I got in shape for that movie. I got in shape while doing that movie.
Donald Faison: "Independent" pretty much means no stuntmen, so we had to do that. Granted, it's agaisnt CG monters, but it's real concrete. You've got to do a lot of jumping and a lot of ducking and a lot of falling. And that hurt. Especially on independent's.
Can you talk about the level of gore in this movie? We saw that lovely decapitation scene, so is it more on that level?
Colin Strause: In that style, yeah. When we first did it, we thought it was going to be such a small budget that we'd just do it R-rated. When we wrote the script out, because of the way they're taking everyone's brains, that doesn't really lend itself to R-rated violence. It's technically PG-13, but because there's not blood. It's more that sort of style, because what they do is not an inherintly gory thing. They just snatch people and decapitate them. It's not sh&t.
Greg Strause: I don't want to give everything away here today, but we made a very clear choice to... we've done our really dark, really gory movies and we didn't want to repeat that with this. We have a broader audience.
Can you talk about the response from the trailers and footage you've received so far?
Greg Strause: I think the best sign was, "Despite the fact that Colin and Greg are directing it, it still looks really cool." I think that's the first really positive sign. We're in this isolated place here but kids that work here, if they walk around Hollywood with a Skyline shirt on, they'll always here, 'Oh my God. I can't wait to see that. It looks awesome.' That seems to be the response that is trickling back to us.
Given the quality of CG you can capture here and the scale, this feels like an event film, for all intents and purposes. For the studios, do you think we're moving into an era where these films can be made like this?
Colin Strause: Yes. We're not going to make another studio movie. We're going to always do this. We need studios for marketing and distribution, like Universal. Movies can get really expensive. We worked on 74 movies now, I think, and we've seen hundreds of millions of dollars wasted over all those films. To us, we know how to make the movies. We've seen how many times people have f*&ked up, going the wrong way, and now we can make that process better. One of the things is, own your cameras. One of the jokes at Fox is that if you want to shoot on one of Fox's stages, you have to be Warner Bros. or Universal because Fox makes more money renting their stages to someone else than even letting their own movies shoot there. For distribution everything is fantastic, because we can't do that, but for making the movies, this is the way to do it. On this scale, everyone is in on it. There's no trailers, there's no nothing. Everyone was a partner, basically, on making the movie. Everyone believed in the project. It wasn't just a paycheck. We got, literally, eight bucks an hour, the DGA minimum for doing a film.
David Zayas: That being said, doing films like this is really going to weed out filmmakers that are not talented, that are not going to be able to do this under these circumstances. I think, to the credit of Colin and Greg, they actually made this happen because they knew what they were doing. They had a vsion and were able to execute whatever they were able to do with the limited funds that they had. That's not easy to do. You may have a filmmaker that gets $50 million to turn into a film, he's going to get a lot of help to do it. If you have $500,000 to do a film, you really have to be creative and you really have to be talented. I think it's going to weed out really good filmmakers and filmmakers that are not going to be able to cut it.
Donald Faison: Also, coming from an acting standpoint, if you were going to a movie where you're expecting to see Will Smith or Bruce Willis fighting the aliens, it gives people like us an opportunity because we don't make $25 million a movie. Actually, it's a great thing because they can't afford to pay those guys because then we have a shot to do something I've always wanted to do, which was feel like a bad-ass action hero fighting aliens.
David Zayas: Plus an opportunity to work in an evnironment where it's all about what we're doing. It's all about the story of what we're doing. People really care and everybody really gives a sh*t and cares about what's going on. They're not just there for a paycheck, they're there because they really believe in this project. Unfortunately, that's not as common anymore and this was a really unique experience.
Colin Strause: It also allowed us to shoot this in L.A. When budgets get so bloated, studios have no choice but to shoot somewhere else to get the tax credits to offset it. What happens is, yeah, you save money on paper. But there will be one grip in L.A. who loves his job, equals four grips who live somewhere else and might work in a lumber yard and go, 'Oh, I'll be a grip now.' They don't give a sh*t. There's no passion. We want people who literally come in every day and give 110%, especially with our 20-person crew we had. You couldn't have just 20 guys standing around, collecting their paycheck. Another thing is too, because of the budget level we were at, we were able to get way riskier with the script. We were able to do things in the script that you could never get through a normal creative process. A lot of these things would've been absolutely filtered and ground out through the process before the camera even got to roll. We were able to take our raw script and just start shooting with it. We didn't have to go through the 50 levels of the approval process, so that just meant that the creative aspect stayed intact.
Can any you talk about your experiences on the set with these guys?
Donald Faison: Actually, it went by really fast. The great thing about shooting in an apartment building with a limited crew, is that it forces everyone to really stick together and really form up. That's what it felt like. After Day 3, you're best friends with the whole crew. We've all got each other's back, like, 'I'll hold the boom mic for you. Go take a rest.' It sounds cliche, but it was like a family atmosphere. You came to work and enjoyed the people you worked with and, at the end of the day, you said, 'Great job everybody.' That's pretty much all I can say. These guys are great. I don't think anyone would've showed up today if they sucked (Laughs).
That's about all from our edit bay visit for Skyline, which hits theaters on November 12. To me, this movie looked awesome before I took part in this visit, but knowing how they made the movie, in such a unique manner, I'm even more excited. This looks like a movie that was shot on a $100 million budget, although it was shot on a fraction of that cost, and still features amazing effects that you would expect on a big studio budget. This looks like a surefire winner from The Strause Brothers and I can't wait to see it up on the big screen. Peace in. Gallagher out!