Interview: Skyline's Directors - Brothers Colin and Greg Strause
by Alex Billington
November 11, 2010
Soon, our first encounter will become our last stand. Arriving in theaters this weekend is an impressive new sci-fi movie called Skyline, that for a budget of only ~$10 million looks like an epic alien invasion movie to compare with Independence Day (watch the trailer). A few weeks back, I talked with directors, producers and the visual effects supervisors of the movie, Colin & Greg Strause, collectively known as The Brothers Strause. The interview was conducted over the phone, so I have a transcript below. Additionally, Universal declined to show us the movie prior to thos interview, but I made sure to ask some great questions anyway.
I want to start at the top and just sort of ask the basic where the idea came from. How did this develop into what it is? And what's the foundation of the project?
Colin: Yeah, I mean basically, this whole thing kind of just grew out of a general frustration with the creative process of, you know, doing studio movies and stuff like that. And it was just kinda something where, you know, we owned some cameras, we had some equipment. And it was like we wanted… we were sick and tired of just keep doing pitches. Basically, when you are a director in a studio movie, you are gun for hire. You know, there's directing assignments, and you've got everyone fighting over the same assignments, and it's just kind of all these things. It's stuff that we went through in the last movie which we were just kinda getting tired of.
And I don't know, one of our agents at CAA at the time was one of the guys who had helped put together the Paranormal Activity thing, and he kept… as we were meeting on all these bigger studio projects, he kept telling us, "Why don't you guys just do something smaller, almost like a little career reset in a way, to do a movie that truly is yours, kinda defining you guys as artists and who you are." Instead of, like our previous movie [Aliens vs Predator: Requiem], which really wasn't something we got to do what we wanted to do on. And basically, he just kinda kept poking at us to try something different. We just hit sort of this frustration point where we were like, "Maybe we could give it a try and just see what happens."
And Greg had just literally finished doing his renovations to his new condo. And he had this whacky idea like, "Well I just spent like a year and a half finishing rebuild this place. Why don't we shoot something here? It's kinda cool." We had a couple ideas that we were starting to throw out at lunch, like what would be an interesting thing that could be shot there. And one of the things, when you stand there looking at the view of his windows, you kinda think about Terminator 2. It's like if you got to see that nuke scene in Terminator 2, you'd want to see LA get nuked from his balcony. It's like having box seats to the end of the world. And that was sort of the initial spark. It was like, "OK, well you have this vantage point. If something big was to happen, this is where you'd want to see it from." And then we were meeting with Josh [Cordes] and Liam [O'Donnell] and it kinda, sorta turned into this whole abduction thing.
I had originally heard, back when this was sort of coming together, that it was all shot in one apartment. And I guess that's what you are talking about, was the condo. And from the looks at the last trailer, though, it doesn't look like it takes place there. So I'm wondering if that was just like a demo reel you guys shot early on at the condo as a sort of proof of concept, and then, from there, built the story out.
Colin: No. I mean, that did happen in exactly those steps. We shot a teaser there in one day on Thanksgiving last year. We actually used a teaser to figure out just what some of the visual style cues would be for the movie, and also just to figure out logistics, like is it possible? Because shooting in a residential building in a fairly modest sized condo, it is a crazy idea when you know how big movie crews are. So we needed just to prove it to ourselves that it could be done. But the actual script, the plot, everything was built around… Liam O'Donnell and Josh Cordes of incorporating the best parts of the location into the story. So the actual movie was shot in this one building, but we didn't want… You know, if you just stayed in the living room for an hour and a half, that would suck. At a certain point, I think that that would wear on the audiences.
And Liam used to live in the building. So basically, we tried to open it up as much wherever we had the chance to get out of the unit. There was a cool parking garage that was kinda creepy. There was an outdoor pool area. Anytime we wanted to… you know, the rooftop, the helicopter pad… Just to have visual variety and scope to the movie. You know, claustrophobia can be a cool feeling to bring out in an audience. But if you don't have some variety and a little bit of visual scope, that might not be so good for the movie either. So that was something we were very cognizant of. It was like the little movie that could. It was a tiny budget movie, but we wanted it to be as big and varied as possible.
Well that's sort of another question I was going to ask, just sort of what your goal was with this. You talked about it a little bit earlier, but whether it was to show off what you guys can do effects-wise, or to prove that you can do a larger scale epic movie on a smaller budget.
Colin: We wanted to just establish ourselves and clear up some of the history a little bit as filmmakers. We had a movie that wasn't reviewed all that great by a lot of the community. And there was a lot of frustrations on our part. You know, it's like when you take all the crap, when you take all the blame for things in the movie, and then the guys who maybe actually caused those issues just slither away into the darkness, and three years go by where the phone isn't ringing off the hook with movie offers, it kinda wears on you. And you're like, "This sucks, man. I'm sick of a) keeping my mouth shut about it, and b) we gotta do something here."
Greg: Cameron had Piranha 2 and then he did Terminator.
[Laughs] Right, right.
Colin: That was literally some of our conversations. We were like, "AVP is our Piranha 2, and let's this be our Terminator."
Greg: This is our movie career jailbreak.
Well, so is it almost representing your first film, then? Like you're trying to say forget about AVP?
Colin: I would say, to me, this would be our first real film, as in every decision in the movie we stand by. So if someone doesn't like something in the movie, then boo on us. You know what I mean? I mean you're dealing with this multi-head hydra of decision making and all these things. And, you know, we made some dumb mistakes. There were things where we went out on the fan websites and said, "Hey, we're going to do something like this." And then after saying it publicly, you know, behind the curtain people were like, "No, you can't do that." So then we just started looking like assholes; we would say something and then couldn't deliver on that.
And so that was one of the other things that was important, too. We just kept our mouth shut, we made the movie we wanted to make, and we totally stand by it. And that's a different thing now, where there's no excuses in the movie. You know what I mean? We got to do what we wanted to do, and we're really happy with how it turned out. This is an important thing. There's not too many times you get to actually have that level of creative control. We're actually at a funny part right now where we're trying to do an extended unrated DVD version, and we're literally going through, and there's not like any deleted scenes or anything I want to add back in the movie. There's some extra stuff that we're going to want to put in the film, but it's not like, "Uhh! The studio made me cut out 30 minutes of shit! Can't wait to put that back in." We don't have that problem.
Well, I have to ask then, as a member of the press, and just observing how the whole system works, do you think it's better off to make these movies without being connected to the fan base? It's the idea that none of us really knew what Skyline was until Comic-Con when you had the first major premier and reveal. Is that how you prefer to tell this kind of story?
Colin: Well, also too, when we started making this movie we had no distribution, there was nothing. It was literally like, "We're going to do this thing. We're rolling the dice, taking a huge risk on this." This thing could have just been like a fan film that just sat in our closet.
Greg: But to me, that's definitely true, but there's a flipside. When we were directing music videos, whether it was Linkin Park, or 50 Cent, or Usher, or Nickelback, whoever it was, we always had this freedom. It was one of the things that was so cool about the music video space when we started off and grew up into it, was that there was a lot of freedom and flexibility to kinda do whatever you wanted and take risks; do things that, visually, stylistic things that were risky that people might… In other mediums, like commercials especially, you have an agency and a client with a rope around your neck. They don't give you any leash. And the biggest thing Colin and I, the observation we made after AVPR was like… We shot two big videos right after we finished the movie and it was some of the best stuff we ever did. And we're like, "This is so weird! Why is that when we're doing music videos, everything's great, we get every location we want, we get every cameo, the biggest performers, the best DPs?" Anything we want.
Somehow, even with modest budgets, when we're in LA we're able to make all this stuff work, and you don't have anyone meddling in the process. In some regards, we wanted Skyline, the physical production of the movie, to capture that essence of this great creative freedom we had doing the videos. And in a lot of ways, we get exactly that. So that's one of the things, that it was super low stress, it was a lot of fun. There wasn't a lot of this corporate "answering to your masters" bullshit. Frankly, a lot of times, it's like these guys do shit that then either subconsciously affects you or overtly, like they just won't let you shoot a scene that's cool.
I mean we were in a situation where we had this really bad ass scene. We were threatened to be fired. "You cannot shoot that scene." That same fucking dude, four months later, forgetting that he threatened us, he was asking, "Where's that really badass scene of the guy getting skinned by the printer?" We're like, "You didn't let us shoot it!" It's like, "Are you fucking out of your mind? You were the dude that said we couldn't shoot it! You're asking us where that is? Are you psychotic? How do you not remember threatening to fire somebody? And now you're asking me where is it?"
That's the kind of frustration… We don't need that kind of shit, man. We want to go out and make cool stuff. It was just like whenever we could go with our gut instinct and do cool stuff, the public reaction to our music videos was always very positive. It was great. They got nominated for awards. So we were like, "You know what? We're not going to listen to anyone else when we do our next movie. We're just going to do our thing." And not that we're passionate about that, or that my blood pressure got up just thinking about this! [laughs]
I'm glad I could get the word out there! I mean, especially when everything looks great in this. That's actually what I was going to ask about, is the design elements and how you guys came up with the designs for the spaceships. You know, the mass sucking up of people and where those design elements came from.
Greg: One of the big starting points for everything from a visual standpoint was the whole idea of the siren light. So, you know, we were kicking our spitball on this concept, this notion of like, "What if aliens, when they came here, they would release these orbs that would come down from their ships and they would emit some sort of beautiful pulsating pattern of light that would just draw everyone out?" So it really started with that. And then Colin, and Liam, and Josh and I were kicking around like, "What are ideas for ships that we hadn't seen before?" So the real groundwork for the ships was we were like, "What if they were all based off of single cell organisms?" So no two ships would be the same. They could be asymmetrical, because a lot of times, symmetry is a really common aspect of spacecraft design. So we wanted to break some of those conventions.
The other one was, spaceships are usually made out of, a lot of times, made out of some sort of metal or ceramic material. And we were like, "What if ours are actually made out of tissue? Tissue and crystalline structure." They were living and breathing, and yeah, maybe there's a translucency, a sort of living crystalline substructure. Which, you know, I couldn't think of any references. No reference of that came to the top of my mind. So that was instantly attractive to us. So we're like, "OK, cool. No one can say that's been done 60 times." So that was really the beginning.
One of the concepts we liked was the idea that if the ships are made out of tissue and they got hit by a missile or something else happened to them, maybe those wounds, they would actually heal up and have scar tissue. Kind of a cool idea. It's like some ships are indestructible… We've seen the ships that are indestructible because they have force fields around them. That's been done over, and over, and over again. But, you know, the idea that the ships would actually just heal, making them maybe imply that maybe there was an invincibility, that, to us, was kind of a cool idea.
Are there creatures in it, actual aliens that we get to see?
Colin: Oh, yes. There's a lot of… yeah. There's 900 effect shots in the movie. Of that, probably 500 or 600 are creature shots. And the movie takes place almost entirely in the daytime.
So there's a lot that we haven't seen, it looks like.
Colin: Yeah. So this time people actually get to see the creatures, unlike our horrible, horrible dark Blu-Ray of our last movie.
[laughs] Yeah, I'm excited to see it, too.
Colin: Yeah, I mean there is a lot of creature stuff. There's multiple types of creatures — King Kong sized creatures, there's big flying around, kind of squid-like creature things, there's an octopus creature that's smaller that gets inside the buildings, there's some other stuff that's more towards the end of the movie I don't want to give up yet. But there's actually quite a bit of creature work in this movie.
And although I know you guys are obviously coming from a visual effects background, is there any practical effects used in this too?
Colin: Yeah, there's actually a big of stuff done. Like, one of the coolest things is we have… some of the scenes of some of the people up in the air, instead of shooting it on green screen, which is what everyone else does, we actually had the guys from Spider-Man come out, and we actually built, on the top of the helicopter pad, like a 25 foot tall scaffolding and were actually suspending the people up in the air…
Greg: It was more like 50 feet.
Colin: …or 40 or 50 feet scaffolding, and they're like literally 22, 23 stories up in the air in the middle of a helicopter pad. It was all safe and everything, but you're literally shooting the people at the magic hour, against a real sky, they're really up in the air. And it was just the most amazing way of shooting stuff, shooting with camera like that, versus what every other normal movie does—they go onto a big green screen set, and then it always looks a little funky because green screen always looks a little funky. And we had a lot of in-camera stuff that was done—slimes, and goo's, and things for all the interaction, because there's a lot of hand on hand stuff with some of the creatures, so there was a lot of stuff of having stunt guys that are getting beat up, and all these different things for all of the close encounters. It's not all just stuff in the distance.
Yeah. Even though we're obviously progressing very fast with the CGI world, it seems like having a balance of practical and digital is what actually makes movies look even better nowadays.
Colin: Yeah. I mean we would do… we would shoot all of the scenes with in-camera smoke. I mean there was just a lot of stuff that was done, but then there's a lot of stuff that you couldn't do. Like, all the vein effects—we would shoot the veins around people's faces—that was completely digital makeup, because that's one of those things that you just couldn't do.
Greg: I mean there's definitely a trend of big, bloated movies not showing elements and resorting to CG instead. When really, the best approach, in a lot of cases, is to film elements. So, I mean even though we own an effects company, it's like every opportunity we had to actually shoot an element for Skyline, we did. We needed explosions. We got Joe Viskocil and we filmed explosions. We needed miniature stuff… You know, Joe Viskocil blew up a White House in Independence Day. Right?
So if we needed miniature elements of the dust and debris and stuff like that, instead of doing it all in CG, we got Pat McClung, who is a miniature guy. He did stuff on Aliens. He did the nuke going off in Aliens back in '86. He did Wolverine a year and a half ago or whatever. These are like guys we have just become friends with over the years. But these are like hardcore old school guys. There's miniatures and stuff in our movie, even though it's a tiny budget. There were places where it made sense, where miniatures was the best way of doing it. So that's what we did. And there is definitely the kind of new school mentality to not do miniatures, but, you know, there are definitely cases, in our opinion, where it looks better, and it's faster and cheaper, and, you know, how can you beat that combination?
Exactly. Well I don't want to take up anymore of your time, guys, but thank you very much, and I'm really looking forward to seeing this. I really appreciate it.
Greg: Okay. Let us know if you need anything. Thank you.