By their own admission, Colin and Greg Strause have not yet set the bar particularly high for genre fanboys who would theoretically be excited by almost every one of their projects: although they provided some amazing effects work for some of the biggest movies of the last decade, their fledgling feature directorial effort, 'Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem,' landed them in the doldrums of fan judgment. But after supervising the effects on other movies, including 'Iron Man 2,' 'The Incredible Hulk,' and 'X-Men, The Last Stand' among many others, they decided to get back to the basics, use their wealth of technical expertise, and create something original and unique that would redefine them as filmmakers. The fruit of that labor is 'Skyline,' a forthcoming science fiction opus that operates on "a biblical scale" and yet takes place in domestic and familiar locations, and as such is both sweeping and intimate.
Cinematical joined a small phalanx of journalists at the Strause brothers' company, Hydraulx, to discuss the development and design of 'Skyline.' In addition to screening a more completed version of the footage shown at the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con, Colin and Greg fielded questions about the process of creating their singular alien-invasion movie, and then offered the film's stars, Donald Faison, David Zayas and Brittany Daniel, an opportunity to talk about their participation in the forthcoming opus.
Why do you think it is that has our culture so preoccupied with the idea of alien invasion right now?
Greg Strause: Culturally? I'm not sure. We've always liked it. One of the things about the genre is that it plays to ideas that are big visual concepts. There was this notion that Colin and I had a long time ago that we never turned into a story that was one of those visual ideas that maybe you use for a music video treatment or who knows where. You just sort of put it in mental storage. It was the idea that aliens would actually lure us out of our houses and places of refuge by using this kind of mesmerizing, beautiful-sounding light.
So that was sort of the nexus of the whole thing. I didn't have a story wrapped around it. That's where Liam and Josh did such a great job. But it was this cool concept that we called "The Sirens". It was an idea based off the siren singing that would draw the sailors and crash their ships into the rocks. We asked, "What if aliens did that?" That would be a really cool [method of working] for these guys. And the minute we're outside, whoosh! They abduct us.
That was really the starting point for us. It was more of a notion than anything, but we just kind of built on it from that. We've been working on aliens since 1996 or 1997 when we were pretty young and just kind of fresh off the boat and had moved here from the Midwest. Every week we were doing some sort of different alien effect doing the visuals on 'The X-Files.' It was just something that we fell into. We're sci-fi fans. You kind of migrate to what you like.
So what sets yours apart from some of the other ones?
Greg: For this really smart independent, I think one of the things that sets it apart is that we've been able to really bring some big, disaster movie-sized visuals to it. That's one of the things we're really excited about. There's also a couple of different threads and subplots involving the aliens and their motives and how they navigate and what they're after. That'll kind of continue through the sequel. Those are kind of points we've made that are important to this story.
Colin Strause: Also just the scale, too. It's not like it's just attacking one city. Pretty much by act two, 99.9% of everyone is gone. There's an interesting scale to it where it's not like something where it's a little battle and can you fight back? It's basically, you're wiped out. How do these people survive the next day or so if 99% of the world is gone? And it's such a simplistic way that everyone is taken that everything stays untouched. It's not like cities are destroyed or anything. It's like everyone is literally vacuumed off.
Greg: It's a biblical scale event.
Colin: And also the building is like having box seats to the end of the world. That's one of the cool things that, when we went into Gregg's place, we were talking about. We were sitting in his living room and you think of, like 'Terminator 2's' nuclear bomb going off, it would be sweet to watch it from right here. You're going to see the shockwave.
One of our other partners in our digital cosmetics company, Lola, during the Northridge quake, was up on a mountainside. He actually watched as the earthquake hit and saw all the lights move up and down. He saw the shockwave deforming the earth. He said it was so amazing watching an event that big. And he just happened to be looking out the window when it hit. It was mind-boggling. So we thought, if you're in that building when something big happened, why not do it from that vantage point? It's kind of a neat perspective.
Can you take us back to the earliest stages of this? When did the idea come about?
Colin: About eleven months ago, I think. Basically, we came up with this idea about two weeks before Thanksgiving. We shot basically a teaser test on Thanksgiving day. We kind of had a concept for it and one of the reasons we called the production company Black Monday was because there was this sh--ty meeting and we were just kind of tired of the whole process and everything. Literally, at that Monday lunch, we said, "You know? We should just do our own thing." One of our agents at CAA worked on 'Paranormal Activity' and he said, "You guys should try an independent. Something you guys can actually control. Do your own sh-t and don't have anyone else tell you what to do. It'll be pretty liberating."
Greg: We were sitting around a lunch table at Houston's and I pitched Colin and Liam and Joshua, the two co-writers, an idea that they rejected quickly, but the essence was that we shoot something in my house for 50 grand. That's kind of what it morphed into in two weeks.
Colin: It was a terrible idea to start with. (laughs) Basically, from there we started coming up with concepts and we decided to shoot this teaser as a test. Can we do it in the unit? Can we do the lighting there? When you're shooting in a residential location you can't have generators. There's all kinds of things you can't do. So part of it was finding out if we could actually pull it off.Liam had lived in the building for a couple of years as well as Greg, so we knew every inch of the building really intimately. It really helped when we were writing the script.
Normally, you write a script and then you have to go and find locations. This was a case where literally every scene was written for exact places in the building. We know that this one chase scene takes you to that doorway. That doorway takes you to the swimming pool and then there's only one way out of the pool. We were literally able to map the movie out like that. Then we started casting in early December. We started shooting the movie with nothing at that point. We were self-financing everything and had no idea about distribution or anything. We just started shooting through it and, at the Berlin Film Festival, the script combined with that teaser we shot on Thanksgiving day and got us some really good pre-sells from Berlin. From there, we showed our buddy Brett a little bit of the end of the movie. That's when he brought over Relativity, which then got us to Universal. The whole thing sort of exploded from there.
So you had a full script when you started shooting?
Colin: It moved fast because there's no one else to talk to. It's literally Josh, Christian, me and Greg and that's it. When we were doing casting, it would just be the five of us in the room. We liked someone and that was it. Normally you'd have to go to the studio and then have to get their head casting people through. Then you need all the junior executives to approve. Then the co-president, who has to go to the chairman. It's just f-cking amazing how many a--holes it takes to get a single decision made. It's the most frustrating part of the whole thing because you can't f-cking do anything. Then they wait
you until the very end and you're stuck with whoever you get. We wanted to do something a lot different with this.
Greg: Hint, hint. Fox. (laughs)
Colin: One of the cool things is, for example, David's role. We actually wrote the role for David. It was the most awesome thing that we actually got David in the movie... From day one, we were saying David would be f--king perfect for this. And that's kind of how we tuned the character. And it worked out. It was such an interesting process. We literally told all the actors to come over here and we did the casting just down in the conference room. It was real intimate and real simple and the whole process lasted less than three weeks, I think.
On a normal film, you wind up toning down FX for cost reasons. What's the rule for that going into this?
Colin: The rule was to add twice as much. I think we had 700 shots at Comic-Con and now we're hitting north of nine hundred now.
Can the cast talk about their characters?
Brittany Daniel: I play a woman named Candice. I'm this self-absorbed LA socialite girl. Through the movie, she really has a comeuppance. She realizes that the world doesn't revolve around her. She doesn't exactly save the day, but she's one of the people that takes part. I live in this building so I'm able to help all of us get out when we need to get out. And kind of kick a little ass.
David Zayas: I play Oliver. He's the concierge of the building and he works in 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 live and work in the building. He kind of joins up with the rest of them and tries to escape.
Donald Faison: I play Greg and Colin Strauss, pretty much. I am a special effects genius and everybody pretty much works for me. When it all goes down, being that I'm Gregg and Colin Strauss, of course I'm the leader... I play Terry. He's pretty much based on these two guys. Gregg specifically.
You mentioned a sequel. Is this being developed as a franchise?
Greg: Correct me if I'm wrong but, once we got the first draft in, we were playing around and addressing our own internal notes and going through the development process, we were saying, "This is kinda fun and cool." You never want to end it at that. There's a commercial side of it, but then there's just some ownership that develops around something that, once you see it through from treatment to script, you just want to keep going with it. We've had a lot of fun with it.
Colin: It ends in such an interesting, weird, dark place, too.
Greg: Yeah. We've already got almost a forty page treatment of the second one done that we plan to shoot in the spring.
Can you comment on the level of gore in this film? There was a lovely decapitation in the footage you screened. Are there any other treats for gore-hounds?
Greg: In that style, yeah. When we originally wrote it it was such a small budget that we were just going to do it R. Then we wrote the script out and, because of the way they were taking everyone's brains and everything, we thought that it really doesn't lend itself to R rated violence. It's technically PG-13, but just because there's no blood. It's all in the way that they atomize flesh and tissue. It's more that sort of style. What they do is not an inherently gory thing. They're literally snatching people and decapitating them. It's that sort of style of action. It's not creatures cutting people in half. But it's still some kind of creepy ass sh-t.
Zayas: I'm bringing my grandson!
Colin: There's definitely some cool sci-fi moments in that vein. I don't want to give away too many of them here today, but we've done our really dark, really gory movie. We didn't want to repeat that with this. We have a broader audience and we don't need to kill seven year olds. We got that out of us.
Not only are there a lot of alien movies, but they're all evil forces. Do you think there's a reason we don't see friendly alien films anymore?
Colin: I don't want to give away too much of the plot -- but there's many different definitions of evil. There's evil as an armed-force mechanized, politicized creatures coming and doing something versus parasites or other types of creatures that are on more of a survival instinct doing their thing. That level of evil, to me, is all dependent on the side that you're standing on. I mean, we kill cows and eat hamburgers and I love fucking steak. I don't care about those cows. But if you're a f--king cow, it's probably not that cool.
So with our creatures, it's kind of like that. Ours are all organic. Even the mothership is a giant living thing. There's a very different sort of thing happening with them. Instead of them being hell bent on Earth's destruction, they're just kind of doing their thing. That, to me, is kind of what made it a little bit more interesting. We're not making a weird political statement. It's just an event. It's an event that's happening and now it's too late and it's how you deal with that. That, to me, is an interesting human struggle.
You're losing people you love. Everyone's gone. Especially with Eric and Scottie's characters who are flown in from New York, they can't call their mother. They're cut off from what's going on. They're completely isolated. They're in an alien land. There's aliens taking over where they are. They have no home field advantage. It's one of those things, too, where, with these types of movies, it's like a gaper's delay on a freeway when you see an accident. You don't want to see these things happen but, when they do, people like to watch. And it's the same thing where, if you look, that's the way that the creatures get us. It's such a simplistic attack on human nature that makes it so efficient. It kind of makes for a different way of telling the story.
Given the quality of CGI and the scale you suggest, this feels like an event film. Do you think we're moving into a new era where these kinds of films can be made without studios?
Colin: Yes. And we're not going to make another studio movie. We're going to always do this. And Universal has been great for marketing. You need studios for distribution. But for us it's the creation process. Movies can get really expensive. We've worked on 74 movies, I think, and we've seen hundreds of millions of dollars wasted on those films. To us, we know how to make the movies. We've done it. We've seen how many times people have f--ked up going the wrong way. We know how you can make that process better.
One of the big things is, you have to own your own cameras. One of the big jokes is, if you look at a studio like Fox, if you want to shoot on Fox's stages, you need to be Universal or Warner Bros. or someone. Because Fox makes more money renting their studios to someone else than letting their own movies shoot there. Distribution and everything is fantastic and that's where we need the love because we can't do that. But for making the movies, this is the way to do it. And this way, everyone is in on the movie.
There's no trailers. There's nothing. Everyone is a partner, basically. The whole crew, everyone, did deferrals. Everyone believed in the project. It wasn't just a job and just a paycheck. Me and Gregg literally made eight bucks an hour. That's the DGA minimum for doing the film.
Faison: That being said, the way of doing films like this now is really going to weed out filmmakers who are not talented. That are not going to be able to do that under these circumstances. I think that, to the credit of Colin and Gregg, they actually made this happen because they knew what they were doing. They had a vision and they were able to execute whatever they needed to do with the limited funds that they had. That's not easy to do.
If you have a filmmaker who gets 50 million dollars to make a film, they're going to get a lot of help. If you get $500,000 to make a film, you're really going to have to be creative. I think that's going to weed out the really good filmmakers from those who aren't going to be able to cut it. If you go to see a movie like this, you're expecting to see Will Smith and Bruce Willis. Or Sylvester Stallone fighting the aliens. Something like this gives all of us an opportunity as well. People who don't make $25 million a movie. So that being said, it's great that it gives guys like me a shot to do something that I've always wanted to do and that was to feel like a badass action hero fighting aliens.
Greg: It also let us shoot in LA, which is another thing. A lot of studios have the budgets get so bloated that they have to go somewhere else to get the tax credits. What happens is that, yes, you save money on paper but one grip in LA who loves making movie and lives in LA because that's what he f--king wants to do, equals four grips somewhere else who may be working at the lumber mill one day and say, "today I'll be a gripsman." They don't give a sh-t.
There's no passion about it. They don't care that they're making a movie, which is pretty f--king cool stuff. You want people who show up every day who give you that 110 percent. Especially with the 20 person crew we had, everyone had to do their job. You couldn't have 20 guys standing around collecting their paycheck because they're part of some giant machinery that's a normal big-budget bloated studio film.
Another thing is that, because of the budget we're at, we're able to go way riskier with the script. We were able to do things with the script that we would never get through a normal creative process. When you kill off characters. What happens at the ending. All these story things that would have been absolutely filtered and sanded and rounded out through the process before cameras ever got to roll. We were able to take our raw script and just start shooting with it. We didn't have to get through that 50 level approval process, which meant that a lot more of the creative was able to stay intact.
You show a giant explosion in the trailer, and that seems like a big moment. How far into the movie is the nuke?
Greg: Most of the biggest set pieces are all after that.
Bigger than a nuke?
Greg: Yeah, it gets better.