Last weekend I saw (and rather enjoyed) 'Skyline,' a throwback-style "aliens attack!" sci-fi/horror flick. The film has problems, but I was rather shocked (and a little chagrined) when I saw the print critics and the onliners pounce on the flick like it was the world's last fish in the world's smallest barrel. I certainly expected some negative reviews -- the film is no classic -- but not the curiously outraged derision that was thrown 'Skyline's' way.
Then one of the filmmakers found me on Twitter; we began chatting about the response to the film, and that leads us here: A frank and candid discussion about the unpleasantness that greeted the theatrical release of, let's face it, an unapologetically silly and entirely matinee-friendly sci-fi monster movie. Our thanks to 'Skyline' writer-producers Liam O'Donnell and Joshua Cordes for participating.
How difficult is it to read negative reviews and NOT take the criticisms personally?
Liam O'Donnell: It's like being exposed to any kind of venom: It takes a while to build up your immunity. People tell you not to read the reviews, but I tried to read every one. Even more important: I would search the movie on Twitter and see the feedback from everyday people. So it was extremely painful initially, but now I skip over a "Skyline. Worst. Movie. Ever." tweet without it even registering. You need to take your lumps and read the feedback because it makes you stronger and it motivates you to do better.
The irony is that we both really wanted to screen the movie for critics because we stood by the movie and then when the first Hollywood Reporter review came out we were kind of shocked by the level of animosity towards the film. I mean, it's not a perfect film by any means, but it's a fun end-of-the-world monster movie. I think we were both expecting it to be more embraced by the horror and monster loving community. We're an indie production that did this because we love this stuff and I think you can feel that sincerity in the film.
Joshua Cordes: Yeah, I was pretty floored by the response. I'm a big boy. I know the Internet can be a mean place. But to be honest, I always felt like I'm part of the online movie community. And I sincerely made a movie that I wanted to see, and hoped they'd want to see, but apparently that wasn't the case. And it hurt, because I love movies and people who love them, and were getting reactions like we made something that came out of some dark intentions. A soulless cash grab? Shamelessly capitalizing off the latest trends? Homogenized Oscar-bait? None of those were true.
'Skyline,' warts and all, was always meant to be a harmless fun time. Pretense be damned. I know it's not a perfect movie, but I've enjoyed plenty of movies with flaws before. It takes a lot for me to completely damn a movie. Maybe it's because I appreciate how much it takes to make one every step of the way. I wasn't a huge 'Transformers' fan, but I marveled at the technical achievement and enjoyed A-list actors taking something so inherently silly and selling their performances. And our movie cost what their craft services budget was, and some of the reviews said we didn't have a single redeeming value to our film. So, definitely it was personal. But, you know what? My mom and dad didn't raise a crybaby. I can take it.
What percentage of the complaints about 'Skyline' did you find yourselves agreeing with? Anything specific?
Liam: Writing for a location has a lot of advantages -- it can be done quickly and precisely. But sometimes the limitations shut you off from thinking of ways to creatively accelerate the story. My least favorite part of the film is in the second act after they get back into the apartment up until the aerial battle. I wish we had done more in the segment to raise the stakes and get the audience more invested in the characters. That said, I think the cast did a great job and I still really like Jarrod and Elaine as a couple. The rest of the characters were never meant to be overly likable but I wish we had been funnier in the first act. I think what's there is fine but I wish we had written some more laugh out loud moments to keep that part of the film moving better.
Josh: Though I feel the "characters are all douche bags" comments are rough, it does expose a truth that we needed more to empathize with. I think there's a bunch of stuff on the edit bay floor that could have helped with this, especially with Jarrod, Elaine and Oliver. But again, it was slowing down the movie. We opted for speed in lieu of character. It might have helped, or not. In the end, we were playing with horror archetypes with our characters, but tried to ground them more. If we went a little broader, maybe the first act would have been more fun for people.
And I agree with Liam that when the crew holes back up in the apartment, we don't keep the pressure cooking as much as we should have. On a technical level, I think the cut could have been tighter. I think it would have helped some of the performances. But the edit work during the action sequences I thought was stellar. So, with a lot the criticisms, I can't help but accept and agree, but I don't see them as black and white. Again, that's where the reviews were very hard to register, as wholesale condemning the entire production makes it hard to pinpoint what went wrong with audiences. And I want to know, and learn what clicks with audiences better.
Why do you feel there's a "backlash" against the movie?
Liam: There are probably a couple of reasons. First off, the movie was marketed as an 'Independence Day' action fest instead of what it is: 'Night of the Living Dead' in a penthouse with aliens instead of zombies. I think if we had played up some of the horror vibe and then showed glimpses of the bigger money shots -- similar to the Comic Con trailer we cut -- people's expectations would be more in line with what we delivered.
Also we're getting trashed for being derivative when I think our main hook is actually pretty original with the siren lights and the mass abduction. I've never seen hundreds of people sucked off the face of the earth like that -- but again, maybe seeing those shots over and over again in the marketing made people forget we were bringing something new to the table.
The Strause Brothers have a lot of baggage from directing 'Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem,' and Joshua and I have baggage by coming from VFX backgrounds. I think the least fair one is that the cast was ridiculed out of the gate for having television backgrounds. It's the perfect storm for critics to sink their teeth into.
Josh: I totally concur. Now, people may have not liked the movie regardless of how it was marketed. But there's always gonna be audience retaliation if you sell them something it isn't. Audiences love surprises, but they also want to know what they are in for. In this case, they thought they were in for non-stop "fight back," when the movie was in fact a contained thriller. And there is a huge tonal difference between that and a rousing action picture. Almost every review called us some manner of 'Independence Day' rip-off, when our movie is nothing like it. So, again, I don't know if that's the marketing talking, or you just can't have big space ships over L.A. and not be called 'Independence Day -- even though the original 'V' was the first I remember to do city sized ships.
Also agreed on the Bros. baggage from 'AVPR.' And a lot of people scoffed at Liam and I from the get-go as not only first-time screenwriters, but VFX guys. Okay, I get the VFX guy thing, but I didn't just stumble into writing. I've been doing it my whole life. This is just my first thing that got made. Maybe I'm corny, but I'm always rooting for the first-timer. I hope every aspiring filmmaker out there gets his or her movie made. Even the ones hating on 'Skyline.'
Do you feel that 'Skyline' is being held to a higher standard than other "aliens attack!" movies?
Liam: Maybe. but I guess after a breakout movie like 'District 9' you can't blame people for expecting something on that level. But that was never really our objective. I think movies should be judged on whether they succeed at delivering on their own premise. We wanted to make a fun, spooky popcorn movie with brain sucking beasts from outer space -- and I think we did that.
Josh: It shouldn't be. But maybe it is. 'D9' is a tough act to follow. It was awesome on every level. But we had set out to make the movie we made, that embraced conventions that every invasion movie before us had adhered to, and then have fun with them. And what's baffling to us is when we played against convention, we got fried for that also.
A small but vocal dose of animosity has been thrown at the film's final scene(s), but I think it's one of the coolest parts of the flick. Why are people angry about the ending?
Liam: It's a small dose of animosity? I thought it was so bad it was already legendary! But we didn't follow the tried and true formula that people have come to expect. The humans didn't win. People were bitching when the trailer hit, "oh I'm sure humans will save the day again, how boring!" We tried something different with the third act and took a big risk and guess what? People ... they actually do want the happy ending. I think when people reject an ending they go back and judge the rest of the film harshly.
We were a little surprised by the reaction because everyone internally was so enthusiastic. Brett Ratner loved it and brought Joshua and I to a few of his projects after he watched the movie. The original script was incredibly well-received by several big writers in town that gave us some notes. We pre-sold the entire budget of the film based on the script and short teaser. Originally the mothership was only a short coda where we saw that Elaine's pregnancy saved her from the de-braining and she heard an off-screen whisper of her name. We had such a bleak ending we wanted to at least show that she was still alive -- give a little bit of hope and mystery. As we developed it the story began evolving and we started playing up Jarrod's immunity to the light more and more.
And the mothership sequence started growing larger and larger. And when we came up with turning him into the Pilot we all got really excited for a number of reasons. One because it really completed his arc from boy to man/protector -- and the metaphor was realized -- he literally transformed, which we were all excited by. And it got really weird sci-fi comic bookish. The movie starts very accessible and goes into a really weird direction and I liked that. For us, it was like "yes, the world has ended and humanity may be gone but at least there's this glimmer of hope that the human spirit can still endure." And obviously him turning into a Pilot alien opens up the so many cool possibilities of him in the sequel. Big freaking monster fights.
Josh: Actually, that's where all the bashing started to not feel so bad. The Comic Book Guy hyperbole of "Worst Ending Ever!" totally put things into perspective. At that point I was able to laugh and just go "what freakin' ever." I would agree that a majority of people didn't respond to it. But for some, it was their favorite part of the movie. It was a crazy move that no studio would have let us do. Hit or miss, no lawyer in a suit decided our ending, and that feels good.
As first-time writer-producers, how do you know what to "keep" from a negative review and what to throw away?
Liam: People have complained that there's a lack of exposition in the film and have accused us of being too lazy to include it. Exposition is by definition the laziest writing you can do. We were trying as hard as we could to not explain things because we generally hate how that dissipates the mystery. To us, as soon as things are explained they cease being scary. We didn't want a scientist to magically pop up and explain things -- and really all the information you needed was there visually anyway. But in hindsight that's a case where we tried too hard to do things differently and should have thrown the audience a bone.
Josh: We sought to not have exposition from scientists or the news reports, or any easy answers, and we got fried. One review was like "at least ID4 gave us that scene with Bill Pullman mind melds with alien and learns their plans." And I'm like, really? I saw 'ID4' in theaters seven times. It's so much fun. But that scene was the one where I was like "c'mon." But people like answers, I guess. Even when we revealed the aliens' intentions at the end, through visual storytelling, it was too late. The answers that were sought for were not easily doled out and we lost people.
Another zinger was that nukes never work against the aliens. But they do in 'Skyline'. And then we added another misdirect with the ship-rebuild. We got slammed for that too. I've never seen an alien ship rebuild itself while pissed off monsters begin spilling into the city. I think that's fun and cool.
As I discussed earlier, the more tempered the reviews, as opposed those gone "zing fishing," give us a lot more to take away from them.
Given the film's budget, it's already in the black. Do you think the negative reviews may prevent 'Skyline' from expanding beyond the one film?
Liam: The sequel treatment is very ambitious and addresses a lot of the issues people have with 'Skyline.' It's more character-driven, it's not set in one location, it's action-packed. We're going to have to see how it plays out. International box office has been very strong. Russia alone was around $5.3 million last weekend. I think the film will play great on DVD and cable TV. And because our ending is so crazy even people that don't like 'Skyline' have expressed interest in seeing the sequel. So in one form or another the story will be told.
Do you think the film would have been received more warmly if it'd gone "full R" with the action and the horror?
Liam: This is really my biggest question about it. Because it really is a dark, apocalyptic R-rated story trapped in a glossy PG-13 body. The original draft was written for an R, but it wasn't really over the top. We came to a crossroads where we could either push it over the top and go R rated or tone down the language and do what we felt was PG-13. After doing 'AVP:R' where the Brothers actually got flack for the amount of gore, it made sense to do something different.
But then once we got to the MPAA, we had a lot of trouble with the brain ripping shots. We had made them bloodless; the idea was that the tentacles sort of microwaved the flesh so that it turned into a black liquid. And then the brains were pulled out in some glorious close ups. It was intense but I still think the stuff in 'War of the Worlds' with the first Tripod attacks, the bodies in the river, and the blood harvesting was on the same level. But we are definitely not Steven freakin' Spielberg, so what can you do?
Also the floating brains on the mothership had to look more "sci-fi," according to the MPAA, so we added that blue glow, which is why Jarrod's brain glows red. Originally it was a normal brain with the entranced black vein effect on it. It's a Catch 22: if it were hard R, it definitely would have been more embraced by the horror and online critics. But in our exit polling kids under 17, boy and girls. liked 'Skyline' the best.
Josh: Not to keep nodding in agreement, but Liam hit it dead on. Especially with the MPAA stuff. We got hit hard. Even our original de-brainings weren't slathered in blood. We were referring to the film's gore as "temple of doom style." Ripping stuff out, without the viscera. But then we were getting notes as simple as "too violent" from the ratings board (the more general the note is, the bigger the problem you have) and our brains became "crystal skull style." Not where we wanted to go. We really tried to make something for all audiences and they hammered us, so yeah, now I wish we'd just said screw it and made a bloodbath. (I'm a gorehound anyway). Since we're getting no street cred for going out and making a movie on our own, maybe the gorehounds could have given some love at that point.
Also, we wrote, shot, and did all the VFX on this film in under a year. The schedule was brutal and unfortunately didn't allow us to test the film because it wasn't finished until the last moment. We got backed into a release date and inevitably the film was hurt by it. Another lesson learned the hard way.
What's been your favorite reaction or feedback on the film so far?
Josh: I saw it opening night in Times Square, full house. The crowd hit every reaction as expected, and there were lots of smiles on the way out. Can't be any happier than that. So, I was glad I wasn't in one of the harsher crowds.
Oh, and all the compliments given to the creatures and visual effects. The crew worked so hard on it, in such a short amount of time, so even the reviews that destroyed us, when compliments went to all the artists involved it was appreciated (and well-deserved).
Liam: My favorite reaction is from people that actually like it! Surprisingly, it seems to have a very strong effect on younger women; they get into the love story and they really respond to the ending. I've seen people start theorizing what happens in the sequel and really getting into the world. So even though there's a smaller fan base than we were hoping for it's still gratifying to see people respond to it.