Drawn to the Story: Skyline Begins
Since their teens, brothers COLIN and GREG STRAUSE (collectively known as the Brothers Strause) have been immersed in the world of visual effects. They began their careers crafting VFX for music videos and commercials and created their firm, the Santa Monica, California, based Hydraulx, as a full-service VFX house. After several years directing shorter-form projects, they were hired to helm the latest chapter in the blockbuster franchise that pits brutal aliens against galactic predators: 2007's AVPR: Aliens vs. Predator--Requiem. When they considered making another film, they knew it would only happen if they could craft it in-house and control every aspect of production.
A few weeks before Thanksgiving in 2009, the brothers were having lunch with longtime animation supervisor of Hydraulx, Joshua Cordes, and frequent writer of their music videos and commercials, Liam O'Donnell. They began to discuss ideas for a project they could entirely create within their own team.
The brothers asked: "What if aliens were to come to this planet and trick us?" For some time, they had been pondering the concept of "Siren light" that played off of the ancient Greek tales of exotic women who would sing and lure sailors to crash their boats into the rocks. By emitting a seductive, beautiful sound that would pique our curiosity, the light would make us run to the window and take a look. Once we did, it would render us into powerless zombies and make us walk out of our building and out into the open. From there, newly susceptible, we would be abducted by the aliens.
Director Colin Strause elaborates on the film: "It's a visually powerful epic alien-abduction movie
with a great character story and heart. The premise is mass abduction on a global scale. For example, most people driving on a freeway who see an accident would look at the wreck. If some entity used these instinctual weaknesses against us, then it would wipe us out instantly. The event makes everyone equal. Everything flat lines at that point, and they are trying to survive what could be the end of the Earth."
O'Donnell discusses the team's process: "I'd been working with Greg and Colin for five years, developing scripts and creating treatments for their commercials and music videos. Kristian had been a producer with them on a couple of music videos up in Vancouver. We were trying to figure out what we could do with our own cameras and other equipment, and we had just shot a music video with Joshua at Hydraulx studio. The brothers own all these great spaces, and we had these awesome cameras and wondered what we could do to take advantage of that. We realized Greg had this amazing view of the city, and our story quickly became the end of the world outside of his window."
Fortuitously, Cordes had written a horror screenplay and shared it with his longtime collaborators.
Explains Cordes: "While I was writing that script, I gave it to Liam to get his thoughts. Then he started giving me his scripts, and we began a working relationship. When the brothers suggested doing something internally, Liam approached me about joining forces and tackling this project."
As the team discussed ideas for the brothers' first "homegrown" film, they fleshed out the idea of what would happen when hundreds of thousands of people were enticed outside to stare up at the sky, just before they are sucked into alien ships and Earth becomes a vacant lot. They knew they could deliver the iconic visuals that had made Hydraulx the go-to group for VFX, but they also realized they had to answer big questions for the audience. Once all the people have been abducted, what happens to them? What do the people who are left to survive do next?
Colin Strause reflects that what most interested his brother and him was that there would be no
compromise on their vision with Skyline, as they had the capabilities to make an independent film with enormous scope. "One of the coolest things about what the filmmakers behind Paranormal Activity did was that they just did it themselves," Colin Strause says. "They didn't have to answer to anyone. We thought, 'We could do that, but we could do that 100 times bigger…because we have an effects studio, we've worked on almost 70 movies and we own our own equipment.'"
Along with brother Greg, he knew that creating this project independently would be freeing and limit how much they would have to give in to a financing studio's requests. "If you're spending $100 million on a movie, a studio is going to want what it wants," he adds. "There's always going to be some compromise. If it's our money, then there is no compromise."
Greg Strause concurs: "One of the reasons we embarked upon Skyline was that in this day and age, movie budgets have become enormous. At the same time, movie studios have generally been cutting down the number of films they make. We were just at the boiling point. We said, 'We're going to shoot a movie ourselves.' Skyline has gone from concept to release date in less than a year."
As they were going it on their own, they knew they had to have an even tighter organization for
the production than a big-budget picture would. "One of the things that made it so efficient was our 'power structure,' as we call it," Greg Strause continues. "The committee, the multi-headed dragon, only had five heads: Liam, Josh, Kristian, Colin and myself. It was easy for us to all do a group huddle. We have almost a decade working together with Josh and over five years with Liam. We've known Kristian for about 10 years, and we all speak the same language."
The tightly knit group they had assembled would make the casting, designing, shooting and editing of Skyline much more streamlined. It didn't hurt that two siblings were helming the process. Explains Cordes: "Because you have co-directors and because they're brothers, it allows for more collaboration."
O'Donnell adds: "At the same time, they are businessmen; they know the financial implications of a day of shooting. They don't frivolously shoot or go over budget or schedule to feed their egos."
To prove that Skyline could be done on the budget and with the schedule they imagined, the production team put a teaser trailer together in a one-day shoot and acquired the necessary financing for a full film (and international presales) at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2010. Explains Greg Strause: "We told our investors, 'Well here you go! That was a one-day shoot, so check out this teaser.' Everyone was sold and believed we could do it. We were off to the races."
Finding Abductees: Casting the Sci-fi Thriller
When they were developing Skyline, the Brothers Strause and writers O'Donnell and Cordes were committed to having a character-driven movie. Knowing that tropes of many sci-fi screenplays include enormous visuals and disposable characters, they vowed to avoid the obvious traps. "We wanted the characters to be the main point of the movie that this huge visual world is wrapped around," shares Colin Strause. "One of the fun things was creating moments of pure terror as our characters watch this event unfold. But then all of a sudden, the cast finds themselves right in the middle of these huge set pieces."
As the script centered on Jarrod and Elaine, the Brothers Strause wanted to bring the audience to the crossroads where this young couple has found itself. Offers O'Donnell: "The main character, Jarrod, has a metamorphosis from an overgrown boy into a father, a protector. The theme of fatherhood interests us; both Colin and I are fathers. The moment you find out that you're going to be a dad is a really intense, life-changing experience that we felt hadn't been tackled this way in many films."
Greg Strause explains who they imagined the character to be: "We meet Jarrod, and he's around 30 years old. He's coming to terms with adulthood-- time to stop being a boy and grow into being a man. There's also a fish-out-of-water story with Jarrod and Elaine coming from out of town. There's nothing worse than being in a crisis situation in a strange land. You don't have this home-field advantage playing for you. He made his ascent to this lap of luxury at Terry's during a catastrophe."
To portray the role of the first character cast, they selected Eric Balfour. Commends Andresen: "Everybody knew that Eric Balfour was our Jarrod. After he read for the part, we were sold that he should be the guy that the audience wants to help save his family."
Selected as Elaine, Jarrod's girlfriend who is suspicious of the actual reason that they are visiting
Jarrod's old friend in Los Angeles, was Scottie Thompson. Though the young actress had landed
many supporting roles, Skyline would prove her first lead. Notes producer O'Donnell of Thompson's selection: "Scottie was the wild card. She came in and did this amazing read. We never called her back for anything; she was perfect."
Chosen as Jarrod's best friend, special-effects wizard Terry, was an actor much more well known for his comic roles than his dramatic choices: Donald Faison. Cordes offers that Faison took the casting quite seriously and showed a side of his talents they'd never seen. He says: "Donald is a huge science-fiction fan and always wanted to fight aliens. We would recite Star Wars dialogue to each other on set. When the cameras rolled, he slipped into action hero mode."
The screenwriters actually penned the role of Oliver, the building's concierge, for Dexter's David Zayas. Recalls Andresen: "We didn't even audition him, it was just an offer. We were thrilled that he agreed to come onto the project."
Another performer primarily known for her comic work was brought onto the production to play Terry's self-absorbed socialite girlfriend. Brittany Daniel was asked to join Skyline as Candice. O'Donnell recalls her casting: "Brittany has the same manager as Donald. She came over to read the script after Donald was cast. She loved the character, and we loved her."
Rounding out the core cast of the production were two other young performers: actress CRYSTAL REED as Terry's assistant, Denise, and NEIL HOPKINS as Ray. Hopkins is most well known as the heroin-addicted Liam from the juggernaut series Lost. As the bulk of Skyline was shot in one location, there were not the luxuries that a typical big-budget film set would offer. Colin Strause explains: "We didn't have trailers. We literally had another condo in the building. Everyone hung out together. Our cast hung out with the crew, and we all spent time in the same living room. It wasn't like you had to grab all these people from their separate little camps."
Acting opposite stunt performers who served as stand-ins for the attacking aliens was a challenge for the cast, to stay the least. It was a treat for them all to be shown clips of the film before their panel at San Diego's Comic-Con in July 2010. Recounts Andresen: "None of the talent had seen any of the footage until San Diego. Faison freaked out the night before Comic- Con. Then I showed the rest of them when we were about to go on for our panel and everybody was blown away, saying, 'Are you kidding me?'"
One archetype the audience won't find in Skyline is the nebbish genius who walks the audience through the aliens' rationale. Laughs Colin Strause: "We didn't want any scientists or anyone to explain what was happening in the film. You always get that moment in a movie when you ask, 'How'd that guy know that?'
We thought, 'What if you have this regular group of people instead?' It becomes more interesting because you wonder how the aliens do what they do and what makes our group of humans unravel."
Since moving to Hollywood as teens in the mid- '90s, THE BROTHERS STRAUSE (Directed by/ Produced by) have charted a meteoric rise in the film world: from self-taught visual effects wizards to renowned directors. It's an incredible journey that's been documented everywhere from Forbes to the front page of The Wall Street Journal. With their boutique FX house, Hydraulx, the brothers have contributed visionary sequences to a string of blockbuster films such as X-Men Origins: Wolverine, 2012, 300, X-Men: The Last Stand, The Incredible Hulk and The Day After Tomorrow. Their work on the latter brought Greg a BAFTA for Best Achievement in Special Visual Effects and elevated the brothers to the upper echelon of visual effects supervisors. More recently, they worked on more than a third of the revolutionary age-altering shots in the Academy Award®-winning feature The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Along the way, they've collaborated with some of the industry's most respected directors and producers, earning the trust of such luminaries as David Fincher, James Cameron and Roland Emmerich. But it's in their capacities as filmmakers that the Brothers Strause really excel. With their unflinching commitment to storytelling and instantly recognizable aesthetic, they've created some of the decade's most imaginative music videos.
In 2000, they first splashed onto the scene with Colin's MTV Video Music Award (VMA) for Best Art Direction for the Red Hot Chili Pepper's "Californication." The following year, the Brothers Strause were nominated for two VMAs (Best Rock Video and Best Directors) for Linkin Park's career-catapulting "Crawling." Their recent work includes 50 Cent's chart-topping, post apocalyptic "Get Up" and Usher's "Love in this Club," a 2008 VMA nominee (Best Male Video).
Their uncanny vision and storytelling talents quickly garnered attention in the ad world, and the Brothers Strause have built an impressive commercial reel with campaigns for Toyota, Universal Studios, PlayStation's God of War, Gatorade, Coca-Cola, Ford, Pennzoil and Shell.
In 2007, the Brothers Strause reached new career heights: co-directing their first feature for 20th Century Fox, AVPR: Alien vs. Predator--Requiem. Heralded by Variety as "ingeniously creepy," the brothers delivered on their promise to return the franchise to its horror origins. They recently reteamed with James Cameron, working their magic on Avatar, and worked on the upcoming visual effects epic Gulliver's Travels, starring Jack Black
Since he was eight years old, LIAMO'DONNELL (Written by/Produced by) has wanted to be a storyteller. Growing up under the influence of George Lucas' Star Wars and Indiana Jones sagas fueled his early passion for creativity and mythmaking. Inspired by writers from Philip K. Dick to Michael Crichton, O'Donnell became obsessed with creating high concept stories and the perilous journey of developing them to their full potential.
In 2005, O'Donnell began collaborating with Greg and Colin Strause on their commercial and music video treatments. Together they immediately booked several acclaimed campaigns for companies such as Gatorade, Mercury and Coca-Cola. O'Donnell went on to write the music videos for R&B superstar Usher's "Love in This Club" and "Moving Mountains," which the Brothers Strause directed.
"Love in This Club" was later nominated for an MTV Video Music Award for Best Male Video. O'Donnell then worked with hip-hop impresario 50 Cent, writing the music video treatment for "Get Up," directed by the Brothers Strause and shot by Academy Award®- nominated director of photography Claudio Miranda.
O'Donnell also had the opportunity to work closely with the Brothers Strause when he developed their pitch for AVPR: Alien vs. Predator--Requiem. Brought on as a creative consultant, O'Donnell worked on set with the brothers every day and refined the action and story with pre-visualization artist Joshua Cordes.
Although longtime friends and creative allies, Skyline marks the first time O'Donnell and Cordes have collaborated on a screenplay. The duo has since gone on to work together on numerous upcoming projects including Skyline 2. After executive producer Brett Ratner read their script for Skyline, he brought O'Donnell and Cordes onboard several of his projects including a rewrite of the Activision video game True Crime: Hong Kong.
For Jon Favreau's Iron Man 2, O'Donnell and the brothers wrote and shot the Feebles sequences that featured the disastrous and comical results of foreign countries' failed attempts at creating their own Iron Man technology.
O'Donnell co-wrote the pitch trailer for the Internet sensation Offline, with director Matthew Santoro. The trailer debuted on Vimeo.com to widespread acclaim and plans for a theatrical film are underway.
O'Donnell currently works as the head of development for Hydraulx Entertainment, writing and producing several upcoming projects including Skyline 2 and War of the Ages, an epic historical fantasy in which the greatest warriors of antiquity square off with the fate of mankind hanging in the balance.
Like with every other kid born in the late '70s, Star Wars propelled JOSHUA CORDES' (Written by) passion for cinema. But in the mid-'80s, something went horribly awry. Don't ask how or why, but two hippies who wouldn't let their son play with toy guns managed to raise a child with a passion for horror movies. School days were spent drawing his versions of cinematic nightmares. A cathedral populated by Jason, Freddy and Michael Myers got him sent to the principal's office. His afternoons were spent trying to sneak into the latest R-rated horror offerings.
Deft in English and the visual arts but unsure of where to focus, Cordes walked into a chilly air-conditioned theater in the summer of 1991 expecting genius, and instead found a revelation in the mind-blowing effects of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Six years later, he graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York City and jumped right into the industry, working as an artist and visual effects supervisor on commercials and music videos. It took moving to Los Angeles in 2000 to fully achieve his dreams of feature-film fantasia. His credits as an animation supervisor include Avatar, 300, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Incredible Hulk.
Hoping to make the leap from VFX artist to storyteller, Cordes wrote Toxicity, a horrific urban thriller set in the darkest corners of New York City. The script caught the eyes of the Brothers Strause, who tapped Cordes to co-write Skyline, with Liam O'Donnell. During Skyline's production, years of on-set supervision and previsualization paid off as Cordes stepped behind the camera as second unit director and "B" camera operator. He also served as animation supervisor, lead animator and previsualization supervisor, and has a cameo as Telescope Guy, thus winning the production's "Robert Rodriguez" award for most credits.
THE ART OF ORIGINAL FILMMAKING