Strause, Colin and Greg (Skyline), Part 1
These days big budget films are a staple of movie-going fare. Big stars, huge budgets, and giant “event” pictures are given wide release and fill cineplexes around the world. For decades it has been the formula that has fueled what many refer to as “Hollywood.” But times are changing. Technology is seeing to that.
And as the state of the art advances, costs of cameras come down, and with the advent of the High Definition Digital format, the “Hollywood Formula” is being adapted by some very gifted filmmakers, and they are using it to their – and our – advantage.
Enter visual FX wizards and filmmakers, Colin and Greg Strause. Years of working as two of the industry’s most sought after visual FX artists provided them with the opportunity to direct their first film, the highly debated Alien vs. Predator: Requiem. After enduring the promises and betrayals inherent with working in the studio system, the two brothers saw that the state of the filmmaking art had advanced to a point where HD filmmaking was more accessible than it had ever been. If one thing was clear from AVP:R, it was that the brothers knew what they were doing behind the camera.
I first met the Strauses on the set of AVP:R one incredibly cold Vancouver evening in December of 2006. Just prior to shooting the first of the night’s scenes, we sat and talked about what it was like to make their first film, the stresses of working on such a widely-loved franchise, and the hopes they had for the film. The two of them were creativity and optimism personified. Beyond their brotherly physical similarities, they have the habit of routinely completing one another’s sentences and give off the impression that they are so in touch with each other that it is almost as if they share one mind. Well, AVP:R came out, and while it was met with mixed reviews and some fanboy incredulity, one thing was clear: The Brothers Strause were competent directors who could deliver a film on time and on budget.
After the AVP:R release, the brothers returned to their primary job of running their effects firm, Hydraulx, and worked on such films as THE INCREDIBLE HULK, BEDTIME STORIES, JUMPER, FAST & FURIOUS, X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, 2012, AVATAR, THE BOOK OF ELI, and JONAH HEX. Then, this last summer word came out of San Diego Comic-Con that Colin and Greg had a film they were introducing at a panel. The film, SKYLINE, was an alien invasion story, high in concept and, as one might expect, visually stunning. Then, a week or so later, a trailer hit the Internet that confirmed fan’s expectations. The Strauses were back behind the wheel of another film.
SKYLINE (in theaters November 12, 2010), which stars Eric Balfour ("SIX FEET UNDER", HELLRIDE), Donald Faison ("SCRUBS"), Scottie Thompson ("NCIS", TRAUMA), Brittany Daniels (CLUB DREAD), and David Zayas ("DEXTER", THE EXPENDABLES), is the story of a group of people who find themselves holed up in a high-rise apartment as the aliens attack. The group quite literally has a front row seat to what quickly becomes the end of the world.
Beyond its story, visual sense, and spectacle (and believe me, it has all of those things), what makes SKYLINE such a game changer is the way it was made. Its budget, the particulars of which are being held close to the vest by both the filmmakers and their distributors, is miniscule compared to other films of its ilk. The Strauses' use of the innovative RED camera as well as some other hi-tech equipment has effectively slashed the film’s price tag to shreds, especially given the way SKYLINE looks.
Beyond its engaging tale of survival amidst the apocalypse, SKYLINE serves as a herald of the way films will be made in the future.
Witness… the future of filmmaking.
Before we get started, I wanted to ask about AVP: REQUIEM. How was that experience and were you satisfied with both the end result and the public’s reaction?
Greg Strause: "I think what we’ve tried to do is to look forward rather than to dwell on the past. I’d say that there were a lot of lessons learned from it. I think like, with anything, it’s always like, 'Oh, wow… there’s definitely a lot of things we hope to set straight and do better with the next one.' So, no… The reaction was not what we wanted, to be honest. David Fincher’s famous quote about ALIEN 3 was that 'no one hates ALIEN 3 more than me.' [laughs] You always sit back and think about that quote… Words of wisdom."
DC: It’s always hard to do something and then look back on it years later.
Colin: "Look, the way we’ve been discussing it is that it’s very frustrating when you can’t do what you want to do, but you take the hit for it. Or you’re told you can do something and you publicly say that you can do it, and then they don’t let you and then you look like the asshole. That’s bullshit. So, I think that’s where we want to leave it. Lessons learned and there’s just a lot of better ways of going about making movies, which is why we’re doing SKYLINE the way we’re doing it. It’s why we worked with our own in-house writers, we controlled the story, why we’re completely doing all the post production here, why we shot it in LA instead of Vancouver. There are all these things that we couldn’t control before, but now, with this project, we control it entirely. We’ve taken everything that bothered us about the process or the things we didn’t feel were efficient, and we’re now able to do it in the way we thought it should be done."
DC: What was the film’s budget?
Colin Strause: "It’s a little bit difficult to discuss the film’s budget in conventional terms. I mean, we own everything."
DC: Well, I get that you have an advantage in that you own your own visual FX company and your own resources and both of those things sort of mitigated what you would’ve normally paid.
Colin: "Also, the crew, all the actors, everyone deferred their pay and worked at an artificially low number that we never would have gotten otherwise."
Greg: "It’s an interesting model because what you have is a cast, crew, and all of the creative players who are working on the movie because they believe in it and are betting on the finished product. So, from that standpoint, the actual budget is a lot less than what it’s worth. I don’t want to pin a number on it because there are a lot of factors at play… On one side, I’d love to tell people how inexpensive the movie was and I guarantee it’s very inexpensive compared to the way it looks. On the other hand, there are people out there that will hold that against you. 'Under $20 million' is the safe thing for us to say."
DC: And the shooting schedule?
Colin: "Forty-two days… which is a pretty healthy amount of shoot time. We only had fifty-two on AVP:R. "
Greg: "Now for THAT we can talk about the budget." [laughs]
DC: I’m reading that most of the film was shot at your condo?
Greg: "PARANORMAL ACTIVITY in a strange way was the inspiration for the process. We were sitting around looking at the incredible buzz and box office numbers from a movie that was shot on what looked to me to be a consumer level camera in someone’s house, and we were like, 'Well, I just finished remodeling my place and it looks cool, and we happen to own digital cinema cameras… We own Arriflex lenses, which are the same cameras Fincher just shot his movie with. PIRATES 4 is just about to start shooting with it, too. Maybe, we could do the same thing, but with a much more cinematic aesthetic.'”
DC: Was it literally one of those “I have a camera! I have a condo! Let’s put on a show!” kind of things?
Greg: "It was like, 'We’ll spend this amount and we’ll just improv a movie.' That literally was the first idea we had. Then we were like, 'Well, you can’t really just improv the whole thing.' We were looking at the script and thinking, 'Wait a minute… we don’t need green screen or any of this stuff. We can do all this crazy shit on our own. Let’s just go gonzo with the script.' One of the writers, Joshua Cordes, who is our animation supervisor at the FX company, and Liam O’Donnell, who is the other writer, and us just kind of said, 'Well, fuck… let’s just go for it. Let’s see what happens.' Because we’ve worked on almost seventy movies since coming out here, we know every single trick there is and we keep seeing how everyone else keeps making the same horrifically expensive mistakes over and over again. We were like, 'We’re not going to make those mistakes. We know how to do this, and there’s just enough time to do it the right way.' Normally, what happens on a movie is we end up re-doing the visual FX sometimes thirty or forty times. We’re constantly doing stuff, getting new notes, and re-doing it again and again and again. We were like, 'We’re not going to have that. If we like it, that’s it!' There are five of us, and that’s all there needs to be on the creative side."
DC: Describe the film’s plot. I mean, in the trailer, something is obviously coming from the sky…
Greg: "Basically – and we don’t want to give too much away – the movie opens with the setup of our lead characters. We’ve got a couple that’s in love – Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and Elaine (Scottie Thompson) – who have come out to LA to visit from Brooklyn. We then get introduced to another character, Terry (Donald Faison), and his girlfriend, Candace (Brittany Daniel). Terry is someone who is an old friend of Jarrod’s who came out to LA earlier in life and he’s kind of made it big. He’s got a successful career in business going. During their reunion, in the first act, everyone’s having fun and talking about old times and what the future holds. Jarrod is at a sort of crossroads in his life. He’s older now and he can’t just keep coasting through life…"
Colin: "He’s a starving artist."
Greg: "He needs to man up and make some of those hard choices that really start to define men as they go through that part of manhood. That part of the movie ends on a rather bombshell moment from an emotional standpoint between some of the characters. Then, the next morning, all hell breaks loose. The other thing we want to share is that there’s a premise here that’s really cool, a very visual concept. There’s been a lot of chatter about it. 'Is it just another retread? Blah blah blah…' All that Internet chatter. But we think there’s a visual concept here that’s very original, and that is that these aliens who come to our planet operate in a very unique way that we feel you haven’t seen before. They drop these things that we refer to as a 'Siren'. The Siren is based on a concept like the old tale of the Sirens who used their songs to lure sailors’ boats to crash onto the rocks. So, basically this Siren is this bright, mesmerizing light. It’s a pod that descends from the ships…"
DC: The blue lights that drop onto the city in the film’s teaser trailer?
Greg: "Right. Everyone’s seen them, so we’re not shy to talk about them now. Not only do the Sirens have a beautiful pattern of light that piques the curiosity of whoever sees them, but they also emit a beautiful, melodic sound. So, if you can’t see them, you hear them and this haunting sound draws you out into the open. It piques your curiosity and makes you want to come look at them. Once a person looks at one of these things, they’re entranced and the game is over. And that’s probably as much as we want to go into it, but you get the idea that these aliens are moving in a different way and it’s definitely a striking visual."
Colin: "It’s like on a Biblical scale, like The Rapture. It’s like the end of The End."
DC: That’s an interesting analogy because there’s a shot in the trailer of people ascending into the sky, and that’s an image that seems like a direct reference to The Rapture.
Greg: "What’s cool about the movie is that it then turns into this whole survival film. It’s like in DAWN OF THE DEAD; they were trapped in the mall…"
Colin: "Or in THE MIST where they were trapped in the grocery store."
Greg: "Here… the characters are trapped in a high-rise condo, but they’re not just in the apartment – which, by the way, is a twenty-five-hundred-square-foot ridiculous pad – but they are also on rooftops and in garages. Literally, every couple of minutes, you’re in a different part of the building and it’s about how they survive in that geographical space given the advantage of where they are, getting front row seats to the end of the world. To us, that was a really cool concept."
Colin: "And then there are the hundred other cool things we can’t tell you about." [laughs]
DC: Oh, I know how secretive you guys can be… you couldn’t talk to me about Chet [the code name for the Pred-Alien from AVP:R] either. [laughs]
Greg: "Chet… I haven’t heard that name in a long time."
Colin: "I have Chet’s head hanging in my office though…"
DC: In the course of researching all of this, and I don’t know how much you can or want to talk about this, but… there is some talk regarding BATTLE: LOS ANGELES and Sony litigating about similarities between the two films.
Greg: "I don’t want to get into it too much, but BATTLE: LOS ANGELES and SKYLINE are two very different movies. Honestly, we think there is an ulterior motive to this whole thing. Our consistent statement is that this is all about Sony trying to muscle the little guy into a different release date."
DC: This kind of “parallel thinking” thing is always happening in Hollywood. DEEP IMPACT vs. ARMAGEDDON. DANTE’S PEAK vs. VOLCANO. There are always movies that seem similar which happen to be made at the same time. It’s almost like a zeitgeist of the time.
Colin: "The thing everyone has to remember is that we’ve done an invasion movie with the military in armored vehicles getting wiped out by aliens before." [laughs]
Greg: "When the BATTLE movie came around town, that was why we weren’t interested in it… because we’ve done it before. It’s just a bigger version of some of the stuff that we already did in AVP:R. We’re looking to do something different now. What’s the next new thing? What’s the unique take on the genre and with characters? To actually have a story, a plot, emotions, and people that you care about. That’s an important thing to us. We just want to do something different because we didn’t really have a lot of that to work with on AVP:R. We want to show that we’re not just whiz-bang FX guys. There’s actually a cool story in SKYLINE, and we have some pretty wild set-pieces as well."
Colin: "Great character moments."
Greg: "There are some really emotional beats in the film, and that was a really important thing we had to have in our next movie. We were just getting so frustrated with the whole studio process. Some of our biggest clients would come over and we’d hear them grumbling like, 'Ah, I didn’t get this movie' or 'The studio’s making me change the script!' We thought, 'Wait… you’re Mr. Film God and you’re fucking complaining about this stuff?' Jesus, it’s getting depressing. Everything’s a remake. Everything is so derivative. Why not try to start our own franchise? Let’s do our own thing.”
DC: Especially at a time when there are features out there being made for forty grand because the technology has filtered down to a point that the average guy can pick up a camera and shoot something that looks totally professional.
Greg: "Well, look at the RED camera."
Colin: "They’re only seventeen thousand bucks."
Greg: "It costs a hundred and seventy thousand to buy an Arriflex 435."
Colin: "I think they’re more. I think they’re like a quarter million."
Greg: "The 535 is over a quarter million and you can buy a RED camera and put a bullshit Canon lens on it from your old camera package [laughs] and you can shoot a 4k movie on the thing? That’s insane, and it was the only way we got to shoot this movie because of the technology change. I don’t know how familiar you are with ASAs and stuff like that, but… Typically, you’re shooting on like a 400 stock or 500. It takes a lot of light. We were shooting stuff at 4,000 ASA on SKYLINE. It’s fucking pitch black to your eye and the camera can still see stuff brighter than your eyeballs can. Normally, with a film camera, the rule is whatever you see with your eyes is always two or three stops darker than what your brain can see. So, if you can kind of see it, the film camera is not going to be able to pick it up. With these cameras, it’s the exact opposite. And then… you don’t need generators."
Colin: "And you don’t need huge lights that generate heat. You can use these small lights that can plug into a wall outlet. So it’s truly a revolution."
Greg: "We literally disabled the lights and everything with Kino Flos. We’d plug it into the outlet, and we were done."
Colin: "So we had a tiny crew. It was a twenty-person crew because you don’t have twenty electricians running around with the 'gennys' and the trucks and running cable and all of this mess. The old way was like the Titanic; the ship is so big that you can’t turn it. So, if there’s a problem coming, you’re fucked. And when you don’t need the lights and all of this other stuff, it means you can shoot faster, you can shoot more stuff, your shooting days are a fraction of the cost because you don’t have all of these giant rentals that are stacking up week after week. It let us have a much smaller footprint."
Greg: "And we didn’t rent it anyways. We owned all of the equipment already. We bought all of our lights. We bought all of the grip equipment. We bought fucking everything. Our own snorkel lenses. We bought our own Master Primes. We bought the entire set, and that way, when we wanted to go shoot a trailer… Look, it’s literally been less than a year from the time when we came up with the idea for the movie to when it’ll be in the theaters. We shot the first trailer after we got the treatment ready last Thanksgiving. We just said, 'We’ve got all the shit, let’s just get friends who are actors…' So, we got my brother’s girlfriend’s sister and we were like, 'We’re just going to go shoot a teaser for this thing.' We hadn’t even finished the script yet and that's what was actually sold at the Berlin Film Festival. It was how we pre-sold all of the foreign rights… with the script and a teaser we literally shot in a day. And since we didn’t have to ask anyone for permission… Normally, if you’re going to shoot a test for a studio movie, you have to have twenty people sign off on it…"
Colin: "Production managers and producers… There are all these layers."
DC: It almost becomes filmmaking by consensus.
Colin: "Absolutely! It seems like an actual day of shooting is a very difficult to attain goal."
Greg: "Well, the problem is that the companies that specialize in making movies don’t own any of the equipment you need to actually make movies. There’s a joke over on the Fox lot where they say, 'If you want to shoot at Fox, you have to be another studio who rents space there because Fox doesn’t even shoot on their own stages.' They make more money selling it to other people. They don’t own their own equipment. They don’t have anything, everything is a rental. They don’t want to own it because then they’ll have to depreciate it. I understand there are some issues with that, but then at the same time, when you don’t have the stuff in hand, you’re now instantly building a dependence on all these other vendors, which means all this overhead. And that shit… costs millions of dollars. If we want to go pick up a shot, we literally just go, 'Hey, there’s a cool sunset. Let’s go shoot some new plates for this one battle sequence,' and we grab the camera, go down the street, and start shooting. It just changes the way you make movies."
-To be continued in Part 2–
Look for SKYLINE in theaters November 12, 2010.
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