Last week B-D reporter Chris Eggertsen was invited to visit the set of Skyline, the new sci-fi thriller from Alien vs. Predator: Requiem directors Greg and Colin Strause, to take a look at some of the filming and get more details on the closely guarded project. During his visit Chris had the chance to speak at length with the Brothers Strause, in addition to stars Eric Balfour (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Scottie Thompson, playing a New York couple on a visit to Los Angeles who end up fighting for their survival when an apocalyptic event transpires right outside the window of their friend’s high-rise condominium. Check out the full article for more info on the intriguing new film.
“It’s shot like a real movie…it’s not a video camera. I don’t want that to come off like a slam on anyone, but that’s like a gag that maybe studios can get away with every ten years or something like that…it’s not our kinda thing. We’re way more about the photography, and shot composition, and lighting.” – Greg Strause, Co-Director, on Cloverfield comparisons
Well, I don’t know. But even if I did know, I couldn’t tell you. So it was on the set of Skyline, Alien vs. Predator: Requiem directors Colin and Greg Strause’s latest film starring Eric Balfour (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Donald Faison (Scrubs), Brittany Daniel (Club Dread), and the aforementioned Scottie Thompson (a series regular on this season’s cancelled NBC show Trauma) as a group of late 20s/early 30-something hotties facing…well, what exactly?
Here are the things I can tell you: 1) It’s a sci-fi thriller about the end of the world; 2) David Zayas (Dexter) also stars, they wrote the part specifically for him, and they are so happy to have him on board (they told me to be sure and mention that) 3) The movie will be very, very bright and you’ll be able to see absolutely everything that happens.
Alright, so there are a few other things. But first off, about #3. I feel it’s important for you to know, and I’m sure the Brothers Strause (as they’re called) would want me to point out that the movie will, indeed, be extremely bright and easy to see. See, in case you weren’t aware, AvP: R was notoriously dark in the DVD/Blu-ray transfers (not to mention some theatrical prints on the East Coast), and it irked a lot of people and led to a bit of bad blood between the Brothers and fans of the series. Although you should know that it wasn’t exactly their fault.
“When we got the Blu-ray our hearts sank, cause we didn’t get a chance to see a proof of it until it was already in production”, said Greg regrettably. “That was one of these things where it’s like, they’re not gonna recall four million Blu-rays.”
For those who have watched and been frustrated by either the AvP: R DVD or Blu-ray, you can be rest assured darkness won’t be a problem this time around. Not only is Skyline concerned with portraying the apocalypse in full daylight; light itself also functions as an antagonist, so to speak.
“I mean, you’ve read the stuff online about light being a very big component to what’s affecting our human group”, said writer Liam O’Donnell, as I stood on the high-rises’ helipad chatting it up with him, co-writer Joshua Cordes and the Brothers. “So it’s kind of cool that light is the adversary, and then you’re also making daylight scary.”
Ok, now we’re getting somewhere. Tell us more.
“Even the sound…you know, this light that ends up being the dangerous thing is also…’beautiful evil’ has been the way we’ve been describing the sound that it makes as well”, said Greg.
Let me attempt to fill in the blanks here, in general terms: light is an adversary, but it makes a sound so beautiful it can’t be resisted. Like a banshee calling sailors to the rocks, or a rose with poison in its thorns. Beautiful evil. Makes perfect sense to me.
“The ending, without saying anything other than saying it’s gonna be the most crazy, gonzo shit ever…it is bright and beautiful”, said Colin, the younger of the two brothers by a year and a half. “It is like the sunset.”
Ok, I think we’ve got the light aspect covered. You want more gossip on AvP: R? Maybe in another article. In this piece, we’re gonna focus on the positive; in other words, we’ll be looking forward, not backward. (For the record though, I thought AvP: R was a lot of fun, and I told the Brothers as much. Of course, I was one of the lucky ones to see it in theaters. On the West Coast.)
After speaking at length up on the helipad (rigged to shoot a high-flying stunt sequence after lunch), the Brothers and I headed downstairs so they could show me a promo they’d put together for the film after financing for the project had been set up through CAA and producer Kristian James Andresen. Enlisting a small group of friends to crew and act in the promo, the Brothers shot the whole thing in six or seven hours on Thanksgiving Day 2009.
“[It] started defining the visual style, and also just helped hype up everyone, build up support around the movie as we got going”, Greg told me. “I used to kinda cringe at the idea of having to shoot part of the movie before actually having everything greenlit…but in the indie world, I think that’s actually a really important tool. And it forces you to make a lot of creative decisions, to start…it’s like you have this big lump of clay and you gotta start making it…turn into something. So there’s nothing like having a camera up and lights turned on to force the issue.”
The promo was extremely impressive, with some cool effects thrown into the mix (not surprising given the Brothers’ extensive visual effects background working on big-budget films like Avatar and 2012), but it still didn’t tell me much about the movie. Nevertheless, I came out of the experience intrigued. It also, to me, had a Cloverfield vibe (a bunch of hot twenty/thirty-somethings facing off against an unimaginable apocalyptic evil in an urban environment), a comparison Greg was quick to downplay.
“I just wanna avoid comparisons to that, because I guess mainly from like a cinematic style, this is so different”, he interjected when his younger brother began mentioning the similarities. “It’s shot like a real movie…it’s not a video camera. I don’t want that to come off like a slam on anyone, but that’s like a gag that maybe studios can get away with every ten years or something like that…it’s not our kinda thing. We’re way more about the photography, and shot composition, and lighting.”
I made a point to thank the Brothers for that, and then I asked them about shooting their film on the RED Camera, which they talked about at length, in excited tones. Apparently, they’re using a new bleeding-edge chip in the camera (which after doing some research of my own I believe is called the MX) that’s only been used for two other films so far (David Fincher’s upcoming The Social Network and Soderbergh’s Knockout, currently filming) that’s apparently so sensitive to light you don’t even need lighting equipment when shooting nighttime scenes outside. In fact, the Brothers told me they’ve been able to power the minimal lights needed solely with the electrical outlets in the high-rise condo where much of the more character-driven parts of the story take place (it also happens to be where Greg lives – how’s that for location savvy?)
“You just use available light…it’s unreal. Stuff that you can’t see with your eye, the new chip will actually see and it’s not grainy”, said Colin. “It’s gonna change moviemaking. It’s pretty amazing stuff.”
When it came to movie comparisons, the Brothers seemed more comfortable discussing the similarities between Skyline and Frank Darabont’s The Mist, another end-of-the-world thriller set in a contained location. “[The Mist] takes place in this very contained [place]…and we liked the human drama and the way tensions play out when everyone’s kinda trapped inside”, said Greg, while also qualifying that by saying Skyline has something of an “epic” sensibility to it. Also, said Colin: “There’s a claustrophobic [feel], but at the same time, it’s not like someone trapped in like a little one-bedroom apartment…you have this building, there’s a whole set piece out in the pool, there’s an entire massive parking structure underneath, the roof…” Ok, got it. Contained but also epic.
After showing me around the condo, a truly swanky abode offering absolutely astounding views of Los Angeles, lunch abruptly came to an end and I found myself on the roof again as a new shot – the stunt piece on the helipad I mentioned earlier – was being set up by the directors with a couple of stunt people (filling in for stars Balfour and Thompson) essentially being hoisted by cables like two marionettes against the panoramic vista of the city. Luckily, the subbing in of stunt actors for the scene gave me a chance to sit down, separately, with Balfour and Thompson. The actors play Jarrod and Elaine, a boyfriend-girlfriend pair from the East Coast who find themselves visiting Jarrod’s boyhood friend Terry (Donald Faison, who wasn’t on set that day but reportedly “begged” to do the film to break out of being typecast in comedic roles) in L.A. just when the world, shall we say, goes to shit. To raise the stakes, Elaine is also pregnant.
“Jarrod is…in essence a man who’s learning what it means to be a man”, said Balfour, a very tall, unconventionally good-looking guy who possesses an aura of consummate focus combined with an intense self-assurance. “We’re all given challenges in life, and moments in life where you have to make decisions that sort of indicate what kind of man you’re gonna be in the world…I think initially he’s a man who starts more as a boy, really. He’s sort of learning, and unsure…of his ability to take care of a family and a wife…so you have a young man who’s having to make choices and transform in the most critical and heightened reality possible.”
As for Balfour’s intensity, part of it has to do with the nature of the threat depicted in the film (something having to do with adversely affecting the human body’s nervous system), which in some scenes requires its lead actor to remain in a near-constant state of physical tension. “One of the first days they were shooting this effect that it has on you, I wasn’t realizing what I was doing and I was sort of clenching and convulsing for like 12 hours”, he told me. “And at the end of the day, I went and they sort of wiped some of the makeup off, and we looked at my skin and I had broken all of the blood vessels in my forehead and around my eyes.” The next day, on a visit to the dermatologist to get checked out, he was greeted with incredulity after explaining how it had happened: “They were like, `Mmm, we don’t believe you. We really only see this in anorexics and in heavy vomiters, like from being choked. So you wanna tell us what happened?’”
Co-star Thompson, a pretty girl with a pair of profoundly azure eyes made more stunning by the navy blue robe wrapped around her thin body, echoed this sentiment when I asked about the physical demands of the role: “[I'm] living in a really hyped-up state for the majority of the film by virtue of the genre”, she told me. “It’s a taxing experience emotionally, of course, but even physically when your body’s that tense all the time.” Describing her character as a “girl-next-door type…[with] an edge”, the actress was reticent to tell me too much, for fear of revealing something forbidden.
“She’s a very strong-willed character”, she said hesitantly. “I don’t know what I can say without giving it away. But yeah, I think she’s someone who knows who she is. She’s a lot more introverted than a lot of the women in the [film]. She keeps to herself, she’s sort of a fish-out-of-water in this particular setting…and I think really finds her voice over the course of the film.”
Both actors were complimentary towards their directors (par for the course on a set visit), although I couldn’t help but get my hopes up for some juicy behind-the-scenes tension as Balfour laughed heartily and averted his eyes when I first asked the question about the nature of he and the Brothers’ working relationship. He went on to admit that after reading the negative press and fan backlash against the Strauses regarding AvP: R, he became rather skeptical of their abilities.
“All I read was, `I don’t understand, they shot a movie you couldn’t see anything in’”, he told me. “And I showed up and I was like, Ok, you guys are only gonna care about the visual stuff and we’re really gonna sort of be on their own, as far as the characters and how they relate, and they’re gonna be worried about shots. And the first thing they said was, `we’re gonna do a week of rehearsal.’”
That length of rehearsal time, a rare treat for an actor, instantly made Balfour feel more confident about the Brothers’ commitment to helming a character-driven thriller. “The fact is, that they’re very complementary to each other. I thought it was gonna be a disaster with two brothers being teammates in a way. I was like, `this is never gonna work.’…oddly enough, they sort of have figured out this way to back each other up. There are moments when one is more clear on an idea, the other is not as sure, and they sort of allow each to take the lead at different times. I find that Greg is more technical and visual in his approach, Colin is a little more attuned to human sensitivities…[they're] some of the most well-prepared directors I’ve ever worked with.”
One of my favorite questions to ask actors on these things is how much of their experience has been acting opposite a real, in-camera effect and how much has been acting opposite a plate on a stick. To that end, Balfour told me the physical demands of the role were alleviated somewhat by the Strauses’ propensity to use CG effects for the project (not surprising given their background, not to mention budget restrictions). Said the actor: “The technology they’re using is so advanced that at a certain point they go, `no no, you don’t even need to do that, because you’re gonna become a digital [person] and the whole world becomes digital and we’ll take care of it.’”
That being said, Greg made a point of mentioning they’d be doing as many “in-camera” effects as possible, while qualifying that by pointing out you can’t exactly destroy Los Angeles for real. “Being that a lot of the visuals follow that epic scope sorta M.O., it’d be impossible to actually destroy things to the size that we would need to do”, he said. “We need to do that with computers.”
Ok, so lots of secrecy, lots of hesitant gaps in conversation, lots of “you’ll just have to find out” moments; frustrating, sure, but in this “more is more” age of movie marketing, at the same time I can totally respect that. After all, they were withholding information in the name of getting people excited without giving every single plot point away (as happened with the AvP: R trailer, to the Brothers’ stated chagrin). And I was in a forgiving mood besides; as far as set visits go, this one was about as close to paradise as I’ve ever gotten – all I needed was a lawn chair, a poolside and a heavily-stocked bar to make the experience complete. And while the cast and crew probably wouldn’t describe their experience on the film quite the same way (this moviemaking business is hard work), at times I got the sense that the film was a labor of love, not to mention a stark counterpoint to the Brothers’ previous experience on AvP: R. After all, they actually got to direct all the action scenes here.
“I think Colin and I only shot a Predator or an Alien on two days out of 52 on [`AvP: R']“, said Greg, in my estimation the more dominant of the brothers, although both were very talkative and outgoing. “That was a frustrating thing. Like we wanted to be able to go there and actually do our thing with the creatures, and instead that wasn’t our photography.” He went on: “In this case we’re getting to do a sci-fi art film in some ways. So we’re getting to have all the creative control that you’d want, but in the genre that will hopefully make it commercially successful.”
Ok, so when all was said and done, I left the set knowing quite a bit more than I should have (thanks, Eric Balfour!) but I won’t spill the deets here. As is, I hope I gave you just enough to whet your appetite. This could develop into a cool little film.