Aliens Destroying Your City: The New Face of Independent Filmmaking

By  · Published on November 16th, 2010

It was the banner that no one understood at Comic Con 2010. Amidst the massive advertisements for Scott Pilgrim and RED was a building-sized image for Skyline— a movie that no one had ever heard of before.

The reason for that lack of knowledge was simple. The film was an independent feature built under the radar and far under the normal budget of a film of its kind. Now with Universal distributing it, the press was on to make Skyline a household name.

Greg and Colin Strause have directed an indie that doesn’t see a lot of people talking to each other about life and love in the middle class or how difficult it is to be a 20-something. They’ve made an alien invasion movie with over 1,000 effects shots, and they’ve done it without the help (or hindrance) of a studio.

The Brothers Strause were gracious enough to speak with me about this new world of independent filmmaking, the problems with the studio system, and the need to shake things up.

What was the impetus for wanting to make a film in the first place?

Greg: Making movies is something that pumps through our veins. The real thing with Skyline was that we had finally reached the point of, let’s call it “depression,” about the state of the industry. Its business. All our frustrations hit fever pitch at that point where we were pushed to the extreme of doing something independently and trying to finance it ourselves ‐ which, in all our years working in visual effects artists, we worked on very few independent movies.

Colin: Yeah, there may have been one or two, but…

Greg: Book of Eli was technically…

Colin: It was financed independently, but I don’t count it as one. It was still an $80 movie so it felt like a studio movie. So, you know, it was a field we didn’t know a whole lot about but we wanted to venture into it and give it a shot.

What did you see wrong with the industry?

Colin: There’s a lot of things. One of the things is just trying to get a project picked up. To get it off the ground. It’s impossible. There’s been this phenomena that people have been cynical about the past couple of years that I happen to agree with that if a property isn’t based on something pre-existing like a video game or a comic book or a graphic novel, they won’t be interested. There’s a real aversion to original properties. But if you have a graphic novel that sold 500 copies, these guys will be like, “Look! It’s based on a graphic novel! It must be cool!”

And it’s mostly out of fear of losing their job, because if you take a gamble on something original, you’re taking a lot of risk. Whereas, if it was based on a comic book, people are like, “Look, man, it’s based on something else that other people like so I don’t know why it didn’t work.”

Greg: We literally found ourselves, when we had original ideas, with people telling us that we needed to create a comic book first in order to sell our movie idea even if the book didn’t sell anything. That’s when Colin and I thought it was really screwed up. It doesn’t even make any sense.

I have a friend who operates a comic book company, and he’s talked before about studios coming to them to turn a pitch idea into a comic book just so they can have that out first before deciding to go forward with the movie.

Greg: It creates an excuse to make the movie. An insurance policy. They don’t even need a real metric of success ‐ “if it sells half a million copies then we’ll make the movie.” It just has to be on the paper. It’s an excuse that they can show their boss in a present ion. “Look, it’s something that already has a fanbase.” They try to turn it into some fucking math equation instead of wondering, “What’s the next, new cool thing?” We just decided we need to cut those people out of the process.

What we’re really happy with Universal right now is distribution, marketing, getting stuff out there ‐ but creatively, we felt strongly that we needed to do something on our own. A lot of it is based on our experience with the previous movie [Alien vs Predator: Requiem] where we can’t really call that movie ours. Cameron did Piranha 2 and then he did Terminator. We really want Skyline to be our Terminator. It’s kind of a low budget sci-fi movie that will hopefully define us as filmmakers, and we got to do everything we wanted on it, so for better or for worse, it’s the movie that we stand by 100%. Which I can’t say about AvP:R. So it was necessary to have a little bit of a career reboot in doing something that we own, that we control.

After doing AvP:R, we did all these music videos for Usher, 50 Cent, all these other bands, and we wondered what happened. How did we struggle so much on the movie, and then we come back with less money and we make these really cool projects?

Colin: It was getting the creative freedom that was really interesting. When we worked with [those] artists, they let us do our thing. When you’re working on a studio movie, there’s so many cooks in the kitchen. It’s like, our opinion is that the best movies come from a unified, single vision. The less people meddling with it, the better.

Was it more than just previous work experience that gave you the need to see those other cooks kicked out of the kitchen?

Greg: Between working on the script revisions on AvP:R and just to see where our friends were going. Big directors. They’d come over and we’d hear them complaining, “Oh, the studio made me cut half an hour from the movie,” or, “I couldn’t get this done,” and we’re sitting there going, “Jesus! If this guy is having a problem, what chance do we or anyone else have?” It was kind of heartbreaking, and we thought we had to do something different. There must be a different way of making a movie.

When people think “independent” movies they usually think of Shakespeare or something weird and artsy. Why hasn’t someone done an independent sci-fi flick before? Well, no one owns their own effects company and owns all their own cameras. So it put us in a unique position where I don’t think anyone’s ever pulled anything like this off before.

Did the idea for aliens come directly after that thought or was it something that came before?

Greg: We had a lot of different projects we’d been developing. There’s a disaster movie script we’d developed with Liam O’Donnell. There was another Liam wrote that was a sword and sandal, global war epic. Then there was this notion, it wasn’t a script or anything, just a concept on the siren lights as we call them. The aliens would have this cool MO. They would release these bright, glowing orbs that would lure all humans out of their structures, out into the open where they’d be vulnerable.

We were chewing on that as something just saved in the memory banks, and Liam, he and Josh Cordes fleshed it out into a full movie idea, and we were like, “That sounds great. Let’s go for it.”

Colin: Part of the thing too, is that when we were at Greg’s place, we’d always imagine if Terminator 2 happened. If the nukes went off, this would be the coolest place to watch LA get burned. It is like box seats to the end of the world. So it was like ‐ something’s going to happen. Let it be big, and let these people who are trapped in this very interesting building have the most unique perspective ever.

What sets your movie apart from other alien attack movies?

Colin: I think two things. One, it’s what they’re doing to us, the motivations, their purpose is very different than other films. Two, the set up at the end. I think once people realize what it’s actually turning into and what its purpose was ‐ we made the prequel. That’s the simplest way to describe it. And you’re actually seeing them in the right order. You do the prequel first, and then the sequel is setting up this whole other world that the movie is coming into.

A third thing, we wanted to do something a little different that was far more in your face. There are times when less is more. But we weren’t trying to make it just scary, we were also making an event out of it. This thing is so big. The whole movie takes place during the day time. There’s only a little bit that happens at night, and you’re going to get to see everything. We didn’t pull punches on what you get to see. Cloverfield, I thought, was a really interesting, cool movie, but you never really got to see the creature. There were a couple of shots where they started paying it off near the end, but you never really got to see it. In this, you’re really getting to look at them. It makes it even more tense because there’s no escape.

So you’ve already got sequel plans.

Colin: We’ve already got a 45-page treatment done. Artists are already working on it right now.

Are you looking for a sign off? Are you doing it on your own again?

Greg: Truly independent. We’re doing our thing. That’s important. Especially when people see the ending. It’s a ballsy ending. The last twenty minutes of the film, where it goes, I don’t think you would have gotten it through a studio. It’s big, and we went for it, but I don’t think people will see where it’s going until it gets there.

If the box office is lackluster, will you keep going to page 46?

Colin: Yeah. One of the thing’s with this movie…

Greg: Well, well, well. It depends on what you mean by lackluster. Our metric of success ‐ there’s nowhere near as much pressure on us because it costs a tenth of what a normal movie like this would cost. So if it makes a tenth, we’re fine. If it makes a third or a half of what a normal movie makes, we’re all doing the happy dance. I think that’s really important. People are making movies over $100 million these days, and if you do that, you have to make over $200 million to get your money back. You know what I mean? We don’t have that pressure.

Will success at the box office signal something?

Greg: I hope it does.

Colin: It’ll definitely signal something.

Greg: We’re already hearing that we’ve shaken some shit up. The fact that an independent movie came out of nowhere, was conceived, filmed, and finished within eleven and a half months and now has a huge release through a major studio. People are going, “What the fuck’s going on?” We’ve already rattled, and if we have a solid box office debut. Fingers crossed. I hope we will. We’ll definitely wake people up who are spending $200 million on movies that don’t look that big.

Skyline is in theaters now. It’s already made $11 million (from a $10 million budget) so it sounds like Skyline 2 will be heading our way soon.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.