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Deep Focus

Liam O’Donnell

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In our ongoing column Deep Focus, TrunkSpace is going behind the camera to talk with the directors, writers, and producers who infuse our world with that perennial pop culture goodness that we can’t get enough of.

This time out we’re chatting with Liam O’Donnell, writer and director of “Beyond Skyline,” the action-packed sequel to the surprise 2010 science fiction hit “Skyline.” We recently sat down with O’Donnell to discuss why he needed to transition from a writer’s mindset to a director’s mindset, how his love for pop culture began with Rowdy Roddy Piper, and what his directorial future looks like.

TrunkSpace: You took on a new set of duties with “Beyond Skyline” by also serving as director on the sequel. Creatively what were you setting out to accomplish with the film?
O’Donnell: That was something I had to learn as a process, because even in the prep I was such a… I just came from writing so much that I would, at the end of each day, go back to the script and kind of keep working on it and doing notes. There was eventually that time period where I had to just stop and be like, “This is a visual medium now. Get your head out of your laptop and start really thinking about how you’re going to capture it visually.”

The main thing that I thought I could do as the director was with the tone and kind of capture that action movie tone right from the beginning. That was important to me. That was sort of the big change. Before we even got started or cast anyone, it was very much like, “Alright, I want to have a throwback, late ’80s, early ’90s action movie lead. He’s a cop, and he’s got trouble at home, and he’s got demons, but when shit hits the fan he’s exactly the type of person you’d want to be on your subway train.” That was kind of the approach up front. As we set out to make it, and we cast it, it just kind of went more and more in that direction; especially, obviously, with the addition of the martial artists and stuff like that. It became a full on action movie.

TrunkSpace: Did you ever feel like you were taking on too much by throwing all of those technical elements into your first directing feature?
O’Donnell: No, never, because the action stuff is the most fun stuff. That’s kind of all of the things I loved growing up. My dad took me to the Boston Garden to see a battle royal when I was 10-years-old, which, by the way, Rowdy Roddy Piper won in a Ray Bourque jersey while holding a chainsaw. I was a pro wrestling fan from that point on.

All that sort of action, and stunts, and choreography, and giant monsters, and stuff like that… that was actually the stuff I felt most comfortable with. It was the human actor side that was intimidating. Our first day of shooting was in Indonesia and it’s a scene that Frank (Grillo), Iko (Uwais), Bojana (Novakovic), and Pamelyn (Chee) all kind of have a stand off that evolves into a fight; a four-way fight. I was just like, “If I can just get to the fights I’ll be okay.” (Laughter)

The thing I was most nervous on was just working with them to get there. Once the fists started flying I would be much more comfortable. It was all just about overcoming those kind of fears and figuring it out and how to best communicate with people to get what you want.

TrunkSpace: When you sat down to write the script, did you know at the time that you were going to be directing it, and if so, did that sort of alter the writing process for you at all?
O’Donnell: It did. I had already written a treatment and the treatment had been kind of sitting around collecting dust for three years. It became a situation where there were a couple different projects that we’d been working on and I kind of said, “Well look, I’ll go ahead and just write the script for ‘Beyond Skyline,’ but if I put that much heart and love into it, I would love to direct it.” Greg (Strause) and Colin (Strause), they already had a couple different projects and different directions and they said, “Yeah, sure. Go for it.”

TrunkSpace: You touched on your first day on set, but what was it like building up to that day? This being your directorial debut, what kind of emotions were you going through leading up to the first shot?
O’Donnell: Well, we got lost that morning on the way to set. It was about an hour drive and of course, it rained. We’re in a rainforest during the rainy season and there was just a lot of nerves building up. They have a sheet in the production office that says, “Minus XX days to production,” and just seeing it go from 13 to 6 to, “Oh my God!” It’s definitely something that you build up your courage for.

We shot the standoff at the beginning of the day. A big torrential downpour came. We stopped filming because obviously, nothing was going to match continuity from a sunny morning, and so the only way to get through it was that we just said, “All right, we’re just going to skip ahead later into the fight, so let’s turn the camera in the other direction and just start fighting.” Frank and Iko start pounding each other and Frank picks Iko up and just slams him down into this big mud puddle and I just lifted my arms up like, “Okay, it’s going to work.” (Laughter)

O’Donnell with Frank Grillo on the set of “Beyond Skyline”

TrunkSpace: Was part of that emotional build up period to the first day also the fun of seeing the culmination of a childhood dream turn into a reality?
O’Donnell: Of course. I actually texted my dad about that. He took me to this pro wrestling thing when I was 10 and it became a thing where I wrestled in high school and I loved video games and movies and watching that stuff. “All right, when are you going to grow up and do something else for your life?” All that stuff, all that background of what seemed like a time waster all came to use, so it definitely had this fun, “How did I end up here?” feel.

TrunkSpace: Now you have to pay it forward to Roddy Piper’s memory and do a “They Live” remake.
O’Donnell: In a second. In a second. Sign me up!

TrunkSpace: We know you’re not new to film sets, but so much involving directing is a learn-as-you’re-doing situation. What as the biggest lesson you picked up in the job by actually doing the job itself?
O’Donnell: Interesting. I mean, I think it would be more listening. I don’t have to have exactly the right idea right away. I had already been told this, but going through the process is like… it’s how much more prep I would do the second time. I felt like I worked as hard as I possibly could and you need to work even harder. You need to go through everything and have it all in your head and then, then it’s fine to be able to switch it up and try something new because you already know that you have exactly what you need.

TrunkSpace: So it’s a mix of being prepared, but also being willing to change things up on the fly?
O’Donnell: Exactly. It’s those situations where people are going to come to you with different ideas, or that the way you wanted it isn’t going to work out right, and do you have the ability to adjust in game-time situations and make end game adjustments?

TrunkSpace: As you look forward in your career, is this the genre sandbox that you want to stay working in or do you see yourself doing a little bit of everything?
O’Donnell: Well, luckily, the sandbox for this movie is pretty big. (Laughter) There’s enough different genres in here that I feel like I can keep making them until I die. But the next project, I’m doing something much smaller set in Indonesia. It’s completely foreign language and it’s about a safari down the rivers in Borneo, where they come across this missing link. It’s based on an Indonesian novel and I have a whole Indonesian writer’s team, so that’s a little bit of a creature movie. They had never done one before, which is why they came to me to help them make it. That will still have a little bit of martial arts, a little bit of action/adventure – a little bit of everything – so it’s a good place to be as far as I’m concerned.

The other one I’m doing is a post-apocalyptic science fiction martial arts’ film, because of my experience on this. While I was over there, I came up with this idea to just try to do something from the ground up that was a true, tried-and-true martial arts’ epic.

Beyond Skyline” lands in theaters and on digital home entertainment today.

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Wingman Wednesday

Caitlin Carmichael

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There is a new generation of young actors prepared to take over Hollywood. Standing at the forefront, already having amassed an incredibly-impressive body of work, is 13-year-old Caitlin Carmichael. Currently starring in the gritty crime drama “Wheelman” for Netflix alongside on-screen dad Frank Grillo, the Georgia native’s work can be seen next in the family drama “Epiphany” and then opposite pretty much everybody who is anybody in the upcoming Dan Fogelman film “Life Itself.”

We recently sat down with Carmichael to discuss how her recent character journeys have become more multidimensional, why she hopes to do more of her own stunts in the future, and what she expects her path to be going forward.

TrunkSpace: You’ve been working since you were very young. How has the experience changed for you since those early days and do you enjoy different aspects of acting now more than you did back then?
Carmichael: Well, I started acting when I was three and a half. Growing up I always told my mom that my favorite playground to be on was a set, because it’s always where I wanted to be, and where I wanted to spend my free time. Now that I’m older I’ve started to appreciate the art form of acting in film and television more, and I have a deeper appreciation for it. I see how it takes everyone on the set to really make this project. It takes the crew, and the cameramen or women, it takes the DP, it takes the hair and makeup team, it takes the wardrobe. It takes every single person to come together to make this project, and I’m grateful to see that and I recognize the little things more. I’ve matured in my understanding.

TrunkSpace: Have the roles themselves become more interesting as you’ve gotten older?
Carmichael: I think the older that I get, the roles become more multidimensional, in a sense. I get to show different layers in the sides that I read for my audition, or the scripts that I perform on screen. They require a deeper understanding to get into the headspace and evolve into that character on script.

TrunkSpace: You have a number of high profile projects ahead of you. From your perspective, do you feel like you’re at a turning point in your career?
Carmichael: I definitely hope so. I’ve been working for 10 years. My Netflix original movie “Wheelman” was released at midnight last night, or officially today, and I was able to do all of my own driving stunts in the movie in a 1982 Porsche 911, stick shift. That was very exciting for me. Because we filmed in a parking garage, I was able to do all my own stunts myself. I’ve worked so hard to get to where I am today and I really hope that “Wheelman” is opening a door for me to be able to do more of my own stunts in movies in the future.

TrunkSpace: And certainly there’s no better place for a creative person to be right now than with Netflix where so much of the focus is on unique content and character-driven storytelling.
Carmichael: I am so grateful to be a part of the Netflix family now. They have been so fantastic with the entire “Wheelman” journey, and we are just so excited to be a part of the team.

TrunkSpace: For those who haven’t seen the movie yet, can you walk us through a little bit of where your character falls into things?
Carmichael: Yes, so my dad Wheelman, AKA Frank Grillo, is the getaway driver for bank robberies. When he finds out he’s being double-crossed by two handlers, he has to call on me, his daughter Katie, to help save the day in a sense. I don’t want to spoil it, but you will get to see me drive in the movie and that is all of my own stunts. We filmed that in Boston for five weeks – entirely night shoots – so it has a very authentic feel to the setting and that really creates the tone of the movie.

It has a gritty feel, which is very authentic and natural, so that’s why that was a great choice for us, and I loved getting to work with Frank Grillo. He was the best on-screen dad I could have asked for. The way that he just embodies his character is fantastic to watch on screen.

TrunkSpace: If you look at “Wheelman” and then the other projects that you have due up, “Epiphany” and “Life Itself,” they’re all so different. From a diversity in character standpoint, that must be a nice journey to go on personally for you?
Carmichael: I think my favorite thing about acting is how the roles that I audition for, or I get to portray, are constantly changing. I always feel like I’m able to evolve into a new character. I’ve done more research now for my characters before I go on set so that I can really understand the person that I am when I step on the set and when I’m on screen.

TrunkSpace: And certainly the older that you get, the more life you live, which translates into your work.
Carmichael: Exactly. It’s great now being able to draw from my own experiences.

TrunkSpace: I mentioned “Epiphany,” which looks like a very heavy, dramatic film. Do you find yourself drawn more to dramatic roles?
Carmichael: Yes, definitely actually. I’ve worked in dramas and comedies, and all different genres since I was three, but dramatic films are particularly the ones that I’ve worked in the most and it’s just been my path.

TrunkSpace: Are you someone who can leave that heaviness on set when you wrap at the end of a long day?
Carmichael: I think because I try to do a lot of research, I’m prepared to be in that headspace when I’m on screen. I’m able to leave it on set at the end of the day, and being a part of a cast and crew that’s so supportive of each other, we leave the set on a positive note and I’m able to walk away with my set family at the end of the day.

TrunkSpace: The other film we mentioned is “Life Itself,” which has about as stacked of a cast as we’ve ever seen. When you do a project like that with so many great, talented actors who have been around for such a long time, do you view it just as much as an education as you do a job?
Carmichael: I was so grateful to be a part of that cast. I played young Olivia Wilde in the movie, and I was just ecstatic when I found out that it was a Dan Fogelman movie. I’m a huge “This Is Us” fan by the way. I did a series called “Chosen” where I played Milo Ventimiglia’s daughter for three years. It felt like everything was just coming full circle when I get to work with his director and showrunner Dan Fogelman on a movie. Then getting to film in New York with all of these amazing actors and getting to be a part of that set family was just wonderful. I’m really grateful and blessed for that experience. Milo Ventimiglia encouraged me before I went to set and we were texting back and forth and it was so nice to have his support on this project.

TrunkSpace: All of Dan’s work always has this amazingly rich dialogue that is so real and steeped in emotion. Did you feel that was also the case with “Life Itself?”
Carmichael: Let me tell you, he knows how to tell a story. That is what he does best, and I think it’s gonna be beautifully and exquisitely showcased in “Life Itself.” I’m so excited to see it.

TrunkSpace: You’re still so young and yet you’ve had these incredible opportunities in your career to work on all of these amazing projects. As you look forward in your career, what kind of path do you see yourself on?
Carmichael: Acting has been my path since I was three years old, and I think it’s going to continue to be my path, my trajectory for the rest of my life. I’m so grateful to have found my thing so early and now I can really grow and work on it as I’m growing up, and I can enjoy it. Honestly it doesn’t feel like work to me, it feels like fun because it’s something that I enjoy so much. I love being on set and I always have, and I definitely see that as my path.

Wheelman” is available now on Netflix.

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