Cohasset-bred filmmaker Liam O’Donnell discusses ‘Portals’ into Hollywood

O'Donnell directs a segment in sci-fi anthology "Portals," now in theaters and on-demand.

Liam O'Donnell, who grew up in Cohasset, is now a Hollywood director behind sci-fi films like "Beyond Skyline" and the just-out "Portals." –Liam O'Donnell

For Liam O’Donnell, making it in Hollywood turned out to be easier than expected – even if the Randolph-born filmmaker looks back at his early years in Los Angeles with the raised-eyebrow amusement of someone who can’t quite believe his luck.

“I moved out here when I was 22,” said O’Donnell, now 37, by phone. “By the time I was 24, I was working on ‘Aliens v. Predator: Requiem,’ on set, as something of a creative consultant.”

O’Donnell – who’s speaking to promote “Portals,” a now-on-VOD sci-fi anthology he contributed to – credits his good fortune in part to visual effects artist Matthew Charles Santoro. Best friends since seventh grade, the pair grew up together in Cohasset, watching horror movies like Wes Craven’s “The People Under the Stairs” (1991) on the weekends.

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After the pair finished up college – O’Donnell at Boston University, Santoro at Rhode Island School of Design – they decided to head west, sticking around Boston for just long enough to see the Red Sox win the 2004 World Series.

Those first six months in Los Angeles were spent working odd jobs; O’Donnell had studied political science at BU, but he worked as a telemarketer to pay rent. The two caught a break when Santoro’s artistic abilities got him – and then O’Donnell – in the door at Hydraulx, a special effects studio founded by brothers Greg and Colin Strause. “It was a very fortunate position to come out here with my best friend and have him be so talented that it opened up opportunities for us both,” said O’Donnell.

When the brothers Strause were hired by 20th Century Fox to direct “Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem,” O’Donnell took every opportunity to get involved, camping out in a trailer with pre-viz artist Joshua Cordes to map out the film’s big action setpieces. “I got to essentially go to film school on a film set,” said O’Donnell. “It was a cool couple of years.”

After working on “Aliens vs. Predator,” Cordes and O’Donnell hatched a sci-fi concept that would become “Skyline” (2010), set during an alien invasion in Los Angeles. “That was a real Cinderella story,” said O’Donnell. A five-page pitch was sent into Creative Artists Agency and financed within hours; the Strauses came on board to direct, shooting “Skyline” for a month in early 2010, largely in Greg’s high-rise condo. When it was picked up by Universal and Relativity a few months later, O’Donnell was stunned to see his low-cost sci-fi disaster movie set for a major worldwide release. “Skyline” hit theaters just one year after he’d sent in the pitch.

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But then the reviews came out, few complimentary. “That’s when the hard times did hit, ironically,” said O’Donnell. “I felt like I got set back a couple years, because it had such a tough critical reception. The film got such a boost – bigger than its britches, to be honest – so we were looked at differently than a lot of first or second-time directors and writers. We got torn apart.”

Though commercially successful, “Skyline” earned a brutal 16 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Licking his wounds, O’Donnell shifted to producing over the next few years, becoming something of a fixer-upper for projects that needed help slimming down their budgets. But he never entirely left storytelling behind and eventually found himself drawn back to the world of “Skyline” with an out-of-left-field idea for a sequel.

“Beyond Skyline,” which O’Donnell both wrote and directed (with the Strauses producing), moved the alien action from downtown LA to rural Laos, bringing Indonesian martial-arts stars into the fold and departing significantly from its predecessor’s grounded tone. When it was released in 2017, the reviews were much-improved, and O’Donnell had launched a directing career.

Since then, O’Donnell’s found steady work – including on a space-set third film “Skylines,” due late next year. But he was particularly intrigued by “Portals,” an anthology project telling interconnected stories about people dealing with the sudden appearance of cosmic monoliths worldwide. Bloody Disgusting – the horror website and production company behind anthologies “V/H/S” and “Southbound” – was involved, as were genre filmmakers Eduardo Sanchez (“The Blair Witch Project”), Gregg Hale (“V/H/S/2”), and Timo Tjahjanto (“The Night Comes for Us”).

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O’Donnell was asked to craft his own “Portals” segment  – and up for the challenge of doing so on a virtually non-existent budget. “I don’t know if we’re even meant to say how cheap this was, but it would make your head spin if you heard it,” he said, ballparking the entire production at less than one million. “That’s the economy of these anthologies, that you use a bunch of different filmmakers because those filmmakers can call in all of their favors.”

It was “liberating,” he said, to write and direct a short with few narrative parameters. O’Donnell hit upon the story of a man who suffers visions after crashing his car into one of the portals, which blinds him in one eye. It wasn’t a completely foreign concept to the filmmaker; at age 4, O’Donnell was treated for an optic nerve glioma at Mass. Eye and Ear. “I got to sneak in something a little more personal, weird, and esoteric,” he said of the short. “That’s what’s attractive about anthologies. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s a whole lot of freedom.”