BRIAN SKIBA ON HIS LIONSGATE THRILLER 'PURSUIT' STARRING JOHN CUSACK AND EMILE HIRSH
Brian Skiba has explored a wide spectrum of genres and mediums, working as the ultimate chameleon of filmmakers. Starting with a film school short called Blood Moon Rising, he raised financing to expand the horror-comedy into a feature before the invitation came to helm the niche of holiday movies. He continued with his genre-rotating tradition by directing Christmas Truce and Beverly Hills Christmas with Evil Doctor and Rottentail in between. Two years ago, he detonated theaters with The 2nd and now comes Pursuit, released in select theaters and on demand and digital February 18th, 2022.Read our interview with Skiba as he discusses his fascinating creative journey.
You’ve been described as a “prolific genre filmmaker.” What does that mean exactly?
I think I'm very versatile. I got my start in horror. I did a couple horror films and then I did a thriller with Dean Cain and Michael Madsen, and then somebody came to me and said, "Look, you write a Christmas movie, and we can get you into television directing Christmas movies.” And so, I wrote one. I got into television and from there I directed quite a few TV feature films. [But] my focus is, I want to get into sci-fi action. I think that's where it's kind of going, but I'm versatile as a director. I can take any genre and do something with it.
So you’re saying you see directing other genres as a means to an end.
Yeah, my angle absolutely is to be into action films, bigger thrillers. I look at my time in TV, which has been about eight years, as kind of my school. I went to school, sharpened my axe and really got into filmmaking. Even though I did go to film school, it was a practical school. It was just like, "Here's how to make movies quickly on budgets and really spend a lot of time on set where you get a lot of directors, and they do four or five projects." I mean, Quentin Tarantino's done ten. How much time does a feature film director actually get on set as opposed to a television director? It's been a good journey.
Your story is a little different in the sense that you directed a feature immediately after graduating college. What all went into making that first film, Blood Moon Rising?
Yeah, I was going to film school at Scottsdale Community College and I have a degree in English from ASU. I just finished up my schooling. I did a short film for a festival, which was Blood Moon Rising. It won the festival and everybody was like, "You gotta make this into a feature." I showed the short to a few investors and they gave me a little bit of money and we went out and just did it. We had a lot of support from Scottdale Community College. We had a lot of support from ASU. They really helped us make the film. And then halfway through when we were filming, a sales agent saw the film and he came in and said, "Look, I have an output deal with eOne and they would like this film." This was I think twelve years ago and eOne was able to move a lot of physical copies of it and became kind of a little cult classic. It's a fun horror-comedy, very tongue in cheek. I didn't have a lot of money and I knew it. How do I make something feel grand, but not spend money that you would need to typically do that?
Speaking to younger filmmakers, do you recommend going that route as far as making a short to use as a proof of concept if they want to make a feature?
Proof of concepts, I think they work sometimes. I don't know because sometimes I think it could hurt you as well, especially because when you get into the distributors and you actually get somebody or an executive producer on board or a sales agent, they all have their own notes. So, they're going to look at your concept. They're going to look at your script. They're going to look at those things and come in and be like, “Here are ways that we can make it better.” You know, those types of things, where if you've already shot a proof of concept and someone watches it, they may say, “This is already founded. We don't want to keep spending time on it." I think it's a yes, and no, hit and miss. You have to be really confident in what you're doing and make sure the proof of concept gets the story and vision across really well. If it doesn't, I think in the end it could ultimately be a detriment.
But your short film was used for the same purpose, right?
Actually, I made the short not thinking I'd ever make a feature. These guys asked me to do it. It was a lot of fun. It was part of this Seven Deadly Films [series] with seven films and they were all supposed to be horror based. After I made the film and the fact that it won the festival, it kind of started building steam from there. But I never went into the short film thinking I was creating a proof of concept. I was just thinking I was going to make a seven-and-a-half-minute short for this cool little festival.
What attracts you to the gritty action film genre?
I grew up watching these types of films. I'd get my hands on anything action I could when I was a kid and love the style of storytelling. When you do action right and you actually put your protagonist in jeopardy, and when the action hits and people actually care about that action, you've created something that transcends all cultures. They can look at it and identify: "OK, this guy's in a big fight. I care about him." It's my favorite genre and it's something that I identify with.
What are some of the films that you grew up with?
Anything in the eighties and nineties. Scarface, Commando, The Running Man, Total Recall—I was a huge [director Paul] Verhoeven fan. I loved anything that he did. I kind of like to follow in his footsteps a little bit with the thrillers and everything that I do. Those are the films and styles that I grew up with and admire.
Tell us about Pursuit and when that began to develop.
The producer, Andrew Stevens—it's really kind of his brainchild. He made the Walking Tall series, so he wanted to kind of make another Walking Tall-esque film. He had gone to Dawn and Alan Bursteen, who are producers in their own right and work with Grindstone and Lionsgate. They got a first draft written, and then they came to me through Andrew. I had just done The 2nd [starring Ryan Phillippe and Casper Van Dien] and they were like, "Hey man, The 2nd was hot, but let's have you do Pursuit." They gave me the script and from there I did my director's pass on the script and then it went out to [John] Cusack. That was the origin of it.
How does Pursuit fit into the genre you're so passionate about?
I really wanted to create a type of film that you cared about the characters, or you cared about them in a way that the action was meaningful. When the script initially came to me, one of the strong aspects in that first draft, was this police officer who had recently he lost his wife and had no answers. He didn't know who did it, she was just thrown off the balcony and that's it. He was just told to accept it and move on, but he wanted answers. He arrests this hacker and brings him in, who's like a mad genius kind of scientist hacker. That's Emile Hirsch. The hacker goes, "Hey, man, I know who did it and have their names, but you're gonna help me because I'm in trouble." And the hacker has a similarity. His wife also disappeared. He has no answers. The hacker identifies this in [the character] Breslin, who's played by Jake Manley. He uses Jake to help him find his own wife, and in the end, he'll help Jake with his. And then you've got the hacker's father, John Cusack, who's just out to protect his family. Cusack is an ex-mafia type who's retired, and he's just out to protect his son, even though he knows his son is always getting in trouble despite himself. He's always protected his son. He's always helped his son. Even in the end, he's still there protecting his son, even though his son might not agree with him. Those are things I think fathers can identify with when they watch this film; they can identify with the fact that sometimes they're helping your kid, who doesn't realize you're helping. They might even hate you in the end, but you still have to do it because it's your kid. It's these types of dynamics that I've put into play. It makes for a nice action film, because then you surround it with fights and gunplay and chases, and people actually care about Emile, Jake and John.
Directing a star like John Cusack, what was that experience like?
John's great. He's an absolute genius when it comes to character and character development. We spent probably two months just going through his character and building it. We'd talk about the other characters and their motivations and he's a very deep thinker. I'm at a point in my career where I feel like every film I'm doing, I'm still learning. I'm still learning more. I'm still building. I'm still working towards what I would deem a "great director." I feel like John was one of those people who helped me up another rung on the ladder because his insight into the story and character is so profound. He and I are still texting to this day about other projects and other things. We're very similar in our type of thinking, so it was an absolute pleasure.
Was the rest of your cast just as powerful?
I had an outstanding cast. Emile Hirsch playing Rick, who initially was this hacker suffering from lack of emotions. Emile really ran with it and created this character around this disability. He called me and started pitching me the voice. Emile is an outstanding character actor and has been for years. I was very fortunate to get him on board. Jake Manley is an up-and-coming young actor. I wanted to make it a generational film. I didn't want to make it to just people who are John Cusack fans. I wanted the younger fans, my own kids who are going to college. I wanted them to be like, "Oh, it's Jake Manley! I remember his show on Netflix!" So, we went for some younger cast, and then we got Elizabeth Ludlow, who's in Peacemaker right now. Elizabeth has a few other shows out there that are just outstanding. It's not even the shows that make Elizabeth outstanding. She is such an outstanding talent. She just comes in and the emotion that you feel from her just pops off the screen. Bill Katt from The Greatest American Hero, close friend of mine, called me and was like, "Hey man, I'm going back east, do have anything in the film for me?" I also had an outstanding stunt team. We had a lot of guys in this film that are Emmy Award-winners from The Mandalorian. They were on break and they're friends of mine. I was like, "Hey man, I'm doing a film out in Mississippi.” They're like, "We're there." I had guys drive out. They brought the gear; they brought all the stuff and we had fun. They wanted to help me. I couldn't be more appreciative of the task I was able to bring into this thing. Also, the special effects guy, who was on hiatus for American Horror Story. Lastly, I get to work with my wife. She's a fantastic actress in her own right and got to play one of Jake Manley's partners. That was a pleasure. It became a family affair, and I couldn't have been happier with everybody was involved.
What are some of your other upcoming projects?
I've got a really dark, edgy thriller in post that will hopefully be out sometime this fall. I'm working on a biopic with Lionsgate that I can't really get into, but it's a period piece set in the seventies. Not action, it's definitely more of a thriller like Seven. I'm jumping out of the action genre for a minute to get into a dark, gritty thriller, but I'm super excited about it!
-Writer's Digest, Script Magazine