Skydance Media CEO And Life Producer David Ellison -- Interview

– by Edward Douglas

David Ellison first created Skydance Productions for his own 2005 directorial debut When All Else Fails, but Skydance Media really started making waves in 2010 when it teamed up with Paramount Pictures for the Coen Brothers Western True Grit.

It went on to become the highest grossing Western ever and cemented the relationship between Skydance Media with Paramount who teamed-up for World War Z, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and other franchises like Star Trek and 2014’s Terminator: Genisys. (Obviously, some of those movies did better than others.)

For his new science fiction movie Life, based on an idea that Ellison came up with, he’s teamed with Sony Pictures, bringing together a cast that includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds and Rebecca Ferguson as part of the crew of the International Space Station who must examine a sample of life that’s been brought back from Mars.

LRM got on the phone with Ellison from the film’s Austin, Texas junket where the movie had its premiere at SXSW.

LRM: I understand that this was an idea you came up with, and a project you put together from scratch. Is that right?

David Ellison: No, that is true. I came up with the seed of an idea and then Paul (Wernick) and Rhett (Reese) really deserve all the credit. We were actually in post on another movie we were working on with Paul and Rhett when the Mars Curiosity Rover had just touched down and couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if they found something in the dirt and brought it back the ISS, and basically, I pitched literally just that seed of an idea to Paul and Rhett at lunch, and it really stuck with them. They came back about four weeks later and said, “We want to pitch you the movie.” They laid out the story and their first draft of the script is 90% of the movie we made, which almost never happens. They’re unbelievable writers, and they just took the bread crumb of this idea and turned it into a movie.

LRM: That’s absolutely amazing. You have an impressive filmography, but you work on a lot of franchises, so it must be great to have something like this that’s completely original from the ground up that turned out as well as it did. Can you talk about how you decided on Daniel Espinosa to direct it?

David Ellison:
Yeah, absolutely. We were in the incredibly fortunate position of everybody we sent the script to said “Yes” which is again, a testament to Paul and Rhett. I’d been a big fan of Daniel’s off of Safe House, and Daniel was actually down the road on another movie, and he read the script, got on a plane and flew to Los Angeles and we had a movie the next day. Daniel had the attitude of, “I must direct this movie and here’s why.” He shared his vision of the film and it just blew me and Dana away. We said, “Great, let’s go make the movie together.”

LRM: What was the time frame for this from when you had lunch? I don’t remember when the Mars Rover was, but how long was it from that first idea to now...a couple years?

David Ellison:
Yeah, we were on post on G.I. Joe: Retaliation. It was about a two-year evolution from that description to getting the movie made, and obviously the post was very, very short to make the release date on this, so it’s kind of been a whirlwind all around, but all for the betterment of the movie.

LRM: You made this movie with Sony even though you have a long relationship with Paramount, so how did that come about?

David Ellison: Yeah, there was a movie at Paramount that they thought there was too much crossover with, so we were able to take it out and, very thankfully, Sony read the script and wanted to make it. We weren’t out with it for more than 48 hours before Sony greenlit it.

LRM: That’s amazing. Going through the movies you have coming out, including this one, I imagine you’re a big science fiction fan. Are you one of those guys who actually read sci-fi books as well, or more on the film side?

David Ellison: Yes, yes, I have read absolutely everything, and I’m a complete dork in that regard and grew up on comic books, so yes--action-adventure, science fiction, fantasy is really where we love to live at Skydance, and what we were talking about earlier is that it’s been an incredible privilege to continue to work on some of these amazing franchises. Star Wars is only IP (Intellectual Property) now because it came out of George Lucas’ mind, so we’re really excited with Life, and several others that we have in development that we’re getting ready to make to be producing more and more original IP.

LRM: As far as casting the movie, when I spoke to Daniel, he mentioned that he really only wants to do movies where he can cast his own actors. How did you approach casting this, because you have some bigger names like Ryan and Jake, and then some other lesser-known actors who are really good in the movie.   Well, I guess Hiro Sanada is pretty well known.

David Ellison:
Oh, he’s brilliant. I’ll never forget seeing him in The Last Samurai, and just being absolutely blown away by his performance, and I’ve been a fan of his ever since. We were so lucky and fortunate that he said “Yes” to being in the movie. It was really a situation towards Daniel having a great relationship with Ryan Reynolds from Safe House, and we sent him the script and we were lucky enough he said “Yes.” When we were casting this movie, Rogue Nation had just released, and we were lucky enough to work with Rebecca Ferguson on that movie, who we absolutely love and is brilliant in it, and she’s as kind and funny as she is talented.  Obviously, we sent her the script and she immediately signed up, and then all of us--me, Dana and Daniel--we were all huge fans of Jake Gyllenhaal. I think he is one of the best actors of his generation, and he read the script and had a meeting with Daniel and said, “Yes.” It was really something that almost never happens, to have your dream cast and everybody... you wave the magic wand, you say, “Okay, here’s so-and-so-and-so we want to be in the movie” and on this one, we were fortunate enough to have that come true, and then real credit to Mindy Marin, who cast the movie. For Kat we had a wide casting search, and Olga (Dihovichnaya’s) reading completely blew us away as did Ariyon (Bakare) for Hugh Derry, so we have an absolutely amazing cast in this movie, and we were very fortunate to be able to work with all of them. 

LRM: You have a few other original science fiction movies coming out including “Geostorm” and “Annihilation,” although I guess “Annihilation” is based on a book, but movies outside of franchises. Having had such luck with this movie in that realm of original IPs, have you thought of venturing more into this realm?

David Ellison:
For us, it’s always a combination. We love working on franchise movies, and we’re going to do that, but obviously it takes a while to get stuff in development to where you’re happy with it, and we have a lot of stuff that is really coming to fruition that we’re in the process of putting together that are original movies. It is one of the things I wish our industry was doing more of, which is telling original stories and taking a chance. I think that’s something that Hollywood really needs to go back to, because as an industry, we used to be great at it, and that’s definitely something we’re striving to do more of, and are in the process of doing so right now.

LRM: You have a pretty diverse slate of movies coming up including “Baywatch,” which isn’t original because it’s based on a TV show, but you talk about some of the genres you like, so is that really what drives what you do at Skydance? Or are there filmmakers you want to work with?

David Ellison: For us, everything always starts with the creative. It is really about the script, first and foremost, and it’s always the beginning of that. From when we first started the company, True Grit was a movie where we got the script on a Friday, and we said “Yes” to greenlighting the movie on a Saturday, because what Joel and Ethan (Coen) had written was just that amazing, and a lot of people told us we were crazy. They said, “Westerns don’t make money. Why would you ever make this as your first movie? We understand Mission...” and we just loved it, so we said “Yes” to making it. Obviously, at Skydance, we have really zeroed in on action-adventures, science fiction and fantasy as the sweet spot for the pictures that we make, but then there’s always that thing that comes around that you love and have to be a part of, and we’re never going to be the company that says “No” to doing that.

LRM: What’s going on with the “World War Z” sequel? I feel that’s a movie that has had a lot of starts, stops, incarnations and directors. I assume Brad’s still on board to do a sequel? What’s been holding that one up?

David Ellison:
We really want to make the movie, and there are a couple things that are currently in process that I’m not at absolute liberty to discuss, but hopefully will be in the near future.

LRM: Generally you have a good relationship with Paramount, so whose decision was it to move Jack Ryan to television after attempting to reboot it? How much of that comes from you guys, and how much from Paramount? How does that work?

David Ellison:
It was obviously a combination, and when you think about where television has gone to I actually think that people used to say there was a dividing line. I actually think there is no line at this moment in time, and really, for that material, we just thought television was the right home for it, and obviously, we’re shooting the series right now. We cannot be more excited about it. The scope and scale of the show is phenomenal, and Amazon has been an absolutely amazing partner to work with. 

LRM: I have to agree completely, because I think Tom Clancy and Jack Ryan were made for television, and it’s amazing it’s taken so long for people to figure that out, because those books are so episodic and serialized. In the same vein, Terminator is another franchise you delved into, and James Cameron wants to get more involved, so how are you moving forward with that in terms of which way to go? Will you reboot it again, or make another sequel?

David Ellison: All I’m at liberty to say right now is that I cannot be more excited about the future of the franchise, and believe it has an unbelievably bright future, but that is really all I can say at this point in time. 

Life opens nationwide today, Friday, March 24. You can read what Ellison said about relaunching the Star Blazers as a movie franchise in the link below, as well as read interviews with director Daniel Espinosa as well as writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick.

RELATED: Star Blazers is a Go with New Screenwriter On Board

RELATED: Life Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick

RELATED: Director Daniel Espinosa on the Outer Space Thriller


LRM Exclusives, Interviews, Film, Featured Life, David Ellison, Skydance Media, World War Z 2, Terminator