Filmmaker James Wan is no stranger to franchises — his first movie Saw led to a long-running franchise, and later horror movie Insidious also led to three more movies. The based-on-real-events horror film The Conjuring is still going strong with five movies and at least three more to come.
It would make sense that after directing Furious 7, another movie in a long-running franchise, Wan would eventually turn his eye to superheroes. There were probably many jokes to be made about him taking on the DC Comics’ much-maligned Aquaman — most of those jokes were on a season of HBO’s Entourage — but there’s no denying that Aquaman looks like no other superhero movie out there, probably since much of it takes place underwater.
Aquaman stars Jason Momoa from Game of Thrones as the title character with Amber Heard playing Mera; Nicole Kidman playing his Atlantean warrior mother; Patrick Wilson as Orm, Aquaman’s half-brother ruler of Atlantis; Willem Dafoe as his advisor Vulko; and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (from Netflix’s The Get Down) as Black Manta. Even Dolph Lundgren gets in on the underwater action.
VitalThrills.com spoke with James Wan on the phone last week and learned about the King Arthur influences he used for Aquaman, about some of the casting including this being his fifth movie with Patrick Wilson, as well as why there aren’t more connections between Aquaman and the rest of the DC Cinematic Universe. He also talked a little about the amount of visual effects required to create Aquaman’s very specific underwater world. (Maybe for James’ next film, he’ll finally be listed as a “visionary” ala Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder.)
Vital Thrills: I remember speaking to you years ago, maybe for Furious 7, where I was asking you about doing a superhero movie, which I’m sure you were getting asked a lot during that time. What made you decide to go for Aquaman when that came your way? What was the big selling point?
James Wan: The two really big factors for me: One was the chance to do a character that’s never been done before. This guy has never really cracked for the big screen before, and especially when I got involved three years ago, Justice League hadn’t come out yet, so he definitely was very fresh. Secondly, just the potential to create a big world, the potential to do a world design, world-building film was very exciting for me. I’ve always wanted to do that with some other project, and this really ticked a lot of boxes for me. It allowed me to come back and do another action film, allowed me to do a world-creation film and allowed me to finally play in the superhero arena.
VT: Were you familiar with Aquaman at all besides the obvious that he talks to fish and swims well?
James Wan: Yeah, I didn’t grow up reading his comic, so obviously, I know him more on the peripheral like most people that don’t read the comic. But he’s so iconic, right? He’s so famous and iconic, and there was something for me exciting about taking a character that’s get made fun of a lot in pop culture. The idea of taking that and trying to do something cool with him. That was something that was exciting for me to try and tackle, that challenge.
VT: I was pretty bummed that when Jason was on SNL last week, they didn’t do a follow-up, because it was an SNL sketch that started the whole thing of making fun of Aquaman in the first place. They started it.
James Wan: Oh, really. Ah, man, you’re right. What a missed opportunity! (laughs)
VT: Yeah, that was a famous sketch where the superheroes were having a party.
James Wan: Oh, my God, you’re right. That would have been great, wouldn’t it?
VT: Maybe it was too much for Jason since he’s been playing Aquaman for quite a few years now. Another thing about the character is that he’s known, but not quite like Batman or Superman where there are iconic stories and famous versions of them. Aquaman has had decent runs written by Geoff Johns and Peter David. How did you proceed once you came on board? You must have had some kind of outline to go from, but how did you decide which elements you wanted to cover?
James Wan: I knew coming into this that obviously I was saddled with the challenge of this being character who had a lot of baggage against it. I knew that coming into this that I wanted to be respectful to the source material, because there are fans out there of him and his world that are just really rabid fans. They love this guy; they think he’s the coolest, and they fight tooth and nail against anyone who says otherwise, so I knew that I needed to satiate the appetite that the fans out there for this character, but at the same time, I knew I have to introduce this character to a whole new audience that are not familiar with who he is. I decided that I should start with a very simple narrative structure that I can then hang these other elements that makes it interesting. I used Geoff Johns’ New 52 reboot as the foundation. I thought that was a really cool reboot on how Geoff Johns found a cool way to do this character in a really strong manner, and the world and Mera and all of that. Ultimately, I just wanted to tell the story I wanted to tell, and I went as far back as the Silver Age comic book for visual inspiration for characters and for a whole bunch of stuff. The great thing about a character that’s never been done before is that there’s this massive treasure trove — 70 years worth of material — that hasn’t really been touched upon, and I get to be the first one to reach into the treasure chest and pull out elements for the film.
VT: Were you thinking at all about stuff you might need to save for a sequel, because obviously, that will probably happen? So was there stuff where you said, “Okay, we have to wait with that.” (NOTE: Minor Plot Spoiler in the response.)
James Wan: Um… Yeah, of course. For me, like I said, the narrative I wanted to tell was a very straightforward one. I knew that from where Justice League left off is where I’m picking up this character, so he starts out as a reluctant hero. He doesn’t want anything to do with Atlantis, he is not a king yet. I knew that that being my starting point, I knew where I needed to take the movie. The movie has to end with him being the King of Atlantis, ‘cause that’s who he is and that’s what we know, that he is King of Atlantis. It gave me a very easy from point A to point B, so once I knew where I needed to go, it became very apparent that the main antagonist of the movie would be his half-brother, who sits on the throne, King Orm, played by Patrick Wilson. Ultimately for me, I wanted it to be a simple quest journey. It really is the Arthurian correlation. It’s on the nose, but it’s very obvious. This guy called Arthur is trying to find his Excalibur to become king. Those were the inspiration, and it felt like the best place to start was with a simple but very classic story.
VT: I never really made the connection between Aquaman and King Arthur for some reason even though I’ve read the comics for years, so that’s an interesting starting point for the film.
James Wan: Oh, yeah. To me, it’s a very obvious one (laughs) even down to the fact his name is Arthur, and he’s searching for this mythic trident, which is really the metaphor for King Arthur’s Excalibur, and it’s also a MacGuffin as well, because it’s a metaphor for him going on this journey to find this piece, and it’s about him discovering who he is and who he is supposed to be.
VT: I love the journey/quest part of the film. I was enjoying it up until that point but then it turns into Romancing the Stone with Aquaman and Mera, and that was what really sold me on the movie, because it wasn’t something I’d seen before.
James Wan: And I want to speak to that. Coming into this movie, one of my main goals was to do a superhero movie unlike any other superhero movie. I didn’t want to do a traditional superhero film, and so, my template wasn’t other superhero films. My template was more like traditional adventure-fantasy films or coming-of-age stories, rite of passage and all of that kind of stuff. I think this movie is definitely more akin to whatever ‘80s fantasy films we grew up with than today’s superhero film.
VT: Going back to Patrick for a second, you’ve made four movies with him, but how do you approach him and say, “I want you to fight Jason Momoa,” who may even be a foot taller than him? How do you get him to take on a role so physical?
James Wan: Firstly, I told him that when you’re underwater, it doesn’t matter how tall or short you are, because you all float. You can float as high as you want to be! (laughs) But no, that’s the cool thing about Patrick Wilson is the guy is a f*cking amazing actor, he can play anything! We have said time and time again that actors might be physically of smaller stature have so much screen presence on the big screen. I mean, Patrick is not a small guy. He bulked up big time for this film, because he really wanted to feel the part. He really wanted to look the part, and he didn’t want the costumes to be drabbing off him. He wanted to fill out into the costume, and to be able to hold his own against Jason, and man, this is the biggest I’ve seen Patrick in anything before. He bulked up in a big, big way. He was constantly eating a lot and training non-stop to try to hold his own against Jason.
VT: I also want to segue into Nicole Kidman, because she’s probably the most unlikely actor that you’d think would be in a superhero movie…
James Wan: Really? She did Batman Forever.
VT: Oh, right, but that was so long ago, and she’s had this career since then making serious dramas. I didn’t even remember her being in a Batman movie, because it was so long ago.
James Wan: (laughs) I know, I knew exactly what you meant. I was just messin’ with ya. Listen, Nicole and I are big fans of each other. We actually had a project that we were supposed to work on together a couple years ago that unfortunately did not eventuate, so we’ve always been wanting to find projects to do together again. When this thing came along, I felt that Nicole was the perfect person to play the Queen of Atlantis. I reached out to her, and luckily, she said “Yes,” and she was willing to come play with us. And boy, I’m so glad she said, “Yes,” because her character just brings so much emotion to the film, and that’s literally exactly what this movie needed. It needed that human element that she brought to it.
VT: When you did Furious 7 it was fairly straight-ahead since you were doing a sequel to a few other movies in that series. You started making this movie around the time Warners was getting Wonder Woman up and running, as well as Batman v Superman and Justice League. I know you wanted this to be a standalone movie, but was there a lot of trying to figure out how this movie would work in relationship to those other movies?
James Wan: It really wasn’t that difficult, honestly, because just by the very nature of this story that I wanted to tell, it just took my characters on such a different path to all the other DC characters, taking him away from the larger umbrella of the DC Universe that it actually was very freeing. It allowed me to make the movie that I wanted to make and not feel like I’m beholden to maybe another movie they’re doing and vice versa, that the other movie is not beholden to what I’m doing. Because it’s so removed from the “real world.” So much of this movie takes place in the different kingdoms, and then when we’re up in the surface world in a small Italian fishing village or we’re out in the desert. My movie doesn’t take place anywhere close to, let’s say, Gotham City or Metropolis, where I would bump into other characters from the DC Universe. From that perspective, it was actually very easy to make this film and not be tied down by the bigger umbrella universe of it all.
VT: Obviously, building a world like the one in this movie involves a lot of visual effects and working with the designers. What was it like making a movie that was mostly underwater?
James Wan: I did a lot of FX on Furious 7, but I’ve never done anything to this degree in terms of world creation. It really is my first foray into digital filmmaking, to this level. Lots of today’s movies have a lot of visual effects and stuff like that, but what I wanted to bring to it is how can I use today’s digital filmmaking tool to create unique-looking images, to create a unique world. I treated it no different to how I would treat a piece of film equipment, whether it’s a camera or light. It’s a great filmmaking tool, so I wanted to take it to the next level and to create really striking images in this film that we haven’t quite seen before. Only with the digital filmmaking and visual effects can I do the shots that I can do. There’s no way that you can do a shot that’s a cross-section of the ocean in the practical real world, right? So that does really allow me to come up with images and imagery that’s uniquely what’s in my head, that I dream of and just push my imagination as far as I can.
Aquaman opens nationwide on Friday, December 21 with previews on Thursday night.