JAMES WAN WADES INTO THE DC MOVIE UNIVERSE WITH AQUAMAN DETERMINED TO TAKE AUDIENCES TO A NEW WORLD (OR SEVEN). JAMES WHITE HOLDS HIS BREATH
We’re chucking away the water wings to plunge undersea and meet the king of the oceans.
It’s fair to say that the Warner Bros/DC film universe has suffered in comparison to the cinematic and cultural behemoth that is marvel’s movie output. While the box office figures haven’t been atrocious, the reaction to almost everything bar Wonder Woman has been less than forgiving. Which is why Aquaman director James Wan is feeling a little more pressure than he originally thought he might, and not just because his latest job involves journeying many leagues under the sea. not only is there the challenge of bringing something livelier to the DC stable, he’s got to do it with arthur Curry (Game Of Thrones veteran Jason momoa); a superhero who, to the wider world at least, is something of a joke in the comics. When he sits down to talk in los angeles’ swanky london hotel, it’s a few days before Wan will unveil the longest portion of footage he’s shown the world to a demanding audience of the faithful at Comic-Con. But he’s not sweating it, even if Aquaman is a very different proposition now to when he took the job. “i thought that i’d make a movie that was under the radar, and no one would care about the guy who talks to fish!” Wan laughs, shrugging off the idea that he has to be part of the solution for DC’s problem. “i’m not here to save anything, i’m here to make the movie i want to make, have fun with it, and hope fans and the masses come along with me on this journey. Whatever happens, happens!” Wan is a director of horror and low-budget indies including the Saw films and the ever-expanding Conjuring universe, which has thus far spawned two main movies and three spin-offs (the first two he directed, the rest he produced) with a combined worldwide haul to date of more than $1.5 billion. his ability to hop genres – he also handled the hit seventh entry in the Fast & Furious franchise – and his facility for crowd pleasing made him a candidate to handle one of the hopes for DC’s future. the film, which Wan was developing in the days before Batman battled superman and the Justice league assembled, explores arthur Curry’s past and sets up his future, revealing how his mother, Queen atlanna (nicole Kidman), washed up on the rocks near his father’s (temuera morrison) lighthouse one stormy night. love grows, a child is born, but then the forces of atlantis, atlanna’s former home, come to retrieve her. young arthur grows up knowing only fragments of his liquid lineage and with a serious grudge against the ocean dwellers. oh, and the ability to communicate with
fish, whales and other oceanic creatures. But a major threat from his rival and half-brother orm (Wan regular Patrick Wilson) finally draws him home, aided by driven atlantean mera (amber heard), who has little time for arthur’s gruff yet jokey ways.
FISH OUT OF WATER
While the Fast film had given Wan a taste of big-budget work, this was something else again, a story to be woven into the wider tapestry of an existing, interconnected world. and yet, as he explains it, the director didn’t face too many restrictions: “i’ve never had this much freedom in any of the movies i’ve made before. it’s awesome,” he chuckles. “you always hear about, when you do low-budget films, you get the freedom to do what you want, but you never have the money to do it. and then you do the big-budget film and you have the money, but not the freedom. i feel like with this one, i’m getting the best of both worlds. i’ve got no one to blame down the line!”
all the same, there were other movies to keep in mind, with aquaman introduced briefly in Batman V Superman and playing a more substantial (if still only supporting) part in DC’s team-up Justice League. Was there anything he needed to figure out before embarking on this film? “there were two aspects i said to Zack [snyder] and the studio early on that i wanted them to please stay away from, and one of them was going to atlantis. my hero blames atlanteans for what happened to his mother, so he’s refused to go there. But i wanted him to go for the first time in my movie. i want to show the audience atlantis through the point of view of my lead character.
“the other one is i wanted to finally introduce the classic aquaman costume. i’m not just doing it for my own ego’s sake, i’m doing it because it’s such an integral part of the storyline, and so if they had done that, it would have screwed with the movie i wanted to tell. and Zack was super respectful about that.” yes, as seen in the trailer, you can expect to see momoa slip into aquaman’s iconic green/gold suit in the course of the story. and probably make a wisecrack about it.
it was momoa’s sense of humour and overall personality that Wan wanted to truly highlight, something he rarely got a chance to express in Justice League. “i sat down with him early on and said, ‘moving forward, i want to see more of you in there. you’re so cool and likeable and goofy, i want all of that in the film!’ i want him to be more three-dimensional and not just a tough guy. Jason can do that, it’s a given. But to show that he can be a romantic lead, that he can deliver comic lines with timing, that’s important.” Wan’s model for what he wanted was Kurt russell’s Jack Burton from Big Trouble In Little China, a man with clear brawling abilities who is just a tick behind when it comes to dangerous situations.
even as he looked to other movie archetypes for the hero’s journey, Aquaman’s visual style is inspired by the work of someone considered a homegrown hero in the Uk. stand back, supergran. Bad news, Captain Britain… We mean David attenborough. “i watched a lot of Blue Planet, Planet Earth, all of that,” Wan admits, citing Jaws as another touchstone.
“Whatever we can cook up, that’s nothing compared to how beautiful mother nature is, or how terrifying it can be as well. one thing i wanted to capture in the movie is the magic and wonderment of the underwater world, but also how scary it is.”
frightening might come easy to a man who’s unleashed vengeful spirits, demonic nuns and merciless torturers upon characters and audiences, but it would also be a good word for the sheer amount of effects work needed to bring this film to life, from hanging his actors in harnesses to simulate water scenes to vast vistas of blue screen to be replaced by the seven Kingdoms. “i joke that half the time i’m making an animated movie. i’m making Finding Nemo, really!” Wan smiles. it’s all in aid of taking arthur and cinemagoers somewhere different in terms of the genre. “We’ve seen lots of superhero movies where they deal with a threat from outer space, another dimension, or god knows where,” Wan points out. “But we’ve rarely seen the threat that is beneath our nose.
We’ve explored space more than we have the ocean’s depths. that’s what’s amazing, not knowing what is down there. the idea of all these different civilisations there that we never see is just awesome. to make a movie that looks and feels like it belongs in middle-earth, like a fantasy world, but on earth, that was cool.” atlantis has an established look, but with the freedom he had, Wan knew he wanted to go in another direction. “in the comic books, atlantis is very old-school, very ancient rome or Greco in its design, classical,” he explains. “and i’m thinking in my story when atlantis sank, they built a new atlantis on top of that. and so from out of the old, the new sprung and you get this super high-tech world. they’re so deep down, they don’t build horizontally, they build vertically. traffic goes up and down, they’re not so bound by gravity.”
But all that spectacle is so much seaweed draped window dressing if you don’t believe in the story, and Wan credits his directorial history with reminding him what’s really important. “i learned making horror movies that you need to create characters people care about so that when scary stuff starts to happen, you’re afraid with them,” he says. “and i feel like that applies to any genre.” like his leading man, part of that character building will be expressed through the movie’s humour. Wan promises to bring the funny, which, as with Wonder Woman, will be a refreshing change from the dour tone and slightly forced attempt at gags in the likes of Justice League. Just don’t expect subtlety all the time. “there was a sequence before a battle where he’s having a meal and eating the grossest thing, saying, ‘once i become king i’ll try to find a way to bring a steak down here.’ stuff like that plays up the sillier side of things. i don’t have too much of it, but i want to retain aspects that make it funny. one of the jokes i kept trying to get in there is ‘how does he go to the toilet?’ maybe we’ll find out in the sequel!” Well, as the apparent heir to rule atlantis, he is supposed to be taking a throne…
Aquaman is in cinemas from 14 December.
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