After all, the Australian filmmaker minted his Hollywood reputation within the horror genre by displaying a golden (and grisly) touch with hard-R hits with lean budgets and fat profits. (His feature debut, Saw, for instance, was filmed in 18 days for $1.2 million — it went on to generate $103 million in global box office and six sequels for Lionsgate).
That background seems to be a million nautical miles removed from the job of directing Aquaman, a PG-13 crowd pleaser that takes audiences to the submerged and iridescent splendor of Atlantis, the lost city of myth. A massive undertaking, the movie logged 172 days of principal photography with stops in Queensland, Morocco, Italy and Canada.
For Wan, the project was a compelling creative puzzle and a sprawling logistical challenge — his favorite type of undertaking. “I’ve always enjoyed the process of figuring out things that haven’t been figured out by anyone else,” the filmmaker said, sounding like a kindred spirit to the hero on MacGyver, the CBS series (now in its third season) that he executive produces. Or is his affinity closer to Jigsaw, the Saw mastermind who engineers elaborate death traps?
Either way, Wan got his chance to direct Aquaman by displaying grace under pressure while helming Furious 7, his first blockbuster departure from his native horror genre.
The seventh film in The Fast and the Furious franchise became the sixth highest-grossing film in Hollywood history ($1.5 billion global box office) but it was bittersweet success at best for the cast and crew since much of the box-office interest was driven by the mid-production death of co-star Paul Walker, a stalwart of the street-racing franchise. The 40-year-old actor was in a friend’s Porsche when both perished in a fiery, single-car crash on Nov. 30, 2013, in Santa Clarita. The high-speed crash was nowhere near Wan’s Furious 7 movie set but in its tragic circumstances it was was uncomfortably close to the franchise’s squealing-tire imagery.
Universal, the film’s producers and Wan all responded with poised and respectful choices. Walker’s brothers were brought in to help finish the film as stand-ins for their late sibling, a touching memorial was arranged and Walker’s favored charities were even incorporated into the film’s roll-out.
After that trial by fire, Wan was the top choice for Warner Bros as they sought to launch a superhero franchise that many observers considered unseaworthy as flagship project.
Wan now has a chance to prove himself a master of versatility with another genre leap and another colossal production. In the story, Aquaman a.k.a. Arthur Curry (played by Jason Momoa), is the son of the kingdom’s former queen (Nicole Kidman) but the blood of his human father (a lighthouse keeper Temuera Morrison) make Curry an outcast beneath the waves. But when Atlantis prepares to wage war on the surface the city’s rowdy prodigal prince seeks out his legacy, which may make him last hope for averting a catastrophic conflict.
Atlantis isn’t the only hub for skeptics who question the strength of Aquaman. In pop culture the fishy character been more of a punchline than a powerhouse. He can blame it on The Super Friends and other Saturday morning animation adaptations in the 1960s-1980s era that presented a blond, bland version of the hero whose main power was the ability to chat up mackerel.
The giggling may end this weekend. Aquaman will arrive in U.S. theaters this Friday riding a mighty wave of overseas momentum thanks to its early release in China ($182 million since Dec. 7) and 42 other countries ($72.1 million since Dec. 14). The numbers bode well for the film as do the positive early reviews.
DEADLINE: Aquaman is your ninth feature film but only your third outside the horror genre. [The other two: Death Sentence in 2007 and Furious 7 in 2015.] When you reflect on the horror hits that you’ve directed to date –like the two Insidious movies or the two Conjuring films — do you see patterns in your success in the genre? What is it about a James Wan film that cuts through to audiences again and again?
WAN: I’m not that good an analyzing myself or my work but Patrick Wilson is pretty good at it though, so I’ll steal some of Patrick Wilson’s words…
DEADLINE: Actor Patrick Wilson, who plays King Orm in Aquaman and has plenty of past with you as a cast member of Insidious and The Conjuring…
WAN: Precisely. That Patrick said when people ask him ‘What potentially is the secret sauce of James’s work?’ he tells them that no matter what genre the movie is in, all of my work falls back on the human element, human emotion, human relation, family. In the case of Aquaman it’s a movie about Arthur’s relationship with his mother, Arthur’s relationship with his half-brother, Arthur’s father’s relationship with Arthur’s mother..and Mera’s relationship to her father, and [villain] Black Manta’s relationship with his father. It’s family and emotion. In a word: heart. And I do somewhat agree with that. I can make a make a movie really scary or make a movie set in a high-fantasy world but it’s very important that human element is there and is present in a way that people can relate to. That’s very important to me. I also ultimately make movies that I want to watch. So I’ve been very fortunate that the audience out there like the same movies I like.
DEADLINE: More people in Hollywood trust research than their own instincts and most would repeat a proven success instead of taking a new risk. How beneficial are test audiences?
WAN: Test audiences have saved me again and again. They have been a great help to me. On past projects there were times when I felt differently than the studio and when we went to the test process the audience would react to that moment I some way — cheer or gasp or laugh — in a way that supported my view. It gave me ammunition for my point of view time and time again. I think my sensibilities were closer to the test audience’s sensibilities. I’m always nervous in the process, it almost feels like a much-needed evil necessity in the film industry. It’s one though that has worked out for me consistently at least on film’s I directed. At the end of the day I’ve been grateful for them.
DEADLINE: Specific example?
WAN: With my first film, Saw, the powers that be [at Lionsgate] looked at this low-budget horror film and said, well, let’s save the money a theatrical release would cost and release it as a direct-to-video movie. Those were doing quite well then, the market was a strong one for direct-to-video. But we had one test screening and it tested through the roof. People were really into it. Fast-forward and Saw is one of biggest horror franchises of all time. All thanks to a test audience.
DEADLINE: Jason Momoa was best known for Game of Thrones before he brought Aquaman to the big screen in Superman V. Batman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and in Justice League (2017). Momoa was finished filming the first one when you signed on to direct in April 2015. So he was already immersed, so to speak, in Aquaman’s world when you met him…
WAN: Jason was this character before I came on to this, yes, he had been on board for like two years, I think, by the time I came on. So naturally there is a lot of pride and a lot of ownership there, as there should be. So he and I sat down and he told me what was important to him. And I told him what was important to me. And we went from there. He’s a great guy and it’s amazing to watch the way he is embracing this amazing ride he’s on.
DEADLINE: You were offered multiple character options by Warner Bros. The Flash seemed like a safer play, with stronger brand awareness thanks to The CW television series that’s now surpassed its 100th episode. Aquaman has been a parody piñata for years in The Big Bang Theory, Robot Chicken, SpongeBob SquarePants, The Family Guy, South Park and, of course, Entourage. How did you cope with that?
WAN: The idea was to bring Aquaman to Jason rather than trying to take Jason toward Aquaman. You look at the traditional mage of Aquaman and you look at Jason and he’s not that guy. And in a lot of ways that’s a good thing because that guy has been made fun of in pop culture now for years. The blond hair, that sort of very Aryan-look about him, that would be tough to pull off now. But when people see Jason that changes expectations and he brings such personality to the role that it takes you by surprise, I think, and that’s what you need for a character like this especially in his first [stand-alone] movie.
As for the reason I took on this movie over others it’s because I was excited about the challenge of making a superhero movie that wasn’t a traditional superhero story. It’s more like an action-adventure story. It’s a quest movie. And it gave me a chance to create intriguing visuals and have the kind of budget to do this world creation. Digital tools are the only way to create these striking vistas that I wanted to have a chance to create. That’s really why I took on the project.
DEADLINE: Given your heritage, how important was the strong performance in China?
WAN: The great thing was the word-of-mouth was just amazing there. Going in the estimated projections were in the 50s but the numbers kept coming back and it just exploded. The total just got bigger and bigger. it was very exciting and, yes, I’m very happy and thankful for that. It means a lot to me.
DEADLINE: Asian-American filmmakers and International filmmakers of Asian heritage are getting new and greater opportunities in the wake of Crazy Rich Asians. Marvel is lining up a Shang Chi movie, too, with the promise of a superhero film that has Asian roots. How would you frame that trend and it’s importance to you as you observe it from an interested near-distance? Does it have a special resonance for you?
WAN: Yes. And it’s great for film. As someone who was born in Malaysia and grew up in Australia it was great because I got to see both sides and experience both cultures. It’s very much like Jason Momoa himself, he’s biracial as well, and here he is playing a characters who is of two different cultures and two different worlds. Our movie is about a guy who doesn’t think he fits in either. By the end of his journey in this film he learns to accept his identity and the possibility that he represents the best of both worlds. As our world gets smaller and smaller, as you say, we get movies that connect to the world experience in meaningful ways. It’s very cool to see it happen.
DEADLINE: When the movie’s action was set in the desert, it felt like a throwback to ’80s adventure films. When the action dives to the bottom of the sea it opened up a world that reminded me of Flash Gordon, both the classic comic strip and the 1980 movie…
WAN: I’m a film fan, I’m a product of the 1980s and 1990s, and a lot of people have said that Aquaman has a very 1980s quality to it. Especially the high-fantasy of the 1980s, like Flash Gordon and Krull. Those aren’t bad things. I take those as compliments! And the vivid aspect is there because of the comic book. You know, o matter the era the whole comic book series was like that. If you go back to the Silver Age-era comics there are these weird and strange characters in his world.
DEADLINE: I thought of Excalibur a few times, maybe more for costumes than anything else…
WAN: Well, the whole Arthurian legend, of course, is there. As it says in the movie when Arthur is born his father says, ‘Let’s name him Arthur, like the King.’ The imagery of the legend of Camelot gives us the arc of his quest to become a king himself.
DEADLINE: Going back to Aquaman and taking the character closer to Jason: It occurs to me that there’s a notable precedent for that meta approach. When Iron Man reached the screen a decade ago Robert Downey Jr. didn’t just portray Tony Stark, he personified him. Downey is hard-wired into the screen version of hero and it will be a tricky challenge for any actor that inherits his armor.
WAN: Much the same thing will happen now with Aquaman. Jason has come into this role and he’s so fully claimed this role as his own that you now associate this character with him and it’s going to be a hard one to see someone else playing this role that isn’t Momoa! And that’s why for the longest time it was hard to see someone play Superman that wasn’t Christopher Reeve. I think Henry Cavill is a great Superman as well but we all have this amazing nostalgic love for Chris Reeve.
DEADLINE: For years, Superman and Batman were the entire focus of Warner Bros. when it came to feature films based on DC Comics. That broadened with Aquaman and Wonder Woman, but is still nowhere close to Marvel Studios where more than a half-dozen heroes have solo franchises…
WAN: Here’s the cool thing is like now we finally have Wonder Woman, we have Aquaman. It’s great that DC is branching out and realizing they have all these really interesting, great characters. And Shazam! as well now. Hopefully people see that DC is more than just Batman and Superman, even though those two guys are the most iconic and they’re very important — not to take anything away from that — but it’s good to explore the other characters as well.
DEADLINE: Much has been made about the grim tone of Justice League and the movies leading up to it. Now the films seem to be veering to brighter interpretations…
WAN: I think so. With Shazam! it’s definitely much more sort of family/kid-friendly movie. I can’t really do that with Jason Momoa. [laughs] He brings this sort of more violent approach to his characters so you can’t do the bubble-gum pop thing with him.
DEADLINE: The costume of a superhero is really what qualifies and defines the character as a superhero. More than super powers, too, since Batman and Robin don’t have powers but wear capes. How do you feel about Aquaman’s yam-colored orange shirt and how did you approach its introduction? It wasn’t out much before the film opened overseas…
WAN: It’s not orange so much as gold in our movie. The gold is more regal than bright orange. [laughs] But it’s still similar to the comic book costume in it’s basic design although it’s interpreted to a cinematic version. Here’s the thing: If I had it my way fully it wouldn’t have been out there at all. I would have held it back and let the audience see it first it in the movie but, in this day and age, merchandising and toys were coming out with the costume so I could only hold it back was coming out for the movie but the reality is there are toys and I held it back as long as I could. So then at that point? Since it was out we decided to take hold of that in the marketing and lean into that. So we don’t show the costume much in the trailers but it is in all the posters.
DEADLINE: One of the strongest aspects of the film is the performance of Nicole Kidman, who has three films this year as a mother facing the consequences of her own hard choices.
WAN: I come back again to what I was saying before about the human emotion is very important. I can create this really crazy, fantastical, highly stylized world but the human element is what ultimately grounds it for the audience watching it so if they feel that they can relate to the characters on the screen then they’re willing to go on this crazy journey right? So that is the key, at least that was my philosophy while making this film. I can have really crazy outrageous characters and really weird interesting visuals in there but the human element is really what needs to be in there. And coming into this, the love story between Arthur’s Mom and Dad would be a very important element of the film.
Nicole is amazing as we all know she is. She’s incredible. She doesn’t have that much real estate in the movie but, man, when she’s on the screen, she brings so much heart to the film. I told Nicole from Day 1 that, ‘Your character is the emotional backbone for the entire film.’ I literally built the entire movie around the choices she makes and the results that ripple from them. You know Arthur feels a certain way about Atlantis because he blames himself for his Mom’s death but also blames them for killing his Mom. That was very important to the relationship between Arthur and his Mom and it was something that was important for me to get right. That’s what is so great with Nicole and Jason and their performances as well.
DEADLINE: When you think back to your time growing up in Australia and the you look at your films, what do you see in your movies that reflects the place you grew up or is shaped by it in a recognizable way?
WAN: Well, I grew up in Perth but went to high school in Canberra the last two years and then to Melbourne for University. I would say that in Aquaman that one of the biggest thing that is a big part of my upbringing in Australia is the environment. Australians are very environmentally conscience. We put a lot of pride in the land. A lot of pride in the ocean so that really played a big part for me in this film. So I wasn’t going to make an Aquaman movie without touching on the environmental message of it all. It then also got back to my Malaysian/Chinese ethnic background, growing up with a lot of Asian ghost stories and so those elements found their way into my horror films.
For research and inspiration for the movie I went and watched lots of these documentaries like Blue Planet have the most amazing photography and everything looks so beautiful and magical. I knew going in that I was going to make a highly fantastical movie, but I wanted to begin with the point of view of reality and then build all this crazy, high-fantasy stuff on top of it.
DEADLINE: Especially since the bottom of the ocean is such an alien environment to us anyway…
WAN: Well that’s exactly it! The real world of the ocean is so foreign to us. We’ve spent more time exploring outer space than we have the depths of our own oceans, right? So I knew I could start with the real and then kind of lean into the fantasy aspect even more. and expand out in grand way what Atlantis is like down there. And who’s to say that Atlantis isn’t down there?
In the same way our imaginations ran wild when we first saw Star Wars, for example, right? What’s out there in a galaxy far, far away? I approached this movie with the same thinking, When it came to world-creation aspect of this film my touchstones were Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. In Star Wars we see this cantina with these outrageous aliens and playing these strange musical instruments and there’s all these stage droids. It was complete world and strange to us, so that was the inspiration when I leaned into things and wasn’t afraid to go for it.
DEADLINE: There’s a fleeting image of an octopus that is the equivalent of your cantina scene…
WAN: [Laughs] A lot of people have been asking me about that scene at screenings. ‘Wow, you, uh, have an octopus playing drums in your movie.’ And I say yes, and while that is weird to you and I it’s not weird in that world. It makes sense to them the way our traditions make sense to us. If you’re putting it on the screen, though, you have to believe in your world and have conviction for it and just go for it.
DEADLINE: Do you balance the spectacle or novelty value of a scene like vs the risk that it might have an off-putting effect on tone? if it feels too much like, well, an Ariel sing-along-moment from Disney’s seabed?
WAN: No, I went with it and it’s strange to our eyes but not to culture of Atlantis. Again, If you take these things on you in a film like this you have to believe in your world and have conviction in it and just go for it.