Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated actor David Oyelowo marks his feature directorial debut with The Water Man, a sci-fi adventure tale about a boy in search of a legendary creature with the ability to cheat death, which just had its premiere at TIFF.
“I would describe it as life-affirming,” Oyelowo told Deadline of his first go-around in the director’s seat. “As an actor, you are part of telling a story. As a director, you are the storyteller, and that was something I really just loved.”
Oyelowo, who directed from a script by Emma Needell, also co-stars alongside Lonnie Chavis, Rosario Dawson, Amiah Miller, Alfred Molina and Maria Bello.
The plot follows young Gunner (Chavis) who sets off with a local misfit named Jo (Miller) to find the mythical Water Man in order to save his ill mother (Dawson). While extremely close to his mother, he and his father Amos (Oyelowo) are forced to learn about each other as Amos goes on the search for his son.
“He is prepared to put himself in harm’s way to do that,” said Oyelowo ahead of the pic’s Toronto Film Festival premiere. “Personally, I find sacrificial love to be the greatest attribute we as human beings have. Anyone who puts themselves on the line for someone else, in my opinion, is a hero. To see that manifest in an 11-year-old boy, for his mother, was just something I found and find very moving.”
For Oyelowo, this film not only harkens back to the movies he loved growing up, like Goonies and Stand By Me, but it’s also something that the father of four can enjoy with his kids.
“One of the things I want to do is to create art that my kids see themselves reflected in because I think that is also radical, and it also affirms your existence, the fact that you can see yourself reflected as the protagonist or in the center of a film narrative,” he said.
Oyelowo was very keen on building a world that is reflective of his own, even incorporating some cultural references for his Nigerian heritage. His hope is that those who experience the film “see themselves reflected and hopefully to see their minds and their hearts both engaged and moved.”
“That’s my goal,” he said. “I think that the most satisfying feeling I have when I watch a film is when my head is engaged, and my heart is also engaged, and that’s what we tried to do with The Water Man. I hope it entertains people and moves them at the same time.”
Here is more of Deadline’s conversation with Oyelowo:
DEADLINE: I want to congratulate you on your first film as director. And it’s at TIFF. What are you feeling this moment, now that this is all happening?
DAVID OYELOWO: Well, one of the things I’ve experienced with some of the other directors I’ve worked with is just how exposing it is to direct a film. As an actor, you can hide behind editing, the script, marketing, you know? There are so many things that sort of mitigate the risk in terms of you being blamed for anything that goes wrong with the film, but as a director, it’s your vision. You’re the captain of this ship, and so that’s very exposing. It’s also exciting. I am someone who likes to feel the fear and do it anyway, so it’s a myriad of emotions at the moment.
DEADLINE: This project was first announced in, I believe it was 2015, and it was announced that you were going to produce with Oprah Winfrey’s company, Harpo Films. How did this script come about, and what made you want to take it on?
OYELOWO: Emma Needell wrote the script. The script was on the Black List, and I was in the process of looking for something exactly like this. I have four kids, and I love watching movies with them, and the truth of the matter is, after you run out of the Marvel movies, the Disney movies, the Star Wars movies, the kind of films I grew up loving seemed thin on the ground. Films like Goonies or Stand by Me or NeverEnding Story or Close Encounters. Films that didn’t have to be made at the hundred-million-dollars-and-up price range but had adventure, had escapism but also had some meaning to them. Something that may engender a conversation.
I remember E.T. being the first time I had witnessed a single-parent family on screen, for instance. I was looking for a project that I would be happy to share with my kids, that they would be entertained by, but also have some meaning to them. My agency, CAA, brought me The Water Man, and it was exactly what I was looking for. I wasn’t thinking of directing at that point.
DEADLINE: When did you decide to direct?
OYELOWO: I knew that I wanted to direct one day, but in 2015, my mind wasn’t in a place of “let me find a vehicle to direct.” What happened is that we actually had a director and we were in the process of developing the script. That director left to go and do another project, and we had actually had a start date. We had financing. We even cast Lonnie Chavis for the role of Gunner, and then we lost our director. It was actually Emma, our writer, who turned to me and said, “Look, David, you’ve been with this project for four years, I don’t think anyone knows this project better than you. I think you should direct it.” Which gave me pause, but I knew directing was something I wanted to do so I decided to jump in.
DEADLINE: Was it a fear thing, like you were saying before?
OYELOWO: Yeah. I look for creative endeavors that scare me. I do think that’s how great art has a potential of being made when it feels dangerous. It was a bit scary. I took about two weeks to think about it, but I realized that it was a project I was passionate enough about to dedicate the time required and so I jumped in.
DEADLINE: How would you describe your first experience with directing a feature?
OYELOWO: I would describe it as life-affirming. I had a truly amazing time with this cast and crew. I’m someone who really loves that I get to tell stories. As an actor, you are part of telling a story. As a director, you are the storyteller and that was something I really just loved. And I had amazing people around me, who really elevated every idea I had going in.
DEADLINE: Was there anything in particular about the Water Man story that drew you in?
OYELOWO: The film is about a young kid who is hunting for the Water Man, this mythic figure who is supposed to have the gift of being able to cheat death. His mother is incredibly ill, and so he goes to look for the Water Man in order to save his mother and he is prepared to put himself in harm’s way to do that.
Personally, I find sacrificial love to be the greatest attribute we as human beings have. Anyone who puts themselves on the line for someone else, in my opinion, is a hero. To see that manifest in an 11-year-old boy, for his mother, was just something I found and find very moving.
DEADLINE: I also really liked the build-out of the relationship with the father and the son, with Gunner and Amos. There’s a bit of a disconnect, but there’s still this love between him and his parent. You mentioned you having kids and wanting to watch something like this. How important was it to show that father-son dynamic?
OYELOWO: Absolutely. They say write what you know, and I would probably say direct what you know, as well. I have three sons myself, and I love them deeply. They are amazing children, but it’s not always plain sailing. Any parent will tell you that, and so, to show some of the dysfunction that can happen within a loving family is just reality. At the end of the day, if love can conquer that dysfunction, if self-sacrifice can help you find your way back to each other, I think that, again, is the best of who we are, as people, and is what, certainly as a parent, I aspire to. I try to be a good parent.
I know I’m imperfect, but I want to do everything I can to basically give my kids the best shot they have in life. When the script actually came to me, it was set in Montana, with a white family. What I see a dearth of in movies is seeing black families where their struggle is not always through the lens of race or economic struggles that they have. We as black and brown people have the same challenges people have all over the world, and it’s not always tied to the color of our skin.
I think it is as radical to show a loving black family going through what we would call quote-unquote normal issues, as well as racial issues. That was something that I was really happy to showcase, as well.
DEADLINE: Also, it’s very refreshing to see a black family at this center of this sort of genre, right? The fantasy sci-fi genre, were you always a fan?
OYELOWO: I’ve always been a fan of that genre. I think most people are, but you know the truth of the matter is growing up, I was never truly reflected in those narratives, those films that I talked about, that I loved. Whether it be Goonies or Stand by Me or Close Encounters, those sorts of adventure-based films where you have young people at the center of the narrative. I never got to see myself reflected. One of the things I want to do is to create art that my kids see themselves reflected in because I think that is also radical, and it also affirms your existence, the fact that you can see yourself reflected as the protagonist, or in the center of a film narrative.
DEADLINE: Were you the type of person that was really into folklore or mythology growing up?
OYELOWO: Well, as you know, I’m of Nigerian descent. I lived in Nigeria from the age of 6 to 13. Nigeria has an incredibly rich tradition of storytelling, with mythic figures. There’s an oral tradition of passed-down narratives, and I got to experience some of that. So the combination of my love of film, and then growing up in that environment, meant that I was very keen to listen to, experience, and be part of telling those kinds of stories.
DEADLINE: What would you say the Water Man represents in this story?
OYELOWO: The Water Man for me, represents hope. He’s a symbol of hope, a mythic figure who has the ability to cheat death, but the hope that the film tries to analyze is, where does your hope lie? Where should your hope lie? Should your hope lie in being able to live forever, or should your hope lie in loving those you have been given to love? And that is the journey that Gunner goes on.
He’s trying to hold on to things, and the question is how hard do you hold on, and how much do you lose by holding on so tight? That’s the journey, and what I love about these kinds of myths, when they have children at the center of them, is when they don’t patronize the intelligence of those kids. It is when their emotions are valued, and not undermined.
At 11, you can still feel very big emotions. You’re still going through things that can sometimes be tough. Sometimes you don’t fully understand. That’s why we call those kinds of narratives rites of passage. You are going from one phase of your life into another, and that’s very much what Gunner is going through in this story.
DEADLINE: Speaking of being from Nigeria, like we said earlier, you obviously couldn’t help but notice the cultural references that were incorporated in this story from the music to the garb. Am I safe to assume that there was a meaningful intention behind that?
OYELOWO: Yeah. I’m so glad you spotted that. For me, when I was growing up, not only did I not see myself represented in terms of someone who looks like me, but I didn’t see my culture represented. Africa is a massive continent that has influenced the world enormously when it comes to music and fashion and culture and art. Yet, in Western filmmaking, very rarely is there an acknowledgment of that.
In the score, we often use classical music with Western European instruments, but for me, instruments in movies should be there because they evoke a certain emotion, and so, we have used African drums in the score. We have used Afrobeat music. Even though they’re an American family, they are connected to their African roots, and so you see that in the furniture. You see that in the clothing. You see that in their identity, and they don’t wear it in some kind of front footed obvious way. It’s just part of who they are and that’s my experience.
That’s what I see in so many African Americans as well. It’s an embrace of that heritage, and I wanted to show that in every facet of the film, in the production design, in the costume, in the music, and in some of the attitudes. I really pushed Rosario to have her center of gravity be a bit lower, in a sense, as a mother towards her son, and that’s something I definitely see in African women, African-American women, Afro-Latina women, as well. So, that’s something we wanted to permeate the film.
DEADLINE: You directed, produced and acted in this movie. What would you say was your biggest challenge, and what did you learn from the experience?
OYELOWO: The biggest challenge is the moment where you have to direct yourself, in a sense, because often, you’re so reliant on someone else guiding you, and when you’re directing, you have so many things on your mind. When I’m acting, especially if it’s an intense role, I’m often in a little bit of a tunnel-vision space. That means I maybe keep to myself a little bit more, just so that I stay in the zone of that character.
You can’t afford to do that when you’re directing. Everyone has a question. Everyone has a need, and you’re the person who has to try and help them do the best of what they’ve been tasked to do. So I got really great advice from the likes of Joel Edgerton, who’s an actor who’s also directed very successfully, Nate Parker the same, and Mel Gibson. I reached out to those guys, all of them friends of mine, and actually Joel gave me a really, really great piece of advice, which was never, when you’re in a scene, as an actor, call cut, and then immediately start directing the actor opposite you before walking away from them.
You almost have to walk away from them, put your director hat on, and come back, so that they don’t feel like they are being judged or analyzed during an interaction between characters, and that was something that really helped me. I made sure I wasn’t the one who said action and cut, as well. My first AD did that, just so that there was a demarcation between David the actor and David the director. It’s definitely a bit of a schizophrenic endeavor, directing something you’re in.
My wife, Jessica, really helped me. She was there to kind of let me know if I was faking it until I made it, and thankfully she would just give me a subtle thumbs-up, and that made me feel confident.
DEADLINE: Are you the type of person who is constantly thinking about the type of legacy that you want to leave through your work? Is that something you think about when you choose what projects to take on?
OYELOWO: It is, and it’s both a blessing and a burden, if I’m perfectly honest. I think as a black creative, for me, anyway, I’m always aware of the cultural potency of this medium. When you’re young, you don’t necessarily even really fully consciously realize how much you’re being influenced by the images you’re seeing, but whether you like it or not, you are being influenced. They are telling you something about yourself. They are telling you something about other people.
They are telling you who is important, what is important, what’s morally right, what’s morally wrong, and that’s a responsibility I take very seriously. So, yes, it definitely plays into the choices I make — doubly so, when I’m producing or directing. I always have my kids on my mind. Is what I am putting out in the world in lockstep with what I’m trying to teach my kids, because I don’t think you can fully separate the two. I don’t think I can be espousing certain values, and then my work be contrary to those. It is something that is often on my mind.
DEADLINE: I believe that only six black directors ever have been nominated for an Oscar, and obviously so far, no black filmmaker has won. This year seems to be a transformative year, not just in this world with what’s going on but also in Hollywood. It seems like there have been more meaningful discussions about putting things in place to combat the lack of diversity and inclusion that we’ve experienced throughout the years. Do you feel that meaningful changes are coming, and do you feel like it is going to be lasting, not just a moment in our history?
OYELOWO: This is probably one of the first times I will say in an interview, yes. I do think that there is lasting change. I think initiatives like the Academy just put out puts our business on notice. Because at the end of the day, what has happened traditionally, and historically, is the Academy, and Hollywood in general, has basically set the standard for what should be valued and is valuable to them, and therefore to the world.
So by putting out these inclusion initiatives, it is reframing what should be valued, and what should be valuable to our business, and to the world. The truth of the matter is if you don’t adhere to those things now, the celebration of your work may be curtailed. That is something that we haven’t had before. We’ve just had these insidious, quiet but evident circumstances whereby we just know we’re being treated lesser than, and so, that shift in the value system is definitely significant and encouraging to someone like me, who’s trying to put work out, that the type of images I’m trying to create are being valued.
DEADLINE: What do hope people take away after watching The Water Man?
OYELOWO: Well, I spoke to that in the same way that the films that I love sharing with my kids. What I’m looking for is escapism, is adventure, but to see themselves reflected, and hopefully to see their minds and their hearts both engaged and moved. That’s my goal. I think that the most satisfying feeling I have when I watch a film is when my head is engaged, and my heart is also engaged, and that’s what we tried to do with The Water Man. I hope it entertains people and moves them at the same time.
DEADLINE: In general, what would you say you’re looking forward to the most?
OYELOWO: What a big question. What I’m looking forward to the most is, and this sounds very lofty, but is a world where the lessons learned over this very trying time for humanity start being applied. I think there’s a lot more kindness we can afford to give each other. There are some systemic things that need to change, that the pandemic has highlighted. What we’re doing to our planet is really reprehensible, but having been starved of the contact we took for granted, I hope and pray we get back to that, and when we do, we just do it better.