James Wan Interview: Aquaman Editing Bay Preview

The Aquaman movie is looking to be the most romantic, spectacular, and old fashioned fantasy adventure that the DC movie universe has experienced so far. That's director James Wan's hope anyway, and after seeing a portion of the movie for ourselves, he may achieved his goal.

Screen Rant was invited to the editing bay of Aquaman along with a handful of other movie outlets, to see firsthand how the biggest unknown in the DC movie slate was taking shape. How would the filmmakers tackle the challenge of setting most of the Aquaman movie underwater? How much would James Wan's vision of Atlantis change from Zack Snyder's seen in Justice League?

And most importantly, just how important to the overall mythology of the DCEU would Aquaman's water-vomit turn out to be?

Obviously the money shot of that Hall H footage is the traditional costume, right? The orange and green. How did you approach representing that visually in the movie?

Well... [Laughs]. The key was to try and take that classic outfit and make sure it's not goofy, make sure it's not cheesy. We associate so much of the 'cheese' of the character with the Super Friends cartoon that we're familiar with, and the look of it, but that's also what kind of makes him really cool. The key was taking that idea and making sure that that aesthetic fits with the look of what Atlantis is today - and what Atlantis was back then. And you know, just trying to do it justice, but do it in a way that'll potentially wink at the classic, old costume. But bringing a modern sensibility to it.

Aquaman is seen as the joke of the DC Universe, but it seems you've replaced that by giving him the sense of humor. 

Yeah you'll definitely see more of it with the stuff that I'm going to show coming up... I think it was important very early on when I met with Jason Momoa, and just seeing how likable the guy actually is in person. You know, how charismatic, and how funny, and goofy he is. And right off the start I just wanted to bring a lot of his own personality into his character. I didn't want to make a whole movie where he's heavy and moody and stuff like that. That's not the movie I wanted to make. So just digging into Jason and getting that out of him was very important. And his personality plays really strongly throughout this whole film. I really want to lean into who he is and make this character kind of synonymous to him.

A lot of the humor definitely comes from what he's like, and then also... literally the sort of fish out of water aspect of it. Like when he is in the world of Atlantis, he's a fish out of water, but when Mera and he are on land, Mera's the one who's a fish out of water, and so from that you can find humorous things to play up. I said from day one when I joined this project that I wanted to make a fun movie, and I just feel like you gotta lean into the kookiness of it all, right? A guy who talks to fish, and that's his power. Just kind of embrace that. And just don't be embarrassed of it.

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Somebody on set said that it was important Atlantis wasn't built in Justice League, that you got to establish it here. How much world-building did you get to do? How much is left on the table?

I definitely got to create a massive world. I really think what has been really fun, I think for moviegoers and not just the fans, is that when they see this film they're not just seeing a world of DC. They're literally seeing a world within Aquaman itself... creating the different kingdoms, the different worlds, the machines that drive the world, their transport, the animals that live in this world, and all that stuff. I've never made a movie that is so heavily designed to this extent, and it was really awesome. Just being able to come up with really interesting things and just run with it. When the film comes out you'll see how crazy big it is. I've said this before... I didn't really go into this with the mindset of making a superhero movie, I came into this with the mindset of making a fantasy movie. A fantasy action movie.

Atlantis in Aquaman Movie

Can you talk about the creatures and the world? You clearly pulled from the comics, but you're putting your own twist on it that's redefining it, still specific to the comic roots.

Yeah I wanted to be inspired. The great thing about adapting something like this is years and years and decades worth of amazing source material to pull from, but from that, obviously I want to take what people think is funny, take what people think is special about the world, and bring it into this movie. And filter it through my own sensibility. So of course we're going to see creatures in there that are scary, and that's what I love about this movie, is it really allows me to lean into how most people feel about the ocean. Which is... it's amazing and wondrous and magical on one hand, but on the other hand, it's scary and frightening and so unknown and so undiscovered yet, right? And so I think those two elements, the magic and wonder, and the unknown sort of potentially scary aspect of it really go hand in hand. I really wanted to touch on those two worlds in my world creation.

Can you tell us about working with Nicole Kidman?

Nicole and I have been wanting to work together for a while now, so when this project came along, it just felt like I've gotta give Nicole a shot. There's no one more perfect to play the Queen of Atlantis but Nicole Kidman. She literally was at the top of my list. And you know, luckily we were able to get her to come play with us. She's fantastic, you know, she's such a great actress, and the gravitas and the emotion she brings to the film is just so valuable. And yes, I've always wanted to see Nicole in a kickass role as well, just beating everyone up.

Did she take to the action really well?

She did! She really enjoyed all that stuff, yeah. But that sequence with her was a really hard sequence to shoot because it's a one take shot, the character jumping, flipping, and all that. The way we did it was we removed the ceiling of the set, and we had a spidercam on wires zip all over the set, from one character to another character... beating up all the soldiers. It was very technically challenging to try to get that all done, but I just thought it was a great way to show how strong her character is, but without sort of cutting it up. It was actually a really fun thing to shoot. It took two days to shoot that shot. Many takes.

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How much of this kind of action are we going to see?

I don't know, you just have to wait and see in the film. It's where the movie just feels like it wants a moment. Because generally most action movies are cut pretty quickly, you know, for pace and stuff like that. And for me it's always kind of nice to just let the really detailed action moment play out in one shot without editing, and just letting the audience sort of soak it all in. Examine all the little details, all the nuances in the moment, and just as important, show the lay of the land, literally the geography of the land, and give the audience an understanding of where they are as the action plays out. It's something that I've done in my horror films, and it's the same mentality that I have in this. You know, if you kind of lay it out for the audience, they have a good sense of where things are. And it helps with confusion. I can do more interesting things with the camera work and all that, because they always know where they are.

You may not be able to say, but how big a role would you say Nicole Kidman's character has in the movie? Is she just in the intro, or are we going to see more of her?

Uhhh. I'm not going to give it away. You'll just have to wait [Laughs].

How important is her character to Arthur's story?

It's super important. Like I said, the love story between her and dad is the emotional backbone for the movie, and how it informs Arthur's character and his journey, and his sort of bitter outlook on the world of Atlantis. He blames them for something that happens to her, and it shapes his point of view.

A lot of people will assume that the comic is based on Geoff Johns version of the character for DC's New 52. But Atlanna is missing from that story. What was it you were trying to communicate with her?

The most important thing - I've said this many times, and it's something that I truly believe in - it's not just a love story between Arthur and Mera, it's a love story of mom and dad, and how even though they have nothing in common, so to speak. you know, she's the queen of Atlantis and he's a lighthouse keeper, a surface dweller, the love that they have for each other is what creates this boy that will grow up to become Aquaman. And I think that's super important, and I needed that. And yes, I pulled a lot of inspiration from the New 52, but the mother character was always super integral to the story I wanted to tell... it's who helps shape the father character and the story.

In that scene there, Atlanna tells Tom that, you know, 'one day I'll be back, and just wait for me here.' And every day, Dad - for the next 20, 30 years of his life - he gets up every morning and goes to the end of the dock just hoping she will come back. And I love that, because it really plays into the bittersweet romantic nature of it, and this movie at the end of the day is a very classic action adventure, like a romance, it's a very classic romance adventure story. It's first and foremost that. I think, more than it is a superhero story.

Jason was very outspoken when he was cast about coming from a bi-racial background, and was thrilled to be cast as the character for whom that's almost what makes them a superhero. Is the movie about that, or is it more powerful to show and not tell? 

I think we do touch on it pretty strongly, without necessarily being too on the nose. I think it's very evident that it's almost like a forbidden love, so to speak, and it really is very relevant to the times that we live in. It really is about two different races coming together, and through that, creating this guy. And that's why Momoa's character starts off in the movie not quite feeling like he fits in. He doesn't feel like he fit in on the surface world, or in the underwater world, and that's something that Jason has always felt growing up. As a guy who's part Polynesian, Hawaiian, and part white American as well, he's always felt like... he didn't quite belong when he was in Hawaii, and he didn't quite belong when he was in the Midwest growing up.

I think that's super important. I think that is definitely something that we are... I'm aware of the importance of that, and I definitely felt like I lean into that. The movie touches on that, but at the end of the day the movie touches on the theme of family and love, and how it doesn't really matter where you're from. You are who you are. And what his character learns... he starts off going, 'I'm nothing, because I'm neither here nor there.' But what he ends up understanding through the help of Mera is... he's the best of both worlds. That's not a detrimental thing. He's the best of both worlds, he's the bridge between two worlds, and because of that he is a better person, and that is what makes him who he is.

So the next scene I want to show you guys is how these guys move and talk in the underwater kingdom, and what life is like down there. And as you guys have seen in the trailer, we know the brother is trying to do something bad, and Arthur is there to try and stop his brother. And the only way he can stop his brother is in this ancient sort of ritualistic combat. It's an ancient practice, but the brother is basically saying, 'Okay yeah you're the first born son to the throne, technically it's yours, but you have to prove to the people of Atlantis that you have what it takes, and so you have to take it from me if you want it.'

Arthur Curry and Ocean Master - Aquaman

So, how did you go about shooting the underwater scenes?

Ohhh with a lot of difficulties [Laughs]. The first thing we actually did was just making sure the actors were physically up to shape, training them every day. We had a trainer on them that just worked with them physically, just because knowing how difficult those rigs and the wire work was going to be, I just wanted to make sure that they were able to put up with that. It's not very comfortable, especially when you're someone as big as Jason Momoa, right? Especially because he's a guy as well--all the weight that goes around the crotch region is not the most comfortable. And so we do that with the actors, get them trained early on, so that they understand what they're getting themselves into when we get around to shooting it.

But then working closely with the stunt department, literally laying out the action first on dry land, laying out the choreography, dialing all that in. Once I felt like it had the right shape to it, then we now start thinking 'How do we now apply this to an underwater sort of environment where gravity obviously plays very differently?' So now we start introducing wire work into it, introducing rigging devices and stuff like that, and constantly challenging the stunt department, and I've got an amazing stunt crew that just come up with really awesome stuff, especially all the swimming stuff.

And so we had the swimming rig, it was already designed, so now we had to apply the swimming rig into a fighting scenario, and so we would do that and of course the final stage is we would cut that together and then visual effects come in and help us take that to a whole completely different level, you know, and working with the stunt performers and the actors and doing a lot of motion capture as well, so that I can revisit a lot of the stunts. I can create it in a digital space, and I can put the camera anywhere I want and recreate the stunt again.

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So were they underwater for some of that sequence?

No. It's all dry-for-wet. It's very difficult trying to simulate the look of weightlessness that you would get underwater, but we did tons of R&D early on of how people would move underwater. We built props, we built sets, and we submerged everything underwater, and we did tons of study just to see what things would look like, and then ultimately what we realized is, what we can do underwater was still very much limited by what we're capable of doing, because we're normal human beings, we're not Atlanteans, right? And these guys obviously move very differently in that space. To them they're basically like superheroes, but for us, we swim slowly. And so we had to apply a very different sort of thinking.

How did you arrive at the idea for the Atlantean water-vomit?

The Atlantean water-vomit?

When they go from water to dry land.

Ohhh well just from a practical standpoint, people would ask me, you know, 'So when they talk, is it bubbles that come out of their mouth?' And I'm like, 'No because there's no air in your lungs, so there wouldn't be any bubbles.' Right? So then in that sequence where you saw Mera open up this air pocket... when [Orm] lands in that, he's breathing air. The first thing he does is, he's in an air pocket, so he'd puke out all the water that's in his lungs. So that's the first step. We think about all these little details and stuff like that. And then when he's screaming [when the water returns], we want bubbles coming out of his mouth because now there's actually air in his lungs.

So it's not like a fish out of water.

Oh like it would flop around, is that what you mean? No, in our story, Atlanteans, because they were surface dwellers at one point, they evolved slightly different, so we kind of used that to differentiate a sort of caste system. Like the highborns kind of evolved slightly different to the people that are lower than them.

About how far into the movie is this part?

I would say maybe a third into the film? Like maybe the end of the second act, or end of the first act. Definitely not the middle.

Can you talk a bit about the score, because Aquaman doesn't have his own theme. How did you develop the score?

Yeah, what you're hearing right now... about half of what's in there is still temp. We're still in the process with Rupert [Gregson-Williams], who's my composer. He's still scoring away, working on it. And whenever we finish a moment we start pulling it into the film. The scoring is the stuff that you get, like the visual effects, you go all the way to the very end, you don't get it very early on, just because everything's so work in progress. And constantly when we change our edits and tweak stuff, whatever the score is before, he has to keep changing it. So it's a bit of a process. But you know, it was very important for me to give him his hero score, which you kind of need, but just as important, finding the emotional score was very important as well. Finding the emotional stuff that would be peppered throughout the film. And then of course the love theme between Arthur and Mera as well.

So the final thing I want to show you guys is a glimpse into the relationship between Arthur and Mera... This will also give you a good sense of the tone that we're going for with the movie as well.

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So it seems there's an open environmental message to the movie, could you talk about that a bit?

I just don't think you can make a movie about a water hero and not kind of touch upon all the pollution that we do as surface dwellers, and that plays a big part into why King Orm is so pissed off with the humans on the surface world. It just felt like it's something that I think just gives the movie a bit more relevance, as well. And I think even in the comic books they touch on a lot of those elements as well, and I just think it kind of grounds the film with a message that I think we can all relate to. So you somewhat sympathize with what the bad guy is doing, and how he's sick and tired with the crap and disrespect we have for our planet. I think that's one of the cool things, is how Atlanteans actually have a lot of respect for the planet, and we touch on it a little bit here, but we kind of want to be careful with it being too on the nose. But it definitely is something I was very mindful of, and I wanted to go there.

Is it also making the villain someone we can relate to?

I think it's important... someone that you can kind of understand why he's doing what he's doing, as opposed to like a James Bond villain I guess.

You're hinting at the Seven Seas, and the different tribes of Atlantis, which was the story Geoff Johns said was coming in the comics, and didn't have the chance to tell himself. That seems to be a big part, the tribes brought back together for good or evil.

Yeah what it does for me... it does two things for me. Arthur and Mera's journey takes them to these different kingdoms and all that, so what it does for me is it allows me to create the world creation movie that I'm going for here, just create the different look of the different kingdoms. And the coolest thing about that is I get to create this sort of fantastical world. It's not in another dimension, it's not in outer space, it's right here on our planet. And that's what's so cool about it, is it's not in Middle-earth, it's here on our planet, and so I get to kind of play into the design aspect of it that I really love and wanted to embrace. And the other thing it allows me to do as well, is it allows my lead hero to see the different kingdoms, and seeing the different kingdoms and seeing how different people live then inform what kind of king he should eventually be. So there's also a character arc purpose to it, besides us showing cool locations. And I think it kind of allows me to kill two birds with one stone and it allows us to go on this really fun adventure journey story, but all of it takes place here on Earth.

There's a lot more comedy and quippiness in dialogue than the previous DC films. How would you say Aquaman compares?

I mean what you guys are seeing now, all these different reels, is a reflection of the film throughout the whole movie. I don't think making an Aquaman movie can be any other tone than this, right? In pop culture, he's known as the lamest superhero. And so you gotta lean into that, you gotta play into that, you gotta have fun with it, right? Like, yes, he rides seahorses, but in our movie, it's a different kind of... you wouldn't be laughing at a seahorse like that. I just wanted to embrace what people think is goofy and potentially campy about this world, and really make it fun and adventurous in a cool way. From day one I've always said that the inspiration for me in a really big way was Romancing the Stone, and it kind of has a bit of that flavor, and in a lot of ways I went into this film not necessarily wanting to make a superhero movie, but wanting to make an action adventure fantasy movie.

You've done movies in existing franchises before, but never one with quite so much preceding it. How much freedom have you had?

It was very important for me early on to be allowed to make my own film and to have my own voice be in there. After Furious Seven and Conjuring 2, I didn't want to be a director for hire. You know after Furious Seven that's kind of who I was to some degree, but after that, I don't want to be that guy again. So it was very important for me to be able to bring my own stamp, my own visual aesthetic, create the characters, so even though Jason has already somewhat been established in Justice League, I wanted to bring his character into this basically fresh in a lot of ways. So it was important for me to kind of obviously pay respect to where he was left off in in JL, but then allow me the freedom to take him to where I want to take him at the end of the movie. And so my hero goes on this hero's journey to become someone very different than where he started, and that was something that was very important for me, with the movie I wanted to make, that I was allowed that freedom to do that.

Also the good thing about not necessarily involving the other characters is I can kind of do whatever I want in this story, in this world, and not be beholden to what someone else is making. And vice versa, not have someone else being beholden to what I'm doing.

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Key Release Dates
  • Aquaman (2018) release date: Dec 21, 2018
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