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Geoff Johns, David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick & Will Beall Interview: Aquaman

Comic book icon Geoff Johns has written some of the defining storylines of his generation.  From The Flash to Green Lantern to Justice League he has created definitive versions of beloved characters.  His renewal of Aquaman in DC’s New 52 is the inspiration for the new Aquaman film.

David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick was fortunate enough to begin his career as a production assistant on Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption. He was able to learn from the Academy Award nominated Darabont for five years as his assistant and then went on to co-write Wrath of the Titans and The Conjuring 2. His latest project, co-writing Aquaman, is an adaptation of the DC superhero.

Will Beall is a former LAPD detective and novelist who wrote the script for 2013’s Gangster Squad. He has had a long history with DC films, being was hired to write 2017’s Justice League. His script was not used, but he was then hired to write 2018’s Aquaman. And though he was replaced again, he was brought back to co-write the screenplay based on a story treatment by Geoff Johns and James Wan.

Screen Rant: Talk about, the sort of Sisyphean task of going back and condensing all this mythology into something that is comprehensible and also feeds into sort of what audiences already know a little bit about this character through the previous DC movies.

Will Beall: He'd done a lot of the heavy lifting already.

Geoff Johns: I had a done a lot of the work revamping, with the New 52 comics in 2011. And really distilling it down-- I think the concept we kept through the film is the son of the queen of Atlantis and a lighthouse keeper. And a man, who feels because he's from two worlds, he's from no world. And that plays into Aquaman’s perception. I think in animation and comic books, for a long time, people thought he just talks to fish, which he does in the movie very well. And that he's kind of an out of place superhero. And by taking that viewpoint, I think a lot of people have on the character and making it part of his emotional journey was really key. If you centralize and draw on that, then adding the other mythology, the Seven Seas, and the Shakespearian side of his brother being full Atlantean, and King Orm. And having both Arthur and Orm have what, I think a lot of people have, is a simplistic view of another culture that is far away and mysterious and maybe perceived as dangerous. Or antagonistic at the very least. They'd all started out from there.  And from that, like that core emotional concept of the journey of him going from someone who thinks he has no home, and he is no one, to someone learning that, “Oh, because he is of two worlds and of two cultures, that he is actually the best bridge.” He's the living bridge between them, land and sea. That was the goal of the comic books and the 25 issues that I wrote. That spine carried through into the film.

David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick: You have this vast treasure trove of history and long list, like the…

Geoff Johns: Different takes.

David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick: Yeah. And you're talking about the task of like figuring out what you're going to do. That New 52, that arc, that Throne of Atlantis, was this great little slice that allowed you to sort of focus in, “We're doing this.” And then sprinkle in where appropriate sort of hat tips to the old versions of him. Or to get, you know, the bongo playing octopus in there. [LAUGHTER] To sort of fill it out with some of the things from the character's history, I think it was really fun.

Will Beall: Having some of the court characters like Mera, obviously, and Orm, Black Manta, how to keep those core iconic characters in there. Because people don't really know that Black Manta is like his coolest villain. And Ocean Master is his coolest villain, or second coolest villain.

David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick: Second. [LAUGHTER]

Will Beall: That big helmet. You can’t get away from that big helmet.

David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick: No.

Will Beall: But it is, you know, it's a distilling. But I think you got to. When you look at these characters, do it from an emotional point of view. And a conceptual point of view. Because a guy who swims and talks to the fishes. Cool. But how do you make that relatable and how do you make that a story? And it's all in there. I call it panning for gold. Because there's so many comics and you’ve got to list some bad Aquaman comics too. You’ve just got to just kind of figured out-- The very first Aquaman comic, he was actually experimented on by his dad and could breathe under water. Way back in More Fun Comics seventy-three. He wasn't from Atlantis. It was a totally different concept. And they revamped it in Showcase Comics and it's been revamped over the years. At one point, Ocean Master was a human, his human half-brother. And it wasn't as interesting because then you're like, “Okay, he's another, yet another, human villain.” And then by making him full Atlantean and making him, kind of like Black Manta and Ocean Master kind of operate as the dark side of both his halves.  That made Ocean Master a better character. So, it's an evolution through the decades of different ideas from different creators and everything.

Screen Rant: I have a spoiler question for the-- It will be after movies out. You do a great job in this film. There's two moments that I really loved. And we talk about just humanizing and providing that emotional validity. There's that choice Arthur makes to not save Black Manta’s father. But what's different about that, compared to similar choices that heroes have made, in other movies is you actually come back to it. And he reflects on it and even admits to a mistake. So, can you talk about coming up with that moment of him expressing that vulnerability and having that opportunity for personal growth?

David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick: Well, I thought, one of the things that was interesting about this movie, having these-- You have Aquaman introduced in Justice League really. And then you have this, actually his first movie. The idea of maybe you can do an origin in sort of like how he became the hero. When you start off with Aquaman and this movie, he's walking the walk sort of, but his heart's maybe not in it. And he's maybe not really emotionally…he’s unfinished. He's not really any better than one of us.

Geoff Johns: He's a bit of a wanderer

David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick: But it's like the idea of like when he lets Black Manta’s dad die, you sort of like go, “Well, they were bad guys.” So, I can almost understand his decision. Like, well screw these guys. But then the realization he has to have later on, maybe then is, in order to be a hero, he's got to-- maybe anyone of us could have made that decision, but in order to be the hero, he's got to be better than any one of us. And that's sort of the realization that-- And that's part of his origin. So, that when he comes out with the waterfall, he's actually Aquaman, with a capital “A.” And in the orange and gold, or the orange and green, and sort of fully realized as a hero.

Will Beall: Yeah. One of the things that I love about this origin of the character that I think is at least for me is super relatable is that, he's an immature guy. Sort of like a boorish kind of party guy, who gets his shit together for a good woman. It’s probably a lot of our stories. And so, I also feel like that the moment-- Because I certainly felt that way at his initial encounter. Like, “Fuck you.” But he's not going to get there without a Mera. So, which is part of why I think that she makes him better than he was.

Geoff Johns: I completely agree. And I think that something— I mean Will’s voice does this, but you tapped into that, that kind of boorish a--

Will Beall: I'm good at that. [LAUGHTER]

Geoff Johns: You're good at that.  I remember that. A lot of conversations. [LAUGHTER] And then we talked about the movie.

Screen Rant: James is obviously tasked with sort of rendering this visually. But like when you guys were sort of in the writing stages, how much of the sort of logistics of all this do you guys have to figure out? Just to provide him with a bit of a Bible to go like, “Okay, well this is how people are going to be breathing.” Or you know, going to the bathroom or whatever it is. Just sort of like the little ordinary sort of ideas that they would have to do that, that we would not, that we take for granted if this all took place on land.

Will Beall: When we, I remember talking about it. I mean, you guys, I remember talking about early on, the idea that it was an advanced civilization. But that they're-- All of our civilization is all about fire, right? Everything, it's all fire. They wouldn't have that. And so, that's where like, I feel like when you guys see this stuff like, you know, the phosphorescent jellyfish. And like the sort of the fusion, like that plasma stuff that you guys were talking—

Geoff Johns: We talked about cold fusion a lot.

Will Beall: Talked about cold fusion a lot.  And I do remember discussions about potty, but I—

Geoff Johns: Remember we had a scene where, like a joke, “Where's the restroom?” And he went into this place and he got out. He comes out and goes, “How do you use it?” Which is was funny. I don't know, it never really made it into the, I don't even know if, I think it was in an early draft and it fell out pretty early. But we did have conversations about, with James about, you know, how do they talk underwater. And James was very adamant upfront that he just wanted to make a very, very simple-- He wanted to have scenes underwater where they could talk to each other and there wouldn't be a huge mechanical issue behind that. Because it felt more, you know, he wanted to-- But more like the Hunt for Red October method of, they speak in Russian and then suddenly they're speaking English. And you just can enjoy the story. The story for what it is. But James had, early on knew right away, he was going to do that.

Will Beall: He did.  I remember that-- Didn’t they end up having it? Didn't--?

Geoff Johns: In Justice League, they make a bubble. And he didn't want to do it.

Will Beall: He was like, “Nuts to that.” Which I think was smart.

Geoff Johns: I do too. I think that was really smart. He just said, “I don't want to-- I want to have to clean scenes with just characters talking under water and that's just the way it is.” And there's that one line when he's like, “I can talk underwater?” And you're like, “Yeah, it’s your superpower.”

Will Beall: All of us like, we've all bought into Aquaman. Everbody knows—

Geoff Johns: I don't think anybody was like, “Well you can’t talk under water.” And I also think there was something really interesting about, there's a slight reverb you can hear when Mera and Orm first start talking in that citadel.  You can hear this reverb on it and it slowly goes away. But I thought that was smart of James.

David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick: I kind of dorked out on it a little bit. For me, my dork explanation was just we make sounds by exhaling air over our vocal cords. So why, if you're breathing water, couldn't you make sound by exhaling water over your vocal cords? And water conducts sound better than the air anyway. So, maybe you've got a reverb and you can just talk.

Will Beall: Yeah.

Screen Rant: Following up on that, I actually had a question about Justice League. Is there anything that you guys learned from working with him, doing his Atlantis stuff, that informed your decision not to use, I mean obviously the bubble of them talking underwater, but is there anything else that kind of informed you to make a change in this film?

Geoff Johns: That was really the only— James had said right away. Like right away. It was from the time we sat down to start breaking the story and writing the treatment. He didn't want it. He just knew he didn't want to do the bubbles.

Will Beall: 'Cause he’s smart.

Aquaman and Mera

Screen Rant: We were talking a little bit before you guys came in, about just how quickly superhero films have taken off in the last decade alone. What does it feel like looking like now? Ten years ago, Aquaman movies were a joke in Entourage. Now, we’ve got Aquaman is this major huge movie. Like any personal feelings you guys want to share about like, “Oh crap, I got to do Aquaman?”

Will Beall: I don't know if I never told you guys this, but like this is, what like 2014 or something? He calls and he goes, “Fasten your seat belts, Will. Like, I got something lined up for you. I can't tell you what it is, can’t tell you what it is.” And I was like, I came home to my wife, I was like, “They’re giving me Batman.” [LAUGHTER] I shit you not. I was stockpiling comics. I was like, “Oh, I know exactly what I'm—It’s Batman.” And then he sends me a text with a picture of Aquaman on it. And I was like, “Oh, fuck.” [LAUGHTER] The truth is, because at that point, I had not read Throne of Atlantis yet. And it wasn't because-- I just sort of fallen off after like-- Was it Peter David's run in the nineties?  There's a little bit of that left, right? There's a little bit of  stuff like—

Geoff Johns: His beard.

Will Beall: His beard. And he's very cool and Justice League Unlimited. Right? So, for me, like I said, I think I probably had the reaction that probably a lot of the world did. Like, “Wait, really? You’re going to do Aquaman?” And then I remember, you’d be in meetings and people would be like, “Yeah, what are you working on?” I’m like, “I'm working on Aquaman.” They laugh. Like, “Are you sure?”

Geoff Johns: That's what they said to me when I wrote the book. Because they were like, well, like they said, “So, what’s your new book?” I'd say, and this big relaunch, I'm like, “I want to do Aquaman.” And people said to me, in comics, “Why are you going to waste your time with Aquaman?”

Like that statement. And I've heard that a lot. “Are you going to waste your time on Booster Gold or Teen Titans or anything?” But Aquaman was kind of the creme de la creme of those geek jewels.

I've always loved the character and I saw potential in a lot of the stories. And I read the Peter David run too and loved it. And I wanted to go kind of neoclassic on it, and bring back Mera, she’s kind of a forgotten character from the sixties.

But yeah, people had an attitude about Aquaman. And I got notes on it. I forget, wrote this first issue when he goes into a restaurant and he sits down and [people are] staring at him. He goes, “I'll take the fish and chips.” And people are like, someone drops their fork. And people are like, “You can't do that.” I got a note from that, from the publisher that said, “You can't do that scene, you're going to ruin the character.” And I said, “Ruin the character?” [LAUGHTER] We’re talking about Aquaman here. This is why-- You got to address everything. He's like, “You can’t address what people make fun of him for.” I said, “You have to embrace it. That's part of who the character’s become. And that's okay, because it becomes part of their charm.” Because then suddenly Aquaman becomes the biggest underdog character in the DC universe. And then you root for him. And so, it was a bit of a battle. My editor, Pat McCallum at the time, really fought for the book. He fought for me, so that we can do the scenes like that. But that to me was-- You rip that out and you're trying to make him cool too-- It's just trying too hard to make him great.

Will Beall: I feel like if -- Dave and I were talking about this before he came, but I feel like, I think Geoff knows this, but obviously, the stuff you've done for the [Green Lanterns] is incredible, right? You opened that world up. But I actually do feel like your Aquaman is maybe, to date, your greatest contribution to the canon. I mean, I think all of this really flows from that book.

Geoff Johns: Thanks, Will.

Screen Rant: Not withstanding what you guys actually have in development for a sequel, what sense of sort of relief, or gratification, do you have that you were able to bring so much mythology to this film? To get sort of the introduction, the world building out of the way, so that maybe you can tell different stories. Be they, other ones from the comic books or just original stories in the film. As opposed to having to go, “Well, we have to explain this. We have to explain the Brine King, we have to explain all these others...” We can just go, you know, and sort of take off.

Geoff Johns: Well that's great that James had that appetite and obviously the talent to be able to do it. Right? Because visually, this movie’s insane. You can't stop. And the way he envisioned the Trench, the Brine, and all these other kingdoms, and Aquaman, and Atlantis itself. It's great that I think everyone worked together to create a story that was a film that was beautiful and established it at all. But a story that was simple and direct and ultimately, yeah, you built the foundation and now it can go so many different directions. So, a lot of gratification for it, for it to happen, but it's really James’s appetite that allowed it to happen.

Will Beall: Yeah. I feel like this is sort of the movie he was he was born to do.

Geoff Johns: He could have done anything too. Just like— By the way, you’d write an awesome Batman movie, just for the record. Because that's totally your tone. But, James, he got to pick anything and he picked-- I mean I was there. He said, “I want Aquaman.” I said, “Cool. Like, finally somebody else likes this character.”

Will Beall: I don’t know if I’ve told you this. I still remember sitting in the conference room next to your office with you two guys. And James, and they're taking me through, James is taking, I mean you've had this experience, but like talking through scenes. And I've never experienced this where he actually acts them out. Right? And I mean that guy, he's a little dude and he runs on like, I don't know. He's speaking of like fusion…

David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick: Mountain Dew Fusion

Will Beall: I still remember, he stands up and he's got the trident. And he’s like, “The energy comes out at the bottom, you see.” And I was like, “Okay, okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I got it, I got it.” And then you see it in the movie and like, “Oh, yeah.”

Geoff Johns: The big moments he had—

Will Beall: He had them. He actually hurled himself across the conference room when the imaginary krakens…

Geoff Johns: Yeah, yeah.

More: Ludi Lin Interview for Aquaman

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