Aquaman: Our Interview with Director James Wan

Warning: SPOILERS for Aquaman

When James Wan was offered the choice of bringing Aquaman or The Flash to the big screen, he chose the aquatic hero as the greater challenge. And boy, has that ambition paid off, as Aquaman is now on pace for a $1 billion box office haul. With Jason Momoa and mindblowing underwater spectacle to satisfy fans, the DCEU had its biggest crowd-pleaser yet.

Screen Rant had the chance to interview Aquaman director James Wan ahead of the film's release, to learn about the inspirations, influences, and pressure in even making the movie a reality. Now that audiences around the world have gotten to see the movie for themselves, it's time to ask the director about some of the most memorable visuals and character moments. And yes, that Pitbull-laden Aquaman soundtrack.

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One sequence that is going to stand out most for audiences is Arthur and Mera's introduction to the Trench. A lot of people will look at that and say 'James Wan does horror, so there's his horror.' But what was the real motivation and thinking behind giving the Trench that particular treatment?

I really wanted the hero to see the different kingdoms that eventually he'll be king of, right? So he needs to see his subjects, and he needs to see that there are all kind of races of people down there. And one of the races are the Trench people. Going into it I knew that I wanted Atlantis to be very vibrant, to be very sort of magical and wondrous, and all that. But I also wanted to portray, or rather to capture the tone and feel of the ocean to me. The ocean is big and magical and all of that, but also we’re terrified of the ocean as well. I felt that moment allows me to lean back into my horror roots to do something like that. But ultimately it allows me to really showcase one of my signature shot designs of the film which is a cross-section of the ocean. And you get to see what’s above the surface and what’s below the surface.

That was one of the first images I came up with during pre-production, which is Arthur and Mera swimming down, with a cross-section of the ocean, it’s a big wide shot, and we just see them swarmed, surrounded by the Trench creatures. And the only thing that’s holding them back is this flare, the bubble, within the safety of the flare light. So I just thought from a visual standpoint it was something that was very captivating.

You've talked a lot about Romancing the Stone and Raiders of the Lost Ark, for the adventure side of things. But what were you inspired by in some of the more fantastical aspects of the film?

I would say that my biggest influence, more than anything, more than any films per se, is actually just the comic books. I have seventy years worth of source material to be pulling from, so I pulled a lot of that over-the-top nature, the very stylized world, the creatures, and all of this from the comic book. But obviously doing it through my own sensibility and designing looks that I wanted to design that we haven’t quite seen before, and get it out there. Then I have to pick, obviously, you know the big names aside like your Star Wars, your Lord of the Rings, your Romancing the Stone out of the way. The other sort of influence on me was classic Ray Harryhausen. There were shades of Journey to the Center of the Earth… Jason and the Argonauts, that kind of stuff that I loved growing up as a kid. This movie really lends itself to a lot of that aesthetic.

Going from big scale to a scene the size of a wine cellar. The moment that ends the chase sequence in the middle of the film with Mera unleashing her power. It's an unforgettable moment, so where did that idea come from?

Yeah that was just something I cooked up, I felt like it’s a chase sequence through the rooftops of Italy but I knew I wanted to get to a point where we got to showcase Mera’s powers. To have her back be literally up against a wall, but it just so happens that the wall she is up against is bottles and bottles of liquid that she can harness and use to her advantage. I thought that’s the kind of stuff that would make for an iconic image, and be a really nice way to finish her part of the action scene in that world.

RELATED: All of The Songs Used in The Aquaman Soundtrack

I also have to ask: the score for the film is breathtaking and helps shape the different worlds along Arthur's journey, but you also use licensed music with lyrics, which we never see in these superhero movies anymore. Were you aware of that, or were you picking those songs because you would pick them for any other movie?

Ummm... Listen [Laughs] maybe it’s my time on Fast & Furious 7 that made me not afraid to put like a hip hop song in there, or a beautiful Skylar Grey track in there, or Depeche Mode. That’s just my sensibility I guess. One of my favorite uses of existing music is the Roy Orbison track for when they’re having that sweet, nice, romantic moment through the Italian market and she’s sort of getting used to the surface world. I loved that piece of music and--can I tell you, a big part of my inspiration, or my influence, was old school Jerry Bruckheimer.

I really wanted songs in there, and then we wrote songs specifically for the film. Pitbull wrote his track for the film, and Skylar Grey wrote the ending, and the love song theme that we use throughout the movie. Skylar wrote that beautiful song, and then we use that and pepper it throughout the whole film as like the love theme for Mera and Arthur throughout the film. Kind of like what [James] Cameron did with Titanic, right? You know you have Celine Dion singing the song, but then you hear that theme played throughout the whole film.

Well thank you for comparing Aquaman to Titanic for more than just James Cameron.


That is the most meta-Entourage/Aquaman joke we're ever going to see.

The other thing I want to talk about in terms of music is Rupert did such a beautiful score. I worked very closely with him and one of the things I really wanted to capture, I told him early on, I really want it to feel romantic, very classical, but then when we go to Atlantis I want it to feel modern and electronica. But modern not of today’s world, but what we felt modern was in the ‘80s. And so lots of my inspiration for music, I even temp-d sequences with Jean Michel Jarre in there, and Giorgio Moroder. That was my inspiration for the sound and tone of Atlantis.

When Patty Jenkins was talking about Wonder Woman, she spoke pointedly about people criticizing sincerity as "cheesy," or something these blockbuster movies were "too cool" for. Your movie seems to embrace that wholeheartedly, with an opening that plays closer to how Arthur's father might tell him the story. Was that a choice for this story, or would that have been there regardless, with you directing?

That would have been in there no matter what, just because that's who I am. I tell people, go all the way back and look at my horror film. Go look at The Conjuring, right? I'm not afraid to go romantic and sentimental with my characters, Ed and Lorraine have such a sentimental relationship. Especially for a movie like this, that is a classic story about a sailor who falls in love with a mermaid, everything about it has such a romantic, nautical theme to it, I felt like it was the right thing or us to do. And of course, Steven Spielberg is one of my idols, and he's one guy who is not afraid to be sentimental in his films. So I thought you know what, there's nothing wrong with that. And I don't care if people think it's cheesy or too sentimental. It is who I am, and that's the only way I know how to make my films: be true to myself.

You've now gotten the chance to see the movie with different crowds, is there a part of the film that you're pleased to see getting the reactions it does? Or any moments that remain the best for you?

Ummmm [Laughs], you know I’m always generally very anxious about watching my movies with a crowd, so I actually haven’t done it that much. But yeah, there are scenes - when I’m brave enough to watch and sit in there with a crowd - there are scenes that I love seeing peoples’ reactions. Especially to some of the action scenes, and of course Jason coming out the waterfall in the suit. That is a great moment to watch with an audience. And some of the more fun, light-hearted sequences. But the scenes I really love, and I love to watch with an audience, even though it’s a quieter, more muted moment, is watching the emotional stuff between mum and dad. I love the love story, the movie is more a love story of mum and dad than Arthur and Mera for me, that’s how I feel.

Stay tuned to Screen Rant for more interviews, news, and coverage of Aquaman and its cast.

MORE: Aquaman's Success Proves Snyder's DCEU Isn't Dead Yet

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