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Exclusive interview: Aquaman director James Wan on his tongue-in-cheek movie

James Wan behind the scenes during the filming of Aquaman. Pic credit: Warner Bros.

Three of the movies James Wan directed became franchises: Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring. That’s already an impressive track record, and then he directed the biggest Fast and the Furious movie ever, Furious 7. Aquaman is his latest film.

Even though Aquaman was already part of the DC Comics franchise, and the fake movie Vincent Chase starred in on Entourage, Wan is starting the Aquaman franchise proper. Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) was in Justice League and had a cameo in Batman v Superman, but this is his movie.

Mera (Amber Heard) comes to find Arthur on land because Atlantis needs him to return home to take the throne. His half brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) wants to start a war with the surface.

Wan spoke with Monster and Critics about his undersea blockbuster. Aquaman opens Friday, December 21.

James Wan directs Jason Momoa, Amber Heard and Willem Dafoe

M&C: On Furious Seven you said it was fun to play in someone else’s sandbox. Was Aquaman a similar situation finding the James Wan moments in DC’s sandbox?

JW: I actually think that I went in there and I created my own sandbox. Even though it’s part of the DC universe, I pretty much went in there and created the Aquaman universe.

I felt like so much of this movie is its own story, its own world. The characters go on this journey, this path. The path that they go on doesn’t really tie in with the bigger DC universe.

In that respect it was very freeing for me to just make the movie I wanted to make.

M&C: Is that how you got the job? Did you present that world building?

JW: Yes and no, in that I think I got the job because I’ve proven myself with the Conjuring films. I sold them on my vision when I came in, I did a big presentation for them about the movie, the story, the characters, the way they look, the world the characters inhabit.

Part of James Wan’s undersea world.

I showed artwork and potential to build props. It’s pretty much the movie that I pitched. The final movie I delivered is the movie that I pitched.

M&C: Was it ever in flux as they retooled Justice League and revised their slate?

JW: No, the movie I pitched was the movie I made.

M&C: Was it Jason Momoa injecting some environmental messages into the dialogue?

JW: Yes, Jason obviously is a big proponent of that sort of thing but for myself and my writers, yeah, I wanted this movie to have an environmental message. I don’t think you can do an Aquaman movie and not touch on the environmental message of it all.

Jason Momoa is Aquaman, defender of the sea

In the comic book, he’s constantly fighting against poachers and whalers and polluters. Growing up in Australia, where it’s drilled into us from a very young age to respect our land, to respect our ocean and our environment, that was actually very important for myself.

M&C: I’m still a huge fan of Death Sentence. Was there any similar approach to the action in Aquaman?

JW: Death Sentence was where I started experimenting with longer takes for my action shots. I definitely did a few of those in this film.

Sometimes they come up on dry land to blow stuff up.

M&C: But Death Sentence was more realistic because those were human beings. Even more than on Furious 7, could you do different choreography with characters who have super powers?

JW: It’s kind of funny. We always joked that The Fast and the Furious films are actually superheroes as well. They can’t die. They do these really outrageous things and they are like superheroes, just without capes.

Yes, obviously playing with characters that are metahumans or superhumans in some ways meant that I had to kind of rethink how I would do my action scenes. Obviously they won’t be necessarily as grounded.

They are people larger than life so I’m always trying to find new ways to show you things that you might have seen before. For example, you’ve seen two people fight before but you haven’t seen two people fight underwater.

Jason Momoa vs. Patrick Wilson

It’s about trying to find the right look for that, the right cool choreography for the underwater duel. Then when we move our action to the surface, how can I shoot this in an interesting way that we haven’t quite seen before?

I’m a fan of tying my action scenes together. So if I have characters doing separate different things that are happening at the same time, I like the camera to tie them all up together.

M&C: Is Arthur, or maybe this is Jason too, rolling his eyes at the genre trappings along the way?

JW: For all of us, there are moments in this movie that we obviously made with our tongues firmly planted in our cheeks. You’ve got to smile and laugh at the larger than life nature of these kinds of films and not take it too seriously.

Not pictured: Jason Momoa’s wink

M&C: Why did you want to use songs like Africa and She’s A Mystery?

JW: I thought it spoke very well to that sequence. I actually want to talk about the song that Skylar Grey wrote for us for the ending. I’m such a big fan of hers.

She wrote a really beautiful piece for myself on Furious Seven. Ever since then I’ve been such a big fan of hers and I wanted her to write the love song, the love theme for this film.

I think it’s a beautiful piece that we use that song and peppered it throughout the movie. You hear hints of it throughout the film. It’s Mera and Arthur’s sort of love theme that you hear throughout the film in instrumental and at the end of the movie you hear the song version.

Dolph Lundgren as King Nereus

M&C: Was casting Dolph Lundgren like the way you fancasted Shawnee Smith on Saw?

JW: I fancast all my movies to some degree. Nicole Kidman was a fan casting. Patrick Wilson as well. I’m a fan of all my actors that I work with.

M&C: But I’m sure no one would object when you landed Nicole Kidman. Dolph Lundgren may have been someone you would have to champion.

JW: I did champion Dolph but fortunately I didn’t get any knockback so that was good. This was before Creed as well. If it was after Creed it would have probably been easier.

No, I’ve always been a big fan of Dolph and I’ve always felt that he’s a really strong actor. I think back to movies like Johnny Mnemonic. I don’t really remmeber most of that movie but I remember Dolph’s character and I remember Dolph playing it and being very charismatic.

So when it came time to cast the more elder statesman king character, Dolph was perfect for me because you would buy that at one stage in time he was this great warrior king in his heydays.

M&C: Did you inherit the de-aging technology from other movies that used that?

JW: I imagine all visual effects houses, whatever they learn from one film, they parlay that into the next film. I inherited special effects, visual effects all the way back to Willis O’Brien.

Some of the visual effects of Aquaman

Through history all these effects have been gathered together and get passed along to the next project, the next project.

M&C: You already had clout from creating three franchises. Are there new doors that Aquaman can open for you?

JW: You know what? That’s up to the fans to decide. The cool thing about creating such a big and vivid world is I’m sure those different worlds have their own stories, right?

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