Aquaman: 26 Things We Learned About DC's New Movie From Director James Wan
Aquaman spoilers ahead!
Aquaman's release date is inching closer. Critics have seen it, and you can read all about it in our Aquaman review. In addition, we chatted with two of the movie's stars to find out how much they know about fish. No, really. Check it out here, and find out what else we learned about Aquaman from director James Wan in this gallery.
It was exciting enough to get a brief glimpse of Aquaman at Comic-Con this year, so you can imagine how it felt when we got an invitation to join director James Wan in the edit bay on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, California recently. During the post production process, Wan--most famous for horror movies like The Conjuring, Saw, and Insidious--worked hard to make Aquaman the best movie he possibly could, as puzzle pieces like visual effects, music, and more fell into place.
It was during that process that we got to sit down and chat with Wan--and view some of the more finished scenes in the movie. Those scenes included the movie's opening, an extended fight scene between Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and King Orm (Patrick Wilson), and more. If you don't want to know anything about Aquaman's plot, stop reading now!
Based on the footage we saw, it's safe to say Aquaman's first act will focus on Queen Atlanta (Nicole Kidman) and Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison). Their romance will set the stage for the rest of the movie, from Aquaman and Mera's (Amber Heard) own relationship to the hero's deep seated feeling that he doesn't belong in either world, under the sea or on land. The movie won't skimp on action, either--there's an intense fight scene in which Nicole Kidman shows what Queen Atlanta is capable of as she defends Thomas and the young Arthur from Atlantean soldiers.
Later in the movie, Arthur will head down to Atlantis to claim what he sees as his birthright: the throne. That involves a ritualistic duel with King Orm (Patrick Wilson)--a battle to the death in a gigantic underwater arena with what seems like all of Atlanta looking on (we've caught glimpses of this scene in the trailer). The fight shows off some impressive underwater choreography, but it's not all serious--there's even an octopus drummer, which borders on Flintstones levels of camp, but somehow seems to work.
In between scenes, we got the opportunity to ask Wan whatever we wanted about the actors, the story, and the many challenges of adapting Aquaman to the big screen. Click ahead to read what he had to say on a variety of topics, from including Aquaman's classic orange and green costume to the movie's comparatively light tone.
Aquaman hits theaters December 14.
1. Adapting the classic Aquaman costume
"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. For us the key was kind of like 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 potentially wink at the classic old costume but kind of bringing a modern sensibility to it."
2. Giving Aquaman a sense of humor, rather than making him the butt of the joke
"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 this 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 you know, just digging into Jason and getting that out of him was very important. And his personality plays really strongly throughout this whole film, you know. I really wanted to lean into who he is and make this character kind of synonymous to him."
3. Leaning into the kookiness of a guy who talks to fish
"A lot of the humor definitely comes from what [Jason Momoa] is 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've gotta lean into the kookiness of it all, right? A guy who talks to fish, that's his power--and just kind of embrace that. And just don't be embarrassed of it."
4. Establishing Atlantis
"I definitely got to create a massive world [with Atlantis]....the different kingdoms, the different worlds, the machines that drive the world, their [transportation], 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."
5. Mixing wonder and horror
"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 kind of 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, and I really wanted to touch on those two worlds in my world creation."
7. The opening scenes
"It's the story of how mom and dad meet each other. It's Nicole Kidman and Temuera Morrison, and I think it's important because as much as the movie is a sort of romantic love story between Arthur and Mera, it's also very much a love story between mom and dad and how their love for each other created Arthur Curry. And I think that's important because the emotion of this opening prologue basically sets up the emotional backbone for the rest of the movie and how it informs Arthur's journey."
8. Nicole Kidman playing the queen of Atlantis
"Nicole and I have been wanting to work together for a while now, and 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 than 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. And she's fantastic, you know, she's such a great actress, and the gravitas and emotion she brings to the film is just so valuable."
9. Nicole Kidman kicking ass
"I've always wanted to see Nicole in a kick ass role as well, just beating everyone up. She really enjoyed all that stuff, and you know, that sequence with her [in the first act] was a really hard sequence to shoot because it's a one take shot, the character jumping, flipping, and all that, and the way we did it was we removed the ceiling of the set, and we had a spider cam on wires zip all over the set, from one character to another, and the character goes around beating up all the soldiers. It was very technically challenging to try to get all that done, but I just thought it was a great way to show how strong her character is, but without sort of cutting it up. And it was actually a really fun thing to shoot. It took two days to shoot that shot, many takes."
10. Shooting the action
"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 a really detailed action moment play out in one shot without editing, and letting the audience just sort of soak it all in, examine all the little details, all the nuances in the moment, and--just as important--just basically showing the lay of the land, literally the geography of the land, and giving the audience an understanding of where they are as the action plays out. And 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; therefore I can do more interesting things with the camera work and all that, because they always know where they are."
11. How important Queen Atlanta is to Arthur's story
"She is 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 sort of his bitter outlook on the world of Atlantis. He blames them for something that happens to her, and it shapes his point of view."
12. Introducing Atlanta to fans who aren't familiar with the character
"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--she's the queen of Atlantis, and he's a lighthouse keeper, a surface dweller--but 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 took a lot of inspiration from the New 52, but the mother character was always super integral to the story I wanted to tell because like I said, she's who helped shape the father character and the story."
13. Focusing on the romance
"Atlanta tells Tom that '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."
14. Jason Momoa being a biracial actor and the relevance to the character
"I think we do touch on it pretty strongly, without necessarily being too on the nose, so to speak. I think it's very evident that it's almost like a forbidden love, so to speak, and it really is definitely 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 fits 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--part Hawaiian--and part white American as well, so 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 I'm aware of, the importance of that, and I definitely felt like I lean into that and I think 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."
15. Why Arthur goes to Atlantis
"As you guys have seen in the trailer, we know the brother [Orm] 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--basically this ancient sort of ritualistic combat. It's an ancient practice, but the brother is basically saying, '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.'"
16. Crafting the underwater scenes
"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."
17. Was anything shot under actual water?
"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 Altanteans, 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."
18. Atlantean water vomit
"Just from a practical standpoint, people have asked me, 'When they talk, do bubbles come out of their mouths?' And I'm like, 'No, because there's no air in your lungs, there wouldn't be any bubbles, right?' So then, in that sequence, where you saw Mera open up this air pocket to suck Orm away from Arthur to help him out, when he lands in it, the first thing he does is he pukes out all the water that's in his lungs. That's the first step. We were thinking about all these little details, and then when he's screaming, we want bubbles coming out of his mouth, because now there's actually air in his lungs."
19. Atlantean caste system
"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."
20. The music
"The scoring is one of the things 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 still a work in progress. And constantly, you know, when we change our edits and tweak stuff, whatever the score is before, [the composer] 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 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."
21. The movie's environmental message
"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, and it just felt like it's something that I think just give 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 we can all kind of relate to...I think that's one of the cool things, is how Atlanteans actually have a lot of respect for the planet, and definitely 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."
22. Making the villain relatable
"In a lot of ways you kind of sympathize with what the bad guy is doing, and how he is sick and tired with the crap and the disrespect we have for the planet...I think it's important [to make the villain relatable], 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."
23. Creating the tribes of Atlantis
"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 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 kind of then informed 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."
24. A lighter tone than previous DCEU movies
"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've gotta lean into that. You've gotta play into that. You've 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. And so I think 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. And definitely 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."
25. How much freedom do you have with a movie that has so much preceding it?
"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 7 and Conjuring 2, I didn't want to be a director for hire. After Furious 7 that's kind of who I was to some degree, but after that, I don't want to be that guy again. And 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. And so it was important for me to kind of obviously pay respect to where he was left off in [Justice League], but then allow me the freedom to take him 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."
26. Aquaman flying solo
"The good thing about not necessarily involving the other characters [from Justice League] 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. What I'm doing is very circular to the world of Aquaman."