A few weeks ago, a select group of journalists shuffled into a darkened edit bay on the Warner Bros. lot to view new footage from their highly-anticipated comic book adaptation "Aquaman." There, we also chatted with director James Wan about the scenes shown and his larger vision for the movie. And, let me tell you, the footage made a splash. (Sorry not sorry.)
We were shown three sequences and the sizzle reel from San Diego Comic Con (but, we were promised, a more finished and polished version of that footage). The reel gave us a great sense of the movie's scope and what its influences are. There were moments that were heavily reminiscent of something like Indiana Jones or Steven Spielberg's "Adventures of Tintin," while other moments were more operatic and had the feeling of a Jules Verne romp.
The second scene was the beginning of the movie (the title card reads "Amnesty Bay, Maine, 1985"), which starts with a lyrical, almost fairly-tale vibe as it tells the story of an oceanic woman (Nicole Kidman) being rescued from the sea, and how she interacts with a lowly human fisherman (Tamuera Morrison). These two characters, of course, fall in love and end up producing Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) aka Aquaman. And this sequence was super charming (there's a great moment when Kidman encounters a dog for a first time) and goofy, and punctuated by a killer fight sequence where the camera booms up above the action and hangs there so you can see everything. (It's very James Wan.)
For the next sequence, we saw a huge fight scene between Arthur and Orm (Patrick Wilson), the ruler of Atlantis and the movie's heavy. It's basically a gladiatorial match happening on the side of an active volcano and it's super intense but also quite fanciful. (Aquaman's octopus pal, Topo, makes an appearance playing the drums, as octopuses often do.)
The scope and scale of everything was immense and even in unfinished form, my jaw was on the floor.
The final sequence they showcased can be glimpsed in both the trailer and in the Comic Con sizzle reel. It involves Arthur and Mera (Amber Heard) as they hunt for some lost Atlantis artifacts in the middle of the desert. This was meant to showcase their budding relationship and the bickering, back-and-forth way they talk to each other. It had some definite “National Treasure”-y vibes that audiences should enjoy.
Overall, the movie may share some narrative similarities with something like “Thor,” since it concerns an outcast returning to a magical kingdom to unseat an unworthy successor and reclaim the throne. But, visually, it’s very different. Wan seems to really embrace the pulpy, comic book nature of the property and fills it with all sorts of incredible vehicles, creatures, and settings.
What’s more, Wan chatted with us in between the showcased scenes, which was highly illuminating. Here are a few of the things we learned from those conversations.
1. Wan Didn’t Approach “Aquaman” as a Superhero Film
Wan said that “Even though it's a superhero character, my approach wasn't as a superhero film.” Instead, he says, “I wanted more of a fantasy approach.” This can be seen throughout.
2. Spielberg and Zemeckis Were Touchstones …
When it came to filmic reference points, Wan was very clear with where his inspiration came from. And, as it turns out, a lot of them were in the 1980s.
“I've pulled influences, all the way from [pioneering stop motion animator] Ray Harryhausen, to more traditional, earlier Spielberg stuff,” Wan explained. “I've mentioned a bit about my love for [Robert Zemeckis'] 'Romancing the Stone' and the way that those characters interact.” Wan then enthused: “It's a bit of a mixture. And the really cool thing is that this property allowed me to take a stab at a lot of different flavors and using the mythology of Aquaman to pull it all together.”
Watching the footage, it’s easy to spot these hallmarks, particularly the “Romancing the Stone” influence on the Arthur/Mera stuff.
3. … As Were Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis
The character of Aquaman has a rich comic book history, first appearing way back in 1941 (in “More Fun Comics” issues #73) and has taken on many permutations in the decades that followed. But Wan drew specifically from different eras for his own interpretation, creating a kind of mix-and-match approach to the undersea adventurer. Especially from the dynamic works of writer Geoff Johns and illustrator Ivan Reis.
“I'm a big fan of what Ivan did and what Ivan and Geoff did together,” Wan said. “And the umbrella spirit [of the] story were inspired by Geoff Johns' run in the New 52.” But that isn’t where Wan's influences started and stopped. The director continued: “I was very inspired by the Silver Age stuff. I felt that I'm not going to shy away from it and embrace it. I loved that retro quality that the original comic book had.” He even said that “Super Friends”-era Aquaman was partly an inspiration; it’s all going into the bouillabaisse.
4. Aquaman’s Underdog Status Drew Wan to the Character
Early on, James Wan described his “Aquaman” as “a retelling of a character that has somewhat become a joke over the years.” Making the movie posed a philosophical question: “How do I make him cooler and more relevant for today's world?”
It was a question that ultimately drove a lot of his decisions and took on its own metatextual quality when it came to the movie itself. “I really enjoyed the underdog nature of his character, the underdog quality of how we perceive this guy,” Wan explained. “To me, it's more special to do something unique with a character like that, instead of doing it with Batman, where you've seen many versions of him. The fact that I can come in and do something unique, and nobody has seen it on the big screen before, was really exciting to me.” That kind of unbridled excitement was very clear in the footage that we saw.
5. Choreographing Underwater Battles Was a Huge Pain in the Ass
Wan admitted that when he thought of underwater action sequences, his first thought was the underwater sequence from “Top Secret.” But he said that was the wrong approach.
“You're thinking like a surface dweller. That's not who we are,” Wan said. “So for them, they're way more powerful when they're underwater. We all thought that the characters should move like how they would move in a normal environment. They're supercharged in a lot of ways.” On the technical standpoint, this meant that they had to figure out a lot of logistics.
“There's a lot of planning. Working with the stunt people to design rigs that the actors can move in,” Wan explained. Not that anything was easy about the movie. “Nothing is straightforward in this movie. Not even two people talking. CGI hair, costumes, all of that,” Wan sighed (the end may be in sight, but December probably still feels like a long way away). “It's such a nightmare. It's such a difficult movie to make from a technical standpoint.” At least he’s honest!
6. There Are a Bunch of Really Long Shots
In the Comic Con Sizzle Reel, there’s a moment where Mera and Arthur are being chased by Black Manta and some of his goons and it’s accomplished in this one, whirligig, computer-assisted tracking shot that is totally amazing and awesome. This isn’t a surprise to fans of the director, who know that he’s been experimenting with expertly-done oners for as long as he’s been making movies. So I asked how long that shot was and if it’s the longest in the movie. Wan shot back coyly, “I will say this: that is only half of the oner. It's a much longer shot. And there are a bunch more.”
Not only is this exciting to hear from a film geek standpoint, but it’s also proof that Wan’s signature style has clearly not be diluted while working in the big budget Hollywood machine.
7. There Will Be Monsters
Considering this is a James Wan movie, and the filmmaker got his bonafides working in the horror genre, yes, there will be a bunch of monsters. Wan summed it up thusly: “The ocean is a really magical place, but it can also be scary as well.”
There are different underwater civilizations that we’ll visit in the movie, from more human-looking characters to folks like the “Brine Kingdom, where they're giant crustaceans.” Of course, “the other kingdom is the Trench and there are these monsters.” (You can see a little bit of them in the trailer.)
But what big screen monsters inspired Wan?
“I'm a big fan of Toho, giant kaiju movies growing up. I'm a big fan of Godzilla,” the filmmaker explained. “So definitely that, and just all of the magical and wonderful Ray Harryhausen creatures. I tried to bring a bit of that sensibility here.” At the very end of our chat, Wan said, “My favorite part is that I get to create this big, fantastical world, but instead of going to outer space or another dimension, it's taking place right here on earth. I think that's the coolest thing.”
And you know what? It’s hard to argue.
"Aquaman” swims into theaters December 21.
Once home to the most advanced civilization on Earth, the city of Atlantis is now an underwater kingdom ruled by the power-hungry King Orm. With a vast army at his disposal, Orm plans to conquer the remaining oceanic people -- and then the surface world. Standing in his way is Aquaman, Orm's half-human, half-Atlantean brother and true heir to the throne. With help from royal counselor Vulko, Aquaman must retrieve the legendary Trident of Atlan and embrace his destiny as protector of the deep. Read More