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A Very Elemental Film: David Oyelowo on The Water Man

David Oyelowo's first feature film as a director is "The Water Man," about an 11-year-old boy who tries to find a man he's heard has the secret of eternal life. In an interview, Oyelowo talked about creating a mix of magic and mystery, what he learned not to do from other directors, and switching a character's gender in order to cast an acclaimed actress he met at the Sundance Film Festival. 

You captured something very rare in films, that liminal moment when a child is just old enough to begin to understand more of what is going on but still young enough that there is a glow of magic in the world.

I'm so glad you picked up on that. I think it’s such a tender thing. It only exists for very finite amount of time but it is one of the most beautiful ways of typifying one of the things we lose as we get older, our imagination. And that is important it is as a coping mechanism when you're dealing with some of the trickier sides of life.

That was that was one of the reasons I came to actually direct this film. Originally, we had a different director. I was purely on the film as a producer and as an actor. I had been the one to pursue the script back in 2015, and we had our director and more importantly we got Lonnie Chavis, who plays Gunner. He was a huge part of bringing this film to fruition. We had Lonnie, we had our director, we had a start date, we had the finances to do it and then we lost our director to another project. Exactly for that reason you stated was why Emma Needell, the screenwriter, persuaded me to direct the film. I decided to jump in because I knew that in finding Lonnie we had found a needle in a haystack and that it was only for a finite time he would be able to play this role. He was actually 11 at the time and with exactly at that age between knowing just enough that you could understand him being able to comprehend what was going on with his mother in terms of her illness but just young enough that he would still believe in a myth like The Water Man enough to go on a quest to find him. I mean literally a year later Lonnie would be no longer believable in that role and that’s why I just felt, "Look, we have got this lightning in a bottle situation. Let's go for it." 

You really show us that magical perspective with the cinematography by Matthew J. Lloyd. The use of light and color, in particular. 

It's a very elemental film, in a sense. It has water in it. It has fire and it definitely has a lot of earth in that forest. There is a primal element to it. It's incredibly emotional. It's full of reality but it's also full of fantasy. When you have those primal very human elements all intersecting within the film, I think our job as storytellers is to continue to elicit feelings within the film. So we were very mindful of how we used our reds and our yellows. You'll see that very much around the character Rosario Dawson plays. The idea is that she is light. She is passion. She is hot. That’s why she’s wearing those reds and yellows earlier on in the film. That's why you see Lonnie in that yellow hoodie going through the forest because he has definitely gleaned some of that light that his mother emanates and that's what he's trying to hold on to as he goes into the forest and that's why we have these vibrant greens as you're going through the forest. And then in the third act we desaturate the film because hope is beginning to be slowly removed from the film as he gets further and further away from his mother. He is deeper towards the thing he had hoped for in but ultimately part of his journey is recognizing and realizing that the place to be is with his mother even despite the fact that she is ill. None of us are promised tomorrow and all you can do is seize the day and be around the ones you love. That’s the place to place the energy and so we really try to, not in an overt way, hopefully in a subtle way, we try to use the color palette in the film to elicit those feelings. 

This is your first film as a director, but as an actor you have worked with some of the greatest directors working today. What did you learn from them?

Oh my goodness. So much, not just the ones I've worked with but the ones whose movies I watched, starting with Steven Spielberg himself who directed a film that was a huge inspiration in me directing "The Water Man," which was "E.T". Christopher Nolan, Ava DuVernay, Anthony Minghella, Lee Daniels, they were all world-class filmmakers if you’re paying attention. If you’re being intentional about the fact that you want to treat folks like that as your film school, it is literally the best film school in the world. 

That is definitely what I’ve been doing with my career over the last few years. I knew I wanted to direct at some point and observing those directors has been a big preoccupation of mine. And to be perfectly frank, also gleaning from some of the not so good experiences is very formative as well because you want to know as much as you can about what to do but you certainly want to know what not to do.

The thing that some of the best in the world do is they surround themselves with truly brilliant artisans, whether it's cinematographer, costume, makeup, certainly actors and by doing that they make you look good. You empower them with your vision and then watch them take flight. What I've definitely experienced and sometimes it's to do with inexperience, sometimes it's to do with insecurities, sometimes it's to do with the personality of that director but to go into something as collaborative as film making and then to decide to micromanage everyone and tell everyone how to do every single minute detail of their job is literally how to kill a film dead in terms of having the optimal results. I've seen that as well and that is definitely not the way to do it. 

I saw Oprah Winfrey's name in the credits as executive producer. What did she contribute?

The lady who helped her run her film company, Carla Gardini, was definitely in the trenches with me all the way through this process. And Oprah has been a huge advocate of mine. A huge supporter of mine. A kind of mother figure to me, in all honesty. Her involvement in this film has largely been around being a cheerleader, an advisor, and an encourager really. She's also a brilliant student of humanity so when you show her a film that is supposed to be about humanity, about how people deal with loss and how children interact with parents and so many other thematic things along family lines, there are few people who are more expert in that than she is, especially as it attends to how an audience might receive those things and so she was really helpful in showing her early cuts of the film and getting notes from her as well. 

You got wonderfully warm and natural performances from the young actors in the movie.

I know the cliche is "don't work with children or animals." The animal part I totally get. The horses were not easy in the film. But I’ve had great success with kids. I’ve done films like "Don't Let Go" and "Queen of Katwe" that had kids in them. Sometimes, to be honest, I've learned more from children actors, even those who have never acted before, than they've learned from me under those circumstances. 

I was just really fortunate to find not just one but two needles in a haystack in terms of Lonnie and Amiah Miller. To have these actors can play kids convincingly; even though that sounds odd it’s a real thing because sometimes when you have very technically proficient children who have been in the business for a while they slightly lose some of that naivety and that wide-eyed quality of being a child because they’ve essentially had to be professional way earlier than most children would be. But Lonnie was 11 and Amiah was 13 and you totally believe them as those ages in the film. They also had the emotional intelligence to be able to deal with things that were more intense, to be able to sit in those emotions and still go on an adventure but still be believable despite some of the challenges. That's a very tough thing to find in not just one actor but two. 

You were also fortunate to get top talent for even the smaller adult roles in the film.

I like to think I know what good acting looks like and I really didn't want to compromise on that. Alfred Molina has just been a good friend for a long time. Its actually my fourth film with him and it’s not actually the first time I directed him. I directed him in a short film called "Big Guy" about 10 years ago but we also did Kenneth Branagh’s "As You Like It" and a film I produced called "Don't Let Go." Funnily enough I let Alfred know that I was going to direct a movie. He said to me over the phone, “Well if you have any need of a fat Italian to stand in the doorway, I’m the man.” I said, “Well, I don't have a fat Italian but I certainly have a quirky character that you might want to look at” and then he instantaneously jumped on board. 

Maria Bello I met at the Sundance Film Festival. I got chatting to her at the event and told her I was directing a movie. She instantaneously said, “I like the kind of stuff you put out in the world. I want to be in your movie.” I said, “Well, I don’t really have a role for you.” She said, “Look, I want to be in your movie. Find a good way for me to be in your movie.” So, I changed the role of the sheriff from a guy to a woman and that’s how Maria became to be in the movie. Rosario Dawson was just someone I’ve always just admired deeply as an actress and I knew I needed someone who can just be the heart of the movie. The light in the movie and I just feel like she just embodies that. Thankfully she read the script and wanted to come play. 

This is a great family film. What do you want them to talk about after they watch it?

That’s exactly what it’s designed to do, to get families to talk like those films I loved growing up. I remember "E.T." being the first time I saw a family dealing with suddenly becoming a single parent family. I remember watching "The Goonies" and those kids looking down the barrel of their community being decimated and having to lose their friends because they have to move away. I remember watching "Stand by Me" and these kids going off and hunting a dead body, for goodness sake. These are all things that as a kid watching it you kind of go, “Wow!” It’s opening your eyes to things that are not quote “childlike.” They are existential. They are more adult and the fact of the matter is especially coming out of this pandemic with all of us, let alone kids, having to deal with heavier things than we normally care to admit are with us though they just always are. So, what I really hope is that families will watch this film together. That they will be able to talk about the nature of loss, what their notions are of an afterlife are whether they believe in that or not, how far you’re prepared to go for those you love, the dysfunction between a father and son who are very different but trying to understand each other. 

What I set out to do was to make a film that had both magic and meaning and enough meaning to elicit a conversation between families. If that happens my work is very much done.

"The Water Man" will be playing in theaters on May 7.

Nell Minow

Nell Minow reviews movies and DVDs each week as The Movie Mom online and on radio stations across the US. She is the author of The Movie Mom's Guide to Family Movies and 101 Must-See Movie Moments.

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