Director's Chair: David Oyelowo — <I>The Water Man</I>
Issue: March/April 2021

Director's Chair: David Oyelowo — The Water Man

British actor David Oyelowo is one of Hollywood’s most sought-after talents, thanks to his starring roles in such films as Ava DuVernay’s Selma, which earned him a Golden Globe Award nomination for his powerful portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

Now the actor is making his feature directorial debut with The Water Man in which he also stars alongside Rosario Dawson, Alfred Molina, Maria Bello and Lonnie Chavis. A family-friendly fantasy-adventure, the film tells the story of a young boy, Gunner (Chavez), who sets out on a quest to save his ill mother (Dawson) by searching for a mythic figure who knows the secret to immortality. Gunner enlists the help of a mysterious local girl who has her own terrifying tale of meeting this figure, known as the Water Man, face-to-face. Together they journey into the remote Wild Horse forest, but the deeper they venture, the stranger and more dangerous the forest becomes. Back home, Gunner's father, Amos (Oyelowo), who has grown distant from Gunner over the years, will stop at nothing to find his son — and in the process discovers who his son really is.

Here, in an exclusive interview for Post, I spoke with Oyelowo, whose diverse credits include The Help, Les Misérables, Jack Reacher and the new releases Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway and Chaos Walking, about the challenges of making and posting the film, which he also co-produced with EP Oprah Winfrey. 

What sort of film did you set out to make?

"A family adventure film with meaning, like the kind of film I loved growing up — especially anything with the Amblin logo. I knew I'd be excited and go on a journey, but I knew they'd also be thought-provoking, like E.T., where it's also dealing with the challenges of a single-parent family. Those films were my inspiration."  

Actors-turned-directors like George Clooney, Mel Gibson and Clint Eastwood often direct themselves, but they've all told me, "It's never easy." How tough was it?

"It is hard, but to be honest, the run-up and prep was tougher than the actual doing of it. As an actor, you know how all-consuming it is to play a role, and I love to really immerse myself, so you don't pay that much attention to every little thing going on around you — and nothing like you do as a director. So that was nerve-wracking, knowing I'd be on screen while a lot of my attention had been focused elsewhere, and that maybe 'me plus acting plus directing' would equal bad actor. So for the first two weeks on set, I had my wife there, as she has a very sensitive BS detector, and she could let me know if my performance was going off the rails. And it was really exhilarating to be involved in every part of the process as the director."

Where did you shoot, and how tough was the shoot?

"We scouted all over the US, but in the end, shot it all over Oregon. The film wasn't set there, but we found this amazing forest — the Lewis & Clark park — which was so magical just naturally, I just couldn't shake it. Stand By Me was shot there, which is another childhood favorite for me, and I loved the idea of also shooting in the same location. The shoot was a tight 30 days, and prep was even tighter — just five or six weeks when ideally you want a couple of months for something this size. But it helped that we did a pre-prep scout of the area for a week, then hit the ground running."

Talk about the look you and your DP Matthew Lloyd went for. 

"We shot with the Alexa Mini, mainly because we were in all sorts of crazy terrain and he wanted a camera that was quite nimble. As for the look, we wanted it to look epic and intimate at the same time, so we shot with anamorphic lenses with selective focus, so we could isolate the characters but still enjoy the beauty of the forest at the same time."

Tell us about post. Was it remote because of COVID? 

"For the most part, yes, and it was a nightmare doing stuff like ADR with the actors and masks. Everyone was super-paranoid and would leave the room, and I never even met my colorist — Sean Coleman at Company 3. He and the DP had worked together before, so for this they'd work their magic and then send the files to me. I was just on my laptop or using my TV screen at home, so the quality wasn't the same, but no one wanted us to all be in the same room, so it was the only way, but far from ideal."

Actors spend a lot of time with directors on set, so the move to directing is a trip into fairly familiar territory, but post is a very different process. Was it a steep learning curve?

"You're right and it was, but my approach was very simple. I'm the novice, so I made sure to have really experienced people around me in every department — the DP, sound, VFX, the DI. And I talked to a lot of directors — Ava, Clooney, Mel Gibson — and got great advice: Know your vision, make sure you articulate it well, then get out of the way. And that's what I did with post, and I loved the whole process and working with Pixomondo on all the VFX in particular. 

“This probably hints at my God complex, but it's so amazing when you can say, 'Build me this,' and they do it — only better than you'd imagined. And we did some previs and post-vis, so I learned a lot there. And then supervising sound editor John Marquis and his team at E2 building the sound — all the layering that suddenly brings a scene to life — and all the artists that help make it all more emotional and fantastical. So I loved every aspect and moment of post, and as they say, it's where you actually make the film." 

Blu Murray, who's cut a lot of Clint Eastwood's films, including Sully, cut this.  How did you work together, and what were the main editing challenges?

"We edited on Avids [provided by Digital Vortechs] at my home here in LA for a few months, before COVID hit. Then I edited remotely from London with Blu while I was there shooting George Clooney's Midnight Sky, so we were used to doing it that way before we even had to, which helped. The big challenges are finding the right tone — and keeping it consistent — the pacing and all the timing. I imagine every director goes through this — the first cut comes in at two-and-a-half hours, and you simply don't know what to cut. Yes, I signed a contract for a 90-minute film, but I'm sorry, and if Spike Lee and Tarantino can do it, then I can too! (Laughs). Then reality sets it, and the film also starts talking to you and telling you what needs to stay and what needs to go. And that was a big challenge, when friends tell you that you have to cut things you love. That was the most painful part of the editing process."

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you? 

"They're so important to me in a film like this, and I was so lucky to meet my composer Peter Baert over in Belgium when I was doing a project there. Later, when I was doing this, he wrote me and ended up sending me eight tracks that I just couldn't shake — even though we already had another composer. And when I cut Peter's music is as an experiment, it all just worked perfectly. Within a week, he flew over, sat next to me in the edit, and that's how he became my composer. He'd never done an English-speaking film before, and he totally nailed the tone. We recorded and mixed at Galaxy, and did all the sound design and mixing at Sony and re-recording at Deluxe Hollywood."

There are quite a few VFX. How steep was the learning curve for you and what was entailed?

"It was very steep, but I really loved working on all of it. I did Jack Reacher with Tom Cruise, and that had tons of VFX, so I talked to Tom about how to approach it all, and he told me that they build all the Mission Impossible films around four or five big set action pieces, as that's how you make a big action film, and I never forgot that. So when we developed this, his words kept ringing in my ears, and we added some set pieces that weren't in the original script, such as the horses, all the bugs and the river crossing sequence. 

“I wanted to really give audiences that big adventure element - but I didn't realize just how much was involved in creating all that, and I don't think the financiers realized either. There were way more VFX shots than I ever anticipated, but Pixomondo and their VFX supervisor Matthew Welford did an amazing job and made me look very clever."

Of course, not being content with taking all that on for your debut, you also had to deal with the animation.

(Laughs) "Yes, but that was all born out of necessity. The story of The Water Man, as told by Alfred Molina, was originally written as live action, so that meant we'd have to find or create this 19th century town, and we just didn't have the budget. But as the character's obsessed with graphic novels, it just made sense to animate it instead, and Chel White and Bent Image Lab in Portland created the sequences, and people love it.”

Did it turn out the way you first envisioned it?

"It turned out differently from what was on the page, and a lot of stuff got cut and moved around, but the spirit of it is exactly what I had in my head, and that's pretty amazing for a first time director I feel."

Do you want to direct again?

"Absolutely, and a big part of that has to do with post, as I feel that due to the pandemic I was robbed of a lot of what post should be. I literally sat alone in my office with the sound mix being sent to me, and having to give notes on it, and the same with the ADR and VFX and the DI. It was all remote, and I really missed being on a soundstage with the crew and having the joy of seeing it all in realtime on a big screen. So I can't wait for the next time."