Ask David Oyelowo why he chose to make his directorial debut with The Water Man, his answer is simple: “I have four kids and I love watching movies with them, the like of which I grew up enjoying. Those films had adventure and escapism, but they also had a depth and a meaning to them,” he says going on to cite childhood favourites like The Goonies, Stand By Me and E.T.
When Emma Needell’s script for The Water Man landed on the famed Hollywood “Black List”, he pursued it voraciously. “It was just the kind of film I wanted to see in the world,” recalls Oyelowo who promptly persuaded Oprah Winfrey and various other partners to come on board as co-producers.
Having already found a director and secured the film’s young star Lonnie Chavis (This is Us), The Water Man had a start date when the director abruptly exited.
“By then we had the money, we had a start date and we had our star. Anyone who makes movies knows, when you have those things you go – no matter what,” Oyelowo tells FilmInk after the film’s premiere at Toronto International Film Festival.
Scrambling to find a replacement director, when it was suggested Oyelowo should do it himself, he admits that he was filled with “fright and fear” but after two weeks of consideration, he took the plunge.
With the cast already assembled, including Alfred Molina and Maria Bello, nobody had any doubt that Oyelowo was up to the job of both starring and directing.
“David is one of the kindest individuals I’ve ever met in my life and I can’t imagine this not having him directing,” says Rosario Dawson who portrays Oyelowo’s screen wife. “His vision was very clear, so it’s not surprising to see that translated so beautifully to the screen.
“There is just something very real and grounded in this film, even though it’s a fantasy adventure story. It also mirrored a lot of the adventures that I’ve been going on with my own family. It just seemed really smart and powerful.”
Chavis takes centre stage in this story about a boy named Gunner, who sets out on a quest to save his sick mother by searching for a mythical figure, The Water Man, who knows the secret to immortality. “I feel like anybody can relate to Gunner because if someone you loved was sick, of course you would do anything for them,” says the young actor. “So, Gunner goes on a whole big adventure to save his mom and find the Water Man.
“David was so soft-spoken and always made me feel comfortable and handled every situation so eloquently,” says Chavis, admitting how he had many anxieties throughout the movie, including a fear of the dark and heights. “But Mr David talked me through it all and stopped me from being stressed.”
Coincidentally, as the US West suffers the worst wildfires in history, part of The Water Man’s story involves a forest fire; the film shot on location in the small town of Estacada, Oregon, presently under siege from wildfires.
“This place was so beautiful and it’s just so unfortunate that it’s really struggling with fires at the moment, really heartbreaking,” says Oyelowo whose notable film roles include Selma, Interstellar, The Butler, The Last King of Scotland and A United Kingdom.
“I was looking for terrain that would not have to have magic projected onto it, because it was already so magical – and Estacada is all of that.”
Oyelowo’s own real life family were also involved in supporting him throughout the filmmaking process; his wife Jessica portraying the librarian as well as writing a lullaby performed by Dawson in the movie. Furthermore, Oyelowo’s eldest son and wife both wrote and performed the final credit song.
“It was very much a family affair,” he says, admitting how it added to his anxiety in showing his family the final cut.
“I was so nervous to show it to my family because I made it for them. I have three sons, so I know what it is to have a loving relationship with your children, but also to have these periods you’re trying to navigate as they grow and you’re trying to guide them and sometimes getting it wrong, which is something that plays out in this film.”
A Hollywood heavy-hitter, Molina enjoyed the opportunity of working with a young cast. “As I’m getting older I’m finding part of the fun of carrying on working, is working with young actors – particularly young actors who are generationally separate – they come with a kind of energy that I think my generation didn’t quite have or at least didn’t know how to harness. I spent two or three days with Lonnie, and he was just marvelous, with such focus and commitment and energy.
“I think the movie has a depth to it and a sense of story-telling that comes both from Emma’s story but also from David’s experience as an actor,” he says.
If Needell’s script was very much a personal story, then Oyelowo persuaded her to allow him to change the character of Gunner’s friend from male to female, casting Amiah Miller as his female cohort.
“I wanted to change that because I also have a daughter and I want her to be represented in everything and anything that I do, especially when it comes to children.
“I want her to see that she can lead a boy through the forest and be vulnerable as well. She can have an arc of transformation, she doesn’t need to be an addendum or an appendage; but she can be someone who is front and centre I want that represented in the work,” says Oyelowo who starred opposite Lupita Nyong’o in Queen of Katwe.
“I made Queen of Katwe for my daughter specifically, and this one I made for my sons.”
Thankfully, the entire family approved of The Water Man: “But, oh my lord, I was so nervous. They hugged and kissed me and were so proud of me so, for me, my work was done; the fact that this was their reaction. What a relief.”
Enlisting Matthew J Lloyd as The Water Man’s cinematographer, he brought with him experience from his work on big budget Marvel films, including Thor: Ragnarok and Captain Marvel. “So many people became involved in this film because of the script but also because of their personal experiences too,” explains Oyelowo.
“My editor Blu [Murray], cinematographer Matt (Lloyd) and myself all had challenges with our mothers, who have now passed away and we had watched them go through illness. That was the point of connection for us.”
Ultimately, he says, “I made this film for my 12-year-old self. And I made it for those kids who don’t get to see themselves represented in this kind of story. It’s very rare to see a black family at the centre of this kind of story.
“But I’m not just making it for black and brown people. I’m hoping that white people will watch it and see themselves represented in it, because I do believe that seeing ourselves in different kinds of people is what engenders empathy and erodes ignorance and makes us feel more connected. And, at this moment of so much divisiveness, anything one can out put into the world that makes us feel connected, I want to be a part of that.”
Despite its heavy themes – told through a family-friendly magical fantasy frame – Oyelowo hopes the movie also serves as an expression of hope for any child dealing with some of life’s tougher issues.
Dawson underlines those lofty goals, saying, “I can see myself watching this film with my daughter and it being that family film where both adult and child can love and cherish it.”