james wan interview

After the release of Aquaman (out December 21, 2018), director James Wan will no longer be just “that horror guy.” The Warner Bros. superhero film has a humorous and light-hearted tone that more often than not transforms into full-blown kitsch, anchored around an effortlessly charismatic performance from Jason Momoa. And with Wan at the helm, the film’s stunning visual ambition and grandeur turns Aquaman into one of the most unique DC films to date.

But this isn’t the first brush with funny for the Malaysian born-Australian film director, screenwriter and producer behind the massively successful Saw and Conjuring franchises. Wan tested the waters for humor with his work in the Fast and Furious franchise, swooping in to direct the critically acclaimed Furious 7. In fact, Wan credits his one-movie stint in the gonzo Fast and Furious series with helping him to shape Aquaman and perhaps inspire him to move beyond horror. Wan talks about all that and more in our interview below.

How did you decide on this more humorous tone, because as someone who’s frequently worked in horror, you haven’t been known for that type of style?

I actually think the tone is quite similar to Furious 7. From Furious 7 I actually learned how you can have fun but yet create sort of larger than life set pieces and just give people a good time. And ultimately you can be a little over the top or stylized but then realizing that the thing that makes people potentially like it is to kind of give it a grounded emotion. And finding emotion for the movie was a very important thing. Finding the right beating heart was very important for the film. And to me, the love story between mom and dad was an important one to start the film with.

And it feels like too that you centered the movie around a character who exemplifies that kind of goofy tone.

Well, that’s Jason Momoa. Yeah, that was something that, when I first met him, I was surprised at how charming, likable, and funny he can be. And he’s not shy about that. So I wanted to pull that personality of his onto the character onscreen. I wanted this character to be him, basically. And that way I could infuse the movie with more personality overall and not have it be one dimension. [Laughs] I kind of reference how similar his character is to John Carpenter and Kurt Russell did with Big Trouble in Little China. He’s very similar to Jack Burton in a lot of ways. Jack Burton’s character is a bit of an idiot, but he’s still this very cool hero at the same time. But he’s definitely somewhat of a bozo as well. And it’s kind of a fine line that you have to walk to not go too far into that sort of silly world, but have enough of it but still make it cool.

So aside from Big Trouble in Little China, people saw elements of Raiders of the Lost Ark, some Arthurian high fantasy as well — was there any other inspiration that you brought into this movie?

I would say that really the biggest inspiration is from the comic book. 70 years of source material to pull from, there’s so much flavor to it and a lot of story influences. From the Arthurian storyline, like you said which is very obvious — it’s a story about a guy called Arthur searching for his Excalibur — to the classic Shakespearean conflict that he has with his brother. All this came from decades and decades of comic book storyline. So that was my biggest inspiration. The other stuff, the classic Spielberg and Lucas stuff, that’s just stuff I grew up with. I’m just a product of the ‘80s [laughs]. I’m a child of the ‘80s and ’90s and that’s always in me, so when I get a chance to make a lighthearted action adventure movie, it’s hard for me and my brain to not go back to those movies that I grew up loving; from obviously Raiders, to Romancing the Stone, to Karate Kid.

Going back to Jason, obviously you came onto this project when Jason was already cast as Aquaman. But was the opportunity to portray one of the first major superheroes of color and half-Polynesian at that, did that play into your decision to take on this project?

Definitely. I was talking to Warner Bros. and DC about this, and when they pitched this idea to me, I thought it was a really interesting, out-of-the-box approach to it. And I feel like it was a really smart way to go about it, because what it does is — I mean, Jason himself has such a strong personality to him and that’s what this movie and this character needs, it needs someone to make a statement about this role. And what I love about Jason’s background of being biracial is that he’s the perfect guy for this character who literally is biracial, except for Aquaman his biracial-ness stems from being half-Atlantean and half-surface dweller. And I think that is something that Jason can relate to, and it’s something that I think is very important. Because the hero goes through this hero’s journey. He starts off not quite feeling like he fits into either world, and by the end of his hero’s journey he discovers and realizes he’s the best of both worlds. So he starts off very negative and ends up feeling sort of uplifted and positive about who he is. It’s a classic story of self-discovery and acceptance of who you are.

I thought it was really interesting too that his Polynesian side was actually coming from the human side, and then the Atlanteans were more what we think of when we think of Aquaman, and Patrick Wilson especially.

Yes, I definitely wanted his Polynesian side to come from his human, surface-dweller side because I feel like Atlantis has a nationalistic look to things. Without getting too political they see themselves as the greatest nation on this planet. That’s why I wanted the main villain to be someone that looks like Patrick Wilson [laughs]. And at the same time, casting someone like Patrick means that he has a very opposite look to Jason, which is what Patrick and I really wanted. So everything about him — Jason is more unkempt and free-going, Patrick is very focused and very studious, and everything from his grooming, he’s clean-shaven and his hair is blonde-white and slicked back — I wanted to be the opposite of Jason. That’s what Patrick and I thought would be an interesting dynamic for the two even though they’re half-brothers, to really show the separate worlds of where they’re from. And what it does [is] when Jason goes into the world of Atlantis, he’s the one who feels like the fish out of water.

So did you feel any obligations coming into the DC universe and having actors that were already cast — were there any stumbling blocks to creating your own story out of something that was already there for you?

It really wasn’t that difficult, partially because I had done something similar with Furious 7 — you know, coming into a world that is so established. In a lot of ways, I didn’t necessarily feel that this world was as established as Fast and Furious 7. There were six movies before that, and I was coming into this one with only one other movie before it, and that was Justice League. And ultimately what was great for me was the story that I wanted to tell is so different from the umbrella universe. And I knew that the hero’s journey I wanted to take my characters on takes them to such a different world and to such unique universes and people that they encounter, that I definitely felt that my storyline wasn’t going to clash with what everyone else was doing. It really is its own standalone film.

Now that you’ve experimented with other genres outside of horror with Aquaman and Furious 7, are there any other genres that you’d like to tackle after this or would you like to stay in the superhero genre?

[Chuckles] I’m superhero’d out. I’d love to do like an outright small drama or a romantic-comedy one day.

Oh, a romantic-comedy!

I’ve done that pretty much in all my films. If you look at The Conjuring films, they’re really romantic-comedies with ghosts and demons [laughs].

Right, with the Warrens.

Yeah, it’s all about the love story for me in those films. And it just so happens that these characters deal with the supernatural.

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