“When you’re a kid,” says David Oyelowo, “reality is close to fantasy, and fantasy is close to reality. And fantasy is the way you cope with reality.” Oyelowo’s feature directorial debut, The Water Man, takes both reality and fantasy seriously, giving equal weight to the hopes and fears of children and adults. It tells the story of a boy named Gunner (Lonnie Chavis) who sets off in search of a possibly mythical being who may be able to heal his leukemia-stricken mother (Rosario Dawson).
Alfred Molina and Maria Bello also play key roles, and Oyelowo plays Gunner’s father, who struggles to connect with his son. Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway was the last film the British-born Oyelowo acted in before heading to Oregon to direct The Water Man, and the film’s director, Will Gluck, was one of several high-profile moviemakers Oyelowo sought out for advice. (Another was Ava DuVernay, who directed Oyelowo to a Golden Globe nomination for playing the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma.)
We enlisted Gluck to talk with Oyelowo, who has also produced more than a dozen films, about his transition to directing, when to take and ignore feedback during screenings, and Oyelowo’s children not embracing the “dog-dragon” from The NeverEnding Story. They had a blunt, easy banter: The talk started with Gluck asking in a deadpan, “David Oyelowo, my first question: You sticking with that last name?” Oyelowo broke down in laughter, for the first of many times. Here are the highlights from their conversation, which you can also check out on the MovieMaker podcast on Apple, Spotify or above.
Will Gluck: How was the actual filming and editing process of your movie? Did it live up to what you expected? Or was it a complete shock at every step of the way?
David Oyelowo: It was harder than I thought it would be, and more gratifying than I thought it would be at the same time. … I remember calling you and asking, “What is your one piece of advice?” And you said to me, “No one cares about your film.” And I said, “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Well,” you said, “Trust me. The DP? All he cares about is his shot. The costume designer, all they care about is how good the costumes look. Makeup, same thing. You are the only person at the end of the day, if the film isn’t as good as it can be… you are the only one to blame. And do not let the opinions of your collaborators, who are primarily focused on their departments, dissuade you from asking for another take.”
And I never forgot that, because the initial statement was shocking, and felt sort of like you were just being contrarian. But it proves to be true. At the end of the day, as much as I had to defer to my collaborators to do their job well, me doing my job well was making sure that their job was done well, in the context of everything else.
And so that was actually an incredibly satisfying thing, to stand back and watch great artisans having their work intersect, and being the person to say, “OK, I think we’ve hit a confluence whereby that has worked enough that we can move on.” That was an unexpected and joyful part of moviemaking.
Will Gluck: Did you ever find it difficult moving from actor to director? Did you ever find it difficult on set, kind of being stern with people? I don’t mean yelling at them, but making sure that they understood what you wanted to get at, even if it might have been against what their initial thought was?
David Oyelowo: Well again, a great piece of advice I got was to know my vision, be able to communicate it clearly, and then get out of the way. And by having that piece of advice, and being very fastidious with my ability to do that, I never had to sort of over-communicate or be persuasive or get more annoyed than is, you know, advisable. You know, you can get annoyed with the weather or the fact that you’re losing your day or whatever, but when it came to my ability to communicate what I needed, I made sure I got very good at that. And so, I also made sure that my main collaborators — DP, production designer, makeup, costumes, my fellow producers — they had been drilled with my vision for the film.
And a great piece of advice, I actually got this the night before starting shooting, was from Ava DuVernay. I spoke to her over the phone, and she said to me that a mistake that she felt she had made earlier on in her career is that she would direct a funny scene like it was from a comedy, or an action scene like it was from an action movie, or something dramatic in that sort of dramatic way. And she said that by Selma, she had landed on the fact that you have to know what the central theme of the film is and apply that to every scene.
And for her, it was overcoming obstacles. For every scene, whether a political scene or a group scene, or just between two people, it’s like, “What is the struggle to overcome within the scene?” And she said that is the way to make a tonally even film, as opposed to what you sometimes see where the film is all over the place.
Gluck: What drew you to specifically The Water Man? I remember that script was going around The Black List and was a really, really good script.
Oyelowo: I had directed plays in the UK before we moved to the states. So like 15, 20 years ago. Now, I always knew that directing a film was something I wanted to do — I actually directed a short film, funnily enough that Alfred Molina was also in… “Big Guy.” And so that was kind of a toe-dip for me. My goal was to work with great directors, use that as my film school, and then hopefully find that thing that I could get my head around spending two years making, because I still think of acting as my day job, and the thing that is, certainly for now, primary.
I also just loved films like The Goonies, Stand by Me, Gremlins. … I couldn’t quite understand why they weren’t being made anymore. And having four kids of my own, I just loved sharing those films. For some reason, they aren’t as enamored with The NeverEnding Story as I am. They can’t understand the “dog-dragon,” as they call it. But I loved those films.
And after you’ve watched the Marvel movies, the Disney movies, it’s like, OK — and I also just think from a business point of view — to be able to make a film in the $10-to-$20-million range, that’s a three- or four-quadrant movie, just kind of makes business sense to me. So when The Water Man came on The Black List, I’d given CAA the remit to find me something in this universe, and they brought me this, and so I fought very hard, went up against a studio, to persuade Emma Needell, our writer, to give it to me, but it was just going to be something I was going to produce and star in.
Then our director absconded to a bigger movie. And my passion for it was so evident that it was actually Emma who turned to me and said, “I can’t think of anyone better to direct this thing than you.” And I took a beat and thought: “OK, is this the thing I can get my head around spending that much time crafting?” And I decided it was, and I never regretted it.
Gluck: Here’s a question that I’ve always wanted to ask other directors. What part of the process do you think you are most influential over? Development? The actual filming of it? The post process? What’s the most “David” part of the process?
David Oyelowo: Wow, great question. And a question that I think would probably be different on the basis of the project. With The Water Man, it was initially a white family in Montana… and when I was growing up, I loved those movies I’d mentioned to you, but I never saw myself represented in them. And so it was a very natural thing for me to think, gosh, you know, I want to play the dad. And so therefore, by osmosis, this is a Black family. And so that was a fairly seismic change. … And, you know, I also made the sheriff a woman, which is how Maria Bello is in the film, just to shake things up. Because I know that in our business, we can get lazy. And it’s not necessarily conscious bias. It’s just what we’ve seen, and so therefore, we replicate it and replicate it and replicate it.
And I remember saying to you, Will, your film Annie, the effect that had on me and my daughter — I remember taking her specifically on a daddy-daughter date to see Annie and looking at the big screen at Quvenzhané Wallis. And I saw in real time, the effect it was having on a little Black girl to see herself on the big screen like that. And so, I know the power of that. And so therefore, that’s a big part of what I tried to do with my films generally. And then I think one of the things I know is performance, because you know, that’s my day job, as I say, and I would say that was my biggest concern.
Will Gluck: How did you feel the screening process went? I was at the friends and family screening, and you did not stay in the room, right?
Oyelowo: I didn’t stay for the question and answer.
Gluck: But you were there for the movie.
Oyelowo: I was there for the movie, but because it was friends and family, I didn’t want my presence there to make people feel the need to water down what they were saying, or be kind to me — I wanted complete and utter honesty.
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It’s painful. It’s nerve wracking. It is sweat inducing. It is so exposing to show it to an audience. But it’s absolutely necessitous. Because at the end of the day, I know this from being in movies, no one cares about the process of getting to a good movie. All they care about is whether they like to or not. And if there are things that you stubbornly kept in the film, because you didn’t want to listen, what I have found to be true is those notes that keep on coming back, if not addressed, never go away. I’m pretty good at eating the chicken and spitting out the bones: What is the narrative that keeps on coming back? Some of those were hard to hear.
One of the tough things with The Water Man was I was looking to make a genuine family film. And what I mean by that is a film that both young people and their parents and their grandparents can all enjoy, which is a tough needle to thread. You’ve made those kinds of films. I had just made a film of that nature with you in Peter Rabbit.
Will Gluck: Could you tell, when showing movies to people, when they’re just being nice? Could you tell when they didn’t want to tell you something? Also, could you tell when they were telling you something that you just completely disagreed with?
David Oyelowo: Yeah, it’s a really interesting thing to bring up, because there was a discernible difference between the friends and family screenings, and then the test screening where people are dispassionate, and they just say whatever they want. With you guys, I stepped out of the room for the Q&A. For the test screening, I was in the back, without the audience knowing I was there. Yeah, they did not care as to hurting my feelings or not. And, you know, I think because I’m an actor, I like to think that I’m a pretty good reader of human behavior. So when people were saying certain things to me, I could kind of discern.
But at the end of the day, as a filmmaker, as you know, you have to have a point of view, you have to remember why you made the movie. And there was central elements of why I made the movie that whether people liked it or not, it mattered less to me, because I knew that what I wanted to put in the world was a film about sacrificial love and the fact that an 11-year-old could literally risk life and limb for his own mother. … And I had a relationship like that with my mother. And that to me is what family is actually about. I didn’t really mind if people thought, “Oh, no, an 11-year-old wouldn’t do that,” because I know what kind of 11-year-old I was. And I wanted to see that on screen. So that was a non-negotiable for me.
Gluck: How did you prepare yourself, when you made this movie, not to pander to kids, not ignore kids, not to ignore adults? How did you justify in your head that this would be for kids and parents without having to be like, “Here’s a banana-peel scene for the kids?”
Oyelowo: So much of it was life experience. … Having kids and looking at what they gravitate towards, and looking at how emotionally intelligent they are, watching films with them, and seeing how annoyed they are when they feel pandered to or patronized, and how in our lives, you know, we’ve suffered tragedy. I lost both my parents in the last five years, and my kids were close with their grandparents. And I watched them navigate that. My dad, who just passed away in September, lived with us for four years before he passed away. And I watched all of my kids have different reactions to that. And I knew that societally, we don’t give kids enough credit, in terms of how robust they are to take things on.
A real inspiration for this film was Stand by Me, which is an R-rated film, but I still think of it as a family film. Only the language makes it an R-rated film. These kids are off looking for a dead body. And then the main kid, his parents are dealing with the bereavement of his older brother, and their marriage is struggling as a result. And then there’s another one of the kids whose father abandoned him — heavy stuff, but you go on this adventure with them. And I’ve watched that film as a kid, and I’ve watched it as an adult, and it has different effects on me, but it’s still just a great film. And I showed it to my kids the other day, and they just loved it. They just lapped it up. It was about not patronizing kids, and not pandering to adults.
The Water Man, directed by David Oyelowo, opens in theaters Friday, from RLJE Films.