David Oyelowo: ‘The Water Man’

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David Oyelowo in a behind the scenes still from the adventure/drama film, 'The Water Man,' an RLJE films release. Photo courtesy of Karen Ballard

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes actor and director David Oyelowo, whose feature directorial debut is “The Water Man.” Oyelowo is also known for his roles in “Selma,” “The Nightingale,” and “A United Kingdom.” Oyelowo tells The Treatment one of his inspirations for “The Water Man” was “ET,” a film he considers one for all ages, but one that respects the intelligence of children. He says he wanted to make a film whose characters’ struggles felt universal and he discusses how he believed changing the race and gender of some of the principal characters made “The Water Man” a more inclusive film.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. What can I say about a man who may be the only person on the planet to have played both Seretse Khama and Muddy Waters. I'm talking to David Oyelowo. "The Water Man" is a resurrection story. It's not only about literal resurrection, but it's also the story of a spiritual familial resurrection, isn't it?

David Oyelowo: That's the first time it's been described that way, and of course, leave it to you to see that in the film. It's about a young kid whose mother is ill. She is ill enough that he's looking down the barrel of losing her, and so he decides to go and try to find this mythical figure who has the ability to cheat death. So on one hand, he's trying to preemptively resurrect his mother. But the myth is that the Water Man died in a flood over 100 years ago and was the only one to survive this flood, and he's sort of been doomed to try to find his wife in the waters in which she died and try to resurrect her because he has somehow been given the ability to cheat death.

KCRW: I can't help but think about the earthly elements because of the use of the colors red and blue in the film.

Oyelowo: It's a very elemental film; it has fire in it; it has water in it, and those elements are interspersed with the air in a very real way. It's something that my director of photography and I talked about. It's the kind of thing that's buried in the fabric of a film; it's not necessarily something you want the audience noticing, but that's all part of the tapestry that hopefully makes it a rich viewing experience.

KCRW: One of the fun things about this movie that I think makes it work really well is that it zooms in on that ability that kids have to see a story everywhere they look.

Oyelowo: Yes, and to see things in reality that open up their imagination and lead to fantasy. That's one of the things I loved about films like “ET,” when I was growing up, as a formative cinematic experience for me because they were rooted both in reality and fantasy. But I also never felt talked down to as a child. I felt like my emotional intelligence was being acknowledged and respected. A child's ability to cope with the more difficult things in life through that imagination, through their fantasy is something we obviously lose a bit as we get older, but it's incredibly necessary to our development as people.

KCRW: It really is a coming of age story in a lot of ways, too, isn't it?

Oyelowo: It is, and when you're talking about coming of age, that denotes going from one stage in your development to another. We are very much in this film, watching a young boy having to deal with things that, in our society we often think kids shouldn't have to deal with, but the reality is, they do and sometimes, because we try to shield them from those things, we rob them of their ability to cope with them. 

Even looking at this year we've just had with the pandemic, there were things we haven't been able to shield our kids from, and a lot of them have managed to come through. I think there's a lot we're gonna be dealing with in the wake of this pandemic. But the way that I've seen with my kids, and certainly we demonstrate in the film, is sometimes there's this rite of passage where a kid needs to go on a journey, whether it's a literal one or an imagined one. In some ways, our film showcases all of that for the character of Gunner.

KCRW: I've got to think that one of the things that attracted you to this film is how layered it is; it’s a movie you can take on any number of surface levels, but the more attention we pay, the more it has to offer.

Oyelowo: It's very hard to find a film or a script, I should say, full of that layering that can be shared between the whole family. It is what our business tends to term a four quadrant movie, and those are hard to come by. I think Steven Spielberg did it best certainly in the earlier part of his career. Films like this for some reason are lesser made. I think it's because we, certainly in the film industry, have decided to undermine the emotional intelligence of young people. The company that does it so brilliantly is Pixar, but I think they get away with so much because it's through the sweetened pill that is animation. But you have films like "Up" and "The Incredibles" and "Toy Story" and more recently "Soul," which deal with real big themes that the whole family can enjoy. That layering you mentioned is in those films, and hopefully is in "The Water Man" as well. 

KCRW: There are so many ways in which the movie in both visual and narrative terms touches on imagination. There's one scene with a samurai sword and when we meet Joe, and especially when we see you out in the forest, the Lady of the Lake comes to mind for me in some ways. I find myself thinking about Arthurian legend in this a little bit.

Oyelowo: What we've tried to do is have a modern day, adventure fairy tale movie that is evocative of all the things that we love about adventure and fantasy and literature. And one of the best compliments I've ever been paid about the film is people think it's based on a book or based on an actual legend. This all spilled out of the head of Emma Needell who had a very unique upbringing on a farm in Montana, growing up with her parents and her brother, and was a child who had to depend very heavily on her imagination, because they were really in the middle of nowhere, just their small family, even down to the nursery rhyme we have for the Water Man in the movie. The idea is for it to evoke those stories, those fairy tales, those legends, those myths that we love in literature, and maybe have even seen in books and in film.

(L-R) David Oyelowo as Amos Boone and Rosario Dawson as MaryBoonein the adventure/drama film, The Water Man, an RLJE films release. Photo courtesy of Karen Ballard.

KCRW: So many of these myths that are alluded to here, that scene where we as an audience meet her and she’s kind of, in effect, in a church, with children in pews listening to her tell the story?

Oyelowo: Exactly. She has her followers. She has her disciples. She has built her identity around basically being a purveyor of fear, and you go on to find out later on in the film, that she is doing that partly because of some of the fear she has in her own life. The way she makes sense of it is to effectively share that and maybe even hand it off to other kids to make her feel better about herself. 

You picked up on this earlier in our conversation, and it's absolutely intentional: the blue hair, the yellow hoodie, the fact that we first met Rosario's character with both red and yellow. Those colors mean specific things to me; I don't necessarily want to foist those meanings onto the audience necessarily, but the film, as I say, is very elemental. Different colors evoke different emotions. We really looked at the evocation of emotion with the score as well. These are the things that have been such a joy for me as a director. Primarily, I've been an actor in my career, and so you are only really affecting one specific part, a significant part of any given film or television show. But as a director, you touch on everything, and the totality of the storytelling, you are basically in the driving seat, and that encompasses everything.

KCRW: This is a movie about people who all have their individual stories to tell and are so caught up in their own worlds, for whatever reasons, that they can't really communicate those narratives to each other. It feels like this small scale tragedy in the movie. 

Oyelowo: One of the things I really enjoyed when I first read this script--I think we've achieved it in the film--is the fact that love and dysfunction can coexist. They don't necessarily negate each other. And actually, that is the human experience, navigating the fact that you can be in a family that is struggling, but there's real love there, and whether that family stays together or breaks up or is facing challenges or not, tends to hinge on which of those things is taking precedent: the dysfunction or the love.

In the case of the Boone family, they have real challenges they're facing in the fact that Rosario Dawson's character is dealing with this illness, they have moved to this town where they are probably the only family of color in this society. So, they are dealing with all of these things, but what I love that we've also been able to achieve is that: yes, they are a Black family, but their struggles are not necessarily rooted entirely, or, in fact, in any real way, in race. It's the stuff that we all have to deal with in life if we live long enough. 

KCRW: Even though you take your time setting it up, there's a lot going on in this movie. Are you doing that in kind of a misdirect in the same way that that legend at the beginning could make people think that this might be based on a true story or something else?

Oyelowo: I think that when it comes to quote-unquote family films, what we really have been saying recently when we say family films is: films for kids. And actually, no, a family film is for the entire family. If you're going to make a film for the entire family, there's got to be something in there for everyone. So the film has to be working on many levels all of the time. You don't want it to be so cut-y in that way that we have decided that young people are now so attention deficient, that they need everything fast paced, and so it's going at the kind of pace that, for their grandparents, it's going to be unwatchable. But if there are many things happening all at the same time; if there is a character at the center that they can identify with; if there's enough adventure; if there's enough vibrancy; if there's enough cinematic attention being paid; I think there is a chance, and we see it with films all the time that work on many levels.

 I actually think one of the things that the entertainment industry is grappling with is that it is becoming harder to define what good films that audiences or embraces are as a genre, "Get Out" being one of the best examples in recent history. Is it a thriller? Is it horror? Is it social commentary? Is it a drama? It's just a great film, whose protagonist can be identified with by a lot of, most of, maybe even all people because of how well Jordan Peele drew that world, that character. And there are so many layers going on all the time. So absolutely, from an aspirational point of view, that's what I was trying to do with "The Water Man."

KCRW: There are these subtle tensions that you can say without declaiming.

Oyelowo: Yeah, and for those paying attention, they'll see it. And you know, for those who aren't necessarily paying attention to those things, maybe they'll see other things. What I have loved with a film, like "ET" for instance, which was a huge inspiration for this film, is that it was a different film for me when I watched it as a kid; it was a different film for me when I watched it when I was older, and it's now a different film for me watching it as a parent with my kids. And that, to me, is what great literature does, what great storytelling does: it sort of hits you differently at different stages in your life.

KCRW: Again, it's a movie that gave you a chance to play with a lot of different things. And I can feel the exhilaration in the filmmaking here. 

Oyelowo: Yeah, the exhilaration really comes from the opportunity to circumvent expectations on many levels in many ways. When I grew up watching these kinds of films that used to be the preserve of Amblin, that company that gave us so many of these kinds of films in the 80s and 90s, I loved those films, but I never really got to see myself represented in those films. And so in a very subtle and maybe not so subtle way, to have a Black family at the center of this kind of narrative is something I have truly relished. But for it to not be the focus of the film, ie their race, is also something I have relished. 

The fact of the matter is, it wasn't written as a Black family. When Emma Needell wrote the script, it was set in Montana with a white family. Joe, as played by Amiah Miller, was actually a boy. It was two boys going off on an adventure together. The character that Maria Bello plays, the sheriff, was a man in the film. I want to be part of films that reflect the world I actually live in. I have three sons and a daughter, and I wanted to make a film that was an adventure film that both boys and girls could see themselves represented within. So that's why Joseph became Joe. And I wanted to populate the film with men, women, Black, white, everything in between. And you see that as much as we were able to do it in the film. 

KCRW: So often in this movie, when people are inside, we're aware of the walls that divide them. So often, in these interiors, there's a separation that really sort of leaves the men cast out.

Oyelowo: This is why it's so important, when one can, and when it makes sense, to make sure that you populate a film with characters, individuals who really reflect the world we live in. Those characters that you are now zoning in on as having a different attitude to things on the basis of their gender, were originally male characters. And so that's how you have a richer environment for a film like this, when you allow it to be populated by different kinds of people. What you just said is not something I intentionally imbued the story with, but it's just something that becomes apparent for anyone paying attention, just by virtue of adding the right ingredients.

KCRW: That's fascinating, because I think on some subliminal level, you must have been doing this because these female characters, even Joe, are people who tend to talk to more than one person, who tend to be a bit more inclusive in the way that they address others than other men.

Oyelowo: I can take credit for it, Elvis, but the reality is that it wasn't top of mind. When I've worked with female directors, for instance, I've had projects that initially started with a male director, and it skews things in a certain direction. And then a female director comes on board, because for whatever reason, the other director left the project. And you see how very naturally without changing the dialogue, without changing the setting, just the tone and the hemisphere of what is deemed important within the narrative just shifts, not that one is better, or one is worse. It just shifts and that's great because at the end of the day, anything you make is the sum total of the ingredients you add. 

Whether it's my conversations with my DP in relation to the color palette and how the lenses we chose, in order to be able to make these kids feel very small in a big space, the fact that I come from a Nigerian background, and so I wanted to see those colors in the production design and in some of the costuming, and certainly in the score, which so often, we only have western classical instruments in those scores. But I really challenged my composer. I said, No, no, I want some African instrumentation in there, not necessarily thoroughly African music, but use African instruments and just see what that gives us by way of a slightly different tone. And so you add all these ingredients, and what they amount to is not something that you can necessarily predict, but it's going to be richer for it.



Rebecca Mooney