Creating the World of Aquaman

James Wan takes audience under the sea in Aquaman, which is as different from the director's other work as it is from most superhero movies.

James Wan directs Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, and Willem Dafoe in the Aquaman movie

Despite the fact that James Wan is primarily known as a horror director, make no mistake, Aquaman still feels like his movie. The camera work and directorial flourishes you might recognize from The Conjuring films are here if you look, along with all of the bright colors and undersea imagery that make up Aquaman’s world. 

But even though this may feel like a departure from what made Wan famous in the first place, the director made the bizarre underwater world of Aquaman his own. Few characters come with lower expectations from audiences than Arthur Curry, allowing the movie to play with vast swathes of Aquaman history while giving Wan and company the freedom to tell a new story, and define these concepts for general audiences for the first time.

We spoke with Wan ahead of Aquaman’s release about the challenges of keeping actors engaged in a film with so many visual effects, the amount of world building involved, and where Aquaman fits in the DCEU.

Den of Geek: There is so much happening, visually, in this film. What is your favorite sequence in it?

James Wan: You just said it! There’s so many elements in this. I like them all for different reasons. Obviously, I loved creating the underwater aesthetic. Creating Atlantis, and going for a very magical and vibrant look, that was something that was important for me.

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I always felt like if we go to Atlantis today, it needs to be amazing. I want it to be like a holiday destination for people. I want people to watch the movie and then go, “Hey, I wouldn’t mind going there for my next vacation.” So that was definitely one of them. But outside of the visual aspect of the film, I just really love the human story between Aquaman’s mother and father (Queen Atlanna, played by Nicole Kidman, and Tom Curry, played by Temuera Morrison). To me, that’s the heartbeat of the film.

It’s funny that you have these human elements there. Jason is so warm and sympathetic and you have that love story. But Patrick Wilson pointed out at the press conference that so much of this movie is done in post because of the visual effects, so how do you keep everybody feeling like they’re in this world all the time?

I’m needing my actors to trust me! Well, the good thing with someone like Patrick is I’ve worked with Patrick on quite a few movies now and so he trusts me and I trust him. And so when I tell him, “You’re riding a Tylosaurus. Even though you can’t quite see it, this is what your creature is like.” And he’ll be like, “Okay, let’s do it!”

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It’s not easy, obviously, when so much of the movie is animated. I feel like I’m making an animated movie. But ultimately, my job on set became one where I had to constantly remind the actors where they physically were, the environment where they were meant to be in, and what context their characters are in right now. And also remind them, emotionally, where they’re at and where their mindset is with things.

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I try to share as much of my vision with the actors as I can. So I showed them the artwork. I showed them my previews that I’ve worked really hard with visual effects on, just to give them a good sense of what’s supposed to happen. The thing is, filmmaking is make-believe, and so you’ve got to really bring your make-believe hat to the project.

How far into production were you when you started seeing the first effects shots?

Visual effects don’t come in until way into post production. Just because the shots are just so involved and so complex and have so much detail to them that there was no way that I could be giving my input while I was still shooting it. I was just very particular with this film and super anal with what I wanted every shot to look like.

Were you ever like, “It needs more color!” 

The one thing I tend to ask a lot is, I would say, “I need more particulates!” Flowing particulates, because that’s what gives you the impression of being underwater. For the end sequence, I was always asking for more rain.

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You talked about how much you love doing the world building of this. How much of things like the designs of the different Atlantean soldiers and those different costume designs, were you involved in?

Highly. I literally was drawing shots myself.

Oh, wow!

I used to draw a lot and so this movie kind of pulled a lot of that back. And obviously working super closely with my concept artists, an amazing group, an army of amazing concept artists to capture the look and just spending hours, right down to the bolts on the suit. I’m like, “The bolt will not go there. It will go over here because that’s how it would work” and stuff like that.

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I just had a very sort of Jim Cameron approach to everything. I find that stuff really fun and I love it and I wanted, for the longest part, make a world creation movie and here was my opportunity and I wasn’t going to let it go by. I felt like this might be my one and only chance at making a movie like this, so I’m going to go for it and really get it out my system.

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The world creation and design was something that I really love and I really wanted it to feel very complete. And so everything in this movie was literally designed from scratch, from costumes to hair, makeup, the creatures, the machines, the city. And then putting myself in the shoes of what an Atlantean would do. We didn’t just build Atlantis just because we think, “Oh, it has to look this way because it looks cool.” It was more like, “If we want to create the world of Atlantis, what would the material look like? Does it look like jellyfish? Is it translucent, like what jellyfish would look like in the real world? And how do we get light into this city here? We’re so deep down.”

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Part of the reason we are able to live the way we do is because we have night and day, and that gives us a living cycle. But if the sun doesn’t penetrate the ocean all the way to the ocean floor, to Atlantis, how do we get that living cycle? So you start thinking about, “Okay, maybe there’s a wheel of life in this world that basically clicks and gives people the living rhythm.” A lot of thought went into creating just the world, even if we don’t actually see it in the story, even if it’s actually not part of the narrative, that’s how we would think about everything. It took a long time.

It’s interesting that you said you wanted to get this out of your system. You started off being known for horror, and then you did your big action movie, and now you’ve done this, which is like a crazy fantasy movie. Does this mean that there’s an original sword and sorcery movie or a space opera in your head somewhere?

I do! That’s the thing, I have so many movies and ideas and genres that I want to get into that I never like to limit myself to just one kind of filmmaking.

This movie is clearly part of the DC Universe, but it’s not married to it.

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Right.

Was there ever a time when, maybe Warner Brothers was hoping that there was going to be more of a connection? Like, “Hey, can you get this Flash cameo in here?” Or something like that?

No. They never forced anything on me on this film, which is pretty impressive because by its very nature, the fact that it is a cinematic universe, and they were so cool with ultimately letting me make the movie I wanted to make. I think there’s a history there. I’ve made enough movies and I guess enough money for them with my past work that they trusted my approach to this and they loved my pitch from day one. I pretty much made the movie that I pitched which was everything from the action, the visuals, to the tone. I’ve stayed kind of true to what I set out to do.

read more: Why James Wan Turned Down The Flash Movie to Make Aquaman

You said, when we spoke before, that when they first approached you, they had offered you a bunch of different characters.

It was two characters. It was Aquaman and the Flash.

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Is the Flash something you would ever want to try if you direct a superhero movie again?

I think the Flash is a really cool character. But the reason why, ultimately, I picked Aquaman is he had never been done on the big screen or the small screen before. At least not to this level. I think there was The Man From Atlantis, the Patrick Duffy film? But that’s not really an Aquaman story. And so I picked this guy because I felt like he was very unique. I’ve never seen him before. And also it allowed me to do my world creation film. The Flash lives more in the real world. And otherwise, Aquaman lives in this world that I can just create from the ground up.

And it also feels like it would be more of a traditional superhero movie, than Aquaman.

That’s exactly right. I did not want to make a traditional superhero film. I did not want to make a movie that felt that way. I wanted to make an adventure, a fantasy film, not dissimilar to Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, really.

Aquaman opens on Dec. 21. The full schedule of upcoming DCEU movies can be found here.

Mike Cecchini is the Editor in Chief of Den of Geek. You can read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @wayoutstuff.

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