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Behind the Scenes of ‘Aquaman’ with James Wan

Director James Wan is a hardworking guy. Spending hours and hours on the Warner Bros lot on post-production for the upcoming December release of Aquaman, Wan practically lives on the lot.

Wan wanted to truly capture the creatures, landscape, and the lives of Atlantis. The underwater world of Atlantis is no easy feat. We got to see a glimpse of it on a busy Thursday evening in August. Wan and his editing team took the time to welcome a few reporters to his production office where they were working on several key scenes in the film.

Before showcasing some of the scenes, Wan wanted to go over some of the inspiration behind the film. Heavily influenced by Geoff Johns’ New 52 series of Aquaman, the characters costumes and style seemed straight from the comic, including Black Manta’s costume. Wan also made sure to pay homage to the original first series. He tells The Nerds of Color, “I’m a big fan of the first series run in the ’60s when it first came out and pulling character inspiration for character based or visual based – the comic book is very retro now. So, taking that on board and taking it into what version it would be.”

Wan wanted to showcase the ocean as we see it in the real world – something mysterious and beautiful. “I didn’t want to be embarrassed of [the vibrancy]. I don’t want to be shy of the unique vibrancy of this world. I want it to lean into it. Most people know me for my horror films and they think I’m this dark and scary guy until they meet me and go ‘oh, you’re nothing like that.’ I just want to put my own personality into this world as well. I wanted to create this design movie for the longest part –a world creation film. I’ve done elements of that in the horror films I’ve done and in the world that I created in that space, but for this one, for the first time, I have bigger tools to play with and it allows me to be as imaginative as I can. I think the world of Atlantis should be magical. It should be vibrant and magical. That’s how we’ve always described the ocean. The ocean is a magical place, but it’s also scary at the same time. So, this film kind of allows me to raise the touch on the two difference of visual aesthetic.”

Based on the San Diego Comic-Con teaser, we already see the difference between Aquaman from the other DC films, which tend to lean towards a darker color palette. Wan wanted to tell the audience that Atlantis is very different from Gotham and the other locations in the DC universe.

“I don’t think our perception of Atlantis is dreary or miserable. We wanted to think of Atlantis as a magical place and using that as a leaping off point to branch off and create some interesting visuals that no one have seen before. We poured a lot of our aesthetic and inspirations from the ocean, marine life. Marine floor and light – luminescent plants and sea animals that emit light on their own. The idea that Atlantis needs to be their own power light source, so if you’re going to do that, let’s make it vibrant and magical and fun. Then it’s about finding different looks in the world of Atlantis.”

Wan proceeded to show us some clips from the film to further illustrate the beautiful VFX and story of Aquaman (Jason Momoa). He begins the first clip where he wants the audience to see the origin of Arthur Curry through his parents’ love story. Arthur is narrating the scene, which sets up his emotional journey.  

In the opening sequence, we see the love story between Aquaman’s parents in 1985. Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) is found injured on the rocks of Thomas Curry’s (Temuera Morrison) lighthouse. Thomas brings her and her trident into his home and places her on the couch. The electricity in the home goes out and she wakes up in attack mode. The electricity comes back on, which prompts the television to turn on. She throws her trident at the television. He assures her he only wants to help her. He nurses her back to health and they fall in love.

Atlanna does not return to her home in Atlantis because she initially fled an arranged marriage. Atlanna becomes pregnant. They are both stuck inside the lighthouse due to Hurricane Arthur, which they decide to name the baby after. We see family life between the two with young Arthur. One day, Atlanteans attacked the Currys and demanded Atlanna return to King Orvax. In a badass fight scene, Atlanna defeats the Atlanteans. Knowing that more will come back to hurt Thomas and Arthur, Atlanna leaves them behind to return to Atlantis.

Wan explained the importance of family throughout the entire movie. The film is not all about Arthur and Mera’s (Amber Heard) love story, but also the love between family – including Arthur dealing with his half brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson), and Mera dealing with her father who has decided to team up with Orm for war against the surface dwellers.

Wan pointed out another theme that was important for him to tell in the film – acceptance. “Jason feels a lot like the Arthur Curry character. He’s a guy who is half Atlantean and half surface dweller and he doesn’t feel like he belongs in either world. So his character doesn’t feel accepted, so he’s kind of jaded by that. For Jason growing up in Hawaii, looking the way that he does, and then moving to the midwest looking the way he does, he didn’t quite fit in when he was over here and over there. So I think that’s a really important theme to play up as a character who doesn’t feel like he belongs in either world and then him realizing that he’s the best of both worlds. It’s a relevant sort of concept. I think it’s awesome for today’s kids who grow up from a mixed family, not knowing where they fit in, to have a superhero to look up to.”

The next clip shown was an underwater sequence that was not yet complete. “It’s a process,” Wan explained. “I think the trickiest thing for Kirk [M. Morri], my editor – just for the two of us trying to edit a movie that has a lot blue screen and not quite knowing what they kind of look like. We’re previz and post-viz, basically, temporary computer animation of what things roughly look like. When you cut the sequences, it’s kind of hard to do fine tune editing. From a technical standpoint, that’s tricky. We really have to use our imaginations.”

In the clip, we see King Orm talking about eradicating the surface dwellers in an ancient coliseum. Arthur, who is watching from afar, must stop his half-brother and challenges him to a combat of the kings. Arthur, who is the oldest son of Queen Atlanna, is the rightful heir of the throne. Nuidis Vulko (Willem Dafoe), Atlantis’ chief scientific advisor who promised to protect Arthur, watches as Orm and Arthur fight and calls it ‘an execution. Orm breaks Arthur’s trident, which belonged to his mother, and is about to kill him. Mera comes crashing in and saves Arthur. We see them escape from the battle.

Heard had a big part in the discussions of how Mera would be portrayed in the film. Wan assured everyone that Mera is as powerful, if not more, than Arthur and she is no damsel in distress. “[Mera] doesn’t need him for any help. If anything, she saves his life a lot. He’s going through things not knowing how Atlantis works. That was very important for the both of us.”

In the final clip shown, we see Arthur and Mera on a plane in the Sahara desert. Mera is tracking something and locates it. Instead of allowing the plane to land, Mera jumps out without a parachute. Arthur then follows her and they both crash into the sand. As they begin walking, Mera tells Arthur that one of the tribes separated from Atlantis and ended up in the Sahara, which became dried up. They begin to argue about being lost and end up falling into the underground kingdom of the Deserters.

In the clips shown, we see a lot more of Aquaman’s personality, which Wan says reflect Momoa’s real life persona. “Most people know him as this really big tough guy,” said Wan. I was surprised of how funny and goofy the guy could be. I got to really like that so I thought he was really likable and charming. So I said to him, dude, I’m going to write this and I’m going to bring more of you, your personality, into this character. So, that’s what we did. We tried to play up to Jason’s strength and let him kind of be free and himself. I think that’s one of the fun things about his character. It is Jason Momoa in a lot of ways.”

So, will Aquaman be a lot more lighthearted than the previous DC films?

“It is a fine line,” Wan shared. “We sort of need to gauge when to go there or when is not the right time to not go there. When you’re dealing with a more serious matter, you kind of have to want to let the weight of the situation sink it. A lot of other times, we should just enjoy it. The world of this is just outrageous anywhere you have to kind of laugh at it. Here’s a guy that talks to fish and you just need to enjoy it and not be bashful about it.”

Aquaman opens in theaters everywhere on December 21.

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