David Oyelowo's 'Water Man' Shows Why 'Representation Matters' in Fantasy Films

CUL_PS_David Oyelowo
Austin Hargrave

"I basically just told the kind of story that I would like to see, I feel represented within and represents my experience as a father, as a Black man and as a husband."

Fantasy films are a mainstay for Hollywood but often fall short in telling authentically diverse stories. That's about to change with David Oyelowo's directorial debut The Water Man (in theaters May 7th). "Representation matters. The more different kinds of people get to tell their stories, the more they are inevitably going to tell the stories that evoke their experience." Produced by Oprah Winfrey, who Oyelowo calls his "fairy godmother, she's just someone who's consistently there," the film is told from the perspective of Gunner (Lonnie Chavis), a young boy who turns to fantasy and art to deal with trauma at home between his parents, played by Oyelowo and Rosario Dawson. "I just love the fact that you have this 11-year-old boy who is prepared to put himself on the line for his own mother." Like many films, the coronavirus pandemic had a big impact on the film's release. "I was having to edit remotely. The orchestra had to record in a socially distanced way." But in hindsight, with the film complete, Oyelowo says "for every disadvantage, there was an unexpected advantage."

Were you influenced by the fantasy/adventure kids films of the '80s?

I grew up on those films, so that's absolutely what drew me to The Water Man. I loved that they not only took me on a journey, but they also gave me something to think about. When I watched The Goonies, I really wanted friends like those. The Goonies starts with this quite intense thing, they're all going to have to move away and not be with their friends. And that's what I really loved about The Water Man, this family is facing this challenge but there's this fantasy element, this adventure element and a friendship element to it.

A big part of Water Man is the impact trauma can have on a kid, and how it can manifest in their creativity. Was that an important element for you to show?

One-hundred percent. I had always had this feeling that kids are not to be patronized as not being emotionally intelligent. My kids range from the age of nine to 19 and I've watched them navigate the loss of both of my parents over the last five years. They've navigated it with all of the difficulty and the mourning, but also with the ability to find joy and laughter and to reminisce in a way that is really edifying. The year we've just had means that no kid has been exempt from that stuff. But I think it's less about whether bad things happen and more about how you navigate them and with whom.

David Oyelowo x THE WATER MAN
David Oyelowo (far left) with Amiah Miller (center) and Lonnie Chavis (far right) on 'The Water Man' set. Karen Ballard

What made you want to make The Water Man your directorial debut?

It really spoke to me. I think at the core it's about love and what you're prepared to sacrifice for love. I just love the fact that you have this 11-year-old boy who is prepared to put himself on the line for his own mother. I find that so moving and I love the fact that it's a family that is filled with love but also filled with dysfunction, which is far more real. It's also an homage to the directors I love like Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams and George Lucas, filmmakers who really were a huge part of my upbringing as a young person and as a storyteller.

You play Amos, a father who has a hard time dealing with a son who isn't really interested in the stereotypical masculine things. Was the emotional journey of the father just as important to you as telling the boy's story?

I have three sons myself and then I had a daughter, and I'm not gonna lie, I treat my sons differently than I do my daughter. I'm not saying it's right or wrong. It's just that there is something about the masculine in relation to boys and by osmosis girls as well. It's nuanced. So it's trying to find the balance as a parent. I find that I fail every day as a parent, but the guiding principle is, am I loving my children in a way that is sacrificial, i.e. putting them ahead of my own wants, desires and needs? And I do think that is something Amos does, but he makes mistakes on that journey as well.

Some people say working with children is a risk, let alone putting them at the center of a film. What surprised you working with the two leads?

I've never adhered to that saying. I get it, but I've had great success working with children. I did a film called Queen of Katwe where I was a chess coach to a bunch of kids, and I had an amazing time on that film. I recently did a film called Come Away with Angelina Jolie and we had three kids in that and they're pretty much the stars of the movie. Again, it was wonderful as it was with The Water Man. What I found working with kids is that they are a brilliant reminder of the level of play that storytelling should have. You work in movies long enough and it's a self-important industry, understandably so. We make these movies and it's millions of dollars and audiences pay attention, but at the end of the day, we get paid to play. Kids typify that. What was really wonderful about working with both Lonnie Chavis and Amiah Miller [on The Water Man] is that not only did they have that play, they also had a high level of professionalism and emotional intelligence. They were a perfect package. I didn't really feel any discernible difference working with them as children than the grownups. If anything, Rosario Dawson was the child I had to wrangle. She is such a playful minx. I would constantly have to pull them back to set because Rosario had dragged Lonnie off to play some game. So Rosario was my child on that set.

Oprah is an executive producer of the film. What was your pitch to her?

Oprah has been a friend of mine for a long time, since we did The Butler together, and we played mother and son, and she's just been a massive supporter of my work and a huge influence in my personal life as a kind of a mother figure to me. So I brought this project to her very early as just a passion project and in all honesty, she signed on because it was something that meant a lot to me. She's a pretty good barometer of what a broad audience will gravitate toward and so she's been wonderful with that process. But in all honesty, the primary reason she's on the film is because she's just my fairy godmother; she's just someone who's consistently there to support the things that I turned my hand to.

The coronavirus pandemic really hit the post-production of The Water Man. How was it working around all the new restrictions?

It was pretty extensive, the impact it had. We shot it before the pandemic, and I had done a lot of the editing before it really hit, but when it did, there was still so much of post-production that wasn't done yet. And it was my first film. So I was having to edit remotely with my editor. I had to do the sound remotely, the orchestra had to record in a socially distanced way. I was at this desk for hours on end, watching the film over and over, but specifically listening to the sound mix, then the score, and it was a very laborious way of doing it. The saving grace is that it's the only way I've known to do it, because it was my first film. So that really impacted things and slowed the process down. Wonderfully, we got into the Toronto Film Festival. An amazing way to see my directorial debut would have been to go to Toronto see it with an audience, unfortunately, I didn't have that experience. But it had a wonderful reaction out of Toronto. The thing I will say is that for every disadvantage, there was an unexpected advantage. So Toronto, because they did it virtually, there were so many people around the world who got to see the film that otherwise might not [have]. In terms of the release, there's a real chance the film would have been out already. But, this is not one of those timely films that feels an urgency to be released, so we just took our time. Let's wait for this cloud to lift a bit. It looks like we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel. I also think that an unexpected eventuality is that movies being placed in front of a lot more eyeballs on Video-on-Demand because audiences have acquired new habits. So I like to think that there are silver linings despite this very tough time we've all been.

Many fantasy films are told from a very narrow perspective, often a white teenage boy, whereas Water Man is remarkably diverse. Was that important to you?

I think this is what happens when different kinds of people get to tell stories. I basically just told the kind of story that I would like to see, I feel represented within and represents my experience as a father, as a Black man and as a husband. So yes, it was on my mind, but in all honesty, the primary thing that was on my mind is what do I relate to? I relate to Gunner when I was that age and I also relate to my character as a father being the age I am now. That's why representation matters, the more different kinds of people get to tell their stories, the more they are inevitably going to tell the side of stories that evoke their experience. That's all we did with this film.