Interview: James Wan on Aquaman and creating his own franchises
A few days before Hollywood shut down for Christmas and New Years, I was lucky enough to sit down and chat with director James Wan about Aquaman and his career. I decided not to publish my interview right away because I felt like everyone was posting about the film and all the other big releases that were released over the holiday season. I am releasing my interview today because I want to celebrate the film’s milestone which is that Aquaman has now made over one billion dollars at the box office. James Wan has once again proven that he has the magic touch as the film has very quickly become the biggest film in the DCEU to date.
Scott Menzel: James, it is an absolute honor to meet you. I’ve been a big fan of so much of your work. I want to start this interview off by asking you a personal question, how does it feel knowing that you launched three huge horror franchises, Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring, which has become its own universe? How does that feel at the end of the day, knowing that you did all that?
James Wan: It’s funny, I feel like I have more to give. I feel like I’m not quite there yet. Still a sense of incompletion. I mean, it’s great. I’m very happy that the things I do seem to be clicking with people out there, and I’m very grateful for that and very thankful that I seem to like the things that people out there like as well.
Scott Menzel: My next question is since you have created almost like your own franchises and your own universes, as a director, producer, writer, what do you feel is more challenging, creating something original and unique, or working with a property that’s already established, like Fast and Furious, and, Aquaman?
James Wan: They all have their own challenges. Obviously coming into something that already has a large fan base meant that there are certain rules that you have to play by. And of course, a fan base that you have to respect. But I try to go into all of my projects, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s something I created from scratch, or I’m playing in someone else’s sandbox, but I bring my own sensibility to it, I want to make sure I can make it my own film and bring my own filmmaking aesthetic to it. And that was something that I made pretty clear to Warner Bros and DC early on, that if I’m coming in to do a standalone Aquaman story, I know this character is part of a bigger universe, but I want to tell my own story, and I don’t want to necessarily be beholden to all the other stuff that’s around it. And fortunately for me, the story that I wanted to tell takes our hero on a journey that isn’t tied into all the other stuff that’s going on. And so that was something that was very important. I feel like even though Aquaman is in an existing franchise, I feel like I came in to create my own world within that world.
Scott Menzel: I think it’s pretty fascinating what you did with this film. I remember you joking about this, and I know a lot of people talk about the fact that the character of Aquaman is considered a joke in the comic book world.
James Wan: Well, in pop culture in general, right? From Entourage to Family Guy, to anything and everything.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, he is considered a joke, and what’s amazing about that is what you were able to do. You not only made this character fierce and someone you didn’t want to mess with, but you made him sexy, and appealing to so many people, both male and female. Can you talk a little bit about that process of taking a character that was viewed as a joke and making it your own?
James Wan: Well, I lot of that has to do with Jason Momoa, right? Jason Momoa brings the sex appeal and the toughness to the character. We all know that Jason can play the tough guy role, he can be the badass and do all that tough stuff. But one thing I wanted to bring to this and something that most people didn’t know before they see the film is the fact that Jason is a very charming, charismatic, funny, and goofy guy. That’s the other side of him that I really wanted to bring out of him. As his director, it’s my job to make him a well-rounded actor, and the whole film is built around him, so I didn’t want him to play it as a one-note character. And so, it was very important for me to be able to pull that out of him, and Jason will be the first to say I took him out of his comfort zone a bunch of times. But I’m glad he came along, and he went with that, because it made him so much more endearing in the film, at least, I think it did.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, he’s so charming and charismatic. He reminds me of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. It’s like the two of them, you look at them and you’re like, “You’re just a meatball,” and then when they’re on-screen they have this incredible onscreen presence and can just carry a movie.
James Wan: Right, exactly. That’s what I think this particular property needed. It needed someone that comes in, throws all the jokiness that has been associated with this character out the window, and because Jason has such a strong personality, he just came in and claimed this character as his own. That was something that was very important for me.
Scott Menzel: I’m sure you’ve been told this a lot, I just love the way that you move the camera and just some of the shots that you’ve done throughout all of your movies. Some of those underwater sequences in this one when you’re spinning the camera are just so remarkable. When you were casting on this before we jump into more of the filmmaking aspect of it, how did you go about getting these actors? Was it always your initial thought to have a lesser known cast up front, and then having people like Willem Dafoe and Nicole Kidman as supporting?
James Wan: Well, it’s always good to surround your lead actors with great character actors, right? Like you said, Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, Patrick Wilson, these are just great thespians, and they lose themselves in the roles that they play. And I think that’s very important, especially in a film like this, I don’t know, I think it lends a bit more weight to it, and especially when I’m asking my actors to do these really crazy, outlandish things, it good to have strong actors.
Scott Menzel: Like when you ask them to ride a seahorse?
James Wan: Yeah, exactly. Or make Patrick say all these outrageous lines. What’s great about someone like Patrick is he can say it and make you believe it. He can say these really ridiculous, silly lines, but do it with conviction. That’s very important. The movie is very faithful to the comic book, and just by the very nature of the comic book, it’s outlandish. It lives in its own world, and it plays by its own rules, and that was one of the things I wanted to make sure I capture.
Scott Menzel: What I loved about this movie, and what I actually love about most of your films is that you bring your own unique vision to them. Where I don’t feel like you can go into this movie and say, “Oh, this feels like a Marvel movie.” It feels like a James Wan movie. It does not feel like it is part of something else. It doesn’t feel anything like any of the other DC movies, it feels like something you brought on your own.
James Wan: Thank you. That is highly, highly important for me. I pride myself on being a filmmaker with a strong voice. In either my storytelling or my filmmaking or whatever it is, I think that sort of stuff is very important for me.
James Wan: Going into this, it was very important that I could make the film that I wanted to make. Because you live with these films for so long, and you got to have your own personality in there. If you don’t then it’s just by the book, and I didn’t want it to just be by the book. Which is ironic, because it is based on a comic book. You know what I mean?
Scott Menzel: Yeah, yeah. I totally know what you mean. That being said too, you’ve made quite a name for yourself over the years, you have your own hashtag #injameswanwetrust.
James Wan: That’s hilarious.
Scott Menzel: I do have to ask you because I know you’re aware of this, what were your reservations for doing this film?
James Wan: My reservation? Believe it or not … I didn’t have a lot of reservation doing this, honestly. Once I committed to it, I committed to it. Early on, when we were still trying to work out the story and stuff like that, and all that stuff was happening while I was filming Conjuring 2, so it felt like I was juggling two movies and that was a bit hard to wrap my head around. There I was trying to make sure the relationship between Ed Warren and Lorraine Warren are working out and meanwhile I’m trying to cast who to play Mera, King Nereus, and all this stuff.
It was a bit tricky just to juggle it all at the start, but once I had my vision locked in, I knew exactly the movie I wanted to make. I delivered the movie that I pitched to the studio, and they can’t come back to me and say, “Hey, you pitched a different movie. You pitched this movie and you made a different movie”. No, I gave them the movie that I pitched.
Scott Menzel: That’s good. So, they let you do your thing?
James Wan: Yeah. They did.
Scott Menzel: Good. That’s good. That important, because you always hear that, that’s always a horror story that directors have, right? With everything, they’re always like, “The studio interfered, this not my vision”.
James Wan: Yes. It’s a common thing, and it happens a lot. But I think I’ve earned the trust of Warner Bros with The Conjuring universe that I’ve created there, and so I’ve made enough movies for them to go, “Oh yeah, maybe he knows what he’s talking about”.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, they do the Dr. Evil (raises his pinky to his mouth), “One billion dollars,” like you’ve made them so much money. This movie, in a weird way I think it’s a throwback to the great comic book movies of the Tim Burton era, where he did these fun movies like that.
James Wan: I love Batman. Tim Burton’s Batman is truly one of my favorite comic book movies ever.
Scott Menzel: Mine too! It’s the fucking best.
James Wan: Batman ’89 is amazing
Scott Menzel: Sorry, Christopher Nolan, but you didn’t touch Tim Burton.
James Wan: Look seriously, let’s give credit where it’s due. Tim came along and basically gave us modern day comic book movies. Up until Batman came along, we didn’t really have that. I know people would say, “Oh, X-men did push it further,” but Batman did come along and just completely made us go, “Whoa, comic book movies can be super cool”.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, and that’s what I got from this film, and as I said, it felt like your own film, it felt different, it felt fun, and it felt campy. And its funny, people are starting to say, “Oh does campy mean negative?” No, campy means you just take it for what it is and have fun with it, and you just go on the wild ride, and you just embrace it for what it’s doing.
James Wan: Or embrace the comic book origin of it all.
Scott Menzel: Oh, of course! That reminds me of what I wanted to ask you, the tone of this movie, was that always your intention, just to go into it and just be like, “You know what? Screw it. I just want to have a total blast with this, and I want everyone involved to have a blast”?
James Wan: Yeah, I don’t think you can do a depressing version of Aquaman, I don’t think that would be the right approach. You go back to the comic books, go all the way back to the Silver Age comic book, and you look at Super Friends…they can be very goofy.
But the key is, how do I take that and make it cool? Embrace all that stuff that people made of, and turn it on its head and make it cool for today’s audience and for today’s modern sensibility. That was the key for me.
Scott Menzel: Okay. There are a couple more things that I have to ask, but I’ve got to wrap it up quickly. Is there a dream project that you would like to do? Is there something that you’re dreaming of doing that you haven’t had a chance to be part of yet?
James Wan: Yes. I do. I don’t want to talk about it too much at this point, because I’m trying to get the rights to it. It’s one of those ones where the rights … it’s just really hard. No one knows who owns the rights, and stuff like that. So, we’ll see. Yeah, we’ll see if it happens or not down the line.
James Wan: But I will say this about Aquaman, I wanted to do another action movie after Furious 7, I wanted to do a world creation film where I design a unique, special world, I wanted to do a superhero movie, and this particular project just ticked all those boxes for me. In a lot of ways, it killed a lot of birds with one stone, so now I’m like, “Oh, I’m not quite sure what I want to do next”.
Scott Menzel: Would you come back for a sequel? I know that’s always a toughie question.
James Wan: I don’t want to talk about sequels. I always say that…
Scott Menzel: Learn from Tim Burton. Walk away!
James Wan: Is that what he said?
Scott Menzel: I remember reading that he didn’t want to do Batman Returns. Personally, I really like Batman Returns, but everyone shits on that movie.
James Wan: I like Batman Returns too. But this is what I say about sequels, it’s not up to me to decide about the sequels, it’s up to the audience out there.
Scott Menzel: Okay. And then just a last fun thing, you started off in … horror movies are your baby, now you went into these big budget franchise, action/comedy blend, is there a genre that you would like to embrace? Would you do maybe a family film?
James Wan: I do. I have been working on what could be a children’s movie. I’d love to go and just do potentially a small little drama, an indie little drama. I’d love to do that.
James Wan: And a rom-com. I love rom coms. That’s one of my favorite genres to watch, so I’d love to go play in that world.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, it’s great. Did you see Set it Up?
James Wan: No, I have not seen it.
Scott Menzel: Oh, you should watch it.
James Wan: Set It Up?
Scott Menzel: It’s on Netflix. It stars Zoey Deutch and Glenn Powell. It’s a rom-com and it re-establishes what made them so great in the 80s and 90s.
James Wan: Awesome. That sound cool. I’ll have to check it out.
Scott Menzel: Definitely, well, thank you so much, man. It was so much fun talking to you and nice to finally meet you after being a big fan of your work for all these years.
James Wan: A pleasure, nice to meet you as well.