David Oyelowo’s directorial debut, The Water Man (which just had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival) feels like a throwback. It’s about a kid, Gunner (Lonnie Chavis) who goes on a great quest to find the mythical man/creature known as The Water Man, who is said to possess healing powers, in an effort to save his mother (Rosario Dawson) who is dying. It’s got that adventure and spirit of some of the great kid adventure movies of the ’80s, the kind we don’t really see anymore. And that’s not an accident.
Oyelowo spent a good portion of his youth in Nigeria where he didn’t have access to a lot of the big films of the ’80s, but when his family returned to the UK in 1989, he devoured them. So his influences range from a lot of movies you’d expect – E.T., The Goonies, Stand By Me, The NeverEnding Story – and maybe one you might not expect, namely the 1987 Andrew McCarthy, Kim Cattrall supernatural romantic comedy, Mannequin.
Ahead, Oyelowo (who has the reputation of being just one of the nicest people in the industry, which I try to convey in the story that starts this interview) explains that a big reason he wanted to make The Water Man is because there just aren’t a lot of movies today made in the same vein as those ’80s classics, and he wanted to make a new one for his kids. And, of course, he also explains just why, when he was a kid, he loved Mannequin so much.
I’ve only met you once before and it was the weirdest thing.
It was Sundance 2019. And we were waiting to cross the street. And you knew someone I was with and he did a quick introduction…
I think I said, “Oh, your first movie.” And I meant first movie of that Sundance. And you say yes, then felt compelled to clarify, “Not my first movie ever, I’ve seen movies.”
[Laughing] Right right.
And I’m like, “No. I know you’ve seen movies.” And then you went further, saying you’ve been to Sundance before, too. Anyway, that’s been our only interaction.
[Laughs] Oh, I’m so glad we got to clear that up. So yes, we can fix things now, Mike.
I remember that whole movie thinking, “Oh my God, does David Oyelowo think I thought he never saw a movie before?”
Oh, dear. Be rest assured I didn’t think that’s what you were thinking. But I’m glad to clear it up.
Though it would be something if you hadn’t, and now you decided to direct one. Because most people watch them first before they start directing.
[Laughs] I’d say it’s a good idea to do that.
I don’t know how many more interviews you have left, but I know you’ve been asked a lot, “Why are you directing now?” And you should say, “Well, I finally watched one and I wanted to make one.”
[Laughing] It would certainly break things up. Oh my goodness.
You said a big reason you wanted to make The Water Man is because you grew up watching movies like Stand By Me and Goonies and they don’t really exist anymore. Which is probably why those two movies are still popular, because there aren’t really new ones to replace them.
Very good point. I don’t know if you have children yourself, but I do. And I think that’s the reason I really noticed it – especially in this time where we’re all home a little bit more and you crave escapism, entertainment, stories to help sort of switch off some of the really quite difficult stuff we’re going through right now. I think what’s starting to happen in my business, in the entertainment business, is that power is being taken away by a small group of cultural curators who are deciding what we should and should not see, what we want and do not want. And, one of the great things about the streamers is that they have sort of democratized, in a sense, what it is audiences are having available to them.
You say cultural curators. Are you just talking about studio heads specifically? Or is it a wider swath of people?
I’m talking about studio heads primarily. I’m talking about people who have green-light power. People who can decide what gets made or what doesn’t. What gets the big marketing budget or what doesn’t. The streamers operate in a slightly different model. They are gravitating towards diverse content. They are gravitating towards content that is headed up by women, made by women; fronted by women in front of and behind the camera. They’re gravitating towards things that are international: All things that studios traditionally shy away from. “Black doesn’t travel” has been an awful phrase that has been Hollywood’s dirty secret for a while or not so secret.
I’d agree it’s not so secret.
Yeah. And it’s just patently not true. But while you still have that old model, old mindset, old mentality curating the culture, we’re not going to move forward as quickly as that it seems we all want to.
Do you think with people being at home has pushed things forward at a quicker rate? They tried butting a movie in theaters in the United States and it didn’t work.
Well, I wouldn’t use the phrase, push things forward. I would just say it’s a restructure, and it’s a refreshing restructuring. There are plenty of wonderful things about studio movies. And I’ve loved watching Marvel movies, Disney movies, Star Wars. I love watching the big tent-pole movies in a movie theater. I craved that experience. I longed for it to return. But those films are a very small section of what I think an audience is craving. I mean, what we’ve tried to do with The Water Man is to make a family film that doesn’t shy away from tougher scenes, while still being adventurous and exciting. A film like The Water Man, you could argue, wouldn’t exist unless there was a restructuring. Because the sheer amount of money you have to spend to corral the audience’s attention when you’re competing with a Marvel movie is twice, maybe three times the budget of what you made the film for. That doesn’t make any business sense.
The movies that influenced The Water Man. I’m curious when you saw those, because it looks like in your age range those came out you would have been in Nigeria then? Did you see those when you were living there?
I saw some of them there, but I saw most of them when I moved back to the UK. I lived in Nigeria from the age of 6 to 13. But in that period particularly, because to be honest, the range of movies I was exposed to in Nigeria was limited. And so when I came to the UK in ’89, I consumed films I had missed. And films that were still coming out at that point. A lot of them made by Amblin. And I remember I can picture the VHS, how worn out they were. I mean, I would have to rewrite E.T. on to the VHS so many times because it got worn out. I did it in pencil, I did it in pen, I did it in a marker – I watched it that many times! So, it was films like that. And Gremlins as well was another one I watched over and over again. Even Mannequin over and over again.
I wasn’t expecting you to say Mannequin.
I just think, again, it sort of had a fantastical element. As a child, your imagination is so alive. But the fact that it’s both imaginative and grounded, I think is the thing that really drew me as a child because that’s where you’re at when you’re a kid. Like my eight year-old daughter, when she’s playing with her toys or whatever, there is a whole entire universe she has created. And when I try to play with her, with her toys, the amount of times she goes, “No dad, that’s not right. That’s not what she wants.” Because she has a whole set of rules of how her universe, that she has built for her toys, is. But she’s playing with them on a real table, on a real sofa. And that’s what I think you have to do with those kinds of films that don’t have bloated budgets.
You have to find a way to be both imaginative and grounded, because you can’t suddenly go into intergalactic space or decide you’re just going to have aliens or monsters manifesting throughout the whole movie. You can’t do that. So you have to be more imaginative, in a sense. And that’s why I was drawn to those kinds of films. Anyway, and as you get older, I think you like being reminded of where you were at with the mindset of a child. Especially in times that are quite tough, because that, in a sense, is still a part of you. But the trials of life sort of dims that, I should say. And it’s always wonderful to step back into that space.
I am imagining you catching up on all these movies in 1989, watching The Goonies and Stand By Me and even The NeverRnding Story, and just thinking, wow, parents in the United States let their kids do really dangerous things.
No! I was quite the opposite! I felt parents of the United States were cool. I wanted to go there! I wanted to live there one day and I wanted to raise my children there, and that was exactly what I did about 20 years later. [Laughs] So yeah, that is what I thought.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.