How 'Aquaman' Director James Wan Expanded the DC Universe by Leaving It Behind

The film features just a small 'Justice League' nod: "It actually freed me up to tell the story I wanted to tell."
Jasin Boland/Warner Bros.
Amber Heard, James Wan, Jason Momoa and Willem Dafoe on the set of 'Aquaman'

In order to expand the DC universe, Aquaman director James Wan had to leave much of it behind.

Aquaman is the sixth film in Warner Bros.' DC cinematic universe, a creation that has at times been dinged by critics and fans for trying to do too much too fast. In 2014, the studio announced an ambitious slate of 10 films it hoped would help it rival Marvel Studios, but many of those plans faltered as universe-building Easter eggs in movies like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice generated more audience derision than excitement. In 2017, Wonder Woman earned praise on a number of fronts, including for its only minimal nods to the larger DC movie continuity.

And now there's Wan, who pushed to make his film stand on its own. There are no Easter eggs teasing next year's Shazam!, and there's just one exchange of dialogue referencing last year's Justice League, which featured Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Mera (Amber Heard). The irony is that by leaving the larger universe behind, Aquaman does more world building than any DC film to date; Wan introduces enough kingdoms and concepts to fill half a dozen sequels and spinoffs, should he and the studio choose. (A sequel is in early stages of discussion at Warner Bros., The Hollywood Reporter reported earlier this month.)

Wan is reticent to talk about any expansion plans ahead of the film's release. But he does acknowledge The Conjuring, his 2013 horror hit that spawned a cinematic universe that includes the Annabelle films and The Nun: "If you create a world that is interesting that has different characters and lots of different flavors to it, then of course there are a lot of different areas to potentially visit."

In a conversation with THR, Wan also discusses Marvel's plans to introduce its first Asian leading man with Shang-Chi and how the Furious 7 director encouraged Momoa to show his vulnerable side.  

You've been living with this movie for a long time, but it has been even longer for Jason who was cast five years ago. Did Jason come to you with ideas for how this character should be portrayed?

Jason obviously has a very strong point of view of how he would like his character to be portrayed and how he would like to play him. We chat and we collaborate and I hear him out, hear what he would like to see with his character and ultimately pitch him how I see the film and what I would like the overall story to be, and we take it from there.

Jason has several lines you don't expect from an archetypical tough guy.  He even admits he's afraid at one point. Was he eager to show that side of himself?

I've worked with enough tough guys to know that they don't necessarily like to portray the softer, the more vulnerable side of themselves. That's what I appreciate with Jason. He recognizes the importance of storytelling and character arc and how his character needs to be taken down a few notches, so he can come back up. It's the classic Rocky story. He starts winning and then he gets knocked out and then he comes back up. And I think Jason is a filmmaker as well, so he appreciates that kind of stuff.

How did you convince Nicole Kidman to come back to the DC universe after Batman Forever?

Funnily enough, I kind of forgot she had already done a Batman. Nicole and I have stealthily been trying to find the right project to work on for a while. We were on a project a few years ago that didn't eventuate, but we were big fans of each other and we were just trying to find a project to work on. When this movie came along and I needed my Queen of Atlantis, the first person I went to was Nicole Kidman.

There are moments in here with Nicole that are particularly emotional. What is the key to directing her and her scene partners in moments like that?

I put a lot of emphasis on human emotion. [Frequent collaborator and Aquaman star] Patrick Wilson will say, "James' secret sauce that he has that people don't really talk about is the human aspect in his film." It took Patrick Wilson to break my work down for me to understand my own work. And he's kind of right in that respect. Regardless of what genre I make my movies, whether I'm doing a horror movie or a Fast and Furious or this one, the family aspect has always been a very important part of that. The human stuff. The emotional side of it all and when an audience can relate to the character through the grounded, human emotion, then you can take them on these crazy adventures. 

James Cameron has talked about when he made Avatar, it gave him technology that now makes doing sequels easier. If there were an Aquaman sequel, would it be the same here?

When you are making big movies like these, it's never easy. That's just the bottom line. If it was easy, anybody could do it!

So unfortunately for you, there would be no, "I know how to do the harness for underwater scenes" at least, or something?

I've learned things, but that's no different to me than learning something from a low-budget movie that I then apply to my bigger films. Every project is an education for me.

If we are watching The Conjuring, we can see what you learned in something huge like Aquaman.

All the way back to Saw. Saw was a drama movie about two guys stuck in a room. It's a theater show, really.

Saw star Leigh Whannell has said being on the set of Aquaman was almost like being back on the set of Saw somewhat, in the sense that it felt like an intimate thing. Would you agree with that?

My approach to all my movies, I try to keep my set kind of fun and not so depressing like it can be sometimes.

It's a long movie, but it's economical too. There is just one line that summarizes Justice League. Was how you'd handle the baggage of the DC universe instantly obvious? Did you think, "This is the one line, that's it." Or did you have to play around with that line much?

It's a hard movie to do because it's an origin of a character people don’t know as well. You have a lot to cram in there. A lot of characters to set up, you've got to set up the emotional stuff here and there. And set up the hero's journey and when people quote the time duration, I say, "13 minutes of that is end credits," so you aren't watching the full 2 hours, 23 minutes. The movie is still shorter than Mission: Impossible [Fallout]. If you guys put up with that, you can put up with this! (Laughs.) If you are telling another Batman movie, you don't have to do an origin story because we've seen that movie many times. With this character being the first time, there's more backstory to get through. 

In terms of connecting it to the bigger DCEU, I didn't want to shoehorn in anything from the larger universe because I felt like I was creating my own universe within that and my characters were going to go on their own journeys, which has nothing to do with the other stuff. And because of that, it actually freed me up to tell the story I wanted to tell.

You don't like talking about sequels before they happen. But going back to James Cameron — he has so many worlds of Avatar he's exploring in four sequels after making just one movie. You've got so many other things that could happen with the Aquaman universe. Does that make your head spin, how big this could be?

Just like when we did the first Conjuring, we always said we don't want to count our chickens before they hatch, but we all know that the Warrens have lots of different stories. They investigated thousands of cases, so of course, they have many stories in there and it's the same with this. If you create a world that is interesting that has different characters and lots of different flavors to it, then, of course, there are a lot of different areas to potentially visit.  

The Conjuring has expanded beyond what viewers may have initially realized it could be.

It's about creating the world and if people want to see more of that world. Sequels only happen if the audiences out there want it. It's as simple as that.

We live in a world where fans are used to seeing actors like Gal Gadot play comic book characters every year or every other year. An Aquaman movie takes so long to make, yet fans will definitely be wanting to see Jason sooner than that. As an artist, is that demand a little irritating?

They'll definitely see more of Jason in all the other films he's doing and in a TV series he's doing now for Apple. So they'll see more of him! They'll get more Jason Momoa, not so much Aquaman, but they will definitely see more Jason Momoa for sure.

You've been a vocal supporter of Crazy Rich Asians, and Aquaman capstones a big year for onscreen representation in Hollywood. Have you given thought to how your film will likely be remembered in the larger context of 2018?

It's always great to be part of a positive movement. At the end of the day, I just hope the film speaks on its own and that's the bottom line.

Marvel is going to make its first Asian-toplined film, Shang-Chi, and is looking for an Asian director for it. After Furious 7, things opened up for you. What are your thoughts on another Asian director getting the opportunity to do something like that?

I think it's great. And to have a strong Asian male lead, I can't think of one for the life of me. The last person I can think of is Bruce Lee, and God that is so sad. Bruce Lee is my father's generation. It's great, it's about time. That's why I love Crazy Rich Asians because it gave us someone like Henry Golding, a good-looking Asian guy. Hollywood for the longest part has been willing to take chances with lead Asian female actors, but they've never done it with Asian guys, so it's slowly moving in that direction.

***

Aquaman hits U.S. theaters Friday.