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Selma not only defined David Oyelowo’s career as an actor, but it also shaped him into the producer he is today. Even though he wasn’t actually credited as a producer on Selma, Oyelowo was instrumental in bringing Ava DuVernay’s film to the big screen after seven years of development. And once Selma‘s awards season run concluded in 2015, Oyelowo turned his attention to a script on The Black List called The Water Man. He knew he wanted to produce a movie that was reminiscent of E.T. and The Goonies, but he had no idea that it would eventually lead him into the director’s chair.
“I just found myself wondering why we weren’t making those kinds of films that Amblin was so famous for making in the ’80s and maybe early ’90s,” Oyelowo tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And becoming a parent who loves watching films with his kids — and that largely being siloed into Marvel movies as the sort of familial cinematic experience we were consistently sharing — I just thought, ‘This is cool. This is great, but it’s not….’ I just felt like I was watching films that elicited more of a conversation when I was younger. There were films that followed younger protagonists in a less patronizing, more substantive way when I was younger.”
Oyelowo originally intended to produce the film, as well as act in a co-starring role, but then a wrench was thrown into the works.
“Suddenly, we lost our director to another project that he deemed more worthy of his attention,” Oyelowo shares. “So it was [screenwriter] Emma [Needell] who turned to me and said, ‘David, I’ve been on this four-year journey with you trying to get this thing to the screen. You’re the person I trust to bring this to fruition.’ And so after a two-week period of contemplation, I jumped into the director’s chair.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Oyelowo also discusses the invaluable advice he received from Angelina Jolie, the impact of one scene with Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan, and why he still wants to play Sugar Ray Robinson.
David, The Water Man is a beautiful movie in more ways than one. Even the lighting and color grading are gorgeous.
Yeah, that’s Matthew J. Lloyd, a phenomenal cinematographer. I just did a little short film with him, and I thought, “Whoa, who is this guy?” only to realize he had just shot the new Spider-Man movie. We were shooting this smaller, independent short that Paul Hunter was directing, and I just thought, “Wow, this guy has that rare combo of knowing how to get down and dirty, but also knowing how to do epic and has had experience with VFX.” So I knew that I needed all of those things for my film.
So you didn’t have an idealized journey to the director’s chair like some other first-time filmmakers. For the uninitiated, how did you end up taking the reins of this film?
Yeah, it was circuitous. I mean, the main reason I zoned in on The Water Man was because I had been looking for a film of this nature. I just found myself wondering why we weren’t making those kinds of films that Amblin was so famous for making in the ’80s and maybe early ’90s. These were films that I had really loved;. E.T., of course, being the most iconic, but The Goonies being another. And becoming a parent who loves watching films with his kids — and that largely being siloed into Marvel movies as the sort of familial cinematic experience we were consistently sharing — I just thought, “This is cool. This is great, but it’s not….” I just felt like I was watching films that elicited more of a conversation when I was younger. There were films that followed younger protagonists in a less patronizing, more substantive way when I was younger.
So, anyway, I had put out feelers that I was looking for a film of this nature, and then The Water Man came onto The Black List in 2015. So I went hard to try and get it, but I was up against a major studio who also wanted it. And Emma Needell, the writer, and I just really connected over my passion for it. I promised her I would get it made, and for me, a promise is a very, very precious thing, so I really meant it. So we went on this journey together, and it’s a journey that led to us getting a director, a financier, and a star in the form of Lonnie Chavis. You really needed to find a very special young man to carry the movie as Gunner, as that character requires. We had all of those things, and then suddenly, we lost our director to another project that he deemed more worthy of his attention. So it was Emma who turned to me and said, “David, I’ve been on this four-year journey with you trying to get this thing to the screen. You’re the person I trust to bring this to fruition.” And so after a two-week period of contemplation, I jumped into the director’s chair.
Was the film pretty close to being shut down altogether?
No, because there was a high level of excitement from the financier. ShivHans [Pictures] put in all of the money, and Shivani Rawat had also tracked the project from when it was on The Black List. So there was a fairly high level of determination that it was going to get made. The bigger concern was having found Lonnie Chavis, who was in that very specific age range that you needed for the film. He was young enough to be a kid who believed in The Water Man, but old enough to be able to really have a sense of his mother’s illness being something that was really challenging, as opposed to kind of a nebulous thought. I’ve seen this with my own kids navigating the loss of my parents; they range from 9 to 19. When my mom passed away four years ago, my daughter was 5 at the time, but I also had a son who was about 11 at the time. And how my daughter perceived the loss of my mom — or the impending loss of my mom, and how my 11- or maybe 10-year-old at the time perceived it — were very, very different. So we knew that we couldn’t afford to push too much, having found this needle in the haystack that was Lonnie. Because in six months to a year, he would age out of the role, and so that really put a ticking clock on it for us.
First-time actor-directors will often make the mistake of focusing too much on everyone else’s performance, which leaves them with very little time for their own. Did you ever catch yourself falling into this trap?
It’s funny you say that because the person who really warned me against that was Angelina Jolie. Obviously, she is an actor-director, herself. I also spoke to Nate Parker, Joel Edgerton and Mel Gibson, who are all very impressive actor-directors. But it was Angie who said, “Be careful not to shortchange yourself because you’re really focused on keeping the day moving. You’re a modest guy, so you’re going to be mindful of not wanting to spend too much attention on yourself, but make sure you get your performance in the can.” So that warning from her was always in my mind.
Since you’ve probably been a sponge on past sets as an actor, which experience likely informed your Water Man set the most?
I would say working with Kenneth Branagh on As You Like It. As an actor-director himself, just watching how he directed actors, I would say he really typified the thing I like to think I brought to The Water Man, which is that he directs actors the way he would like to be directed. One of the things that people who are purely directors struggle with is finding the vocabulary to communicate what they need out of actors. But if you’ve been an actor, you know that every actor is different, and that there’s a high level of emotional intelligence that is required in order to be able to connect and to communicate emotional ideas, character ideas, humanity ideas, personality ideas. These are fairly difficult things for your average person to be able to communicate, but as an actor, that’s our job. Our job is to be students of humanity. So whether it’s working with Kenneth Branagh or George Clooney, who I worked with after I had directed The Water Man, it’s the same thing that applies. There’s something unique that an actor-director brings in terms of their communication with other actors.
Specifically, you offered more performance direction than most directors tend to provide?
Yes, for sure. And I would say that my actors on The Water Man probably got more attention paid to not only their performances, but being given the environment to be able to cultivate the best performances possible. I insisted on rehearsal. I insisted on making sure to clear the set before we would bring the crew in to rehearse. In my opinion, a mistake that a lot of directors make is that they will sometimes block a scene with stand-ins, cameras and lights before they bring the actors on. And then suddenly, you’re just expected to now hit those marks and be in the place that the lighting has already been constructed to enhance. The way for actors to really continue to feel their performance is to bring them on set, let them rehearse, let them dictate how the scene should move, where the lights should go, where the marks should be, and then bring the crew in to sort of follow their lead. That, to me, is how you get the best performance, and so often, directors, not for any malicious reason, do it the other way around. But that’s because they’re more preoccupied with their shots than necessarily giving their actors the best shot at the best performance.
You’ve worked with Alfred Molina on several projects now, including 2019’s Don’t Let Go. What’s the origin story there?
(Laughs.) Funnily enough, it’s to do with Kenneth Branagh. We met on As You Like It, and we became fast friends on that. I actually shot As You Like It before my wife and I moved our family to L.A., and Fred had already been living in L.A. for quite a while by then. So he was one of the first people I got advice from and had dinners with when we moved to L.A. in 2007. And then, not long after we moved, my first toe-dip into directing was doing a short film called Big Guy, and he very graciously agreed to be in that film. And years later, I was one of the producers on Don’t Let Go, so I invited him to be part of that. And then funnily enough, when I told Fred casually that I was going to be directing The Water Man, he said over the phone to me, “Well, David, if you have need of a fat Italian to stand in a doorway, I’m your man.” (Laughs.) And I was like, “Well, I don’t have any fat Italians in The Water Man, but I definitely think I have a quirky character that you would bring real life to.” And that was the character of Jim Bussey in the film. Yeah, of course, he’s just one of those guys who never misses. Just such a great, great actor.
Since you only had Rosario Dawson for 12 days, did you scrutinize dailies more than you normally would in order to make extra certain that you had what you needed?
Oh yeah, absolutely. But also, when you hire a great, great actress, 12 days can become an eternity because you have someone who’s hitting the bull’s-eye every time. Like I said, we managed to rehearse before we went into those 12 days. It was tricky, though, because it was all the stuff in the house we had to shoot; that’s where all of her scenes take place. And those are some of the more emotional scenes in the film. So before really getting my sea legs, I was into some fairly meaty stuff. But again, when you have an actress of that nature, she really makes it so much easier. And the great thing about Rosario, as well, is she has such a lightness of spirit. She’s able to tell a joke that would have the crew doubled over, but the minute you call action, she is just 100 percent there. So she just made it such a pleasurable experience, especially as all of her stuff was the first few days of me directing a feature film. She made it so much easier than it otherwise could’ve been or maybe even should’ve been.
This is oddly specific, but there were three different instances where your character was booking it through the forest. Did your crew clear a path for you at the very least? I kept fearing for your ankles as I watched.
(Laughs.) Wow, that is a beautifully specific question because I’ve had two ankle operations. I don’t know how to go anything but fast, whether I’m playing soccer or tennis or whatever. So yes, a path was cleared, but it was still a forest with roots, rocks and all of that kind of stuff. I just don’t know how to do it any other way. My wife was there when we were shooting that day, and she’s witnessed those injuries I’ve had. So she was not happy to see me running at that kind of pace. But for me, it’s all about the truth, and if my son was in a forest somewhere that was on fire, I would be at nothing but the human equivalent of 100 miles per hour. So that’s what it requires and that’s what I’m going to do.
Successful actors will often say things like, “Oh, I would work craft services for this director. I would do background work for this filmmaker.” Is Interstellar’s ” School Principal” your version of that since you were many years removed from the nameless character part of your career? You were also coming off of Middle of Nowhere, Lincoln and The Butler.
Lincoln is applicable, as well, because I was in just one scene in Lincoln. But you think of Chris Nolan, you think of Steven Spielberg — these are figures that are going to outlive you and I as iconic contributors to cinema. And in my experience, you learn more from spending a day with folks the likes of that than you do playing the lead in three big movies with bad directors. And this was borne out, specifically to me, on Lincoln. Just watching Daniel Day-Lewis play that role in that one scene I had with him gave me the blueprint to playing Dr. King in Selma. I saw, firsthand, front row, the level of dedication, technique and presence it takes and it requires to play that kind of seismic role. I have this rule of the three P’s: the people, the project and the part, and the most important of those three P’s is the people. The people you get to work with, that, to me, is where a long career lies. Even though I sprained my ankle severely playing tennis, what I do know from playing tennis is any time I played someone better than me, my game went right up. And so working with Chris Nolan, Steven Spielberg, Ava DuVernay, Anthony Minghella, Chris McQuarrie, Lee Daniels, I’d do it again and again and again. It’s money in the bank just in terms of the learning I need to continue to participate in to be the best actor I can be.
“We didn’t run out of television screens and planes. We ran out of food.” For whatever reason, that line of yours from Interstellar still reverberates in my head.
(Laughs.) And there you go! In a film with a less good director, a one-scene part is a one-scene part. But with a great director, a one-scene part can have impact. No one can take away from me that I worked with one of the greatest directors of our time and got to be in a fairly pivotal scene. It’s definitely a lesson for younger actors coming up, that the part is not the totality of what one should be looking at. It really is the substance.
I knew that Selma had a long road to the big screen, but I didn’t know the extent of your recruitment efforts. You played a key role in Ava DuVernay coming aboard as director, as well as Oprah Winfrey as producer. So out of curiosity, how come you didn’t receive a producer credit?
Wow, you’re the first person to ask that question. Well, it would be different now because I have produced movies. And Selma, in a large way, gave me more notoriety and gave me a name as an actor. Before Selma, even though I did a lot of heavy lifting to get that film made, people are not in a hurry to give out producer credits — and maybe quite rightly. Even Ava DuVernay only got an EP credit, considering just how much she did to get that film off the ground. You can only imagine how impossible that would be now if she were going into a film like that. So The Water Man was the sixth film I’ve produced, and I’ve produced seven movies now. The next one is a film called Solitary. But I learned what being a producer means over the seven years of my involvement with Selma. I learned what it takes to get a seemingly impossible film made, and that’s the role of a producer. Every day, you’re moving the needle to try and get the impossible to be possible. And even though I didn’t get the credit, I got the experience, and that’s what has now become applicable and applied to every film I’ve produced since and everything I’ll produce going forward.
I have a story for you since I know you’ve been trying to play boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson for a while now.
In the early ’70s, my father saw Sugar Ray Robinson at the Stage Deli in New York City, so he decided to approach him.
Even though he knew who he was, my dad broke the ice by asking, “Are you Sugar Ray Robinson?” to which Ray nodded in acknowledgement. From there, my dad decided to size him up in a noticeable way before blurting out the following: “Eh, you don’t look so tough!”
Ray, without any expression on his face, paused for a beat to assess the situation, and then he burst out with laughter for a good minute or so. I think he even bought my dad a pastrami sandwich as a thank you of sorts.
So perhaps this story will be useful to you someday.
Well, that scene may just work itself into the film. That’s great. That is fantastic. That’s partly why I want to make this movie. I mean, that guy was so multilayered. He had as many demons as he had angels bubbling around in his breath. He was brilliant at what he did as a boxer, but equally hated being a boxer. What he wanted to be was a song-and-dance man and he just found that he had thunder in his fists. He was also doing what he was doing at a really interesting time in American history, racially. To be such a self-possessed African-American man in the ’40s and ’50s, to be essentially a conscientious objector before [Muhammad] Ali did the same, to be someone who decided how he wanted his business to be run…. He’s a precursor to LeBron [James], [Floyd] Mayweather and [Colin] Kaepernick. He’s the blueprint for that kind of agency and self-possession, and he’s still considered the pound-for-pound best to ever, ever do it. He was a champion five times, over 200 professional fights. That’s unthinkable these days, and he was still boxing professionally to the age of 45. It’s just such an incredible story. But I loved hearing that story. And yes, I’m not paying you a commission if that works its way into the movie. You gave it to me for free.
It’s all yours.
Well, we have to wrap, but I hope you’ve caught the directing bug.
Man, that means so much. I definitely intend to do it again, but like with everything I do, I’m going to be careful to pick the next one because these movies live on forever. And I want my contribution to have a remote chance at being something people see not just in the moment, but for a long time to come.
The Water Man is now available in theaters.
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Sterling K. Brown