Oyelowo, who starred in last year’s “The Midnight Sky,” felt the family entertainment films of the ’80s were missing from the industry today. As a father of four, he wanted to mimic the films that he had grown up on. “I loved Steven Spielberg movies,” the actor-turned-director says. He missed films such as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “The Goonies” that sparked conversation and “didn’t speak down to me.”
Emma Needell’s script for “The Water Man” had previously been on the Black List and soon came his way. Oyelowo jumped on board to produce the film and act in it, but it was Needell who suggested that he helm the film and make his feature directorial debut.
With that, Oyelowo assembled his crew and re-examined the script. In observing his own family dynamic, Oyelowo was inspired to rewrite a central character as a young girl, instead of a boy, and introduce a woman sheriff into the equation.
Below, Oyelowo talks with Variety about his journey making “The Water Man” and building the film’s cast, which includes Rosario Dawson, Alfred Molina and “This is Us” star Lonnie Chavis.
Where did the idea for “The Water Man” begin for you?
It had two beginnings. The first for me was that I grew up loving films. I loved Steven Spielberg movies. I loved “The Goonies” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” “Stand by Me” also had a huge impression on me when I was younger, and I loved that those films didn’t speak down to me and I didn’t feel patronized by them.
I also remember watching them with my parents, and they were not only adventurous and exciting, but they elicited conversations between me and my parents, which are precious moments for me and my childhood. When my wife Jessica and I had kids, I realized there were fewer of those films around. I wondered why that was the case, and so I started looking for those projects and looking for those scripts. That was the track I was on.
In the meantime, Emma Needell had written “The Water Man” based on her childhood, and I had talked about my desire to find this kind of project to either produce or create. It was my agents at CAA who brought me to the script.
Emma had several offers at the time to make the film, but I think we connected over the fact that I grew up loving this kind of film and didn’t see people who look like me reflected in those kinds of films. I wanted to play the father in this film, which would instantaneously make this a family of color. Even though that’s not how it was written, she loved that idea, and that was what bonded us.
I love that you directed it, but you also gathered an incredible cast with Rosario Dawson, Alfred Molina and Lonnie Chavis as your son. How did that all come together?
Initially, I was going to be in it and come on board as a producer. We had already cast Lonnie, who is just so wonderful in “This Is Us,” but we had a finite window with him. We had ShivHans Pictures on board to finance the film. We had our star, our financing and a window to shoot it.
With directing, it was something I had been contemplating and it was Emma who turned to me and said, “I think you should be the one to direct this.”
Once I came on board as director, I started looking at the script through my own eyes. Originally, the family was a white family, and with me being the dad changed that dynamic.
I have three sons and a daughter, and my girl has to keep up with her brothers. It made me turn my attention to the fact that even though in the original script was written as two boys who go on this adventure, I wanted to make the Jo character — who was Joseph — a girl.
I changed that role to Jo as played by Amiah Miller. I also changed the sheriff role to a woman because I met Maria Bello at Sundance, and she said, “I hear you’re directing a film. I think you’re a wonderful actor, I can only imagine you’ll be a great director. I want to be in your movie.” So I created that role for her.
With Alfred Molina, he had been in my short film and we had worked on “Don’t Let Go.” He’s a wonderful human being and a great actor. He said to me, “David, if you ever need someone, if you ever need a fat Italian to stand in a doorway for you, I’m your man.” And I cast him.
With Rosario Dawson, I’ve always been a big fan and she embodies that beauty and quality you need at the heart of the movie.
There’s a beautiful moment with Lonnie standing in the doorway watching his mother. You feel that love radiating between them. Talk about framing that scene with all that’s going on in that moment.
I see an emotional intelligence in my kids that is so much more than what you see in films. That’s why I was constantly trying to be vigilant about making sure that the intelligence of an 11-year-old is not undermined or underestimated because I’ve seen it firsthand. I know it for myself and my kids.
About six years ago, my mom became very ill and she had a brain aneurysm. Even though I was much older when this happened, the love you have for your parent, especially if they’ve been a good parent, when they then get ill — there is something so disquieting about seeing someone who has been a rock for you become frail and in need of help. That’s what I was trying to capture with that moment, where as a kid you feel this need to reciprocate that love you’ve been given. And that’s what this narrative is about, to me, is a child who exhibits what I know to be true love, which is “I will do anything I can for your wellbeing.” In many ways, that moment is trying to capture that without any words.
Peter Baert’s score is beautiful. What conversations did you have with him over the sonic world of the film?
A thing I’ve always had about scores in films is, why is it always what we deem to be Western or Western European music? Where are the sounds? I wanted sounds that were evocative of my experience: African sounds. I didn’t want bongos like the classic “Lion King,” African jungle type sound. I said to Peter, “Use instruments that are not all classical.”
My Nigerian heritage had to be in there. You see it in the costumes, the production design and it had to be in the music. I like to think that “The Water Man” has a homemade feel to it; it’s very evocative of my home and my experience.