Watching E.T., The Goonies and Gremlins as a kid, David Oyelowo never felt spoken down to. Instead, he felt like he could relate to them. “Even though I was a kid who was born in the U.K., lived a substantial part of my life in Nigeria, then moved back to the U.K. … I’ve seen some stuff,” David says. “I wasn’t a sheltered kid in any way.” These films presented very real-life scenarios—a father who has just left, a community about to lose their homes—and juxtaposed them with fantasy worlds, or the inner workings of a child’s mind.

“As a child, you are trying to get a sense of the world. It is spliced with all sorts of highfalutin big ideas that are not based in reality, whilst you’re also dealing with reality,” he says. Now, with four kids of his own, David is more certain than ever that this juxtaposition of fantasy and reality is simply a part of growing up. On May 7, David’s directorial debut, The Water Man, hits theaters—bringing these themes, and this blend of fantasy and reality, into 2021.

David first read Emma Needell’s script for The Water Man in 2015, after it earned a place on the Black List. He related to the character of Gunner immediately. “I was a builder of stories in my head,” David says. “But also, I had a deep, deep love of my parents. I would do anything for my mom and dad.” The idea that a kid would go to extreme lengths, into a dangerous forest to find the secret to immortality, to save his mother from leukemia felt real to him. He found Amos, the father character whom he plays onscreen, relatable, too. “I’m very in tune with my fallibility as a parent,” David says. “[Amos] is someone who is trying to figure it out. He’s been away in the Navy, I’m away a lot as an actor, but you’re trying to juggle all of those things and do a good job as a father. At the end of the day, you’d give everything for the well-being of your family.”

Director David Oyelowo, Amiah Miller and Lonnie Chavis (left to right).

So how did David Oyelowo, an actor who’s played the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., make his directorial debut with a child-driven adventure story? “Often, when people have seen The Water Man, they’re a bit surprised that this is my first film. Because in their minds, I’m more known for ‘important’ films, ones that are more grown-up in some way,” David says. But who’s to say the themes tackled in The Water Man aren’t of equal importance?

Directing a family film

David hadn’t gone into this project with the intention to direct. He and his wife, Jessica, jumped onboard as producers—and as parents. “I just wanted this thing to exist,” he says. After securing funding, identifying their child star and locking in a start date, the project lost its director. Emma turned to David and said to him, “Look, we’ve been on this four-year journey together. I don’t think there’s anyone more equipped to do this from a directorial point of view than you.” 

Up until that point, David had made a career for himself as an actor, starring in such films as Nightingale, Queen of Katwe, Come Away and A United Kingdom (the latter two which he also produced alongside Jessica). He became best known for his role as Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay’s Selma. “It was Ava DuVernay who actually reminded me of the fact that, by being an actor, and thankfully one who has had a degree of success, I’ve been on more film sets than some of the most successful directors of all time,” David says. “Being an actor who has an eye on directing is very useful because there are multiple opportunities to gain experience. But also, as an actor, my main strength when it comes to directing is my ability to guide the actors towards, hopefully, the best performance they can get to, whilst bringing all of those performances together in a cohesive way.” 

Having been directed by the likes of Kenneth Branagh and George Clooney, David has found that “actors direct the way they would like to be directed.” Which is to say, with a high level of emotional intelligence. “They are able to quickly discern what you as an individual need to unlock into the best performance possible.”

“Your job as an actor is to be emotionally intelligent, to understand human beings and what makes them tick,” he adds. “I think that’s hugely helpful. If you can have that quality, but also have the ability to hire people much smarter than you in other departments who make you look good, and you let them go do their thing, you stand a good chance at success.”

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“It’s crazy what we do. And it’s amazing that it ever works, but it does time and again. And when it really works, it’s the most satisfying thing in the world.” —David Oyelowo

The Water Man is centered around a kid’s world, which means David was also tasked with finding the perfect child actors to play those parts. “If you find a great child actor, 95% of your work is done,” he says. What constitutes a great child actor? Again, David chalks it up to emotional intelligence. “And, to be frank, a child who hasn’t had the childishness trained out of them. That’s needle-in-a-haystack stuff.” In Lonnie Chavis and Amiah Miller, he found his Gunner and Jo, the duo who go on this adventure into the woods. “We’re dealing with fairly grown-up themes, in terms of loss, in terms of self-sacrifice. And at no point did I ever have to trick them into a performance that made it seem like they understood those themes,” David says. “Not only were they able to engage with them, but they were able to engage with them through the lens of a child.”

Bringing “The Water Man” home

When it comes to sharing his work with his kids, David finds that they’re more excited about series like The Lion Guard or Star Wars Rebels. “Yes, they can appreciate Selma, but it’s not the thing that makes them do cartwheels. They want escapism. They want to be whisked off on a journey, and no film I have been a part of or shown them has done that better than The Water Man, I’m relieved to say. Because I made it for them.”

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“To be able to make this film with a family that looks more like mine, and certainly a protagonist who looks more like my kids, is hugely satisfying because they get to live in a world where that’s not unheard of or unseen. Which was definitely the case when I was younger.” —David Oyelowo

All four of David’s kids were involved in the film in one way or another. They spent days on set during shooting and his eldest son even produced the song in the end credits, which Jessica sang. Additionally, the lullaby that Rosario Dawson’s character sings to Gunner before bed is a song that Jessica wrote for their second son when he was younger and dealing with nightmares. The character of Jo was originally conceived as a boy, but David’s only daughter, “is rambunctious, and adventurous, and just a ball of light and fire. So turning Joseph into Jo, she’s the inspiration for her.” In other words, the Oyelowo family is completely woven through the fabric of this film, David explains. And it’s exactly the type of story that David and Jessica were after when they started their production company, Yoruba Saxon.

“We have two lanes that we are very focused on,” David says. First, there’s “live-action Pixar,” films that “have a three- to four-quadrant potential reach, that can be made in the sub-$20 million range, that potentially can have real upside because the other films in that space are all $100 million or more.” The Water Man falls into this category, as does Come Away. And then, there are “African stories for a global audience,” films like A United Kingdom. “We just see that continent as such a rich vein of stories untapped, and talent that needs to be shared with the globe,” David says. 

Ultimately the Oyelowos aim to use cinema as a vehicle to “normalize the marginalized.” With The Water Man, that means whisking a young Black boy off on an adventure to find the secret of immortality to heal his sick mother. Because as E.T. and The Goonies showed David growing up, and as The Water Man shows us now, kids can turn every day, and even particularly bad days, into an adventure.

See also: The six films that inspired The Water Man

All photos courtesy of Karen Ballard