David Oyelowo has starred in such films as Selma, Queen of Katwe and Midnight Sky. This month, he makes his directorial debut with The Water Man, in which he also stars. Below, he shares the movies that inspired his film, which blends fantasy and reality as a kid named Gunner goes on a quest to find a cure for his mother’s illness.
For whatever reason, our culture has shifted into a mindset where we undermine children’s ability to be truly emotionally intelligent enough to take on tougher themes. So you have Marvel movies, Star Wars-type films, Disney IP-type films, or films that are sometimes quite one- or two-dimensional, and don’t have the thematic heft that actually speaks to where a lot of kids are.
I have four kids. They are 19, 16, 13 and 9, and I’ve watched them traverse very difficult things without that necessarily meaning they are no longer kids. I’ve watched them watch things that have been marketed up the wazoo as things they will like, that they’ve hated. And I’ve watched them watch things that are intellectually more demanding than is necessarily targeted at them, and love it. So I do think there is a discrepancy in some quarters between what actual teenagers, tweenagers, are watching and loving, and what the executives, who are the gatekeepers to what they’re watching, think they would like. For me, the opportunity with something like The Water Man is to test that theory.
It’s the thing that Pixar does so brilliantly with films like Up, Soul, Onward and The Incredibles. The Incredibles is about these two parents going through a midlife crisis. Up starts with a bereavement. It starts with this old man not knowing what life is going to be without his wife. Soul is talking about such existential, spiritual, afterlife themes that would never get made in a live-action movie. But because it’s animation, you’re able to smuggle it in. It’s demonstrating beautifully that the whole family have the ability—not only the ability but the desire—to engage with these things together. And those films are sticking with them. But we’re not doing quite the same thing with live-action movies.
Before Star Wars went on to be the behemoth that it now is, it was a father-and-son story. At its core, it’s those relatable themes that are pulling people in. Virtually every Disney movie is about the loss of a parent or some kind of familial challenge. But again, because it’s couched in the candy that is animation, we don’t subject it to the same scrutiny as to do live-action movies. It’s the same thing with musicals. You have Les Mis. You have what has thematically tough subjects, but people are singing so you’re smuggling in those themes.
With a film like The Water Man, you do it by juxtaposing reality and fantasy, and having moments in the film that open things up, whether it’s with the horses, or the beetles, or the log crossing that keeps the visuals going, whilst also talking about the things that literally affect each and every human being no matter who you are, if you live long enough on this planet.
I felt Spielberg so beautifully wove together the reality and fantasy. Reality, in terms of how the film starts with this family facing a very challenging time, and then, boom, an alien enters the film. It bizarrely doesn’t feel, pardon the pun, alien. That’s just an incredible thing to pull off, and I think this film probably does it better than any other that I’ve seen. It was a huge inspiration.
Similarly, kids on an adventure, but the jump-off point is their communal struggle in their community. They feel energized to go and save the day because their town is basically under threat. There’s very much a correlation with The Water Man there, in that, for our protagonist, there is a threat to someone he deeply loves and he’s going to go on an adventure.
The thing that really inspired me here is the fact that these kids were incredibly emotionally intelligent when it came to themes of a more adult nature. The very fact that they’re going off to find a dead body, let alone the fact that you have a character who is being teased for his father who was in the war … That’s clearly a big psychological wound for him. Also, you see the protagonist in the film dealing with the bereavement of his brother. But it never takes its foot off the gas when it comes to the fun factor. The two things can coexist. Stand by Me is a big inspiration from that point of view.
I loved Gremlins growing up because it’s just a gross-out film. I remember squealing and hiding behind the sofa when I saw it. And it inspired the bug scene in The Water Man, that cascade of bugs. I just remember when one of the gremlins is put in a blender and all the gunk goes all over the place. I always had that in my mind when I thought up Gunner and Jo treading on the bugs in that sequence.
Again, there is a juxtaposition in this film between grown-ups and kids and a community, and how you can have an adventure movie that isn’t one or the other. It can be both fantasy, reality, sci-fi, adult themes, themes that appeal to kids … This is another film that I can watch with my entire family, and everyone’s getting something out of it.
I would be remiss not to mention Up, which is a huge, huge favorite from that point of view. I don't know which studio makes that film as a live-action movie … This grumpy guy whose wife has just died forms this relationship with a kid … The impetus for the relationship is grief, but it is just such a heartwarming one. I can’t watch it without crying. I can’t watch it without laughing. I can’t watch it without my heart just bursting with the humanity of the film. And again, this is a film that was constantly on my mind as we were making The Water Man.