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'I wanted to make a film for my 12-year-old self:' David Oyelowo's directorial debut brings back fantasy in 'The Water Man'

Elisabetta Bianchini
·5-min read
David Oyelowo, Rosario Dawson, Lonnie Chavis in 'The Water Man' (Courtesy of TIFF)
David Oyelowo, Rosario Dawson, Lonnie Chavis in 'The Water Man' (Courtesy of TIFF)

David Oyelowo was “spitting chips” angry before he took on the role of director, as well as actor, in the Oprah Winfrey-backed film The Water Man, part of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup.

There was a director on the project initially who ended up leaving, while the production already had a start date and lead actor at the ready.

“When you have those things you go,” Oyelowo said at a press conference last weekend.

It was screenwriter and executive producer Emma Needell who said Oyelowo should direct the film himself, the first time taking on this role on a feature film.

The Water Man is a fantasy-adventure film that tells the story of Gunner Boone (Lonnie Chavis) who goes on a journey to search for the Water Man, a mythical creature who holds the secret to immortality, with the help of an energetic girl Jo Riley (Amiah Miller). Gunner’s mother, played by Rosario Dawson, is ill, which sparks Gunner’s quest. While the two children are on their journey in a mysterious forest, Gunner’s father Amos (Oyelowo) tries to find his son.

‘It didn’t get into fantasy to the point where it just seemed out of reach’

Needell was an assistant when she wrote the initial script and got a call that Oyelowo and Winfrey’s company wanted to talk about it while she was running an errand for her boss, a shock that made her think she was going to crash her car at the time. The screenwriter was touched that Oyelowo kept her involved the whole time, something that she said is quite rare for a first-time screenwriter.

The Water Man is a mystical story but has a strong heart. Oyelowo said the story harkens back to the films he loved watching as a kid and now enjoys with his children, like Goonies, Stand by Me and E.T.

“It’s the kind of story that we need to see more of,” Dawson said. “As I was watching the movie, I was just feeling the child in me and all the movies that I’d watch when I was a kid that didn’t patronize me, that didn’t segment me to childishness.”

“It didn’t get into fantasy to the point where it just seemed out of reach.”

The intersection of magic and reality is really exemplified through the exquisite cinematography led by Matthew J. Lloyd, born in Alberta, and whose A-list movie credits include Captain Marvel and Thor: Ragnarok.

“I knew that I wanted something that was vibrant, I wanted to see African colours in there because I want to see myself represented,” Oyelowo explained. “I wanted to make a film for my 12-year-old self...I wanted to see a young Black boy transcendent as he moves through nature.”

Actors David Oyelowo, Jessica Oyelowo and family pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film 'Queen of Katwe', during the London Film Festival in London, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. (Photo by Joel Ryan/Invision/AP)
Actors David Oyelowo, Jessica Oyelowo and family pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film 'Queen of Katwe', during the London Film Festival in London, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. (Photo by Joel Ryan/Invision/AP)

‘I made it for them’

It’s that connection to his family that made the film’s director/actor “so nervous” to show it to his family, but they were ultimately very proud of him

“I made it for them,” Oyelowo revealed. “I have three sons and I know what it is to have a loving relationship with your children but also have these periods where you’re trying to navigate as they are growing.”

The director/actor revealed the character of Jo Riley was changed from a boy to a girl because he wanted his daughter represented in the film as well.

“She doesn’t have to be an addendum or an appendage,” he said, adding that he wanted his daughter to see that she can lead a boy.

There is also a song that Dawson sings in the first act that was a lullaby that Oyelowo’s wife wrote for their second son when he was having nightmares and the song playing in the end credits was written by his wife and eldest son.

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 10: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) Lonnie Chavis visits BuzzFeed's "AM To DM" on March 10, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Jason Mendez/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 10: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) Lonnie Chavis visits BuzzFeed's "AM To DM" on March 10, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Jason Mendez/Getty Images)

‘I think that everybody can really relate to Gunner...’

Chavis’ captivating performance is well showcased the film. The actor revealed that he’s “speechless when it comes to talking about Mr. David” because of the way he led the film’s production so “eloquently” and made Chavis feel incredibly comfortable on set. The actor said he had to face many fears in The Water Man, including fears of the dark and heights.

“I think that everybody can really relate to Gunner because I feel like if you...knew somebody that was ill, you would just do anything for them,” Chavis said.

At last weekend’s press conference, the actor spoke about the letter he wrote about racism back in June.

“I wrote that after watching the sad tragedy of George Floyd, my mom wanted to discuss it with me but I really didn’t know how I felt” he explained. “I felt like I was numb at the time...I wrote that just to discuss my feelings to my mom because I didn’t really know how to express them through talking.”

“I feel like this film helped me in a way because I can relate to Gunner...This is what I want Black kids to see, when they look at this movie I want them to see a representation of them in Gunner.”

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) takes place from Sept. 10 to Sept. 19. Information on screenings and tickets at tiff.net.