Aquaman interview: “It felt like we were doing some strange avante-garde theatre!”

Director James Wan and actor Patrick Wilson talk Aquaman, villains, the environment and more

The last words you’d expect to hear when describing Aquaman are ‘avant-garde theatre’, but that’s what Patrick Wilson claims making the film was like. He spent much of his time playing antagonist Orm hanging around in all manner of harnesses to create the underwater world of Atlantis.

“Once you get past ‘I can’t feel my hips anymore’ it was really like… maybe because I was with Willem Defoe and he has such a huge theatre presence that we felt like we were doing [avant-garde theatre]. And in hindsight I used to think doing greenscreen movies or bluescreen would be so terrible for actors – honestly, it felt amazing. It felt like theatre.”

When we sit down with Wilson and director James Wan to discuss the film, Wan admits that he had to think twice about taking on the challenge of bringing Aquaman to the screen.

“It took me a while to come around to it, because we all know this character as a joke in pop culture,” he says, “but the more I thought about it the more I thought there might be something interesting I can do with this guy and the world that he inhabits.” In the end, the prospect of creating Aquaman’s world was too tantalising to pass up, no matter the technical challenges. “[A]t the end of the day creativity trumps everything,” he shrugs.

In the end Wan embraced Aquaman’s long comic book history, both the cool and the, erm, seahorses. “I wanted to go back to just like decades and decades of amazing source material, just a treasure trove of source material to pull from, and to pull from that and use them in the correct way.”

Wilson, too, drew inspiration from the comics. “I love the benefit of having artwork as well, I think it’s really informative,” he says. Even something as simple as the classic Ocean Master look from the comics became crucial, even though the mask doesn’t leave much of his face visible. “[There are] so many panels of just this mouth and these teeth, sometimes it’s literally that visual, and I love that about him, that [the film] can be very deep and emotional about the character’s journey, and sometimes it’s as easy as ‘I need this face.’”

Patrick Wilson as Orm

Wilson says that Orm’s classic gritted-teeth look of anger in the comics is a touchstone for the character in the film. “Even in the comics there’s a lot of rage with this young man… Angry at the environment, angry at the way the surface has been treating them, and then in walks this first-born son to try and challenge the throne.”

It all makes for a very human villain. It also helps to root the film in the modern day, thanks to the environmental troubles that we – and Orm – are dealing with. “There’s no way you can do an Aquaman story without touching on the environment,” Wan says. “And I think that as the world is getting shittier this character becomes more and more relevant. And that’s why Patrick’s character is so interesting. Sure, he’s the antagonist in this story, but… I don’t see him as an outright bad guy at all, he’s just sick and tired of the crap that we, as surface-dwellers, do. We have no respect for our planet and I just think that’s very topical. And it’s just interesting to tie his character with the nationalistic mindset of Atlantis and Atlanteans, how they see themselves as the most superior race, so to speak, the most powerful nation on planet Earth, so it’s incredible that all that stuff seems to be very topical right now.”

Wan tells us that he’s “always had the desire to make a big world creation story, create a world where I get in there, I design the look of the city the characters inhabit, the people, the machineries, the life and all that stuff, and so this project ticked off a lot of boxes for me as a filmmaker.”

The fact that he’s most well-known for directing horror is neither here nor there – Wan wants the chance to turn his hand to plenty of genres across his career, and besides, he says, “at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how big or small your films are, it’s all about characters that you care about, that you engage with, and story that you want to follow.”

Aquaman is released by Warner Bros on 14 December. Get all the latest superhero news with every issue of SciFiNow.