There is something regal about “Selma” star David Oyelowo (oh-YEL-ə-woh). You experience that sense of sturdiness in his film roles or interviewing him in person or virtually which was the case, last week, as part of TIFF’s master series.
Stepping behind the camera directing his first film “The Water Man” which screened at TIFF — he’s tapped his childhood to make an adventure fantasy film where young Black kids can see themselves on screen.
The adventure, fantasy is written by Emma Needell. The story centers around a sensitive young boy, (Lonnie Chavis) who tries to save his mother (Rosario Dawson) from terminal cancer. He does so by going in search of the town’s bogeyman, The Water Man, who is fabled to have conquered death. The film, which Oyelowo also produces and stars in, is executive produced by Oprah Winfrey.
A bit about Oyelowo — in case you’ve been living under a rock without wifi, he’s British–American and the actor, producer, and now director is best known for his high-profile role to as Martin Luther King Jr. in the 2014 biographical drama film “Selma” directed by Ava DuVernay. Some of his other credits include “A United Kingdom” (2016); “Queen of Katwe “(2016); “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011); “Lincoln “(2012), “Jack Reacher” (2012) and “The Butler” (2013). On television, he played MI5 officer Danny Hunter on the British drama series Spooks (2002–2004) and Javert in the BBC miniseries Les Misérables (2018).
Oyelowo shared that adventure pictures like “E.T. the Extra-Terrestial”, “The Goonies,” and “Stand By Me” served as inspiration. Adding that those family-friendly films he watched growing up inspired his creative collaboration with his cast Rosario Dawson, Lonnie Chavis, Amiah Miller, Alfred Molina, and Maria Bello. Here is what Oyelowo shares about directing and giving life to his new film — “The Water Man”.
WHO DID YOU MAKE THIS FILM FOR AND WHY?
I made it for my 12-year-old self. I made it for those kids who don’t get to see themselves represented in this kind of story.
It’s very rare to see a Black family at the center of this kind of story. And I’m not just making it for Black and brown people. I’m hoping that white people will watch it and see themselves represented in it because I believe seeing ourselves in different kinds of people is what engenders empathy and erodes ignorance.
And at this moment of so much division and divisiveness, anything that one can put out into the world that makes us feel more connected, I want to be part of that.
Well, I did know that I wanted to direct. I have had a blessed career in terms of working with some truly phenomenal directors and I have always thought that was going to be my film school. And when I was beautifully persuaded by Emma [Needell] to direct this I went to one of those great directors. I spoke with Ava DuVernay.
WHAT DID THESE DIRECTORS TEACH YOU?
The common thread I’ve seen with great directors is they hire great people who they trust to do their job well, which releases the director to do their job well, which is having an overview of the total vision for the story. The less successful experiences I’ve had are when I’ve seen directors who are trying to micromanage everyone and tell them what their job is and how to do it well. I think hiring great people is the number one job of a director, and then empowering them to do their job well.
ON FANTASY FILMS
I have four kids, and I love watching movies with them, and I love watching movies which I grew up enjoying, and those films had adventure and escapism, but they also have a depth and a meaning to them.
You know, juxtaposing the world and struggle through the eyes of a child, and how we approach it as a grown-up, it makes it more relatable and it reminds us of what’s important. It enables grown-ups to reconnect with the truth of what love is through the eyes of a child who is discovering it in real-time.
WHAT WAS YOUR VISION FOR THIS FILM?
What really drew me to the film is the fact that it has such heart. I love the themes of self-sacrifice. It has a huge adventure component to it. But it’s also a film about navigating potential loss and discovering purpose. And whenever you find a film centered around kids that can have both adventure and meaning, I think that’s a pretty potent mix.
HOW BEING AN ACTOR HELPED HIM AS A DIRECTOR
There is so much more that goes into the making of a film, and I personally think some actors get a little self-important because we focus so much on what actors bring to a film. But the crew and the work they do, and the post-production crew — there’s just so much that goes into making a film. And that is something that I now appreciate even more than I did before now that I’ve really interacted and intersected with all of those different facets of what goes into making a movie.
Look, storytelling is important. It’s not going to be how it is in the past. But this is something that people want and need. We made this film before the pandemic, before a time where we anticipated everyone would be having to contemplate the illness or the potential death of their loved ones and how we can be socially and culturally responsible in order to try and avoid that. But what is always going to be the case is that if you truly love someone, you know that to do anything you can to protect them is what love looks like. So to see that through the eyes of this 11-year-old boy, I believe everyone can relate.
ON HOW HIS KIDS (18, 15, 12, and 8) REACTED TO “THE WATER MAN”
That was the most nerve-wracking thing, showing it to my kids. Thankfully, Daddy did OK. They love the film (and) they recognize themselves in the film.
To learn more go to @David_oyelowoo1