James Wan Wanted Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom To Be Bigger with Higher Stakes

In all the movies director James Wan makes, no matter the genre, it always comes back to the human aspect of the characters. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is a true continuation of Arthur’s story, who is now juggling his duties as the King of Atlantis with fatherhood, having to protect both his kingdom and his family.

While his previous movie was a love story that focused on Arthur, this is an action adventure with two brothers, Arthur and Orm, overcoming their differences to save the world. They’re going up against an even more powerful Black Manta, whose love for his father and his need for vengeance have taken a darker turn. We wanted to not only expand the story and the characters, but also give audiences an even more immersive and exciting experience.

This time the stakes are much higher, and that world is much larger. Atlantis is even bigger, brighter, more colorful, more vibrant this time. However, Arthur and Orm are on a quest that will take them to an entirely new place: The Lost Kingdom. Antarctica felt like an inspiring landscape that is familiar, but it’s also a place most of us have not visited, and that would allow me to explore a heightened version of it. I was excited to create this kingdom, which is a completely new visual element in this film, along with other new worlds. And I have to say, it wouldn’t be one of my films without some of my signature creations, so there are new, dark creatures for audiences to enjoy. But at the center of it all is Arthur/Aquaman, along with all of the signature charm and humor Jason infuses into this hero. And even though Aquaman sits on the throne, responsible for all of Atlantis, he is still a man, working to align his two roles—father and king—into this bold and expansive new world.

To celebrate the release of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, The Koalition spoke to Wan to learn more about the man themes of the movie, crafting the sequel, Arthur Curry balancing fatherhood with being a king, the return of Black Manta and more.

“When we made the first movie, ultimately Black Manta was going to be the main villain in [The Lost Kingdom], he was going to be Arthur’s main antagonist. We teed up his character and his motivation in the first one, so when we roll into [Lost Kingdom] we know exactly what he’s after and [that he] ultimately [wants] to destroy ARA because he blames Aquaman for the death of his father. This is how it is in the comic book. He’s a very single-minded character and he’s very strong-willed. He’s going to do anything, whatever it takes to achieve that, and this was the one thing we knew we have to stick to in terms of the story, the character’s motivation and arc. [But] everything else can be different and new.

As Arthur adjusts to life as a father and family man, his beloved lighthouse now serves as shelter on land for himself, Mera and Arthur, Jr. The Curry family’s lighthouse domicile if now filled with a few of Momoa’s own motorcycles in the front yard, while the interiors are more warm, lived-in space, where the trappings of being a Superhero sit side-by-side with baby toys and family photos. The blending of the home represents the blending of Arthurs new life. Just as Arthur’s new life has impacted his home, his tenure as the King of Atlantis sees him more involved in the daily life of the undersea kingdom. The workings of the Atlantean government are shown, with the Royal Family— Aquaman, Mera and Atlanna—enthroned opposite the kingdom’s leaders in the Council Chamber.

“He’s now a father now. Part of the fun and the charm of this one is the fact that Arthur is now the king of Atlantis, so he has really heavy stressful duty of running a nation but then that’s into cut with him changing diapers and dealing with domestic things at home. He has to feed the baby, has to come on in time and all that stuff.”

“That’s the fun of watching his character grow from the first film. In the first one, he’s a single guy just trying to find his place in the world and in the second one he now knows his place in the world but he’s just trying to make it work and it’s not that easy. Part of the fun for myself and Jason is taking his character and growing him right.”

Yahya Abdul-Mateen, who played the villain, Black Manta, in the first Aquaman is ready to give the Atlanteans a hard time once again. However, it seems this time he will not be the only villain our hero will have to face. As seen in the movie’s trailer, it reveals the villain, Black Manta, is more formidable than ever before and wields the power of the mythic Black Trident, which unleashes an ancient and malevolent force. To defeat him, Aquaman will turn to his imprisoned brother Orm, the former king of Atlantis, to form an unlikely alliance. Could Black Manta’s black trident in relate to the character Triton? As the son of Poseidon and Amphitrite, Triton carries his own trident, and looking at the comics, Triton’s trident is illustrated to be darker in appearance.

Additionally, the Black trident, aims to unleash an ancient and malevolent power that has been imprisoned for many decades. To free them, apparently, the blood of royal lineage is needed which could result in Arthur’s son playing a role. While Wan was silent about these theories, he did offer some teases.

“Everyone from the previous movie is basically back for [The Lost Kingdom]. There’s really not that many new characters in this but the biggest one that is hinted in the trailer is this dark darker force of the lost kingdom. We get an idea…a sense that Black Manta has perhaps discovered something big and that he’s potentially using this to achieve what he wants. [I would consider] that the main new character.”

Wan also teased the return of fan-favorite, Topo, the drum-playing Octopus. “The biggest thing I was ultimately very happy with [was Topo]. We weren’t quite sure how people would take to the more absurd quirkier stuff of the Aquaman Kingdom. Then I saw how well received it was [and] that gave me the confidence to then do more of that in the second one. Topo the drumming octopus, was hinted at the first movie but now we can bring him into this one and showcase him as a proper character. [It’s best] not be afraid to be a little bit Saturday morning cartoon, if you will.”

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is a travelogue of astounding new environments above and below the surface. Determined to make this film look and feel different, it was important it remained anchored in all the things audiences loved from the first movie, but just dialed up in a way that feels fresh and new.

Wan embraced the retro sci-fi look of the Silver Age comics—what, in the ‘50s, he thought the future would look like, but given a modern spin and twist. This is showcased in the ancient Atlantean technology, in the uniforms and weaponry of Manta’s crew, his colossal sub, the one-man Octobots… Wan really leans into the look and again, show the audience something they’ve never seen. It’s evocative of a certain age, but wholly modern as well.

By embracing the mythic nature of Aquaman’s quest and combining it with stunning visuals, Wan something ‘s goal was to give the audience something uniquely compelling—it is worldbuilding and visual storytelling at its zenith. And at the heart of it, there’s a Superhero that is both human and superhuman, engaging in an epic battle with the highest stakes imaginable.

To achieve this technological feat, Wan and his team changed how the film was shot. Shooting underwater sequences in the original film, filmmakers relied upon bluescreen stages and harnessed actors held aloft by “tuning fork” framing. Though final results proved impressive, the method was uncomfortable for the cast and limited Wan’s camera position and moves.

For Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, the VFX team used a whole new approach to liberate both the cast and the camera. Utilizing Eyeline Studio—brand-new, groundbreaking technology—Wan and his team were able to create a 360-degree aquatic world. The Eyeline Studio utilizes a specially-created circular booth with 136 cameras in fixed positions—from foot level to above the head—encircling the actor. The actor performs in the center of the booth in full costume, wearing a headband of sensors that will enable the creation of their hair flowing underwater by VFX. The booth is just large enough to bring in a mechanical horse, to capture the cast riding various VFX sea creatures.

Inside the booth, the actor can see a 360-degree plasma wall displaying the visuals for the scene. Outside the booth, fellow cast members perform to cameras that capture their facial performance and superimpose them on their corresponding avatars on the plasma screens inside the booth. The new method allowed the actors to be free in their movements and to react to each other’s performances—it also allowed Wan complete freedom of camera position during the VFX post-production process.

The footage captured from the Eyeline sessions was then combined with scenes filmed on bluescreen and painstakingly knitted together with VFX-created avatars, sets and sea creatures. The final result? Atlanna and Mera sit astride sharks and Arthur is saddled on his giant seahorse, Storm, all while battling Black Manta in the heart of Atlantis, through areas never seen onscreen before: the bustling residential quarter, the “Times Square” of Atlantis and down into the depths of the city’s ancient storage.

“Technology grew tremendously between the first movie and by the time we shot the second. It didn’t make it easier but with anything new, there’s that teething period and it comes with its own new set of issues. Everything is a process. I wish film making was easy. It’s never easy, it doesn’t become easier] matter what level of films you make. Whether you’re making a low budget film or a big budget movie, it’s never that straightforward.”

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom releases in theaters on December 20th. To learn more about the movie, check out our full interview in the video above.

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