David Oyelowo Reflects On His Feature Directorial Debut
David Oyelowo in a behind-the-scenes still from the adventure/drama film, "The Water Man," an RLJE Films release (photo by Karen Ballard/courtesy of RLJE Films)
The acclaimed actor also stars in "The Water Man," which marks the sixth film he’s produced

David Oyelowo is acclaimed as an actor (Golden Globe nominations for Selma and the telefilm Nightingale, a SAG Award nod as part of the ensemble cast in The Butler), perhaps should be more widely known as a producer and is just now starting to exhibit how deserving he is of recognition as a director.

On the latter score, Oyelowo has made his feature directorial debut with The Water Man (RLJE Films), which is slated to hit theaters on May 7. The Water Man introduces us to Gunner Boone (portrayed by Lonnie Chavis), a youngster who shares a special bond with his mother (Rosario Dawson). When her illness dramatically worsens, Gunner delves into books on science and the supernatural, seeking a cure for the leukemia she’s battling. He learns about The Water Man, a creature of local lore who may carry the secret to everlasting life. He runs across a girl named Jo (Amiah Miller) leading a nomad existence who claims to not only know The Water Man but to be able to find him deep in the forest where he is on a reclusive mission. Gunner and Jo go on their own mission which takes them into the woods on a quest to connect with The Water Man and tap into his magical healing powers. They wind up facing challenges and dangers they never imagined. Gunner’s father Amos (Oyelowo) is then tasked with rescuing the kids, necessitating that he immerse himself in his son’s world to follow the clues that will lead him to them and put his family back together.

The theme of finding family is prevalent in the story. Gunner seeks to save his mom and preserve his family. Amos looks to reconnect with Gunner, building a bridge to a son with whom he’s lost touch. And Jo, alienated from her family, ultimately winds up finding a nurturing one in the Boones.

In an excerpt from his director’s statement on The Water Man, Oyelowo shared, “I grew up loving family films that have adventure, fantasy and jeopardy whilst never patronizing their young protagonists. As a father to four children, I want to share films with my kids that both entertain and equip them for the highs and lows that lie ahead. I relish watching films with them that both transport our family to a different world and then leave us having meaningful conversations. I love films that do that, so I set out to make one for them, other families and, hopefully, the whole world!”

As for Oyelowo’s alluded to producing chops, he and his wife, actress/producer Jessica Oyelowo, are founders of Yoruba/Saxon Productions, a company focused on creating values-based content across all platforms and for all quadrants, with an aim to shift the culture and color outside the lines. Yoruba/Saxon’s film and TV projects include Nightingale (HBO), Captive (Paramount), A United Kingdom (Fox Searchlight), Come Away (Relativity Media), Five Nights in Maine (FilmRise), and the upcoming Solitary (BRON Studios).

Yoruba/Saxon also teamed with Shiv Hans Pictures and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films to produce The Water Man, which was written by Emma Needell who also served as an EP on the film. The Water Man is the sixth film that David Oyelowo has produced. The seventh is Solitary.

Like many projects, the release of The Water Man was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The film had its world premiere at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival where it was well received. The Water Man also opened last year’s Urbanworld Film Festival.

While The Water Man is David Oyelowo’s first feature film as a director, he is no stranger to helming. He had earlier directed a short film, Big Guy, and of course he has as an actor and producer collaborated with leading directors ranging from Ava DuVernay (Selma) to Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) and Lee Daniels (The Butler), among others.

SHOOT connected with Oyelowo to discuss The Water Man and his emerging directorial career. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

SHOOT: Have you long harbored directorial aspirations? 

Oyelowo: I have long had aspirations of directing. Having watched really great directors, I was and am very aware that it is nothing to be taken on lightly. There are so many facets to it. You need a real command of the technical side for how every element of making a movie needs to intersect and overlap in a way. You can have a real sense of storytelling as an actor but there is something unique about bringing actors, cinematography, tone, costume and so much together. It’s not just about the arc of the story but developing the individual characters. So much has to go relatively well for a film to make sense.

My career as an actor has been a film school for me.

SHOOT: You’ve worked with master filmmakers. What lessons have you learned from observing and collaborating with them?

Oyelowo: They are all very gifted at picking great collaborators. And they don’t micromanage them. They allow them to do their work and to flourish in their work. Ava DuVernay and Steven Spielberg are great examples of that.
I also received a great piece of advice to make sure that your film is tonally even. You decide on the tone of your movie and apply it to every scene. Selma is a film about overcoming obstacles and that was applied throughout.

SHOOT: That quality is evident in The Water Man. It is an adventure which becomes more moving because it has a sense of purpose as the characters are also looking to find or preserve family. I felt a real sense of family throughout.

Oyelowo: I strive for work that speaks to you as a human being, that takes you on a journey, that pulls you out of the living room, gives you something to think about. There are great filmmakers who are a bit too present in their work. I much prefer to watch and direct a movie that takes the audience on a journey without showing off my skill or prowess or technical ability as a director. 

SHOOT: You mentioned the importance of picking the right collaborators. I’m curious why you gravitated to certain artists--like cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd, editor Blu Murray and production designer Laurence Bennett--for your feature directorial debut.

Oyelowo: I wanted the film to feel real, to have a scope but to be intimate at the same time. Matt had shot on an intimate scale but he was also coming off of Spider-Man (Spider-Man: Far From Home) before we worked together. I knew that visual effects would be a component of our film. Matt understands blending effects and cinematography but he can still make intimate scenes within a small house work. I wanted to utilize the forest in a way that wasn’t dependent on effects. I wanted the setting to feel magical and majestic. I saw that in Matt’s work.

Matt and I had another connection--which we also shared with Blu Murray. We all gravitated towards The Water Man. We had lost our mothers at different points of our lives. There was something about the narrative, the journey of Gunner trying to save his mother, that spoke deeply to Matt, Blu and me. This is a story that speaks to the child in me and the father in me. Those guys also had that special connection to the story.

As for Laurence Bennett (an Oscar nominee for The Artist), he is an Oregonian. He lives in a place where we were shooting. He has a very keen and experienced eye.

SHOOT: How has directing The Water Man changed your perspective, if at all, on acting and producing. 

Oyelowo: What I really respect now having done it are people who direct films they are also in. It’s quite the juggling act. It is quite a feat.

SHOOT: You also experienced it relatively recently as part of the cast in The Midnight Sky which George Clooney directed and acted in.

Oyelowo: Yes, you have to be built slightly differently to pull that off. I’m very proud to have done it and definitely would do it again.

SHOOT: Did your performance in The Midnight Sky come after you directed The Water Man?

Oyelowo: I was in post on The Water Man while shooting The Midnight Sky. I was in London shooting (The Midnight Sky) all day with George. Then I’d spend four or five nights remotely from London, connecting with L.A. on post for The Water Man

SHOOT: It’s said that one experience informs another. What’s your biggest takeaway or lessons learned from your experience on The Water Man?

Oyelowo: Kindness, love, compassion and appreciation are the primary qualities you need to go in with when directing a movie. It’s amazing what you can get out of your crew if you approach them with kindness, love, compassion and collaboration. It’s amazing how well a difficult day can be overcome with these elements. Making a movie is like organizing 25 weddings and having them all happen over the course of 25 days. Every single day you’re wrangling 100 to 150 people and directing them to the same goal. The way to get through it is to be a compassionate, humble person. I’ve seen that in other directors and it’s something I try to emulate and will take into any film I direct. And I’m very happy to have a crew and cast who reciprocate.

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