During the wide-ranging interview, we also discussed Black Manta’s mysterious origin, influences on the film from folklore and legends, the Trench, comic book fandom, and how Aquaman is like both Flash Gordon and a Ray Harryhausen film.
Collider: How was it choosing the third Black Manta origin, the one you did for the New 52, in comparison to picking one of the other two origins?
GEOFF JOHNS: Black Manta, he was always a mysterious character.
DAVID LESLIE: We talked a lot about what his definitive origin was. I think this was the first time someone said, “This is what it is.”
JOHNS: Yeah, he didn’t have a huge origin. I liked the idea of a father-son dynamic, because Arthur has a father-son dynamic. And in the New 52, Arthur literally kills [Manta’s father] and in this he lets his father die. It just gave Black Manta some motivation I hadn’t seen before. But he was such a mysterious character in the comics. He looked cool. But he didn’t even have a first name. I gave him a first name in like 2010. And then I remember, David called me and was like “What’s his last name?” I was like, “There is no last name.” So we gave him one. Kane. We just drew inspiration from that.
Were there any ideas that were too big to fit into this movie?
WILL BEALL: Well, we had a prison break.
JOHNS: Oh, yeah, we had a huge prison break. All these characters. We had the pirannha man who was in there. There were big ones, yeah, big segments that we had that fell out because again, it was big already.
BEALL: That was in there for a while, the prison break.
Who was being broken out of prison?
JOHNS: Arthur was dragged to prison after the fight. It was Mera breaking him out.
BEALL: So he was in like an Atlantean prison. He was in a dungeon. With all these other cool guys.
JOHNS: We had a lot of other Aquaman villains we had put in there. Then he fought a piranha man to get out.
LESLIE: There was a feeding frenzy, right?
BEALL: The guards were like shark-men. And it was a little bit of like a Finding Nemo deal where he stabs one of them and blood gets in the water and they all go nuts.
Was any of that filmed at all?
JOHNS: No, no, it never made it through the first few drafts. The movie that’s on the screen is what the script ended up being. There’s no big secret shots that didn’t make it into the film. It’s like what Patty [Jenkins] did with Wonder Woman. It is what it was meant to be.
Speaking of Wonder Woman, it seems like Wonder Woman and Aquaman are both coming out in times where it’s needed, but it fits. Aquaman is from both worlds, he’s a uniter. Wonder Woman happened when the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements were starting. How is the cultural shift influencing the slate?
JOHNS: Well I’d say it’s more of a natural evolution. With Arthur, the story of him being of two worlds, and then uniting the worlds, we did in the comics. I wrote that in the comics in 2011, which technically I wrote in 2010 before it was published. But I don’t think that them is ever going to get old. I think it’s going to get top of mind and then sink down, but there will always be people to unite. A division. The country doesn’t stay united and then suddenly it’s divided today. The division is just more prominent than ever. It’s kind of coincidence, in this case, because the character, his story is about uniting worlds. My favorite moment in the movie is when his mother says to him, “A king fights for his own people, a hero fights for everybody.” That’s going to be relevant today. It’s going to be relevant in 20 years. In 100 years. As long as humans have any flaws, it’s going to be relevant.
You obviously sat through the dailies, but what was your reaction to seeing it in IMAX in its final cut?
LESLIE: It’s kind of transformative. What you would see were animatics or just dailies, there’s so much that you have to go, “Well I hope this looks cool.” It’s just people hanging on wires. Seeing it realized was really amazing. Everyone did such a great job, all the artists involved creating that world. It was just amazing. I don’t feel like I saw the dailies for this movie because I just saw raw material.
JOHNS: There’s also this big leap that happens. I don’t know if you remember, but it’s a shot that stands out to me because it was the first time I saw a visual effects shot get finished totality. I was like, “Whoa, there’s so much personality.” It’s when he goes down the shot of all the seahorse, and then all the sharks that the guts are riding. And you see personality in all the creatures. You see the sea horse kind of rear up, and the sharks are hungry. When they started happening, the scene just kind of came to life. You realize that this is going to happen in every single scene. Seeing it progressively get more finished and more finished…it starts to come together with all these visual effects, it changes it.
BEALL: That was the scene where, when I saw that finished…giant sea horses and guys riding on great white sharks, all that’s fine. But the sharks roar? I was like “Well fucking A, of course they do.”
When you approach the screenplay you obviously come from the comic books. But were there any mythic structures or stories that you looked at or drew from?
LESLIE: It’s hard to think of Aquaman and this story without thinking of King Arthur.
JOHNS: The Holy Grail.
BEALL: The Odyssey, too.
JOHNS: Sinbad and the Seven Seas. I mean, he’s named Arthur after King Arthur. But it literally is that journey.
BEALL: You mentioned Sinbad and the Seven Seas, the other thing about James [Wan], and I think you guys, was the sense that this is like the most expensive Ray Harryhausen movie ever made.
JOHNS: We talked about that early on. That was something James really wanted to do. I rememer early on, we listed, “What would we love in a high seas adventure?” Sharks. Gotta have boats. We just listed all these cool things. Treasure hunts. Because we had the spine of it emotionally. A man who is born of two worlds and forced to unite these two worlds. That’s a great emotional story. So that’s the basis, then we started to say, “Okay, if we’re going to make the greatest high seas adventure film ever, what are the elements.” We checked them all off as they started to coalesce to fit into the film. It was built in two ways, emotionally and then in a thrill-seeking way.
Can you talk about bringing the Trench to life?
JOHNS: Early on, James had always loved the Trench story. I had just started to introduce the Seven Seas. Originally, they were all the same, the Seven Seas were all just Atlanteans, and I thought it’d be more interesting if some of them devolved and evolved, and The Trench became this really creepy, like aliens underwater. I’d always looked at the ocean when I launched the book as space. Because I think it’s something like 90% of the oceans have not been seen by human eyes or cameras. Which means that there’s things down there. They just found new fish the other day.
That’s great Aquaman marketing.
JOHNS: Yeah, it is. We probably just created those and dumped them in. But to me, it inspired the idea of, “What if there were these subhuman creatures that eat their food source and had to swim up to find a new one?” James, having the horror background, really liked The Trench and obviously I’m a fan of the characters and the concept, so we created it as this insanity point of the adventure where they confronted the creatures. He just executed that flawlessly. That is my favorite sequence, visually.
LESLIE: I think one of the very, very first things he described to me was that ocean cross section, where they’re going down with a flare and The Trench are all swimming back towards him.
JOHNS: I think James had drawn that on the white board early on and was like “That’s the poster.” You know when Jaws swims up to eat that swimmer? He had invisioned that that’s the poster. It was one of the first images we showed at San Diego. But it’s cool just to have the water be mysterious, the water be endless. What else is in there? Who knows? For all we know, The Trench is down there.
BEALL: We’re searching for life on other planets, right? But you’re searching for water.
Can you talk about the relationship between Arthur and his mother and why that’s so important?
JOHNS: That was something we originally talked about, is if Arthur is going to unite land and sea, it’s great to say that and have him bring peace between the surface and Atlantis. but when we first talked about the story, it was also like, “How do you personify that emotionally?” His mother and father, and Arthur says this, are proof that it can happen. That we can unite two worlds. That’s the point of the film. Without that, I think the story falls apart. That was something that was new for the movie, that conceptually just out of the very basic emotional drive of Arthur and the film, that it couldn’t have ended any other way. It’s something that I put in the comics, that his father would go to the end of the dock and wait for his mother to come back.
Obviously, comic book fans are very vocal online. So how do you go about, when you’re constructing the film, deciding what you’re going to keep from the comics and what you’re doing to develop for the films?
JOHNS: Well, you can’t make everybody happy. You can try, and you should try. But you need to burrow to the center of the purpose is. Why make the movie? Don’t make the movie just because Aquaman is a character people know. Who cares? But if you have a story that’s worth telling, an emotional story, and then you can dress it up with fun stuff like the Trench and Mera and all these other great elements from the comics that come into this great central story? That’s what you do. There’s some Aquaman fans that probably love certain characters or aspects of the character that aren’t in the movie and they wish they were, but the trick is to just be diligent about why you put certain things in there.
BEALL: I agree, and one of the early things we talked about is, if you stripped the intellectual property away is it a great story?
JOHNS: If you called this The Man From Atlantis…
BEALL: What did we call it? Ahab.
JOHNS: That was our code word. Not so creative. We could’ve gone for like, The Desert Sparrow or something.
BEALL: But I also think it’s like fantasy football. The fanboys being able to grouse and compare notes online, that’s all part of it. This thing belongs to everybody now. Watching it last night on the big screen, when I was kid I loved Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon. Loved it. And I still think it holds up. Our Aquaman has a lot of that energy.
LESLIE: You were saying that you can’t please everybody. But I feel sometimes with adapting properties, you can’t be afraid of the property. You have to love the property. I think everyone involved with this project loved the property. They love Aquaman, and the love of Aquaman is on the screen. You’re going to get to see Aquaman ride a seahorse in this movie. There’s a cynical version where it’s like, “Whoa, you could never have Aquaman ride a seahorse. It’d be too corny and dumb.”
JOHNS: Yeah, there is a super grounded version of Aquaman that I don’t want to see.
LESLIE: And even if you’re an Aquaman who didn’t get to see everyhting you wanted to see, it wasn’t the version you wanted to see, you can see the love of the thing that you love.
JOHNS: There are more quote-unquote new fans of Aquaman now than there were old fans. Jason and James and everybody who worked on this has helped introduce Aquaman to people who have never heard of him. I guarantee you his fans, the people who know his story, have gone up way higher than the fans that did know his story. His classic story, now people know that his mom is a queen of Atlantis and his dad’s a lighthouse keeper. That’s his story now.