James Wan dives deep into “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” — and the DCU's changing tides

Aquaman 2
Aquaman 2

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and DC Studios Patrick Wilson and Jason Momoa in 'Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom'

"This is definitely behind the curtain!" Nicole Kidman remarks as she stops by to greet EW on the set of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. The shoot for the sequel to the 2018 DC blockbuster, which starred Jason Momoa as water-fueled superhero Arthur Curry, is taking place at London's Leavesden Studios one afternoon in October 2021. While the sequence is full of potential spoilers about the titular Lost Kingdom and a mysterious and powerful "Black Trident," Kidman is actually referring to the weather.

The filming of today's exterior scene is an almost all-star affair, featuring Momoa alongside Kidman's Atlanna, Patrick Wilson's Orm, Amber Heard's Mera, Dolph Lundgren's King Nereus, and a ball on a stick representing the CG character of the giant crab known as the Brine King. The setting is a tropical island, not at all comparable to the rainy and wind-swept day that actually surrounds them in the U.K. — which has prompted the Hours Oscar winner to set off her character's crown with a less obviously regal black puffy coat. "Everyone's been telling me, 'You should have been here last year. Last year, the summer was great!'" franchise director James Wan says later in the day, which marks the 80th of the film's shoot. "I had no summer at all. My god!"

Unhelpful English weather aside, spirits seem high on set among the principals tasked with making this follow-up to Aquaman, a bona fide blockbuster that grossed $1.1 billion around the world and remains DC's most commercially successful movie. Even though Wan admits directing a superhero film during a pandemic is an exhausting process, he too seems content with the way matters are proceeding. "Making movies is tough enough, making a massive tentpole film is even harder. Throw on top of that a life-threatening pandemic just takes it to a whole different level," he says. "But we've been shooting for a while now, and it's been a pretty smooth process."

It is fair to say that, in the almost two years since EW's set visit, the smooth sailing of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom has been interrupted by choppy waters. The film was initially due to arrive in theaters last December and then, for a spell, was supposed to come out ahead of Warner Bros.' multiverse odyssey The Flash, but is now hitting theaters on Dec. 20, thanks to various COVID-19-caused delays and calendar reshuffles. Not to mention, the course of the DC Universe has fundamentally changed: Aquaman producer Peter Safran is now co-captaining the studio's upcoming slate of movies and shows with The Suicide Squad director James Gunn — which may or may not include more Aquaman. Reports have also surfaced about intensive reshoots on The Lost Kingdom, while one of its stars, Heard, had been embroiled in a highly publicized defamation trial with ex-husband Johnny Depp.

When EW catches up with Wan earlier this week, via Zoom, the director can't help but admit that a lot has changed in the world of DC since that rainy day in London 23 months prior. "Obviously, I have to be mindful," he says. "If I'm living in a house, and the house is getting renovated around me, it's hard for me to not take notice, because the roof, the ceiling's missing, right? But the beauty of this movie, this Aquaman world, is that, very early on, we always said that we are our own separate universe. My goal was always: If we could spin off a Seven Kingdoms universe, that would be my ideal dream. So, what we do, ultimately, doesn't get affected by all that stuff, all that noise."

Staying the course

Aquaman 2
Aquaman 2

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and DC Studios Yahya Abdul-Mateen in 'Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom'

On set in 2021, Safran is particularly keen to talk up the onscreen dynamic between Momoa and Wilson in the sequel, which is written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick. At the end of Aquaman, Arthur defeated his scheming half-brother Orm and became King of Atlantis, while Wilson's character was led away to prison. In Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, the feuding siblings form an uneasy partnership to take on another of the first film's big bads, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II's Black Manta, a vengeance-seeking and now hugely powerful supervillain in possession of the Black Trident, which gives him the ability to command an ancient evil.

Safran compares the relationship between the brothers to the partnership of Nick Nolte's cop and Eddie Murphy's convict in 1982's action-comedy classic 48 Hrs. "They're forced to work together, but they have no interest in being together," says the producer, whose many credits before ascending the DC Studios throne include the Conjuring universe films, the Peacemaker series, and the two Shazam! titles. "There is a humor in this movie that is far greater than even existed in the first."

The characters played by Nolte and Murphy bickered on the mean streets of San Francisco. Arthur and Orm do so while traversing far more bizarre terrain and encountering characters much weirder than redneck bar patrons along the way. Production designer Bill Brzeski compares Wan's sequel to the vintage films worked on by special effects legend Ray Harryhausen, like 1958's The Voyage of Sinbad and 1963's Jason and the Argonauts, in terms of the movie's commitment to fantastical adventure. "James has turned this into his version of a Harryhausen movie," Brzeski says. "There are problems and issues a modern audience could relate to, but it's got a great quest and monsters."

Today, Wan emphasizes that his plan for Aquaman 2 has remained the same since the beginning, despite what you may have read in the press. The Hollywood Reporter published an article in July of this year about the film's allegedly tortuous post-production. The piece claimed that Wan had overseen three rounds of reshoots, the most recent taking place just the month before, and had been forced to separately film footage of Ben Affleck and Michael Keaton for a planned appearance by Batman in the film, because of the changes in the Warner Bros. release slate.

Asked if there's truth to filming both Affleck and Keaton, Wan replies, "The tricky thing early on was not knowing whether Aquaman would come out first or come out after [The Flash]. So, we just had to be prepared. At the end of the day, the best thing I would say about this movie is that it is not connected in any way to any of those films. That's the bottom line." (Affleck, Keaton, and Momoa all had appearances in The Flash, which debuted in theaters this past June.) So, Batman does not appear in Aquaman 2? "That's a 'no comment,' right now," the director says. "You're going to have to wait for the movie to come out."

Wan doesn't dispute THR's reporting that Gunn had "weighed in" on the Aquaman sequel, but the filmmaker also asserts that the end product is very much his vision. "I've known James since way back, right?" he says. "We're horror guys, and so I'm definitely open to ideas. But, at the end of the day, this is my movie."

On the subject of reshoots, Wan insists, correctly, that such additional photography has become a routine part of producing big-budget movies and that he directed a comparatively small amount of new material after the main shoot. He clarifies of the situation, "We have big actors in this movie, and everyone's schedule is really hard. So, we had to break up our shooting schedule into sections. We'll shoot a bit here now, because this actor's available, and then we'll do another shoot now, because this guy's available. People are like, 'Oh, they're doing a whole bunch of different shoots!' No. If we actually combined them all together, it's actually not that many number of days at all."

Aquaman 2
Aquaman 2

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and DC Studios Jason Momoa and James Wan on the set of 'Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom'

Wan has form when it comes to creating something special with additional photography. One of the supernatural antagonists in his 2018 horror film The Conjuring 2 was supposed to be what the director recently described to EW as "this big demon." ("I shot it that way, and then when I got into post-production, it just felt too much.") The director instead created the character of the Demon Nun, played by Bonnie Aarons, amid reshoots. That character would go on to star in her own successful spinoff, 2018's The Nun, as well as its sequel, The Nun II, which is currently the No. 1 film in the country following the film's release last week. Today, the director says, for him, "additional photography is never a negative thing." He elaborates, "I find new things and I come up with new ideas. The Conjuring 2 was the perfect example of me putting the whole movie together and then bing! a lightbulb went off in my head and I go, 'I know what I need to do.' Same here as well."

Wan is circumspect while talking about the other shadow looming over his film, which involves Amber Heard. The actress claimed in May 2022 that her part in the superhero sequel had been "pared down" as the result of the publicity surrounding her breakup with Johnny Depp. Heard was testifying in a Virginia court as part of a defamation trial instigated by Depp over a 2018 Washington Post article written by the actress in which she chronicled her experiences as a domestic abuse survivor. Depp first lost his libel suit in the U.K. against tabloid The Sun for describing him as a wife beater before taking a defamation claim against Heard to U.S. courts. While he won on all three counts of defamation (he was awarded $15 million in damages, which was reduced to the amount of $10.35 million due to a Virginia law cap on punitive damages), Heard also won one of her three defamation counterclaims and was awarded $2 million in damages. They settled in 2022 and dropped their respective appeals.

Regarding Heard's remarks about her role in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, Wan insists that he always intended the focus of the second movie to be the relationship between Arthur and Orm and not between Arthur and his paramour Mera, as was the case in the 2018 film. The director recalls, "I always pitched this to everyone from the get-go. The first Aquaman was Arthur and Mera's journey. The second movie was always going to be Arthur and Orm. So, the first was a romance action-adventure movie, the second one is a bromance action-adventure movie. We'll leave it at that."

In a separate instance last month, an image appeared on Wan's Instagram page of the director in a hospital bed. "It has been an extremely rough and scary couple of days and nights," read the accompanying message. "You never want to rush to ER in the middle of the night and then have to stay in the hospital. Cedars Sinai is truly the best!!" The post was swiftly taken down, and Wan declines to detail what prompted the hospital visit. However, he denies that it was caused by the pressure of making this particular film.

"That's a personal thing that has nothing to do with Aquaman," he says with a laugh. "Every movie kills me as a director, okay? You can quote me on that one. Every movie kills me. If a movie doesn't kill you as a director, you're not doing your job right enough."

Adventure time

Unsurprisingly, Wan is much happier discussing the movie itself than the negative press the film has attracted. The director is delighted when EW mentions production designer Brzeski's comment about the Aquaman sequel having echoes of a Ray Harryhausen movie and confirms that his film remains a true adventure tale.

Having shown the film to a few people by the time of EW's conversation, Wan notes the feedback has routinely been that the film "doesn't feel like your typical superhero movie, it feels like an old-school Ray Harryhausen movie." He notes, "That's the biggest compliment, because that's the spirit that I was going for."

Fans received a taste of the film's wild visuals in a teaser which was released on Sunday and features Wilson's Orm being grabbed by the arm of an enormous machine. (The first full trailer will arrive tomorrow.) Wan reveals to EW that the device is called an "Octobot" and comes from the mysterious Lost Kingdom, which is the seventh underwater principality that formed from the sunken remains of Atlantis but had mysteriously vanished, as mentioned in the first Aquaman.

Jason Momoa is back and Patrick Wilson is jacked in first Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom teaser. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and DC Comics.
Jason Momoa is back and Patrick Wilson is jacked in first Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom teaser. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and DC Comics.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and DC Comics Patrick Wilson's Orm in 'Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom'

"One of the funnest things for me about this movie is designing the Lost Kingdom," he says. "We see what the Lost Kingdom is, we see this society, and within it we see the vehicles and the toys and the weapons and all that. The Octobot is one of their traveling vehicles that move in and out of the water. Everything about the Lost Kingdom came from my love for the Silver Age Aquaman comic book, which is the 1960s comic book. So, everything about it has a very retro feel."

The teaser also featured the sight of Aquaman and an octopus shooting out of the water atop a giant sea horse. Wan confirms that Arthur's steed is Storm, who first appeared in the Aquaman comic back in the mid-'60s, while his eight-legged friend is Topo, the same octopus that was briefly seen playing the drums back in the first film. The director explains that Topo will have "a stronger presence in this film. He's an actual character in this one."

Jason Momoa is back and Patrick Wilson is jacked in first Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom teaser. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and DC Comics.
Jason Momoa is back and Patrick Wilson is jacked in first Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom teaser. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and DC Comics.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and DC Comics Arthur rides a giant seahorse in 'Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom'

As for the future of the franchise, Wan believes that the second movie nicely sets up a potential third film, should audiences demand it.

"What I like between this one and the first one is, you really do see the growth of Arthur," Wan says. "He starts off as this kind of wanderer, and in the second one he finally has more of a direction of what he wants to do with his life. If and when there is a third one, that's what it should be; it should be growing these characters because I think we've set up certain things in a good place in the second movie that you can definitely draw upon in a third. I don't have any stories, but growing the characters is the biggest thing that I think the next Aquaman movie should be about."

Gunn has already made clear that any DC superhero titles they want to pursue but that don't fit in their connected cinematic universe will be considered a standalone "Elseworlds" entry, similar to the Robert Pattinson-led The Batman. And would Wan be interested in directing a third Aquaman film? "Oh, buddy," he says. "I don't know. This film has taken up so, so much of my life, so much of my time, all I can think about now is taking a long break." Somewhere not too close to the ocean, perhaps.

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom will be released in theaters this Dec. 20.

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