Ever wonder if superhero props get just a little too heavy? Or if actors would actually want to hang out with their heroic (or villainous) characters in real life? How do underwater “swimming” scenes happen, anyway? When visiting the set of Aquaman in Queensland, Australia last July, we were on a mission to get some killer details about one of the biggest movies of the year.
When hanging out with stars Jason Momoa and Amber Heard, director James Wan and more, we learned a ton of cool behind-the-scenes tidbits about the upcoming superhero flick that can give fans an insider’s edge when they watch, come premiere day on December 21.
While Arthur Curry sets out to keep peace between the ocean and land — both of which he’s a part of — and grapple with his own identity issues, there’s actually a ton of fun along the way, both on- and off-screen. Will the movie nod to Entourage’s version of Aquaman? How is The Little Mermaid involved in the story? And of course, will another DC Comics hero make a cameo?
Find out below:
Justice League does and doesn’t affect Aquaman.
According to director James Wan, this film takes place after JL, but that doesn’t mean audiences need to see Justice League to appreciate it. “I don’t want to give too much away. But it is its own standalone movie,” he says. “We pick up after Justice League and he goes on his own story and he goes on this journey and he ultimately becomes the Aquaman as we know him.” Producer Peter Safran explains that the filmmakers discussed what would be revealed about Aquaman in JL and what would be saved for his own movie.
“Going into Justice League, before they shot it, there were a lot of conversations about the things that were important to James Wan to be the one to reveal — storylines, elements, Atlantis,” Safran says. “Throughout the process, we’ve always made sure the storyline that we’re telling and the storyline they told meld together in an organic fashion.” Costume designer Kym Barrett (The Matrix) says there were talks of, “What should we retain? How should the stories dovetail? How do the relationships of the characters that come into our movie relate to what happens in our movie?” However, Safran says JL doesn’t affect Aquaman’s plot too much. “Not really. There’s nothing that conflicts with it,” he says. “Perhaps in terms of the mindset of Aquaman, it certainly is a [continuation].” Jason Momoa, meanwhile, admits going from one to the other was “definitely one of the hardest things” he’s done.
There’s a strong parallel to The Little Mermaid.
Production designer Bill Brzeski, who’s been tied to the film the longest, explains Aquaman’s familiar origin tale (told through flashbacks), which is similar to the Disney classic. “The basic gist is: mom shows up at the lighthouse, like a Little Mermaid story,” he says of Arthur’s mother. “Fisherman finds the mermaid and falls in love. She stays on land, she’s gotta go back to water. They have a baby, he stays at the lighthouse, and the Atlanteans come to kill her for betraying her own kind.”
Other comparisons he makes are to Game of Thrones and Spider-Man. “Atlantis, culturally, they’re still living in Game of Thrones. They come and she decides to leave with them and leaves the dad and three-year-old,” Brzeski explains. “[Arthur] grows up… and doesn’t really know who he is, is kind of angry. It’s that kind of story.” He adds that many of Arthur’s recollections occur when he explains them to Mera. “We tell little stories, like Spider-Man getting bit by the spider, Superman leaving his small village - it’s that classic story.”
The underwater scenes aren’t actually shot underwater.
Amber Heard laughs about it, saying, “It’s so weird! So weird.” In fact, the actors are usually dry and floating on wires while shooting. “Sometimes you have to just step back and look at your life and realize that you are a grown-ass woman attached to two wires being fished around by a bunch of men in bright blue micro onesies. You just have to accept it and laugh,” Heard says. Further, the actors don’t even feel like they’re swimming when shooting the scenes. “Not at all,” Heard says. “You’re dry, you’re wearing a stocking cap… There are many days when I spend my entire day, every 15 minutes, getting hosed down! And it’s still the driest I’ve been in a movie.”
Mera can move water.
“So, I control water,” Amber Heard says of her character, who becomes Arthur’s partner in crime. “Mera’s power, other than just being a warrior princess in Atlantis, is that she also can control water, a power that becomes in quite handy, as you will see. It plays throughout the mission, throughout their entire journey. She relies on hydrokinesis to kind of save the world and stuff.” Super casual.
And she kicks total butt on land as well. “I did one [scene] last week where… I fight three guards doing a very complex action sequence, choreographed fight,” she recalls. “And the cameras are just going around. It was dizzying.” In fact, Mera becomes a huge motivational force in Arthur’s mission. “We share equal responsibility in the journey,” Heard says.
Nicole Kidman was chosen for her role before she even got the call.
Kidman, who plays Arthur’s Atlantean mother, was envisioned for the role before she was even contacted about doing it. James Wan explains: “Nicole has such a beautiful vibe about her, something very classical about her. So much of the backstory of where they come from, Atlantis before it sank, has that very classic, Greek backstory. Nicole just seems like she would be a very beautiful Greek goddess princess.”
He felt Kidman, genetically-blessed, was super believable as Momoa’s, also genetically-blessed, mom. “It just felt like she’d fit in perfectly, someone who could potentially spawn the offspring of someone like Momoa!” Wan jokes. Producer Peter Safran says Kidman was included in concept art that dated back to September 2016. “When we reached out, we got an immediate response,” Safran recalls. “We met with her, and that was it. Just one meeting. She jumped right on board and has been really game, doing a lot of the wardrobe stuff. Really cool stuff.”
Kidman’s role isn’t the biggest, but it’s still important.
“It’s not a massive, massive role, but her character is very integral to the emotional arc of our movie,” James Wan says. A majority of Arthur’s origin story is him grappling with his identity, since he has an Atlantean mother and human father. “The relationship of Arthur’s mom and dad is the reason he’s who he is today. He sees himself as a halfbreed and he sees being a halfbreed as a negative thing. His mom teaches [him] that’s not a bad thing. What you have is the best of both worlds.”
Sadly, Entourage’s Vinny Chase won’t make a cameo.
Adrian Grenier’s Vinny Chase played Aquaman in a fictional version of the movie directed by James Cameron in Entourage’s third season. While producer Peter Safran says Vinny won’t make an appearance in the film, he appreciates the show for portraying a version of the movie. “I have to applaud them for that storyline, because it certainly helped bring Aquaman into the forefront of peoples’ attention in terms of mockery,” he says. “It gave us a lot more to work with in terms of changing their minds.”
Apparently, he and James Wan took Entourage’s portrayal into consideration. “Certainly, I talked to James about it… It’s a world that we’ve never before. We’ve stuff in space, on earth, you’ve never seen the underwater superhero movie,” Safran says. “And because it’s a movie that really couldn’t have been made from a technical perspective, even five years ago - that challenge was something James and the rest of us really embraced.”
It nods to Aquaman’s ability to talk to fish.
Yes, Aquaman’s been the brunt of jokes over this ability for years. But it’s not something the filmmakers are shying away from. “He seems to be one of those superheroes that people do make fun of. But James loved the idea of turning peoples’ perceptions of Aquaman on their head,” Peter Safran says. “He’s like, ‘Give me all the things you made fun of and I’m gonna turn it on its ear and scare the sh-t out of you with it.’ It’s Jason Mamoa. You can not make fun of this guy… [but] we certainly make a nod to those elements.” Momoa adds his two cents, saying, “The more you look at it, it’s not so much the ability to talk to fish - you get to see what he can really do, how powerful the ocean is. I guess we’ll see who’s laughing then.”
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II finds his villainous character hilarious.
Although Abdul-Mateen admits his relentless Black Manta isn’t to be messed with, he can’t help getting a kick out of how serious he is. Since Aquaman is responsible for Manta’s father’s death, he’s out for blood and on the path to revenge. “Everybody likes the bad guy… I think they have fun. I think he’s hilarious. I don’t think he believes that he’s funny,” the actor says. “He’s always angry. It makes it very easy to crack jokes on him, like, lighten up… I think he’s a guy who could be in pretty fun predicaments… He wants to be killing someone or doing something, anything other than socializing… He will look out for himself and take any opportunity to further his own agenda. I think that’s hilarious also.”
Black Manta seriously won’t give up — to the point that’s almost easy to poke fun at. “I like to describe him, to me, he’s so annoying. He’s so vigilant. He’s so persistent and relentless,” he says. “In a fight… you think that he’s done, but he comes back.” But the source of his persistence always comes back to avenging his father’s death. “He has a very strong moral code that he will not compromise and will not negotiate on, when it’s tied to his father dying, he will stop at nothing to get the revenge that he wants.”
In fact, Black Manta has potential to dominate the DC world.
According to Abdul-Mateen, Black Manta is here to stay. “There’s a lot of different ways and areas for him to go. He’s definitely not a guy who’s just here for a short time and is gonna disappear,” he says. “We try to talk about him as a guy who has a potential to be a pretty big force.” Spoiler, looks like Black Manta won’t perish in Aquaman. “If you see Aquaman in Justice League, it’ll make sense for Black Manta to say, ‘Hey.’ Wherever he [Aquaman] is, [Manta] can justify making his business up here,” the actor says. “I’m looking forward to moving along within the DC world, create some chaos.”
Yes, ladies. Aquaman is very shirtless.
It seems there are no capes or heavy protective armor in sight for this guy. In fact, when isn’t Aquaman shirtless? Producer Peter Safran jokes, “I’m shocked [Jason’s] wearing [a shirt] now. It’s always a shirtless Jason. Jason likes to be shirtless!” But honestly, who would fight him on that? Director James Wan weighs in: “[Jason] is pretty much naked half the movie,” he says with a laugh. “Note to self: Dress Jason up more! Listen, that’s what makes him so cool. His physicality.” Wan also revealed that Momoa’s tattoos ultimately added to his costume.“The design of the tattoos on his body is almost a big part of his costume, so to speak,” he says. “If we put Jason in this, no one’s ever gonna make fun of Aquaman ever again!”
However, cleavage and skin were discussed in costume design.
How much is too much? Designer Kym Barrett admits this was a legitimate conversation. “We had a discussion like how much cleavage is appropriate, how much flesh is appropriate, when it’s appropriate,” she says. “I think it’s appropriate when it doesn’t get in the way of the story. James is conscious of that and shoots it that way. There are gentle cliches, but they’re in the service of the humor or moving on to the next point of the story.”
In terms of sex appeal, Barrett says the actors’ physique and chemistry speak for themselves. “[What’s] sexy is the dynamic between them,” she adds. Another big factor in creating the costumes was inspiration from the real ocean. “We use a lot of real fish and underwater photography, particularly light on water and reflection under water… I’m hoping kids and people will buy that that's what it would be like if you lived under water.”
Actors requested lighter weapons.
A trident, even a fake one, is no easy prop to manage, especially take after take. Weapons coordinator Richard Mansfield admits the actors had a common request to tweak the props: “Can you make them lighter?” Soon, though, the trident will be all the rage. “Trident is a royal weapon. It’s a cultural weapon… Once [Arthur] gets it he’s like kickin’ ass,” Mansfield says. Kidman’s Queen Atlanta even has a special trident of her own, and she knows how to use it. “She fights,” Mansfield teases. “She’s feral in this film.”
Another DC hero cameo is very possible.
At the time of the set visit, potential cameos were being discussed. “Still up in the air. Still up in the air,” producer Peter Safran says. “I know it’s always fun to do that. And, we’ll see. We’ll see what happens. I don’t know. The truth is, we’re still talking about all that.”
If there is a surprise appearance, who will it be by?
Jason Momoa won’t put his money on anyone specific. “I think we’ve lost a lot of money. We’ve got a budget,” he jokes. Still, there’s so much potential for crossover in Aquaman and in the future. “I think it would be great,” Momoa adds. “At some point, I’m pretty sure, if this does well and that does well, who knows what’s gonna happen next? Probably the same thing that happened with Marvel, you know?” Yes. Yes we do.
Still, Momoa admits Aquaman’s fellow Justice Leaguers have had impact on him that isn’t going anywhere (and maybe some will even be referenced in Aquaman). “Me and Cyborg are definitely, very much watching out for each other… we learn a lot from each other. Wonder Woman definitely, she’s easy on the eyes, so I’m gonna listen to her,” Momoa jokes. “Bruce, I’m like, I don’t really wanna hear it. I’ll do it, not because you said so. Flash, just, he’s great, he’s just like a little brother… It’s a great dynamic. All so different.”
For the road…
“Make Atlantis Great Again” hats exist.
James Wan was proudly wearing one on set.