Like I wrote in Collider’s full review, Aquaman is such a big, technicolored leviathan of a movie that I couldn’t imagine any scene too wild or complex to be cut from the finished product. So when I sat down with a handful of other journalists to speak with Aquaman writers David Leslie and Will Beall—along with executive-producer and story co-writer Geoff Johns—for a roundtable interview, I had to know any and all ideas that couldn’t make the final cut (It turns out we were deprived of one hell of an underwater prison break scene.)
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.