Ever speak with someone who is completely passionate about what they do and how they do it, and also leave you completely inspired? That is exactly who screenwriter Emma Needell is, and that energy is what she brings to her new movie The Water Man. A mythical journey in your backyard, through the eyes of innocent adolescence, all in the search of hope.
Gunner (Chavis) sets out on a quest to save his ill mother (Dawson) by searching for a mythic figure who possesses the secret to immortality, the Water Man. After enlisting the help of a mysterious local girl, Jo (Miller), they journey together into the remote Wild Horse forest -- but the deeper they venture, the stranger and more dangerous the forest becomes. Their only hope for rescue is Gunner’s father (Oyelowo), who will stop at nothing to find them and in the process will discover who his son really is.
I had the utmost pleasure speaking with screenwriter Emma Needell. We talk about her adventurous spirit as a child who conjured stories around world-building and myth-making, her journey as a screenwriter to writing and making The Water Man, and her successful collaboration with director David Oyelowo. Plus, she shares invaluable advice and insight for all writers about writing what you're passionate about.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: What was the inspiration behind this story?
Emma Needell: Yeah, so we touched on it a little bit, but this idea of nature. I grew up on a solar-powered cattle ranch in rural Colorado, and we didn't have cable television or video games, but we had movies. My parents are huge cinephiles and movies were the proof of the outside world. And I really feel like I connected with the world, first and foremost, through movies, and through stories. And not only that, but my younger brother and I were very close to the woods and the bluffs and the prairie of the ranch. You know, they didn't just take place on earth. We invented fantasy worlds and mythologies as kids that we would play out on the ranch. And so, nature has always been a source of inspiration, and especially for the work I do, world-building and myth-making.
Sadie: Interweaving fantasy and drama, how do you attack that as a storyteller?
Emma: Yeah, so I've always been a big magical realism and fantasy fan. One of my favorite directors is Guillermo del Toro. You probably noticed that there are references or similarities rather. Also, Guillermo del Toro and Hayao Miyazaki are probably my favorite directors of all time. And they do a really good job, especially with child protagonists of blending fantasy or mythology and reality. I learned how to really write in a screenwriting class after my day job as an assistant. That's why I wrote Water Man, and I learned this idea of kind of main principles of screenwriting, and that's this idea of the premise. And the premise is your North Star. What is the argument or philosophy you are communicating through your narrative? And for me and what I kind of was going through and grappling with on my own, when I started writing this was this idea of hope being the strongest form of bravery. So that North Star was [what] led me to make every creative decision when it came to writing the screenplay. Knowing that OK, at the end of the day, hope is strength, but that that means that there needs to be a lot, I need to set up stakes where it feels like hopeless and honest. And you know, what is the driving motivation? But having that North Star is the only way I think you can wade through the murky waters of all the many drafts you will work on, definitely as a writer.
Sadie: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's wonderful, focusing on that as your North Star. And especially, kids and the innocence that they have. What did you tap into for yourself just finding that voice for these children?
Emma: Yeah, so a few things, at the time I was an assistant slash nanny for a young boy who was grappling with a lot of stuff that I grapple with as an adult. And it kind of made me realize, you know kids are aware of things especially in today's age with the internet, there's a real intelligence and awareness, kids are trying to figure out the world, and they're trying to figure out the world in its most fundamental form. You know, what is life? What is death? What is the point? Stuff that I was grappling with. And at the time, both my grandparents had recently passed away, and it was taking a toll on my father. And we all as a family were starting to ask a lot of questions about what is the purpose of life? What happens after death? And I was trying to wade through my own feelings with it, and kind of landing on this idea of hope through with all that became not just a North Star, but my sort of purpose to grapple with this and to find an answer that I was feeling at the time.
I also had a very rocky start in Los Angeles. I didn't know anyone and was broke and I was feeling very scared as well. So, all these feelings, swirling around that I was trying to understand and grapple with, and it was very therapeutic to put it all down and to come back with the story that I felt like really tapped into the human experience. That was the hope.
And I want to give a lot of credit to David Oyelowo. So, at the time, I wrote the script as an assistant and I got a manager off of it and started, you know the script, started going around to different people. And it was kind of funny I’d go one these general meetings for breakfast or drinks before and after my assistant job, it was kind of crazy. But I had a few offers on the table, one from an independent financier and one from a big studio with a director, and I finally was in a position of choice, which was completely brand new to me, and I wanted to define what success looked like. And for me, success for this script that was so personal that I'd written during a personal kind of self-exploration of this idea, for me I wanted to find a collaborator who understood the story, even better than I did, who understood the premise. And I got a call that David Oyelowo and Harpo Films wanted to meet, and of course I was floored and excited. But I went in with the same sort of my own North Star for success. And in that first meeting with David, I was floored by his unparalleled passion and understanding of the story even more nuanced than I myself understood it. And I think one thing I have absolutely learned over the course of seven and a half years of starting the script, I've learned that passion, more than anything, gets a project made. Money and need money, but passion drives it first and foremost, because it was a meandering path.
Sadie: It’s very rare that a writer gets to be there with their passion projects, and that you get to meet with a director and carry it all the way through to this finished product. I'm happy that you had that.
Emma: Dude, I want to discuss David real quick. He's the best collaborator in the world. In that first meeting, he promised that he would get it made and he’d ensure I'd stay involved throughout the whole process. And, you know, he kept his word. And not only that, I felt like a real partner. And, you know, there was even a moment, he wasn't originally going to direct it. And a couple months before we were set to film we had a director involved, who had to step off, and we were all sort of flustered like, “Oh no, what are we gonna do? Who's gonna direct it?” By that point David had been involved with the project as an actor and producer for years, and I pitched him directing it, like “You understood this project better than anyone has, even me. You should direct it.” And he thought about it for a couple weeks and then came on board. And, I mean, it's absolutely, it was always his story to direct. And I feel like what I really learned by collaborating with David, is this idea of what your job is as a screenwriter, first and foremost is to write something that inspires others. You want to write something that inspires the director to have to get a vision for the project and find passion. You want to inspire the cinematographer, the production designer, the prop master, the actors. Your only job or really your main job as a screenwriter, is to inspire the other artists who collaborate on the project.
Sadie: Well, you did it. [laughs] That definitely speaks highly of David's character as well of just seeing that all the way through.
Emma: Absolutely. He is one of the best human beings I've ever met.
Sadie: So, going back to the visual style of this world, and using animation as a flashback device, and showing the Water Man in his tale, was that originally written in the script or was that something conceived between you and David, going more into the development and then production?
Emma: Great question. That actually was something developed later. So, Gunner always working on a graphic novel. And the idea of a young protagonist who's a writer who's coming up with stories, you know, definitely speaks to my experience growing up as well but Gunners character was always there but the animation, in particular, so that scene was written, you know, set in the 1800s and stuff, and our producers were very correctly like, “This is too expensive.” [laughs] So we were trying to figure out, “Okay, how do we tell the Water Man story without blowing up our budget?” And it was David's idea actually, he was like, “You know Gunner already writes a graphic novel, what if it all takes place in his head in the style of animation and the animation is the style of how Gunner draws?” And it's brilliant. I mean, that is my favorite part of the movie and it's something that came about later. And, you know, David has done so many films. I think you really understand the importance of being able to pivot and to come up with new ideas in order to make the budget work. So, that is all credit to him.
Sadie: That is so cool. Also, I'm here to listen to Alfred Molina narrate a graphic novel any time. [laughs]
Emma: [laughs] Isn’t he good? He’s so good! [laughs]
Sadie: I just love the Gunner character and just the first half-hour he's doing this research for his graphic novel and his dad is saying that it's weird and it’s like, ‘No, that’s just what we do!
Emma: [laughs] Yeah exactly, and Lonnie, who plays Gunner, he is one of the sweetest human beings I've ever met and his mother was on set, and just a beautiful family, beautiful people inside and out, and I think Lonnie tapped into something. And Rosario Dawson as Mary, she's such a magnetic warm force already. But I think Lonnie, really, they both happen to love for his mother, and you know, very emotional evocative performance, but I also because I was on set and I got to witness this, David made the set a very safe and welcoming place where everyone felt like they were a part of it and people were safe to offer up ideas and to try things out. And there was a real collaborative spirit too, it felt like a family in a way, and David definitely led the charge on that. Made it a really safe place for the actors to explore and tap into pretty intense emotions in order to get to carry the story.
Sadie: Yeah, it's so subtle, but it has such a heavy impact. One scene that keeps popping into my mind is when Gunner sees his mom in the bathroom, no headpiece on, fully naked and just that reality hitting him, and then that juxtaposed with David's character being also scared but angry that his kid just saw this. That hits home.
Emma: Yeah, it's a bit of a tear-jerker. I think that's exactly it. There's these two, you know the father and son are so scared, and they don't know how to deal with it and I think that's really true when someone so close to you gets sick, there's a lot of fear in the sense of ‘I want to fix it.’ But the problem with that is, by just trying to fix it, sometimes you end up missing the point of what the other person who's actually sick needs. And I think in Mary’s mind in the beginning, it’s kind of the perfect point here which is we don't know how much time we have left, but we have to spend it loving each other every day. And there it is, right there, you know. Sometimes the best thing you can do with nothing is just to love the person who needs it the most.
Sadie: Yeah, absolutely and I like that the father and son both go onto different trajectories on how they want to fix this, and they're not home together to figure it out. What else kind of inspired you to be a screenwriter and come out to LA and chase this dream?
Emma: [laughs] Yeah, great question. So, it was really this idea of movies, watching movies as a kid and my parents had, you know films from Tora Tora Tora, to all the Clint Eastwood Westerns to Do the Right Thing. And I grew up in, definitely a monoculture, rural Colorado, cowboy country. I'm a nerdy Jewish girl who is allergic to horses [laughs] I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up, and movies were proof that there's a whole world out there with other people. And to me that was so exciting. I wanted to be a part of it and then funny enough, you know that beautiful, cute, naivete child watching movies, I would always watch all the end credits and I would just see all these names pass. And in a lot of movies, you don't see the same names and it was just this sense of like, ‘Wow, look how many jobs there are’ [laughs] ‘I’ll definitely get a job out there.’ But at the end of the day, for writing I kind of fell into it after I moved out here. I was broke, and you know, college grad, I didn't know a single person. And the goal is always directing, but it's really hard to direct if you don't know anyone, you don't have any money. And so, I fell into writing and writing was a way to be creative and artistic, and that was very empowering. And a way to be creative and artistic for free by yourself. And that was very empowering, and I fell in love with it.
Sadie: I saw that you have some directing credits of your own, is there anything that you have your eyes on that you want to direct yourself or anything that you're writing that you're going to direct yourself?
Emma: I'm actually in pre-production on a project that I'm shooting this summer, half in Colorado half in Los Angeles, which is really cool, but it uses virtual production, which I'm really excited about, especially given everything going on in the world with COVID. It’s a tiny cast and crew, but we're able to build these kinds of epic sets, thanks to advances in virtual production technology, stuff you'd see on The Mandalorian or Lion King but we're able to do it and we're kind of cracking the code on how to do it at an indie scale. So, I'm really excited about that.
Sadie: That's awesome! So, any advice to writers who are coming out to LA and want to chase the dream, kind of like you did? What is something that they should look out for that maybe is something that you may have learned from just trial and error?
Emma: Oh totally, I have so much advice about breaking in, but I’ll keep it succinct. First and foremost, if you're writing for free on spec, either maybe your goal is to sell it or direct it or get a manager or an agent, whatever, it doesn't matter what your goals are at the end of the day, what matters most of all is to write something that you love. Do not write something that you think is commercial, even if it's wildly expensive. Oftentimes executives are looking not just for the story for the original screenplay, but for the voice for the point of view. And I cannot stress that enough. Write something that you wake up thinking about, that you go to sleep thinking about, passion needs to be your fuel here, because, you know, we all hope that you write something for money, and then it might not be something you're completely passionate about. Hopefully, it is but when you're writing for free on your own dime more or less, write what you are passionate about.
And then secondly, you need to put yourself out there, and that means getting notes and really listening to the feedback. Oftentimes, the feedback is very helpful but not exactly the perfect diagnosis for the problem, right? Someone might say, “Oh you’re act three I didn't really get it.” It doesn't mean act three has a problem. It often means there's something in act one or act two that you need to tinker with. But it's important to get that feedback and to really listen because a screenplay is ultimately for an audience, and you need feedback from an audience first and foremost. Also, be prepared for a lot of rejection. It doesn't mean that your script is bad or that your writing is bad, it just means you need to keep going on. Water Man was my sixth screenplay. I've written five before and they were all terrible, but it was growing pains that I needed to go through to learn how to write.
Sadie: That's all wonderful advice, finding your voice 100%, learning how to take notes and how to apply that to your writing, and write what you love. I think a lot of people miss that and are so focused on getting representation and selling right away.
Emma: Yes, totally! I mean, I was too. The first five are all like, ‘What do I think other people want?’
Sadie: Thank you so much for chatting with me today. Best of luck with the movie, definitely come back to Script I'd love to talk to you again about your next movie and see what you do with all this new technology. And that's really cool that you also get to shoot back in your home state.
Emma: I'm really excited about it. I’ll keep you posted!
RLJE Films will release the adventure/drama film The Water Man in Theaters May 7, 2021.