“The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep,” a fantasy set in WWII about a boy who befriends the Loch Ness monster, is one of the best family movies of the year. I spoke with director Jay Russell and stars Ben Chaplin and Alex Etel.
How do you act with a creature who isn’t there but will be filled in later with CGI?
AE: It was really hard to act to a tennis ball on a stick. It was a challenge for me. When it first hatched and was in the teenage stages it was a puppet, so that was easier. But we didn’t film in sequence at all, so we began with my looking at a tennis ball and pretending it was Crusoe (the monster).
JR: Some of the very first things we did the creature was already an adult. Later on when we got to the stage work, the WETA Workshop built these amazingly lifelike puppets and the puppeteer was so great. He would give the creature those quirky moves. When it was an adult, that’s when they had to play make-believe. We did pre-visualization. I would take the storyboards that I did before we started, WETA would bring them to life with animation and we would have living storyboards on the set and that would help them, especially when there’s nothing there.
Why has the legend persisted?
JR: Because there are really two legends. The first goes with any body of water or in the mountains with, Bigfoot, and that kind of thing. The original legend goes back over 1000 years, kelpie or water horse, about a traveler who would come by the loch and this creature would appear to be very friendly and would want to take them across the loch and then get them into the middle and drag them to their death. Then there was the more modern notion from the 1930’s with the famous surgeon’s photo. My feeling about why the legend persists is that we want to believe that there’s something out there that we can’t understand. We have a need for magic and imagination. When I went to Loch Ness for the first time, we pulled up and saw all these tour buses looking out. Then I stood there a while looking for it myself.
BC: It’s a deus ex machina.
JR: We want it, we need it. There always will be a legend of a loch, even as recently as last May, a guy shot a video on his phone of the water and a wave with a big black thing underneath it, and it’s all over the internet.
BC: Because it’s in a loch it’s not as scary as in an ocean.
AE: It’s like it’s in a zoo.
Crusoe helps both of your characters take an emotional journey following a loss. What role does he play? How did he help them let go?
BC: All the characters take an emotional journey, even Hamilton (the British officer), who wanted to make an impression in a small Scottish town. He was a combination of Crusoe and the Angus character. It was about his willingness to accept something that is different, magical, mystical, not necessarily real.
JR: Crusoe [the name the boy gives the monster] is the catalyst to open up these four main characters. They’re all carrying something inside them and none are willing to talk about it. The creature is the character to get them all talking to each other, the catalyst. The mother’s not dealing with her children and with her own pain. She says, “Clean the shop out.” That’s how she deals with her loss. Ben’s character just wants everyone to stay away from him. Alex’s character is not dealing with anyone, very internal. Hamilton comes from a place of privilege and is put in a place of authority but not honest with himself about his fears. The creature forces it out of them
BC: It’s the beast within if you like, nature at its rawest, undeniable. It takes it into the metaphorical.
JR: One of the things that interested me is the older man telling the story as a flashback. The whole point is that he is telling this tale, and every word of it is true — for him every word is true, he did go through these relationships and experiences.
AE: Angus is a really troubled, a depressed kind of boy. He has not had a very good life. All the parts I’ve played one of my parents died. His dad’s gone off to war and Crusoe fills the position of his dad, comforts him, a new role model for him. He becomes a big part of Angus’ life, and then Angus has to let go of two big parts of his life.
Why is the WWII setting important?
JR: We changed that from the book [which is set in the 1930’s]. It gave a context for everything. Unfortunately we find ourselves in a world where conflict is still happening. There are a lot of kids whose fathers aren’t coming home on all sides. War is bad for children and sea-creatures. It gave the story context, resonance, not just a simple fantasy. We can have fun but take away a little meaning.
AE: Even though the war wasn’t right next to them it still affected them.
BC: It was a time especially in Britain of great deprivation when an orange is a big deal. I grew up with that. My parents grew up in London during the war. I sometimes feel that my upbringing reflected that not through deprivation but through prudence. I kind of hated it but I am glad that I had it don’t want to forget it.
What was the most fun in making the film?
AE: Apart from being freezing all the time, it was fun.
BC: Filming in New Zealand — a beautiful place, beautiful people.
What’s the most important thing for people to know about this movie?
BC: It has really important values that you don’t see very often. It’s challenging. They’ll learn something as well as being moved.
JR: Alex had to learn to scuba dive and swim under extreme conditions. He had to work on a wire, hanging upside-down. We had two stunt supervisors with Alex at all times. Even when I would sit off to the side looking through the lens seeing frightening things, he always had the team around him all the time. He’s really a brave kid.
BC: He never complained, but it was a hardship, intense wind, really cold. In the scene where he is swimming toward the boat there was no acting on encouraging him to get to us, worrying if he going to make it.
JR: He had to learn the Scottish accent and keep the Scottish accent when he was freezing. It was a challenging shoot and these actors were such great sports. But Crusoe had the biggest trailer!