"The Water Man" screenwriter drew from Colorado childhood — The Know

In the engaging family film “The Water Man,” Gunner Boone braves the woods searching for the seemingly apocryphal figure of the movie’s title when something zips past him in the darkness. Twice.

Or does it?

Filmgoers might be forgiven for being as startled and stumped as the movie’s protagonist.  And the film deftly teases a youngster’s grasp of the real and a belief in the fantastical. Portrayed by Lonnie Chavis (one of the Randall Pierson portrayers on NBC’s “This Is Us”), Gunner and his family have recently moved to a small town in Oregon. His father has taken leave from his naval post because his wife (Gunner’s mother) is ill.

The titular figure has first-hand, lived-to-tell experience with demise. Or so touts the ghost stories of neighbor kids; the musings of a slightly odd, mostly isolated man; the huckster riff of a prickly teen girl named Jo Riley (Amiah Miller).

Although Gunner’s quest was shot in Oregon’s ample woods, “The Water Man” had its origins in a land far more arid but with a vastness that called forth its screenwriter’s imagination: Colorado’s Great Plains.

TO WATCH

“The Water Man” is showing at the Movie Tavern Aurora (18605 E. Hampden Ave.) and AMC Westminster Promenade 24 (10655 Westminster Blvd.) starting May 7. Check theater listings for start times.

The film’s screenwriter, Emma Needell, grew up in Elbert County on a 740-acre, solar-powered cattle ranch and went to elementary and middle school in the town of Elbert. Her parents — one-time doctors who met in Colorado during their residencies — moved to the rural burg southeast of Denver after her father sold his outpatient MRI business.

“My brother and I would go off — and this is before cellphones — and explore the woods and the prairies and the bluffs. But they weren’t just woods and prairies and bluffs; they were mythical lands, too,” said  Needell, sitting on a bench at Crown Hill Park one recent spring morning.

Needell had wanted to meet someplace that offered a hint of nature, which felt apt. The Jefferson County open space obliged: Near the modest fishing pier, a couple of ducks had dug into the mud; red-wing blackbirds were making a beautiful racket; and the wind was blowing ripples on the surface of the modest lake.

“I knew I wanted (Gunner’s story) to be rooted in nature,” she said. “World building with nature has always been sort of my MO.”

Well, maybe not always. Raised with a mantra of sustainability, Needell wasn’t always patient with her parents’ environmentalism. “As a surly teenager, I was like, ‘Oh, I can’t use my hair dryer?’ But we really grew up having an understanding of living with the sunlight and knowing, ‘OK, we have the most power in the afternoon, so we have to be conscientious of nature and living with nature.’ That was a really interesting point of view, which now that I’m an adult and not, you know, a selfish teenager, I have a real appreciation for that experience.”

What she did love without having to grow wiser was that her parents were movie buffs. Needell and younger brother David may not have had cable or computer games but there was an ample library of movies. “They had so many movies — “Tora! Tora! Tora!” and “Do the Right Thing” — I mean every movie you can imagine.” Two of her favorites? That Spike Lee classic and “The Shawshank Redemption.”

“I had a fine childhood growing up in Elbert, but there were a few times that felt — as a Jewish family — a little excluded,” recalls Needell. “And movies were the proof that there was a whole world out there full of all these different people. That was my real first connection to the world.”

But loving movies isn’t the same as wanting to write them, wanting to make them. What shifted?

“I grew up pretty sheltered on the ranch. In high school, I discovered boys and partying,” Needell said, wincing at what she calls a “cliché.” It isn’t, of course; it’s just a coming-of-age admission. “I got caught drinking my sophomore year and, you know, I was hanging out with the pot-smoking crowd.”

Those groovy, thoughtful parents of hers grounded her for the summer. They also gave the straight A student, who feared a summer trapped on the ranch, a “much needed out.” She could enroll in a summer education camp. Cue the New York Film Academy — in Los Angeles. (“Some questions there about branding,” she said with a laugh.)

That experience “was truly life-changing,” she said. “Suddenly having film and a direction turned it all around. I got motivated in school and motivated to go to college and suddenly felt like I had purpose and direction.”

The turn led to the film program at Johns Hopkins, and then a healthy stint in Los Angeles.

“The Water Man” is Needell’s first produced feature script. In 2015, the screenplay landed on the Black List, that Hollywood go-to highlighting unproduced scripts. Before that, she was a semifinalist for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Nicholl Fellowship. In 2020, Needell and her company, Evil Monster Dog, were featured in Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30” shout-out. (That company’s dark-yet-not name comes by way of a too cute, wholly mercurial family Shih Tzu that starred in a home movie, destroying a Lego village, Godzilla-style.)

The kid-led adventure-drama is also actor David Oyelowo’s directorial debut. That hadn’t been the plan when he, Harpo exec Carla Gardini and Needell met. He’d hoped to produce and also star as Gunner’s dad, Amos Boone. (Rosario Dawson plays opposite as Mary Boone.)  It turned out to be a gift for both director and screenwriter.

“I will never forget where I was and the profound effect Emma’s script had on me, the day I first read it,” Oyelowo wrote in an email. “The script took me back to my childhood while also evoking experiences I could relate to as a parent. I just knew I had to be part of making this film.

“When I finally got my opportunity to speak to Emma, I couldn’t have anticipated what a meeting of minds it would be. I had readied myself to grovel and beg her to allow me to help her find the financing and director for the film, but having expressed my love and vision for it, thankfully, the begging wasn’t necessary.”

Taking a route as fortuitous and it was circuitous, the star grabbed hold of the directing reins, too.

“Little did I know that after a number of years of continuing to develop the script with her that Emma would be the one to turn to me and advocate that I should be the one to direct it,” Oyelowo added.

For her part, Needell acknowledges how generous the ride has been. “David’s passion for the project was unparalleled, and he said something he’s completely stayed true to, which is, ‘One, I promise to do everything in my power to get this movie made, and secondly, you will not be rewritten off the project.’”

Later in the summer, Needell will begin shooting a movie in her native state — this time as writer-director.  She and fiancé and fellow creative Jake Sally are set to relocate to Colorado from Los Angeles. Sally, a film producer specializing in virtual reality, augmented reality as well as other tech-savvy storytelling forms, grew up in Park Hill. He’s a formidable champion and active facilitator of Needell’s vision.

“I’ve had a chance to go to the ranch where Emma grew up a number of times,” Sally said on a Zoom visit. “I think it’s given her perspective. There’s a lot of time to think about who you are and how you fit into society, especially for her. She’s a very, very deep thinker. She’s always kind of reflecting on not just her own experience, but also things that are happening out in the world. It’s a big cognitive load. That, for a filmmaker, is good.”

Besides their personal upsides in moving to the state, the relocation of two burgeoning filmmakers signals a welcome boost to Colorado’s filmmaking community. “Emma is a major new talent and I just feel so blessed to be part of the beginning of her journey,” Oyelowo stated. “Because I predict that it will be a long and illustrious one.”

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