Emma Needell’s script for The Water Man was featured on the 2015 Black List, but it was 2019 before the story gained the momentum to get made into a feature-length film. The story centers on a boy, hoping to save his sick mother, that ventures into a remote forest to search for a mythical figure who possesses the secret to immortality.
With the strength of David Oyelowo, in his directorial debut, behind (and in front of) the camera, and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions producing, the film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2020.
Since then, Emma has worked with Oscar-winning directors and producers, as well as on original projects in partnership with Netflix, Anonymous Content, MGM/Orion, Amblin, Apple, and Gaumont TV. She has also been featured on the prestigious Forbes 30 Under 30 list.
Pipeline Artist contributor John Bucher talked to Needell about the journey of her story to the screen and what writers need to understand about getting their script made in Hollywood.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
John Bucher: Many, if not most, in the Pipeline Artists community are writers and creatives themselves. We’d love to know how you got started telling stories.
Emma Needell: Storytelling has always been a part of who I am. I grew up in rural Colorado on a solar-powered cattle ranch. We had movies, but we didn't have cable television or video games. So, movies for me were proof that the outside world existed. My parents are huge cinephiles, so we had movies ranging from Tora! Tora! Tora! to all the Clint Eastwood Westerns to Do The Right Thing. Movies always meant so much to me.
But also, growing up on that ranch, there was a whole different world to explore. My brother, who I’m very close to, and I were also big readers—Lord of The Rings, Harry Potter. So, the woods behind our house, and the bluff and the prairie, wasn't just land—it was a fantasy world where we came up with our own mythologies.
Bucher: Beginning with your short films, Desert Noir and Tick Tock, you started telling stories about the world slightly askew, where this mythological presence exists in the world. How did that pique your curiosity and draw you in?
Needell: I've always been a world-building sort of storyteller, coming up with a fantasy, or some sort of magical realism quality—that's always spoken to me. It's really exciting, now, with everything going on with these incredible programs and technologies that allow for big kinds of world-building on a more affordable scale. It's always been something I'm drawn to. My favorite films of all time typically involve magical realism or fantasy in some way. And if they don't, if they're more grounded in realism, nature is a huge part of it. I love stories that interweave nature, even in places you wouldn't expect to find it, like the city.
Bucher: Tell us about your latest story, The Water Man. Does it come from a legend that existed in the small towns of Colorado? Or did this rise out of your psyche?
Needell: I love that question. It definitely rose out of my psyche, but I think being in Colorado, in the West, in general, had a lot of legends in it. Especially, legends about pioneers or fur trappers or people who came West into an unknown world. Obviously there's a lot of native people who already had this beautiful land, but there's a lot of mythology surrounding the kind of European people who came here and invented stories. For example, there are so many mining legends where I grew up. You hear about them all the time, like, "Oh, that house on the hill is the haunted mansion of the mining baron, and his wife's ghost still lives there."
Ghost stories have always been a part of my life growing up. The Water Man, in particular, was actually inspired by a friend of a friend of mine who had a near-death experience.
He's a river guide, and he's been a whitewater guide for years. He had an accident, a typical thing for someone in his profession. He was thrown out of the raft and into the water. Bad luck happened and he got trapped underwater and technically drowned. He was pulled out and resuscitated with CPR—very miraculous and amazing.
But he said he had this moment when he was underwater where he knew he was going to die. And instead of being filled with pain and panic, he was filled with euphoria. I didn't know him at all before this accident, but I talked a little bit about it with him, and he said that it completely changed his life. Now, he's a lot more at peace with life because he's not so scared of what comes next.
I heard that story when I was 18, and I was going through experiencing the deaths of my grandparents, and that story really stuck with me.
The whole premise of The Water Man is this idea of hope. At the end of the day, in the sort of narrative argument I'm making with the script, that I think David Oyelowo fantastically translated into the movie, is this idea that hope is the strongest form of bravery.
Bucher: That is a really powerful idea. Let's talk about how this script made its way to David and to the screen. You're not new to storytelling, but this is your first produced feature script. Of course, this is the magical unicorn every writer hopes to find. So how did you do it? How did you solve this problem every writer is trying to solve?
Needell: Oh, man, I love that question, too. I started writing this script seven-and-a-half years ago. I was an assistant at the time. I actually wrote the script in a UCLA extension course that I took in the evening, after my day job. I want to give credit to Stephen Mazur, who taught that class, and wrote the screenplay for Liar Liar. He taught me how to write and taught me this idea of the premise. I had submitted the script to the Nicholls Fellowship, and it got into the top 100, which is an insane accomplishment. I think a lot of writers, we're introverts, and we don't like the schmoozing. I hate networking but through osmosis, I had met other assistants.
One of my friends, who was a co-assistant of mine, was promoted to become a manager was looking for his first client. I sent him the script, and he started sending it around to his friends. It picked up steam. I went on general meetings to meet with executives in the mornings or evenings between my assistant job, which was an insane couple of months.
This is where the fates aligned. David Oyelowo had just worked with Oprah Winfrey on Selma, and they were looking to do a family film. Not just a happy family film, but a family film with adventure, in the spirit of a Stand By Me or The Goonies—a story that talked about something real. A big important theme that wouldn't talk down to the young protagonists or to the young audience.
David read The Water Man on a flight, and when he landed, he wanted to meet. At that time, I had an independent financier who was interested and a big studio with a director who was also interested. But when I was finally in a position to choose who I wanted to partner with, for me, the most important thing was I wanted someone who understands this project, and the premise, better than I do. And after that first meeting with David, I just had this instinctual feeling, "Wow, he gets it." He is so passionate about the idea.
I think this is so important for writers when they begin to have their work out there. You need to define what success means for you. Is it just money? Is it getting a manager? You want to have your big dreams, too. Money definitely gets projects made, there's no question, but I think, more than anything, passion does. Because this project had a very meandering path from David being attached, and Oprah Winfrey's company, Harpo, being attached to going to a studio. It was even in turnaround. It looked like it was going to be dead in the water. There were so many things that almost killed this project.
Some of the best scripts in the world never get made, which is just the harsh reality of Hollywood. But for this one, passion drove it. I cannot stress enough the power of passion, when it comes to getting these things made.
Bucher: That's so true—so good. What did you learn through this process of seeing your story get made?
Needell: Here's what I've learned, and it's so obvious to say it, but it's something I have really understood because I was also on set the whole time and got to meet all of the amazing artists, from the prop master to the production designer to the cinematographer. The most important thing you can do, as a screenwriter, is write something that inspires the other artists who will contribute to it.
Write something that gets the cinematographers excited to be on set. Write something that the prop masters can put their artwork and their point of view into it. I think that's ultimately what a screenplay needs to be. Inspiration.
*Feature Photo: Lonnie Chavis in The Water Man / RLJE Films (2020)