‘Shazam’s David F. Sandberg and Peter Safran on Setting the Right Tone and Casting A Funny Hero
The very first comic-book movie in history was 1941’s Adventures of Captain Marvel. It’s taken almost 80 years for a follow-up, but now it’s here: Shazam, starring Zachary Levi as the title character, a superhero with the powers of strength, flight, and lightning bolts who appears when young Bill Batson (Asher Angel) says his name. (He used to be called Captain Marvel; it’s kind of a long story.) The movie was a long time coming but worth the wait: Directed by David F. Sandberg, the new Shazam is funny and heartfelt, with great performances from Levi and Mark Strong as the evil Dr. Sivana.
The character of Shazam is traditionally very different (and a lot goofier, in a good way) than Batman, Superman, and the more famous DC heroes. Rather try to grim-and-gritty Shazam up for 2019, though, Sandberg embraced his roots, and made a movie that is very faithful to the childlike spirit that’s followed the character since his days in the pages of Whiz Comics. A few weeks ago, I spoke with Sandberg and Shazam producer Peter Safran about how they found the right tone for the movie — and whether Shazam is part of an overall lightening of the DC Extended Universe. (There were a few spoiler-y parts of this conversation, but we’ll save those for after the film comes out.)
There have been various Shazam movies in development for years and years. Why did it finally come together now?
David F. Sandberg: I think it was because they’ve been trying to do a “Shazam versus Black Adam” movie, and I think that was what was holding things up. They came to the realization that this is just too much for one movie; we should focus on just making Shazam first and really give a proper introduction to that character. And that’s how this movie came about.
Peter Safran: I think that’s part of it. The other part is that Henry Gayden had written a phenomenal Shazam script and Warner Brothers, DC, and New Line got David Sandberg on board to direct it. And so the combination of wanting to make a movie with David and having a great script from Henry gave it a certain inevitability that this was going to be the one that goes forward.
Shazam’s been around for something like 80 years but your film definitely draws heavily on the recent comics by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank. What was it about that version of the character that you guys particularly responded to?
DFS: Well, we draw from many comics, but one of the things that I liked the most about the later iteration is that in some versions it’s very clear that Billy and Shazam or Captain Marvel are two different characters and they’re basically swapped out. You have more opportunities with the version where Billy actually turns into Shazam, just because you get that childlike excitement and wonder about getting super powers.
The character of Shazam must have been a tough role to cast, because you have to find a guy who is a credible physical presence who can also play all the comedy as well.
DFS: It was a bit of a challenge because we’ve found that a lot of adults when they try to play kids, they just played dumber, like lower IQ. But when we found Zach, he has this very childlike enthusiasm and excitement that feels very much like a kid. So it was clear right away that this was the guy and this is the way the character should be.
PS: Our search would have been a lot faster if Zach and just come in and read the first time we went to him three months before he ultimately did put himself on tape. But maybe that three months search made us all the happier when we found him eventually.
He initially turned down the movie?
PS: We approached his reps and said “We think Zach would be a great Shazam.” And they spoke to him and Zach — for whatever reason at the time — said “Ah, they’re never going to cast me. I’m not the guy. I’m not going to go on tape.” So he subsequently didn’t.
Then three months later he went to audition for a different role, for the [spoiler removed] role. And we saw that tape and Sandberg called me over the weekend, the day we got it, and said “I don’t understand. He wants to be the [spoiler removed]? He should be our Shazam.” And a week later his deal was done and he was our Shazam.
Wow. You already mentioned how Warners has been trying to make something with Black Adam, but I wanted to follow up on that. The film is pretty faithful to the recent Shazam series, except for the fact that Black Adam is totally absent, and you’ve beefed up the role of Sivana in its place. I was curious why you cut Black Adam from the story.
DFS: I don’t really know the ins and outs. They called me up and the decision had already been made to make a Shazam movie. And they pitched it to me as “Big with superpowers,” which sounded like the best movie ever. So I didn’t really question what the development had been before. I was just onboard straight away with making a Shazam movie.
PS: I just think they really discovered that Shazam merited his own origin story. That there was enough to tell with Billy Batson and the family and his discovery of his powers, all of that. To try to jam that in and also introduce a new character like Black Adam is too much for one movie. You’ve seen the movie so you can see that we really have a great story to tell and that’s what we tell.
Tell me about picking Mark Strong for Sivana. He looks like he’s having a lot of fun playing this really terrible villain.
DFS: [laughs] Yeah, he has fun being a bad guy. He has no problems with it. But it was also important for us to really set up his character, to show how he wound up on this path and why he turned out differently from Shazam.
PS: Mark was the only actor we ever went through for that role. Early in the process, when we had the script and we started the casting process, his name came up and we’d all loved him in everything that he’d done, but most recently the Kingsmen movies. His name came up and everybody said “Yup, he’s the guy.” And we went to him and he jumped on board. And he’d been averse to playing villains for a while, because he’d done that a lot early in his career. But he read the script, loved it, and thought he could bring some real charm and menace to the role of Sivana.
As a viewer, I can’t help but notice that the last two DC movies, Shazam and Aquaman, are much lighter in tone and even visually, than the DC movies that immediately preceded them. Peter, you produced both those films. Is that a coincidence of timing, or is that a deliberate attempt to lighten the mood of these DC superhero films?
PS: There’s a right tone for each of these characters, for all the DC characters and, I’m sure, the Marvel characters as well. And the tone we have with Aquaman is just the tone we felt was most appropriate for that fantastical, colorful, wonderful world that we were exploring. With Shazam, we felt this was the tone that was best suited to a really fun and funny action-adventure with a great wish fulfillment through line. I think the studio in both cases gave absolute freedom to the filmmakers, to James [Wan] and to David, to tell the story as they wanted to tell it with the tone that they wanted to tell it. And David always felt that this is the way Shazam should be told, with great humor, great heart, but also some real jeopardy and some real scares in there that I think are extraordinarily effective. I don’t think it’s a deliberate attempt to move away from earlier DC movies. It was a deliberate attempt to embrace the right tones for the characters that exist today.
I like Shazam a lot, and as a kid I really enjoyed the Power of Shazam! comic by Jerry Ordway. But Shazam has a pretty wild mythology — and I must admit I did not expect to see so much of it in your movie. I really liked how you embraced the (for lack of a better term) comic book-y parts of this character. How did you decide how far was too far with that stuff? Do you ever worry your audience might not go along with you as you introduce some of those more far-out elements?
DFS: As long as you do it gradually, and you make it feel like it’s in the real world, which was something I really wanted to achieve. Because it is kind of an outlandish story that we wanted to make it feel like this is actually taking place in our world, in a real city like Philadelphia. I mean it might’ve been too much to introduce Talky Tawny, for example.
DFS: We have just references to him, little Easter eggs. But yeah, I think if you just trust that the audience will go along with you, and then you ease into it, I think you can do almost anything.
PS: And I think it’s a lot of fun to give the audience some stuff to explore. So even those people that may not be familiar with some of the elements that we put in there, you know that after the movie’s over, they’re going to go back and do a little bit of research, and hopefully dig deeper into the character and the comic books.
I liked the way you incorporated the broader DC Universe in the film. Rather than having a lot of cameos, you just have the characters talk about the Justice League, and you see how Freddy loves superheroes and wears a lot of superhero T-shirts. Tell me how you decided on that approach to connecting Shazam to the rest of these DC movies?
DFS: That was such a joy to be able to do. In my first movie, Lights Out, which was a Warner Bros. movie, since they own DC I was allowed to have all these action figures and Batman symbols and things. And this was like ten times that. Now I can finally go all out! It was a fun way to show they live in this world where these characters are real. So of course they would have toys just like we do, but here it would be even more important to them, because they’re based on real people and real events.
Shazam opens in theaters this Friday.
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