The Shazam! movie may have seemed like a recipe for success to DC Comic fans, but the film’s journey to the big screen was anything but simple. Thankfully, our visit to the movie’s set back in April 2018 showed that Billy Batson’s story was in good hands, thanks to director David F. Sandberg (Annabelle: Creation). After reading our interview, even the skeptical fans might just agree.
We’ve heard about the process of becoming a superhero from Shazam! star Zachary Levi, and even gotten a behind the scenes look at the hero’s suit from the Shazam! costume designer. Now, let’s hear from the film’s director about the journey from making small-budget horror films to one of the most fantastical characters in superhero history. And bringing him to life in a movie universe already populated by the Justice League – as if the challenge wasn’t daunting enough.
We learned a lot about the story so far, and I’m curious during the development process, how much did this story change along the way, and how much is it what you first discussed?
The core of it didn’t change so much. There’s some things about like the sins and stuff like how they worked, and yeah. I can talk about that right?
No, just having fun with sort of how the sins worked and everything, because I wanted to do something a little different from… like in the Geoff Johns versions you have… they look very different, because you have one that looks like a person, one that looks like a monster, and I wanted to go more sort of monster route and also do cool stuff with the mechanics… and how challenging that is to fight and stuff like that.
You’re the first DC movie to go into production after Justice League. I want to know how the critical reaction, and sort of everything reacting to that movie changed this movie at all. Obviously, this is a bright movie.
I mean, it’s such a separate film that I don’t think it changed anything really. It’s very different from Justice League. It’s still the same universe, but just has a very different tone, and it’s not… yeah.
Do you think about any of that, the past criticism of DC movies?
The comic Shazam is lesser known for some people.
Is there any character you were particularly interested in when the project came up, or that you knew about?
He was lesser known to me as well when they approached me. Yeah, I was just vaguely familiar, so I did like a deep dive research kind of thing after.
What was it about the character that made you want to take on this project?
Well, basically they told me, “Oh, it’s like Big with superpowers.” It’s like, that sounds awesome. Like there’s so much you can have with that wish fulfillment of this kid who gets to become a superhero and try out all these things. Yeah, it just felt very unique.
Is there any talk, or was there any talk about putting the Zoltar machine in the amusement park, and can you still do this?
Well, yeah, maybe we can. Well, we actually have other references to Big.
Does it involve “Chopsticks”?
You’ll have to see exactly what they are. Yeah, there’s a couple of them actually.
You kind of briefly touched on it, and it’s something we keep hearing a lot about, is the tone of the movie. Can you break it down maybe in your terms what you consider the tone?
It’s sort of a… Yeah, it’s a fun movie. Like, it’s not like a pure comedy, because you still have some pretty dark subjects and some pretty scary monsters, but it’s more of… I like to compare it to like ’80s movies, like Goonies, and Ghostbusters, and Back To the Future. It’s a family kind of [movie]. It’s not dark and gritty.
This movie deals with this magical corner of the DC universe that has never been explored on film–
Which is great when it’s like, “Well, how do we explain that?” Well, it’s magic so it’s like, ‘finally.’
But the sins and this Rock of Eternity set in particular. There is a very serious magical vibe to it, and it’s so different than the warmth we’re seeing with Asher and Zac and everything else. How do you balance that duality within the movie?
Yeah, you just have to sort of take the magic sort of seriously and have it like a very real world thing to make it feel like… You have to not have it feel too foreign or weird. So it’s playing the magic very straight and the sins and stuff like that, but it’s almost like a little… it’s my monster movie that I’m finally making.
Can you talk about the casting a little bit? How did you end up with Zac, what did he bring to the table?
We did very extensive casting. We read, I think it was over a hundred people for the role of Shazam. I mean, that’s usually the case. You just read tons and tons of people until you see something. You see right away that it’s like, “Ooh, that’s the guy.” And that’s kind of what happened with Zac once I saw–he had self-taped and sent that in–and so, I [said] “Ooh, that’s the guy.”
There’s a big battle sequence in the mall, in the toy store, and I’m just curious when you’re filming at a toy store where you’re in the DC universe and the characters are known, as a director, what do you want to see on the toy shelves that maybe don’t exist in the real world but you can have fun with on set?
For that, I mean, everything exists that we had in there. It’s all these DC toys, and…
Was there anything you created specifically for the toy set?
No, they’re all sort of real DC toys that are in there. I mean, some were like, “Hey, you can’t have that character, because that character’s not in the universe yet. You have to stick to these characters.’
You mentioned Geoff Johns’ run, and in that, the wizard Shazam and the Council of Eternity really cracked open that entire world of magic. Do you allude to any of that in this film?
Oh, yeah. Yeah, because the wizard has this whole backstory and this whole protecting the realms against the sins. Yeah, we definitely allude to that.
Can you talk about the comics influence? We heard earlier that you were influenced by the New 52, and that influenced the costumes and what-not. Can you talk about what you pulled from the comics and maybe some of the changes that you went through in costume design?
Yeah, I wanted to incorporate a little bit of everything, not just the New 52, but the older stuff as well. The suit is one part of that where it’s like, “Yeah, I want the shorter cape of the Golden Age comics.” But then like, “Let’s try the hood from the New 52.” And little things like that, and trying to balance it. So we have things and references from the old comics, but a lot of the story takes inspiration from the New 52. So it’s a combination of like, “Oh, I like this, and we like that, and let’s put it together.”
In the sizzle reel we saw, it seemed like there was a lot of practical effects. Obviously, you can’t make them fly practically, but how much are you doing, and how much is going to be digital?
As much as possible. I mean, some things you just can’t do, like the sins, you have to make them CGI with what they do and everything, but we try to as much as we can practically with explosions and flying … being on wires and all of that. Yeah, take it as far as we can, and then CG will have to take over when we can’t get there.
You gave a little information on Shazam and Freddy as the resident superhero expert. Can you talk a little bit about bringing that to the film and the fun that sets up?
Yeah, it’s basically two kids having fun with superpowers, but one of them is like an adult, which already just visually, it’s funny with this little kid and this big guy, and they’re like, “Oh, awesome!” And doing all these things. And then we got really lucky again with casting, with Jack Dylan Grazer and Zac Levi together, are like awesome, because a lot of times when we’re shooting I’ll just wait to yell cut, because they always keep going and add little things. And most of that won’t end up in the movie, but I like to see what happens, because no two takes are ever the same with those two as well, because they always are chaging things up.
In what ways are you setting up Shazam for the greater DC universe and the upcoming Black Adam movie?
Well, I mean, this movie’s mostly just about introducing Billy Batson and Shazam, and who he is, how he came to be. It takes place in this DC world where all these heroes exist, but in some ways… it’s both sort of self-contained, while also being a part of something bigger. But yeah, that’s a non-answer.
How much effort was there to make sure it worked self-contained ? Where like in Justice League, that movie works better if you’ve seen other movies before it. So how much did you sort of think of like that as you’re developing the movie?
No, in that case, it’s very standalone. Like, you don’t have to have seen any of the other films, because it’s its own contained story really. Yeah, it’s just more the world of it that’s part of it.
Can you tell us a little bit about Mark Strong as a villain? He’s one of the few parts of the Green Lantern movie that people don’t usually criticize.
And he talked about how this was kind of a second chance at playing the villain.
Yeah, and he really enjoys playing a villain as well. He really has fun with being a bad guy, which is great, because it’s just so fun to watch someone who enjoys being evil. Yeah, we’re very lucky to get him, because he’s such a great actor.
Is there any sort of fun Easter egg to his character from Green Lantern in this movie?
No, there isn’t.
A lot of superhero movies kind of go overboard with their final act, but what we’ve seen from these big action sequences here, they’re all kind of these relatively personal spaces, like a mall, or a winter carnival. Is that something that carries through the whole movie?
Yeah, it’s a very sort of personal story, and it’s not… which I like, because I find it more engaging when it’s not like an entire world and everything, like it’s a blue beam in the sky… Yeah, this whole carnival is in danger and all these people, and you can be saved, and it’s more manageable and I think it’s more engaging as well.
Have you commiserated at all with James Wan as both of you are making your DC comic book movies at the same time?
I actually haven’t seen him in a long while now. I may not have seen him since before he went off to shoot. So, no, we haven’t really talked about that. We’ve emailed about some things, but no, not really.
Can you talk about the setting? I mean, this is like set during Christmastime, like the wintertime. Is there a purpose for choosing that specific time and setting for this film?
It’s a lot about family and Christmastime and this family holiday. And it’s about finding your family with these foster kids and everything. So yeah, it was just very appropriate for the story. It just meant that we had to shoot it here in winter, which has been pretty brutal. Shoot it all on location during nights, because they were telling me, “if you shoot the carnival during the day, you get more kid hours, everything will be easier.” And I was like, “Well, it’s not gonna look good with all the lights and everything.” So yeah, so we’ve been shooting it during the nights and it’s been pretty miserable.
Have you already thought about post credit scenes and what you want to do, or is it something you think about in the editing room?
We already thought about that, yeah.
Was there ever a version of this project … I know earlier ones always involved Dwayne Johnson’s character. Was that already gone, is that already off the table by the time you came on board?
Yeah, when I came on board, it was like, “Yeah, we’re doing a standalone Shazam movie.” And I know they’ve been sort of… The project has existed in various forms before, but… I’m not really familiar with all of that.
Was there a reason that you chose Philadelphia?
Well, we went with Geoff Johns’ idea. I think he picked Philly because of Benjamin Franklin and all of that stuff. And the thing about Shazam, or Captain Marvel, is it’s been different. It was Fawcett City at some point, but I think originally, it was New York. So it’s not like, “Oh, it has to be Metropolis or something.” It can be anything really.
You’ve mentioned the New 52 to and since DC’s Rebirth, we haven’t had a Billy Batson character active in comics. Has there been any effort, or anything that you’ve worked closely with Geoff Johns in this movie that might launch some new DC books? Has that been something that you’ve been thinking about, like what could spin out of this movie into the comics?
I know there’s some comic plans, but I don’t know a lot about them, just little bits and pieces. But I think they definitely want to do more with Billy Batson and Shazam.
Can you talk about the learning curve of this movie for you as a director, going from two small budget horror movies to something epic like this?
Yeah, it’s quite a marathon. Like, it’s a lot of work. It’s a very different way of working, just because you have to do all this pre-vis, and plan everything out months in advance. And then when you’re shooting it, it’s not always as fun as shooting a smaller movie, because you have to shoot… Today we’re shooting this little piece, and this little piece, because this piece is second unit, this is on blue screen, this is CGI. It’s a lot of things to keep track of. So the shooting is not always fun, but the result is so much more awesome when you have these kinds of resources.
It’s been a lot of work. I mean, especially now, we’re shooting main unit during the day and second unit is shooting during the night. And I want to be part of as much of it as possible, so I’m not getting a lot of sleep. But we’re doing some cool stuff.
Stay tuned to Screen Rant for more Shazam! set visit coverage, including interviews, previews, and some theories of our own.