When we first had the opportunity to travel out to Toronto’s Pinewood Studios and see the next chapter of the DC movie universe take shape, the film in question was Suicide Squad, expected to inject the magical and mystical into the world of Batman and Superman. When we returned in April 2018 to visit the set of Shazam! the expectation was the same… but just about everything else had changed.
Without an official Shazam! trailer or, at that time, even an official photo of Zachary Levi in the costume, our group of over a dozen online journalists were ushered to the set without a clear idea of what DC Films or director David F. Sandberg (Annabelle: Creation) were making. What we saw was proof that the DCEU wasn’t being gided by a single overarching style, or vision. The mission is to bring Shazam! to fans and families already dreaming of becoming a superhero themselves–and to do it by staying true to the comic books in every way possible.
Those close to production already knew and alluded to the fact that the Shazam! movie would be following the outline crafted by Geoff Johns, when he rebooted the character as part of DC’s New 52. A new Billy, a new Wizard, and a story emphasizing a house full of foster kids uniting as a family–Shazam’s secret power. But as we were ushered to a conference room to have the plot of Shazam! explained, and shown a short sizzle reel of footage, interviews, and concept art, the differences stood out as much as the similarities.
And believe it or not, it was was Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong) who started the story, not Billy Batson. After all, nobody needs to be sold on the idea of a kid becoming a superhero. But making his villain more than a flat, mirror image? That’s the real challenge.
Mark Strong as Dr. Sivana
Before audiences meet Billy Batson, a troubled teen from a rough upbringing, they’ll be introduced to Thaddeus Sivana (who has issues of his own). It’s an intriguing step to give a glimpse into Sivana’s own childhood, but is clearly doubling down on the more nuanced motivations introduced as part of the New 52. No longer a mad scientist, the movie version of Dr. Sivana seems to be defined by family as much as Billy Batson.
Unfortunately, we’re not able to share all of the details we learned about Sivana’s origins, and his own path through the film. Fans who read through the New 52 comic and know that Sivana is obviously occupying the villain role played by Black Adam can make some predictions. But we will only say that Sandberg and his team have outlined an interesting foil for Billy, and one that we left far more eager to see on-screen than when we arrived.
Billy Batson, Freddy Feeman & The Family
The bulk of the actual video presentation has now been shown in bits and pieces thanks to Shazam! trailers and photos, sketching the same basic outline of Billy from the comics. Less than thrilled about his new foster family and instead focused on finding his real one, it’s the audience who gets to fall in love with the other kids first. Freddy Freeman, the superhero expert who establishes the rest of DC’s heroes through his rabid fandom. Mary, the mother hen preparing to go away to college. Pedro is shy, with asthma. Eugene and Darla are younger, but precocious. Darla loves purple.
Billy’s recruitment to The Rock of Eternity has now become the central crux of the marketing, triggering his transformation from young actor Asher Angel to Zachary Levi’s fully-formed Shazam. We learned more about his mission and the forces lining up to oppose him, but diving into those would only be spoiling the film (which we wouldn’t do anyway). More details on The Rock of Eternity, The Wizard, and Sivana’s role as related to either of them will be shared later. For now, the sizzle reel showed there is still a LOT that the trailers haven’t shown, both in terms of Billy/Freddy banter and superheroic demonstration.
Freddy believes in a purpose for the powers, but Billy is not crazy about it – he only cares about finding his biological mother. One particular scene involving Shazam saving a bus full of passengers is punctuated with a Levi moment guaranteed to make a future trailer, which seems to lead into his first confrontation with Sivana.
The Big, Final Battle
It’s not exactly a spoiler to say that the Shazam! movie is going to build towards one bigger battle than those that come before, and now both Dr. Sivana and the Seven Sins have been revealed in release footage (still in the form of stone statues before The Wizard in The Rock of Eternity). Once they break free–just like in the comic book story–it’s Shazam’s mission to defeat them, win the day, and set the world right again. At least some of that fight looks to take place against the Winter Carnival backdrop seen in set photos and in trailers (“Chilladelphia”), and while the post-production nature of the Seven Sins means there wasn’t much to show of them, the concept art showing Shazam battling them (and using his lightning as a weapon, too) has our hopes high.
After the video presentation wrapped, we were escorted to the set for the aforementioned Winter Carnival by Production Designer Jennifer Spence (a native of Northern Ontario who assured us that the winter setting allowed her to make some nods to her own childhood throughout the designs). The movie is officially set in Philadelphia, just like the New 52 comic book, also set during the holidays.
Tour of The Shazam! Movie Set
We’re shuttled a short distance to a nearby set where the bus rig from the video is visible a short distance away, on a recreated piece of overpass. The carnival looks like a standard, smaller-scale winter carnival. The set is trashed now after filming most of the action scenes there (heavy CG due to the Sins’ nature), with the small stalls and games closed up, but stuffed animals, popcorn, and bags of cotton candy scattered everywhere. LOTS of stuffed tigers, meaning there’s a chance that Shazam might bring one to life to attack Sivana like happened in the comics (even without the somewhat-hard-to-sell detail of Billy visiting a tiger at the zoo as his best friend).
There’s an ice fishing area set up on a raised stage, created for a stunt that is hinted at taking the action underwater for part of the sequence. Aside from that, the ferris wheel has been knocked over, explained as one of the bigger moments in the fight. No other details offered up. In the time since, these sections of the fight have been shown to heavily feature Dr. Sivana, including a shot of the ferris wheel collapsing as the two engage in a battle of magical lightning. Whatever else happens in the fight, the production is keeping it under wraps for now. Considering how pivotal it seems in the overall plot, that might be for the best to prevent leaks (well, any more Shazam leaks, anyway).
From there we head to a soundstage where David F. Sandberg is filming the interior of the group home at one end, and we visit The Rock of Eternity set at the other. We were allowed to walk around the location to catch all of the small details that may or may not be in the finished movie. But since this location holds the key to most of the film’s plot, we’re not allowed to share every detail about it at this point, either. Our full breakdown of the set will be coming eventually, but for now, we’ll turn our attention to the far end of the set, where the costumes for Dr. Sivana, the Shazam Suit, and The Wizard’s Robes are on display next to the shallow staircase before the stone thrones.
The Shazam Hero Costumes
Costume Designer Leah Butler (Annabelle: Creation) walks us through the designs. We’ve broken down the Shazam suit in an extensive article, so for now we’ll stick to the major pullouts (but hit that link for full quotes and images).
- The pattern of the Shazam suit (which we’ve all seen by now) is the same squared wave, classical one printed on the cape edge and the hem of the Wizard’s robe in gold (the Wizard’s is faded).
- David Sandberg was a big fan of the New 52 version so that’s the clearest inspiration, but with older elements worked in too (the shorter cape a major one). The chest light (called “The Bolt”) is fitted with adjustable light for both practical lighting and as a sign of the hero’s power (and she is shocked neither Zac nor the stunt guys have broken one of them yet). They wanted shadows and light playing on the hero’s face, which is why the light was put in – then David asked if they could do the cuffs as well.
- The suit is meant to include the red and golds of classical Greek and Roman soldiers and gods, while still being a 14 year old boy’s idea of what a magic hero would look like (even if he’s not aware he’s making the suit himself). Yes, there is padding put on beneath the actual suit, because there is always padding in every superhero suit, no matter who the actor is. But Butler praises Zac for the time he put in getting into shape which makes their job easier.
- When we ask, she confirms she was not too pleased about the public photos being the reveal of the suit. But response has been positive. They did try sandals like previous versions, and the form-fitted boots of Superman but they just didn’t work.
- The Wizard’s Costume keeps the aboriginee feel from New 52: exposed arms, tattered bottom hem, and one cuff (cracked and aged). Typically holds the staff in his hand.
- Sivana’s costume is straightforward enough as a wealthy villain from an upper class background. Leather coat and patterned suit, fur collar, and the coat length matches mid century designs (connected to his fondness for artifacts). Mark Strong later endorses the idea that Billy’s clothing reflects his idea of a hero, so Sivana’s may reflect his idea of a villain (Nazi-like coat, maybe even Joker-ish colors below). The gold shirt shows his self-worth, and David was very keen on a classy collar as opposed to his original white lab coat look.
Shazam Scene Descriptions
After getting a walkthrough of the costumes, we head back to the viewing station in the tunnel Billy walks through to enter The Rock of Eternity. We take our seats and watch the first of two scenes from the movie being filmed.
- First, Billy’s new foster parents welcoming him into house. One long (three minutes) tracking shot following them through the door, dropping coats, calling out to kids to meet Billy. Dad walks around turning off lights, Darla runs in being adorable, calls Freddy down. Mary comes downstairs on the phone, says ‘Hi’ with some attitude, pulls headphones off Eugene’s ears playing a game on the couch, then follows the mother upstairs as Pedro passes by, underwhelmed.
- That’s as far as we got in the shot that we saw, since it was pretty involved and was being reshot about a dozen times before our first walkthroughs. The color of the house is in stark contrast to the rest of the locations, and by design: rich, warm, lived in, and decorated with Mexican and Hawaiian accents to show the parents’ heritage. Very cozy, busy, old Philadelphia home. Also shows off both stories they actually built together on the set.
- The second scene is Billy trying to leave the home. Camera follows him down the stairs in the middle of the night, and right up to the security system control pad. As soon as he drops the cover, Mary (Grace Fulton) comes into focus on the floor in the next room. She talks Billy out of it while he tries to crack the system.
- “Running away already? If I can give you some advice, give it a couple of days.” “Where are you applying again? The CalTech in town? Oh no, it’s short for California. But you can’t leave, it’s so great here!” “I’ve worked really hard to keep my grades up, I deserve some fun and sun. But thanks, new kid, for that searing psychological profile. You’re really going to make me get up aren’t you?” Plucks the tool out of Billy’s hands as he tells her he figured out living on his own a long time ago.
- In a fun little beat, Mary gets passed his lockpicking kit that Billy was holding by the director below frame, then hands it to Billy with a quip about how things may surprise him. “We’re all foster kids here. Goodnight Billy.” She watches him go upstairs playing the mother hen role, but maybe realizing there’s more to Billy than he lets on.
Once the scenes are finished being filmed, we get a chance to begin our interview with the cast, including Zachary Levi and Mark Strong who have arrived on set to talk with us (out of wardrobe).
Interview With Shazam! Director David F. Sandberg
- Was very tight-lipped about plot specifics, but confirms that they read over a hundred actors for the role of Shazam, before seeing Zac’s tape and realizing he had it. The youthful exuberance of a kid with heart, all genuine. The film is about family, which is folded into it being set at Christmas (even more emphasis on togetherness).
- The biggest change for him is that making a movie this big is less fun. You film small pieces broken up by second unit stuff and visual effects, instead of longer scenes or sequences. But the end result is infinitely more satisfying and badass. He wants to be involved with all parts of it though, so that means he doesn’t get to sleep.
- Saying “it’s all magic” means he doesn’t need to worry about continuity with other movies or anything because “….it’s magic!”
- Downplayed the connective tissue with other DC movies, since it’s a standalone story about Billy, not anything else. No talk of Black Adam, he knew they were doing their own thing with that when they approached him about Shazam. It’s a bright character and story, so nothing about the other DC movie responses impacted his approach or vision.
Interview with Shazam! Star Zachary Levi
From the moment Zachary Levi sits down to talk with us, it’s clear that he’s as excited to be a part of this movie as the fans are to see it. And while the story of the Shazam! movie actually started with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson being attached, then getting a Black Adam movie of his own, it turns out Levi was also thrown by the assumptions being made. Especially when it came to wondering why an actor like him would wind up being seen as a contender.
- Knowing that The Rock was Black Adam, his first response to getting the audition was confusion. He assumed it would be a bigger star sought after, or somebody on the physical level of The Rock. Even though he admits he was casually familiar with Captain Marvel at the time, he knew he didn’t look the part.
- He actually passed as a result, but ended up taping a scene for a different thing, which was sent to the Shazam team – who were basically instantly sold on him. It was funny because he saw himself on a Tom Hanks sort of trajectory, and this is basically his Big.
- He’s thankful to be playing one of the only superheroes (Spider-Man the other) who are excited to be a superhero, and get to save the day. Which means he has to act less, because it’s the same for him playing the part.
- He made an effort to spend time with Asher Angel to get a sense of his Billy, but ultimately had to make his own choices and stick with them (it worked out since they share a lot of interests and personality, etc.).
- Even though the story looks to be adapting the New 52 version, Levi maintains it’s not a direct inspiration for him, personally. He actually took more away from the innocence – even in adulthood – of Billy Batson that was showcased in the Kingdom Come future story. But it does all take place after the events of other DCEU movies.
- His death in the Thor movies didn’t turn him off, since it meant he could take this role, and get to be the happiest and healthiest he’s ever been in his entire life. Plus even if he had lived through Thor: Ragnarok, he probably would’ve just gotten killed in one of the next Avengers movies.
Interview with Shazam! Villain, Mark Strong
- Super friendly, and enthusiastic about getting to play a villain like Sivana who actually has motivations and a determined purpose explained to the viewer all along. But also insanely, hateful evil (which he felt makes everything feel more dangerous when he turns against the kids).
- Has no hard feelings over missing out on playing Sinestro in Green Lantern 2 as the villain everybody (including him) was looking forward to. But knows that the movies, and probably his character, will be rebooted eventually.
- Is really on board with more obscure superheroes now getting a chance to shine, and getting to play a villain to one who was there from the start is a privilege. Even if the version he’s playing is much closer to the New 52 version – physically strong, superpowered, etc.
- Reiterates that both Sivana and Billy Batson are motivated by their experiences with family. That Billy’s arc is fueled by his family, and the same could be true of Sivana, in a certain way of looking at their matching storylines. Also explains why Seven Sins would seem less than evil to someone like him.
- He doesn’t think that being interesting or sympathetic makes Sivana possible for redemption – he really is evil, and an intensely bad guy. But he’s drawing from the source material, and letting that justify the character who opposes somebody like Shazam/Billy. Hopes to make Sivana an “iconic” villain.
- He’s really glad that even though the powers could be all CG and added in later, both he and Zac are getting to wrestle around, and physically fight eachother/go slamming through walls, that kind of stunt work.
- Instead of those who have looked down on superhero films, Strong sees it as the latest evolution of big budget, spectacle, fantasy, epic filmmaking. TV is drawing so much drama, that it is actually everything informing everything else. Guardians of the Galaxy brought in comedy, Black Panther and Wonder Woman adding more, too. The work is different, but he will get to enjoy the payoff with the audience in this kind of film.
Interview with Shazam’s Jack Dylan Grazer
Every superhero needs a ‘man in the van,’ and Billy Batson has Freddy Freeman for the role. It’s one that Jack Dylan Grazer is happy to play (and sees himself as the “Alfred” to Billy’s Batman, since he’s such a superhero trivia steel trap). He’s also one of the only cast members who seems to be playing a significant amount of his part opposite BOTH versions of Billy Batson.
- Was told to keep things vague, considering how much of the core story he’s involved in. But did reveal that he first thing he read when getting the part was the original Fawcett comics. As exciting as that was to see where Freddy began, and ended up becoming a superhero himself, was bummed it wouldn’t be HIM getting to be a superhero, if that ever ended up happening in the movies.
- Understands the pressure of doing Freddy Freeman justice for the fans. Not just because he’s a beloved character, but as one of the few superhero comic book heroes who has a physical disability. He spent time learning to walk with a crutch, instead of looking like he was pretending to walk with a crutch. He’s also dealt with bullying and using humor to get the upper hand, so feels like he and Freddy have that in common.
- He and Zac improvise entire scenes, in basically every scene. But did clarify that he’s involved in some pretty intense scenes, too.
- He grew up with DC heroes, so to go from following Comic-Con to being an “attraction” at Comic-Con was wild. A dream come true.
Interview with Shazam’s Kid Half, Asher Angel
- It didn’t take long after Asher’s test to learn that he had gotten the part. Was screaming when his mom gave him the news. The nature of the role can be complicated, but he and Zac have become like best friends, which he thinks helps them find a common ground for Billy and Shazam.
- Went out to pick up DC Comics (including the New 52 story) once he found out he had been cast, to make sure that he got Billy perfect. Then has to pretend that he isn’t loving every second of this superhero story, just to stay in character as Billy.
- Billy is distant from the other kids, but only because he wants to be with his mother. He doesn’t want to be anywhere else, or with anyone else, so finding The Wizard isn’t really important to him. Until his being chosen starts to make him realize that he has meaning of his own.
Stay tuned to Screen Rant for more Shazam! set visit coverage, including interviews, previews, and some theories of our own.