David F Sandberg: Shazam!’s Secret Superpower

March 22, 2019
Mandated to make a family-friendly superhero movie with Shazam!, director David F Sandberg refused to hold back on the scares.

“You have to include some scary moments just to set up a real threat – so when the bad guys come after the family, you believe this could end up very badly for them,” says Shazam!‘s helmer David F Sandberg, the director best known for horror films Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation.

Produced by Peter Safran, who also co-produced Aquaman for the same DC Extended Universe stable, Shazam! aims for a more light-hearted, humorous approach largely absent from DC’s recent Batman and Superman outings.

“We always knew we needed to juxtapose a sense of jeopardy with the humour and heart and wish-fulfillment. And in order to create a worthy adversary for Shazam, you have to give them both a proper back-story,” says Safran.

Thus, Sandberg’s Shazam! provides detailed family histories for both Shazam (Billy Batson) and his adversary Dr Sivana.

With grown-up Shazam portrayed by Zachary Levi, Disney teen star Asher Angel plays his teenage alter-ego Billy Batson; Mark Strong doing honours as Sivana.

Giving kudos to his director, Safran says, “David could easily have gone down the path of comedy rather than horror if one of his animated shorts had been discovered before Lights Out was discovered because he really had done equal amounts of both,” he says, referring to Sandberg’s earlier work.

While still finishing Aquaman in Australia, Safran began prepping Shazam! – even importing some of the Aussie crew to Toronto for the shoot.

“We brought a lot of the Aquaman crew because we had done a lot of research and development to make people appear to be swimming and floating, so we were able to use that technology to make people appear to be flying in Shazam! We’d done a lot of work with ‘tuning forks’, which allow you to puppeteer the actors. It works for buoyancy in water but also for flying. You can get some tremendous action looks by pairing that up with the right camera movement,” says the producer.

He certainly hopes Shazam! enjoys the same box-office clout as Aquaman. “I think a lot of the things that people embraced in Aquaman are the same things that exist in Shazam!, in the sense that Aquaman was a human drama and a family story set in a fantastical world, while Shazam! is also a human drama with the same elements of comedy, action and heart.”

With Shazam existing in the comic book world for almost 80 years, Sandberg was able to borrow from a long line of Shazams – all of them about a kid who is able to transform into a superhero by shouting out one word: Shazam!

“Because he’s been around for so long, there have been various changes and iterations of his suit and I wanted to incorporate a lot of that. I wanted to have a shorter cape from the golden age era as well as the hood from the newer ‘52 version and then the shape of his bolt was inspired by the animated version in Justice League: War,” says Sandberg.

Indeed, even Elvis was inspired by Shazam – previously known as Captain Marvel Jr – borrowing heavily from the character’s gold and white cape for his own stage costume.

“Even though Shazam has been around a long time, he’s not as well-known, so we had a lot of latitude to tell this story because there’s no baggage attached to him,” continues Safran.

“What sets him apart from many of the other comic-book characters is that he is totally from a child’s perspective. Most of the heroes discover their powers as adults and they’re weighed down by the responsibilities. But for a kid, there’s nothing more fun than being a superhero. Then, of course, in the modern day, they would film themselves doing experiments and putting it on YouTube and going viral, which was one of the really fun aspects of getting to make Shazam in this day and age.”

Interestingly, Levi originally rejected the offer to play Shazam.

“We cast a wide net and saw a lot of people because it was important for us to have everyone audition in order to become Shazam. You can see all these great actors in other movies, but you never see them play kids because they’re playing adults, therefore we had to see if it actually worked. We reached out to Zachary, but he turned us down because he didn’t think he would get it,” says Sandberg.

“It wasn’t that he didn’t want to audition – it’s because he thought he wasn’t a big enough star to be cast. He actually auditioned for another role and when I saw it, I thought, ‘Why is this guy not our Shazam?’”

Levi relented, submitting a self-tape. “Less than a week later, he was our Shazam,” says Safran.

With a strong cast of kids including Jack Dylan Grazer (It), Faithe Herman (This is Us) and Cooper Andrews (The Walking Dead), Sandberg describes Levi as being “the biggest kid on set”.

“He’s so enthusiastic and excited about everything; that made it all the more real.”

Furthermore, Shazam! served as an opportunity for Sandberg to explore his own childhood. “I wanted to tap into the movies I grew up with; that made me fall in love with film, like the early Amblin, Goonies and Ghostbusters or Richard Donner’s Superman. All those films that had a sense of fun adventure but also some drama and a little bit of horror sometimes which just makes them feel complete.

“I really wanted to capture that essence but without setting them in the ‘80s.”

Ask Sandberg about the rivalry between the Marvel and DC universes, he says, “I find all the rivalry puzzling because I think there’s more that unites comic book fans than sets them apart. The more good stories that are out there – either in comic book or movie form – then we’re all winners.”

Adds Safran, “The fact that James Gunn is directing The Suicide Squad and Guardians of the Galaxy, and the earth has not spun off its axis, means it’s OK for that to happen.”

Shazam! is in cinemas April 4, 2019

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