David F Sandberg is the director of Shazam!, starring Zachary Levi, Mark Strong and Asher Angel.
With Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation, you’ve established yourself in the horror genre. What drew you to making a superhero movie, and specifically the origin story of Shazam?
Well, it was specifically the origin of Shazam – it’s the perfect superhero story. In this story, you have a little kid who gets the chance to be an adult superhero. And that was the perfect concept for it, because it’s the ultimate wish fulfillment with the joy of him discovering his powers.
Is it the kind of story that you, as a kid, would have loved?
Absolutely. I was a big comic book fan as a kid, and I wanted to be Superman, and this is a kid that gets to pretty much be Superman.
So how do you approach this genre, the superhero genre, differently from horror?
It was a bit of a change. But I like all kinds of movies and I’m certainly familiar with other genres. For example, there’s a lot of humour in this movie, though I’ve tried to incorporate humour into my previous movies as well. It was also a great experience to be part of a movie like this on a bigger scale.
What do you think makes Shazam so compelling as a superhero?
Everyone can identify with the dream of being a superhero. But it’s also that Billy is a foster kid, and you feel very sympathetic towards him. He’s looking for his mom that he believes is still out there, still alive, when everyone else thinks he’s been abandoned. And he’s just trying to find hope and trying to find his family.
What do you think becoming Shazam does for Billy as a kid who, in the beginning, doesn’t have any connection to anyone?
He learns to grow up and discovers what is really important in life, and ultimately realises that family isn’t always about blood ties. Family can be rooted in more important things.
And does it give him a connection to another kid, Freddy?
Yes, Freddy, who absolutely loves superheroes. And that’s also great, because it would typically be expected in a standard narrative that the superhero expert would end up with the superhero capabilities. However, that is not the case in this story. But Freddy still enjoys the fact that he can be friends with a superhero. The boys together get to discover Billy’s powers.
Through that, does Billy open himself up to a friend for the first time?
Yes, and then the other kids eventually become his family, too.
Why is Zac perfect as Shazam?
Because Zac just feels like a big kid! We had an extensive search to find the right person for this role, and it was important that everyone came in to audition. This is an interesting role as we expected a grown man to play as a kid. What I think a lot of people get wrong when they play kids is that they just act to lower the IQ. What Zac does is different – he plays more curious and more enthusiastic.
How did you work with Zac and Asher, who are essentially playing the same character, to create some continuity in their performances?
Zac and Asher already look similar, however we tried to find little commonalities they could share across their performances. It was actually kind of challenging because when we first meet Billy, he’s not the happiest person, and then when he becomes Shazam, he’s very happy. He’s dynamic. So, we had to try to find those little moments where we can actually bridge that gap.
How did you start off with Asher to create the Billy character, to give him the sort of sense of the background that the character has, because it is a serious situation for him in the beginning?
It came pretty naturally to him; he nailed the more emotional beats right away.
It’s unusual to start a character arc with one actor, and you finish it with a different one.
It is unusual, but it really works here. There is that worry that if audiences identify with one actor, will they then feel a disconnect when it’s a different actor? However, I don’t think that was ever an issue in this movie. It actually feels cohesive – like, no, it’s just Shazam.
Can you talk a little bit about some of the foster kids?
We have a diverse group of kids, which is really fun. We have little Darla, who’s the fast-talking, energetic little kid, and then the opposite, which is Pedro, who is more quiet and shy. Mary, who’s the brains of the family, and then Eugene, who’s a video game fanatic. They’re typical kids who reflect society today, but more importantly they just make up a very great group of friends for Billy. The actors in these roles are great.
What about Mark Strong as Dr Sivana – can you talk about working with him?
Yeah, I love that we could get Mark for this role, because he’s such a great actor. He always came prepared, which really shows in the finished product. He showed up every day, and he just nailed it on the first take every time. And it feels like he really enjoys being a bad guy.
And what about Djimon Hounsou as your wizard?
He’s great. He’s such a powerful presence, which is great as the Wizard is literally very powerful.
Was it fun dreaming up ways to shoot the story?
Absolutely. It was fun just to go bigger. It’s great, because on a movie like this you can dream up almost anything, and it can become reality.
It’s not just the actors who have to use their imagination when you’re dealing with green screen, it’s everyone – you all have to imagine it?
Yes, especially when it’s a completely CGI environment. Even just placing the cameras when you only have an actor in the space means the rest is up to imagination. So, I’d come up with cool stuff and then put my trust into our VFX team to create the world in the editing process. Fortunately, most of the production took place on real locations, or sets that we built. So, it was mostly just the flying sequences that took place on blue screen.
What were some of your more practical sets?
We did massive practical builds, like The Rock of Eternity, a carnival, the foster home and even a toy store in a mall. And our story takes place in Philadelphia, which is a fun city to replicate. I think it all comes together in a different way from other DC films.
There are a lot of stunts in a superhero movie, correct?
There’s definitely some flying around. I actually tested it out myself as well. I went flying. I wanted to experience what we were putting our actors through.
What do you want audiences to get out of this experience of sitting in the cinema watching this movie?
It’s a fun experience in every way, and not just because of the humour. It’s just a fun kind of old-school movie experience. My goal was for the film to have an 80s movie vibe, like The Goonies or Back to the Future. And I think we got pretty close to that, because even some people who have seen the trailer have been like, “Oh, it feels a little bit like a John Hughes movie or something.” For me, that’s a success!!