DC Comics Movies

‘Shazam!’ Director David F. Sandberg and Producer Peter Safran Say the Magic Words

The wisdom of Solomon! The strength of Hercules! The stamina of Atlas! The power of Zeus! The courage of Achilles! And the speed and flight of Mercury! Those are all the powers that are imbued upon mere mortal 14-year old Billy Batson to become The World’s Mightiest Mortal, SHAZAM! (Note for all you noobs who have no idea what I’m talking about — I said SHA-ZAM, not to be confused with KA-ZAAM, the genie who plays basketball better than he acts, raps, or plays Shaq-Fu.)

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For the past few months now, filmmaker David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle Creation) and producer Peter Safran (The Conjuring, Aquaman) have been toiling on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, CA working in the post-production offices to bring the long-awaited and highly anticipated next chapter of the DCEU to life. Sandberg and Safran were gracious enough to invite The Nerds of Color onto the lot to view around 15-20 minutes of completed footage from the movie and answer a few questions about the inception of the project and the hard work they’ve been doing to perfect it.

I can honestly tell you that three years ago, I would have never used the terms “bright,” “goofy charm,” or “fun” while talking about the DCEU. However, based on what we saw, it looks like Shazam! will be arriving on April 5 to carry on the tone of the carefree popcorn blast that was Aquaman. And I for one, couldn’t be happier.

To summarize the footage:

We saw an expanded version of what was seen in the original Comic-Con trailer. The footage establishes the bond growing between Billy Batson, played by Asher Angel (Andi Mack) and Freddy Freeman, played by Jack Dylan Grazer (IT) as Billy defends Freddy from bullies at school, then jets into the subway to flee from said bullies. As soon as he gets into the train, we start to see things get weird; lights flashing, electronic signs becoming distorted, and people suddenly vanishing before Billy’s eyes in a brief rush of darkness.

The train immediately stops, and Billy gets off to be surrounded, not by a modern day platform — but an ancient cave lightly lit up by torches — The Rock of Eternity! The only source of natural light beams down on an altar, surrounded by stone thrones in a semi-circle. Sitting in the center one is an ancient, bearded man, holding a glowing Gandalf-esque staff — the wizard, Shazam (Djimon Hounsou). Billy walks through shocked and curious. The Wizard approaches him and explains that The Rock of Eternity is the source of all magic in the world, and that long ago, a decision was made by the ancient beings to choose a pure mortal to endow their powers on so they could fight the forces of evil in the world. The wizard informs him that he, Billy, has been chosen.

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Billy refuses, explaining that pure people don’t exist in the world and that he definitely isn’t one of them. The Wizard exclaims that he doesn’t have much time left, and he needs to bestow his powers on Billy, by having him say his name. Billy scoffs at first, but at the Wizard’s insistence, he relents and says “SHAZAM!”

A bolt of lightning hits. A cloud of smoke arises, and Asher’s 14-year old Billy is gone. In its place, a very adult, very buff Shazam/Billy (Zachary Levi of Chuck fame), fully suited in the iconic red, gold, and white suit is staring back at the Wizard. Completely confused, Shazam/Billy magically find’s himself back on the regular subway train, still fully grown and suited. People begin mocking him for his costume, and in a panic, he runs straight home.

The rest of the footage focuses on the relationship with Freddy and Shazam/Billy. Once he gets home, Shazam/Billy is freaking out, and asking Freddy to help him with “this superhero stuff.” They begin testing his powers in a pretty funny scene. First, for flight, Freddy has Shazam/Billy leap off a car, only to come crashing down into the pavement hard. Next they try testing for invisibility, and Freddy tricks Shazam/Billy into thinking he’s invisible, which he isn’t. This results in Shazam/Billy testing to see if a bunch of neighborhood punks could see him, to which they reply “nice costume, douche!”

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We next also got to see a scene where Shazam/Billy and his “manager,” Freddy, attempt to help stop a mugger from attacking a nearby lady, only to be beaten to the punch by the female victim, herself, who pepper sprayed the mugger before Shazam/Billy could get there. We do manage to find out about his super speed, strength and lightning abilities in that scene. Following that, we were shown an expanded version of the convenience store scene from the trailer, where Shazam/Billy and Freddy attempt to use Billy’s new body to hilariously purchase beer. Naturally a robbery breaks out, which is when Freddy and Shazam/Billy discover he’s bulletproof. They ask the robbers to shoot him a few more times, while Freddy films it, before beating them and throwing them out the window, then trying and promptly spitting out their beer in disgust of the taste.

The footage exhibited a lot of fun, goofy charm, being the first DCEU movie that is strictly a comedy. The tone is light and family-friendly, but also quite silly and funny. Angel and Levi are gold so far and have excellent chemistry with Grazer. As a fan of Chuck while it was on the air, I really think Levi is perfect for this role, particularly given the movie is inspired by Big. So I’m very much looking forward to seeing the rest of the movie.

As stated, following the footage, we were fortunate enough to meet with Sandberg and Safran for a bit of a Q&A. Here’s what they had to say:

What has been the strategy with the marketing so far?
Safran: We had a big TV spot during the AFC/NFC game. A lot more TV spots are coming, obviously. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some more long form materials coming soon, without promising a date.

Why did they go for Sivana for the villain?
Sandberg: Sivana is sort of the oldest villain. It was always him when I came to the project. We played with the idea of having the first movie be both Shazam and Black Adam, but it would [entail] more setup than you’d like to spend in the first movie. You want to introduce [Shazam] first.

Safran: Shazam’s origin story is big enough to merit its own film. That’s what we discovered early on. When you see the movie you’ll see that that’s what it deserved, and that’s what it got.

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Has the tone remained consistent since the beginning? Is that something you had to find? Something that evolved throughout the process?
Sandberg: Right from the start, just the concept lends itself to so much fun. A kid getting super powers — like, what would you do? And not just the super powers, just being an adult — you get to try out beer! So the concept itself lends itself to a very fun tone.

Safran: That’s why Shazam itself was going to be different from, say, Aquaman, or Justice League, or Birds of Prey. It always had its own tone, which is why it was so much fun to go down this path to make this movie. It’s why DC was so excited about it — to tell a superhero story that a completely different tone than anything that had come before it.

Sandberg: It could really stand out.

Was the idea always there to comment on the superhero genre?
Safran: Absolutely, yeah. I mean they live in a world where these things are real, which is also fun to explore because we don’t normally see that aspect of it. Would they still have the toys, the action figures that we have? And they do, it’s just based on real things.

Was there ever any version of this where it was in a world where Batman and Superman don’t exist?
Safran: No.

How did you guys choose whether or not you’d include any other established big-screen heroes, or not? And if you did opt to include any, how did you pick that character?
Safran (laughing): Pick which character?… The focus was always “this is Shazam’s story,” so he’s front and center. You have fun with all the things around it. But first and foremost this is Shazam’s story.

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Can you talk about the process of casting Zac? And how you got the idea to really bring him on as the “Shazam” alter-ego?
Sandberg: We had quite an extensive search. We saw many, many auditions, and self-tapes, and all that. Zac sent in a self-tape… When we landed on him it was like, “yeah this is the guy!”

Safran: He sent it in on a Friday. He was back on the East Cost. Self-tape on an iPhone. Sent it in. And by Monday, we had him in LA testing. And on Tuesday, he got the role. Zac IS this character. Zac is a 14-year old boy trapped in a superhero’s body. And he would acknowledge that. I’m not saying anything he wouldn’t say about himself. He’s a kid! And it was just so perfect when we saw what he did with the audition. And he brought that every single day to being Shazam, under very difficult shooting conditions. We shot in Toronto, in the winter, night exteriors on weeks on end — and he brought to it this enthusiasm that never waned ever… It was a very easy casting decision when we saw his tape. But it is worth noting that initially, two months before that, we had gone to him, and he had passed. Because he didn’t believe he would ever be cast for that role.

How hard was it to direct him? Did you have to bring him up? Bring him down? How did you find the medium where he has to be Billy?
Sandberg: He made it really easy for me. He just turns on and does his thing, and you get so much out for that. So it actually takes really little direction. It was just sort of enjoyable for me to see as well, because it was almost like I was watching the movie on the monitor and seeing what he was bringing to it.

Safran: It was really about matching Billy — Asher and Zac — so that it felt like it was two guys playing the same character. That was more of the balancing act that was required. And Asher was great!

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Can you talk about the casting of Freddy, as the crux is the relationship between him and Shazam?
Safran: He was in the movie more than anybody. He had more shoot days than any body.

Sandberg: That casting process went kind of smoothly, actually. New Line was like “you know, we just did this movie, IT, and there’s this kid in there that might be really good.” And they let me see the movie, and [Jack] was just perfect.

Safran: He was the first person cast in the movie. And once we cast him, we actually brought him in for all the Shazam and all the Billy auditions. And if they could keep up with him, we knew we had a shot. He put a really high bar up. He’s incredibly funny, incredibly quick witted, great with improv. And he and Zac were pretty fantastic together.

Sandberg: Sometimes I wouldn’t yell “cut” because I just wanted to see what they would do, because sometimes they would just ad-lib. A lot of it was not usable for the movie, but it was fun to see!

[On Sandberg and his horror background] Is there going to be any area where you get to flex your horror chops?
Sandberg: There’s not much I can say…

Safran: The [Seven Deadly] Sins are going to be somewhat involved in the story. So without revealing how they’re integrated into the storyline, I would say that’s about as close as what James [Wan] did with the trenches [in Aquaman], to really let David flex and build those kinds of sequences that are scary.

Sandberg: Just getting to design the monsters. You’ll see a little bit in the latest TV spot.

Have you sent it to the MPAA yet?
Sandberg: We have.

Safran: We do not have a rating yet.

[On the film taking place around Christmas] Like Die Hard, is this a Christmas movie?
Safran (laughing): Sure! It’s a Christmas movie!

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How deeply do you dive into the Shazam pocket of mythology from the comics, and are there seeds planted for more? Or did you get to cover everything you wanted to in this first outing?
Sandberg: There’s certainly more we can do. But we make some deep cuts — especially if you saw a little bit of the Rock of Eternity and artifacts that are from really old comics.

Safran: Obviously you have a limited amount of real estate when you make a movie, so I think we only just have gotten into the potential of what Shazam is. And also for our film it’s about Billy discovering his potential — what his powers are, how they work in conjunction with Freddy. So it’s kind of a starting point more than anything else. There’s a lot more to go.

[On the rumor that Dwayne Johnson was available to do a cameo, but the Black Adam suit wasn’t ready].
Safran: Complete myth. The only part of that statement that might have been true would maybe be that Dwayne was available. I wouldn’t know if he was or not. But, no. There was never a conversation with him about a post-credits sequence.

Would you want to put Black Adam in Shazam 2?
Sandberg: You’d want to see it at some point, because he’s a classic villain.

Safran: He’s a perfect adversary. One would hope that eventually you see those two on screen together at some point. But not going to be in this one.

What’s the current runtime of the film today, and where would you ideally like to see it?
Sandberg (laughing): Where it is today!

Safran: It clocks in at two hours.

How much of what we just saw is in the context of the film?
Sandberg: Because he’s just turning into Shazam, it’s pretty early.

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On the topic of post-credits.
Safran: It’s the same decision one has on all these movies… What’s going to be a nice punctuation at the end of the movie that’s satisfying for the audience. We have a lot of options.

At a certain point in the evolution of this movie’s development, DC and WB went from having a shared universe to doing stand-alones. Were there pressures to make this thing connect? And were you liberated when you were able to do your own thing?
Sandberg: No. It was always a Shazam story. It wasn’t a puzzle piece in something in particular. It was always just “this is the story of Shazam.”

Safran: The mandate for us for the film was always to make the best movie possible. There was never any attempt to shoe-horn it into any kind of existing storylines or universe. There was tremendous freedom that they gave David in terms of how to make the movie. And that was appealing to him. To take this fun, action-packed wish-fulfillment movie and go make the best version of it you could make. They were incredibly supportive… And I think the film really reflects that clarity of vision that he had from the get-go in terms of telling that wish-fulfillment fun and funny story.

[On the diverse cast of the movie and their favorite aspects of the Shazam family].
Samberg: I love the kids in this movie. The family he gets adopted into. One of the favorites is little Darla… All the kids were just so great. A diverse little group of all ages. I can’t wait for people to see that.

Safran: The cool thing about the foster family in this one is that when Billy finds his family, it’s a surprisingly beautiful and emotional story. All the test audiences at the end of it are always amazed at the emotion that it brought out of them. It’s kind of beautifully done.


Warner Bros. and DC also wanted to make sure to send over this fun featurette for all Shazam! fans to enjoy!

Shazam! bolts into theaters April 5, 2019!

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