Shazam! hits cinemas today and it’s an absolute delight (read our five-star review here). For anyone who’s missed the trailers, it’s the story of orphaned teenager Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who’s given the power to turn into a musclebound grown-up superhero (Zachary Levi) by saying the word “SHAZAM!” A blend of spectacular superheroics and Big-style comedy, it’s one of the best films DC has given us in ages, and we talked to director David F Sandberg (previously best known for horror movies Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation) about making the ultimate wish fulfilment movie.
How did you come to be involved with Shazam!?
I was still finishing up Annabelle Creation when New Line called me and said “Would you be interested in directing Shazam!?”, and I absolutely was. I wasn’t super familiar with the character, I had heard of him and I knew he was part of the Justice League sometimes, and they were pitching it to me as Big but with superpowers. That’s the best concept ever because you can have so much fun with it. Just a kid turning into an adult you can have fun with, you’ve seen it in Big, but to have him become a superhero there’s so much fun stuff for him to try out.
It’s fun to see a superhero who’s really excited about being a superhero.
Yeah, I mean, Shazam is just more of a fun, light-hearted character in many ways, it’s in many ways a comedy. You need some darkness in there to back up the threat of the bad guys, you really worry for these characters, but the inspiration for the tone was sort of that 80s movies like Big or Goonies or Back To The Future, something that’s just fun, you know.
It’s the ultimate wish fulfilment movie, really. Because what kid hasn’t dreamed about being like Superman? This is a kid who gets to basically be Superman.
What was the process of finding the right Billy Batson/Shazam?
We had an extensive search, did a lot of auditions, watched a lot of self-tapes, because it was important to us that to get this part you had to audition for it. Because you may have seen actors in other things but you rarely see adult actors play kids, so we had to know that this was something that they could pull off.
We probably looked at over a hundred people before we saw Zach’s self-tape and we were just like “This is the guy, he’s perfect.” He feels like a big kid and he has that enthusiasm and joy about him that defines kids really. I think with a lot of adults trying to play kids, they play them stupid, but the thing that really makes a kid is that sort of enthusiasm and excitement that unfortunately dies away when we become adults.
We were looking at both the kid version and adult version at the same time but it wasn’t until we cast Zach that we settled on Asher. Because partly it’s a look thing, you want them to look sort of similar, and then Asher just felt like someone who could be a young Zach in many ways.
Did they get much time together to work on the character beforehand?
A little bit, they got together and tried to get that. In some ways it was a little bit challenging because when we first meet Billy, he’s not very happy, he’s not very happy with where his life is going. He’s a foster kid trying to find his mom and when he turns into Shazam things are pretty awesome for him and he’s joyful. So we tried to find those moments when we could see that Asher could have that playfulness and joy as well as sometimes having Zach having a little bit more emotion to bridge between the two.
Something that I really like about the movie is that it has that foster kid element and it is in many ways about finding your family and that family is not necessarily about blood but it’s who you choose. Because at the start Billy is kind of lost and he finds his family throughout the movie.
I’m sure the shift from horror movie to superhero movie is dramatic in terms of tone but how did you find the difference in working on something with a much bigger budget?
It was the scale of it and the complexities of some things, for example visual effects which have been very limited in my previous movies. We tried to keep as much as possible real and actually shoot stuff exploding and getting trashed because that’s a lot of fun but in some ways, in my previous movies I wouldn’t shoot a VFX shot that I didn’t know how to make myself if I had to. On this movie, on a movie of this complexity, I had to let that go and just come up with cool shit and trust that the VFX guys could pull it off, which was kind of great.
Do you enjoy working on the effects side of things?
Yeah, it feels like you can do almost anything that you can come up with but at the same time it’s kind of weird because usually the more spectacular something is on screen, the more boring it probably was to shoot. It takes forever to prep for it, for flying scenes they have to practice in their rigs and get in and out of the rigs and you shoot it mostly on blue screen. Which just isn’t as fun as being out in the real world, it just takes more time, but it pays off when you see the result on screen.
There’s not been much given away about Mark Strong’s Dr Sivana but can you tell us a bit about working with him?
First of all Mark Strong is awesome. He’s such a pro and he’s so prepared, he comes on set and you do the first take and he just nails it and you’re like well let’s do a second take just in case! And he just feels like he enjoys being a bad guy, he brings a real personality to the bad guy. In this movie we give him a little bit more of a backstory than he’s had in comic books before to show why he is the way he is and where he’s coming from to really make him a fully character.
Was it important to go back to the comics and really dig into the history?
Definitely. I read a ton of stuff, not just the newer stuff, I went back and read the comics from the 40s which can be quite goofy. But it was fun, some people online who weren’t familiar with the character would expect something gritty or very different, and then you read the comics and going all the way back to when he was created, he’s always been more fun.
It’s not necessarily a character that the general public is that familiar with. How have you found the response to what people have seen so far?
Yeah, in some ways it’s good that even though he in the past was very popular and at times more popular than Superman, he has, not a lot of the general audience really knows about him now so it’s really great to be able to reintroduce him and not have any baggage. There hasn’t been a Shazam movie before so we get to introduce him. It’s been weird learning how many comic book fans are out there and how passionate they are, and how a little thing I tweet will end up in an article. Before I’ve been quite open on Reddit and Twitter and things like that and now it’s as soon as I say something, it turns into a big thing, I have to step back a little bit.
It seems like it must be an exciting time to be in the DC movie universe, with Aquaman doing so well and Joker, Wonder Woman 1984 and Birds Of Prey on the way…
I think it’s great. I think there’s really great stuff coming out of the DC universe at the moment. And I was very happy to see Aquaman do so well, it probably takes some of the pressure off me because it’s not like “You have to save the DC [movie universe]” or whatever the narrative would be because it absolutely does not need saving!
Shazam! is in UK cinemas now.