‘Shazam!’ Director David F. Sandberg on Making ‘Big,’ But With Superpowers
David F. Sandberg has been rising in the ranks over the past few years, starting out with short films and eventually moving onto features like “Lights Out” (based on one of his shorts) and “Annabelle: Creation.” With this week’s “Shazam!,” though, Sandberg enters the big leagues, with a superhero origin story as charming as it is thrilling, feeling both a part of the established DC Universe and also wholly separate from it, with a goofy hero (embodied by Zachary Levi) that you just can’t help but love.
We recently got to speak with Sandberg, who detailed just what went into designing and building that iconic suit (including one very interesting source of inspiration), what hidden references are tucked within the film, and whether or not he looked at the earlier scripts from the movie’s very long development process. Shazam!
Moviefone: This movie has been under development now for many years. was wondering if you looked at any those early scripts that they had worked on. Did you take a peek at the William Goldman or John August scripts or anything?
David F. Sandberg: I didn't. Because I saw all those names like William Goldman and John August and a whole bunch of names. But no I didn't see it all to be influenced by something we weren't doing necessarily. It was more interesting to just see those names that I recognized. I heard they were completely different.
So what was your relationship with the character and the property before signing on?
I didn't know much about him. I had heard the name and seen the character but didn't know much about him. It was the studio came to me and were like, “Would you be interested in directing this?” They pitched it to me as “Big” but with superpowers. And that sounded awesome. So I said, “Yes, I want to do that.”
After you got the job did you get, did you do a deep dive?
Yes. I first read the Geoff Johns/New 52 since that's where we take a lot of inspiration from. But then I went back as and read the first ones from the forties and then the Jerry Ordway stuff. There's been a lot of different takes on Shazam, which is cool because it also meant that when it came to like designing the suits or designing the sins, there been different interpretations of it, which meant that we can do our own interpretation. We don't necessarily have to stick to one thing.
And did you, did you draw inspiration from those multiple sources when you were designing the character?
Yeah absolutely. I think that's why I wanted him to have the shorter cape of that he had when he first came out and sort of mix it with the hood that he has in the New 52. And for the bolt, I was inspired by the animated film “Justice League War.” Because we quickly discovered that if you have too big of a bolt, he can't bend his body. He needs to be able to move around in it. So we had to go with a bit of a smaller bolt. In “Justice League War,” it has more of a triangular bolt, which I thought looked cool.
What was that bolt actually lit from within the suit?
It was and it created a lot of problems. First of all, in designing it, we went through a lot of different iterations, with different materials and different lights inside to get a good color. Then when we were shooting, it was very unreliable. Either it just shut off or sometimes it would go to like 100% brightness all of a sudden. Or you're in the middle of the take and suddenly the bolts starts blinking and you have to cut. It was very annoying. During shooting it was like, Why did we even do this? But then you'd get those moments when it just looks really cool. Like when he's coming through smoke for example, and you have that interaction between the light and the smoke. There’s thing in the end as well that made it all worth it.
How difficult was it to cast this movie?
Casting is super important to me cause I'm a lazy director. I just want to cast the right people and then they are the characters. When it came to the Shazam it was very important to us that whoever wanted the part had to come in and read. BecauseI'm seeing actors in all of these movies, but they never play kids. We want to make sure that they could do that. And we all auditioned and looked at self-tapes from over a hundred people before finding Zach. So it was actually a bit of, Are we going to find the right guy? But then I saw his self-tape and I was just said, “He's the guy.” Because he had that enthusiasm of a child. He feels like a big kid. So that was a big relief.
When it came to the kids, the first one cast in the movie was Jack Dylan Grazer. New Line when we were prepping this movie, they said, “We just shot this movie ‘It.’ It had a lot of talented kids and you should have a look at that movie and see if there's anyone that could work for either Billy or Freddy.” And Jack was just the perfect Freddy. So we didn't really have auditions for that role.
This movie does feel very different than most superhero movies. Was there anything that you were consciously trying to add to the mythology?
A sense of fun and adventure was the main thing. It’s just such a fun character and it's such a great concept. And I wanted to really explore that fact that it's a kid who gets these superpowers and just imagine all the things he would try out. Most superheroes get their power when they’re adults and they have to deal with, Okay, I have this power now and this responsibility. We could go the other direction. It was like, Holy shit, I have these powers, I can do everything!
Still, this is a movie that's very much in the DC Universe. Did feel beholden to that in a weird way?
No, it was very open to just make the best “Shazam!” movie and to do whatever was appropriate for that. I really liked that we didn't have that edict of, Okay, you have to set up these things for future movies. We came into it as a standalone story.
That being said, would you like Shazam to join the Justice League?
I think that would lead to a lot of great moments. It's such a different character. But that was also thing when we were designing his suit. I wanted it to feel old school. Like he was it more of a Golden Age superhero but at the same time if you were to put him next to anyone else in the Justice League, he should fit in there as well. So you've got to have that sort of texture in the suit that we've seen in later movies like “Man of Steel,” where it feels more modern. It had to be a blend of the two.
I noticed Annabelle in the pawn shop. Are there any other Easter eggs that you want people to keep an eye out for?
There are a lot of DC references. We have some references to really old Shazam comics. When they get to the Rock of Eternity there are these artifacts on display like a burning violin and a spiked helmet and things like that. Those were actually references that Geoff Johns dug up from 1941 that only the most hardcore Captain Marvel fans will even pick up.
And you’re out at the same time as the other “Captain Marvel.”
That was just funny. There's been this whole discussion about the name because he was originally Captain Marvel and he was until quite recently actually. And I think if we didn't know that “Captain Marvel” was coming out, we might have had a little bit more fun with that name or maybe do a little something with that. But now it just felt like since they were both out at the same time, we'll just have to go down the path of Shazam.
“Shazam!” zaps into theaters everywhere Friday.