'Shazam!' Director David F. Sandberg On How His Horror Roots Prepared Him For A Superhero Movie [Interview]

Shazam! turns the very idea of a DC movie on its head. It's not just that the film is about a teenager who becomes a superhero, it's that they play with Batman toys, throw shade on Aquaman, and have Easter eggs for some of the oldest superhero comics.

Billy Batson (Asher Angel) goes to live in a foster home, where his roommate Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) is obsessed with known superheroes like Batman, Superman and The Flash. When Billy gets the powers of an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou), he can become Shazam (Zachary Levi).

David F. Sandberg directed Shazam! and spoke with /Film by phone out of the film's press junket in New York. Shazam! is in theaters today.

Did you at least reach out to Sinbad to try to get him to do a cameo in Shazam!?

We didn't. It did cross my mind several times, mostly because when I was talking to people during the making of this and I would be like, "I'm directing Shazam!" that people would be like, "The Sinbad genie movie?" or "The Shaq genie movie?" because that's what people think of. No, they seemed to know who Shazam is.

Was this movie a good chance to champion the foster system?

That's one thing I really like about this movie. So many movies, you have the evil foster parents or the crappy foster home. This was a chance to actually show a really happy, functioning foster situation where they're all getting along great and it's actually shown as a good thing, which is quite unusual unfortunately in movies.

Do those foster characters come from the comics?

Yeah, they do. Most of them come from Geoff Johns's run like Darla, Eugene and Pedro are somewhat new in recent years. It's very nice because they're such different characters from different backgrounds and they have different personalities. It's really fun to see how they develop towards the end.

Do Thad's creatures come from the comic books? Were you able to design them yourself?

We were able to design them because they've been around since the original comics, but since they've been around for so long, they've been portrayed in different ways. In the '40s they were kind of like stone statues. In Jerry Ordway's comics they were kind of black spirit and then in Geoff Johns' version they were very different from each other. Some looked like people and some looked like monsters, so it felt like since they've looked so differently throughout the years, I could do my own version of it and go full on monster movie. I took a lot of inspiration from Ghostbusters, the demon dogs with the red eyes.

All of my favorite childhood movies have scary parts. Was this your chance to introduce that to kids?

Yeah, same thing with me. All the movies I grew up with had that. Even if they were fun adventures and had a lot of humor in it, they still had some scary parts which just makes it feel much more complete, much more like a full meal. I think it's important as well just to set the stakes and to show that these are a real threat so that when they're threatening our family, we take that threat for real.

For me it was Large Marge. Nothing was scarier than her.

Yeah, she's traumatized a lot of kids.

Did doing horror movies help you design the visual effects for Shazam!?

Yeah, I've always loved monsters so that was great to actually get a chance to play around with that. It was cool as well to just figure out how they worked because I didn't want them in their monster shapes to fly, because that's going to look silly if they're just floating through the air. So I came up with this idea of actually have a spirit smoke form as well, which then opened up a lot of other ideas. Maybe Shazam tries to punch one but it turns to smoke and the punch just goes straight through. It just opened up so many possibilities for having fun in the action.

In the old wizard's cave, are there a lot of Easter eggs to spot there?

Yes, and some that only the most hardcore old school Captain Marvel fans will get. We had Geoff Johns helping us out. You see some of the artifacts, Mister Mind, the little worm. I think Geoff Johns and two other people in the world will be able to spot all of them.

When they open some doors to other dimensions, are there plans for what's behind them to be in future Shazam! movies?

That's certainly something you could explore because there's so many doors. The crocodile people, the first door they open, that's a reference to old Shazam! comics. They're actually from the planet Punkus so it was fun to have those old school goofier things like crocodiles in suits, but still throw those in there as a fun little reference.

When the Batman toy talks, was there a lot of discussion about what he could say?

That was actually something that the sound designer came up with and that's his voice, Bill Dean, our sound designer/supervisor. So he got to be Batman in that one.

Did you have to work in a Big reference?

I didn't have to but it felt natural just because it is so reminiscent in parts of Big. When the studio pitched me to ask if I would be interested in this, they pitched it to me as Big with superpowers which is the most awesome idea ever so it felt like we had to do some sort of nod to it.

Was the sense of humor inherent in the comics?

Shazam! has mostly been fun, since he was invented in the '40s. The concept of the character itself just lends itself to humor so there's never been any dark and brooding Shazam.

Billy and Freddy really reminded me about when I played with my toys with my friends, we didn't always get along. Could you relate and did you want to explore the way kids play together?

Yeah, definitely. Not just the way they play, but that there is that sort of jealousy among kids and this is like the ultimate jealousy situation. Freddy has always been a superhero fan, always wanted to be a superhero, dreamed of nothing else and then his friend gets to become a superhero. So that's such a good setup for friction between the two of them.

I saw them treat Billy's powers like a toy and with every toy, each kid wants to play with it in a different way.

"It's my turn now. It's my turn."

Shazam Clip

With the post-credits tag, did you let James Wan know that you were throwing a little shade on Aquaman?

No. It's funny because that was something we shot for the whole montage. We just shot so much stuff for it that we couldn't put it all in the movie, but it was just so fun to come up with all these things, all the powers they could test and all the things they could try. So that was one that wound up on the cutting room floor. I was like, "We could put something after the end crawl." Looking at the things that we had left over, it was just like that one's perfect. By that time, Aquaman had come out and done so well, it was kind of fun to poke a little fun at Aquaman.

Does he know now? I'm sure he'll be a good sport about it.

I'm sure he will. I don't know. I don't know if he's seen the movie yet. We last spoke during post-production right as he was finishing up Aquaman.

How did you choose the needle drops with Queen and the Ramones?

Partly I wanted something a little more punk in the end, something that felt a little more scrappy and punk. That would go well with that sort of drawn end title sequence. It was just perfect that they had a song I Don't Wanna Grow Up which felt very appropriate. Then Queen, we were just looking at songs that would be appropriate and work for whatever scene we had.

Who did the animated end titles for you?

It's a company called Aspect Ratio who do a lot of title sequences. They did the opening title sequence as well.

Was it based on specific comic books?

More free form. The idea was this was Freddy's notebook where he's been doodling all the superheroes he loves, now doodling about their adventures, about what they did. In that form we could use all of the superheroes that he'd look up to: Aquaman, Wonderwoman, Flash and Batman.

Was it a debate whether Shazam! would exist in a world where other superheroes existed too?

No, that was always the plan that it took place in this universe where all of these characters exist and these events have happened. That was the great thing. There wasn't any mandate from the studio that we have to incorporate this or you can't incorporate this or you have to set something up for the future. It was just focus on making the best Shazam! movie and then you're welcome to incorporate whatever you want basically. We could all geek out and put in all these references.

We never see Zachary out of the costume. Did you ever discuss whether he'd try taking it off as an adult?

No, we had some early ideas of maybe he would try to rip his cape off and what would happen. Would it just sort of grow back? We didn't really want to get into that because it feels like as soon as he is Shazam, the suit is as much a part of him as everything else. He just becomes the comic book character.

"With great power comes great responsibility" comes from the other comics, but is that really the essence of this and any hero story?

I think so. The fun thing about Shazam! is that a lot of other superheroes become superheroes when they're adults and they get very much weighed down by "oh sh*t, I have this responsibility now." It's kind of a burden for them. With Shazam, he is sort of young and naive when he starts out. We explore the fun side of, "Holy sh*t, I'm a superhero! I can do all this cool sh*t!" Of course, in the real world, any kid who got a superpower would film it and put it up on YouTube and get all these subscribers. That's what I really like about the character.

And would also go too far at a certain point.

Absolutely. Kids with superpowers would not be very responsible.

Are you still working on a Lights Out 2?

Yeah, we're looking into that but it's sort of on the back burner for now. Lights Out is still very close to us so we'll see what we can do with that. We've been toying around with some ideas of what the sequel would be.

I'm sure you're waiting until April 5 to be sure but would your ideal plan be to do another Shazam! or something else in between?

I don't know. Maybe something in between, maybe make another smaller movie perhaps. We'll see how things develop. Right now, I'm just focused on getting this out there and then maybe taking a little time off just to rest up. It's been two years of Shazam!