Please enjoy this excerpt from Backstory’s spoiler-specific interview with Shazam! director David F. Sandberg by Steven Prokopy from Backstory Issue 37.
One element of Shazam! that happily surprised fans comes during the final battle with Sivana, when Billy finds a way to share his powers with his foster siblings—including Freddy, played as a grown-up by Adam Brody—allowing them all to become grown-up superheroes. “I saw a lot of speculating online about the kids turning into their adult counterparts. But people thought there was no way we’d do that in the first film, that we’d save it for the sequel or somewhere down the line. But for us, it was like, no, let’s do the best we can right now. I think that’s a better way to go. You never know if later is going to happen, so you shouldn’t hold back for no reason. Plus, the whole movie builds on this family theme, and the big payoff is that anyone can become a superhero, no matter what your background.” Normally, working with so many young actors in a single film might be daunting for a filmmaker, but this is familiar territory for Sandberg. His Annabelle prequel included a houseful of orphans, and Lights Out featured a preteen actor in a leading role. “Just like with the adults, you have to do the work through casting the right people. I’ve been really lucky to find talented and super professional kids who are just eager to work and please, so I’ve had great experiences with that. The only problem sometimes comes when you don’t get a lot of hours to work with them. On this movie, we had pretty young kids, not just in the main cast. For example, the kid who plays the very young Billy. We had to adapt and shoot a little more traditional coverage rather than longer, unbroken takes. With really young kids, you usually get pieces of performances that you have to piece together in editing.” It also didn’t hurt that Levi embodies the perfect level of childish enthusiasm to play a kid stuck in an adult form—a casting choice heralded when it was first announced at the end of 2017. “He is that character. He has that childlike excitement. Once again, it’s a matter of casting the right people. You’re going to have to worry about so much on set anyway, so the closer you can cast to the actual character, the better off you’ll be.”
Unlike on his horror outings, here Sandberg was tasked with mixing a great deal of humor into an action-packed storyline. The banter between both incarnations of Batson and young Freddy crackles with a particular energy that feels at once natural and spontaneous. But Sandberg has become skilled at blending comedy and horror, and it’s a formula he successfully carried over into his first superhero film. “The funny thing is, I consider my horror work kind of funny,” he confesses. “We shoot Annabelle in the face and you just know, Oh, shit, that’s bad. To me, that’s funny. But the blending of the two was never really a concern because the best movies have a bit of everything—they have drama, darkness and humor in them. It makes for a more complete story. I never thought we were going too funny or too dark in a moment. I sometimes worried we might go too violent or scary because it’s more of a family movie, but even in family movies, you can have scares. Look at Jurassic Park. I loved that as a kid, so why limit yourself to one reaction? Use them all.
Choosing to use Sivana as Shazam’s first onscreen adversary did present some unique opportunities, since his origin story assigns him the role of rejected outsider, making him far more sympathetic and relatable than many comic-book villains. It was also an interesting choice to start the film on him rather than Batson. “I think it’s important to know why the bad guy turned out the way he did,” Sandberg says. “In doing so, it shows some of the similarities between him and the protagonist without the bad guy giving that [typical] speech: We’re not so different, you and I. We can show they both had troubled upbringings, although they took different paths. The challenge of Sivana’s story is the runtime of the movie—it takes a while to set up the bad guy, and you get worried that you’re taking too long until we get to Shazam. But I think it’s important to take the time to set him up right. And so if you go in chronological order, you have to tell the origin of the bad guy before we get to Billy’s story.”
When reflecting on any especially difficult sequences, Sandberg points to a moment that alluded him so severely he asked the powers that be if he could reshoot it. The scene involves introducing Billy—and the audience—to the group home. In Annabelle: Creation, when the orphans are first shown their new lodgings, the shot that follows them into and through the house is a single Steadicam shot. Naturally, given that the situations were similar, Sandberg thought he’d do the same thing when bringing Billy into his new foster home. “We shot it as one, long Steadicam route into the house, introducing the characters, and it just didn’t work,” he admits. “It didn’t feel like we’d met the characters. It felt like we flowed by them, and I think the difference was that in Annabelle: Creation, we actually met our two main characters on a bus before we then went into the house. But in Shazam!, we hadn’t met anyone before that, so when we flowed through the house, it didn’t feel like we’d connected with anyone. That was something I asked the studio if I could reshoot, and I was really happy they let me do that. And we shot it with standard coverage and were able to rewrite some things a little better. When we floated through the house originally, we followed Mary [Grace Fulton], and she was on the phone and walking around shushing people, and it felt like she didn’t care that much about that phone call [with a college recruiter]. So once we were able to redo it, we had a brief introduction to Mary, who then got that phone call and walked away. And then we could do close-ups of the individual kids to say here are the characters.”
To read the complete spoiler-specific interview in Issue 37 of Backstory, click HERE to subscribe.
For more info about all the other articles in issue 37, view the Table of Contents.