With the success of AQUAMAN, Warner Brothers is setting a slightly different course when it comes to the DCEU. And things continue to look promising with this years upcoming feature SHAZAM! If you’ve seen the trailer – and I’m sure you have – it offers up Zachary Levi as the comedic hero and Mark Strong as the villainous Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, and it looks to be quite an enjoyable ride. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect is the choice of David F. Sandberg to direct this larger than life fantasy adventure. Like James Wan, Sandberg is known for darker material such as LIGHTS OUT and ANNABELLE: CREATION. Considering he has a history in horror, it is exciting to see him take on something this massive – and yes, this funny.
Recently, JoBlo and a few other journalists were invited to get an early sneak peak at the new film. This included a very extended look at the introduction of young Billy Batson (Asher Angel). If you’ve seen the trailer, you have a pretty good sense of the young teen coming to the rescue of his unlikely pal Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) and him escaping from a couple of bullies onto a subway? Correct? Or how about the train he is on turning into some sort of a magical transport which delivers him to what could be the Rock of Eternity? Well, there is a bit more to all of that and we had the opportunity to see it.
The footage we were shown began with a normal school day for Billy and Freddy. During lunch, the two are involved in a deep conversation about what the best superhuman power would be. Freddy appears to be an expert on the subject, while Billy quickly wants to move on from the conversation. The connection between both Asher Angel and Jack Dylan Grazer is very good, and you instantly like both of these fellas.
Next, school is out and we see a couple of major jerks run into Freddy with their truck. And since nearly running over a disabled teen isn’t enough for them, they proceed to take his crutch and start to beat him up. At this time, Billy comes to the rescue – even before he has any cool powers. He takes Freddy’s crutch and gives the brutes a quick, and well deserved, beat down. This leads to a chase, as the two follow Billy into the subway station, where he barely escapes onto the train.
Once he is free from safety, he notices that everything around him begins to change. Soon, he is the only one there, and when it stops, it is at a place that is unlike anything he has ever seen. Billy then steps out into what appears to be the Rock of Eternity – more on that later – he comes face to face with “The Wizard” (Djimon Hounsou). This wild sequence features the exchange of power, and you get a good sense of this spectacle in the trailer above.
After young Billy becomes SHAZAM (Levi) by saying The Wizard’s name – I loved the BIG feel when it came to the transformation – he seeks the help of his pal Freddy. The two go on a local adventure trying to figure out what superpowers he has. And they even get to stop a couple of convenience store robbers, ironically while the two, who are technically underage, attempt to buy beer… you know, Billy looks a lot older as Shazam. In a short amount of time, we really get to know these two characters, and Jack is absolutely terrific here whether he is playing off of Asher or Zachary. I dug both Freddy and Billy – both versions of him – and I look forward to seeing more of it.
Finally, they wrapped up the footage with a few quick cuts from the trailer, TV spots and more. It was great to see a bit more of what they have in store when it comes to Mark Strong as the villain. As well, we witnessed a few more shots of Shazam’s powers in the brief mash up of images that wrapped up the preview. While what we were shown is a basic expansion of what is mostly in the trailer that is already available, it gives me hope that the tone and charming quality of the ten to fifteen minute presentation is likely to be a huge part of the feature film. It seems that they may have found the perfect voice for this character with Sandberg.
After the presentation, both David F. Sandberg and Peter Safran gave us a little more insight into the upcoming adventure. The conversation covered everything from choosing Sivana as the villain, getting a new full length trailer, and finding the right tone of SHAZAM! Here are some of the highlights we learned during our conversation:
– When asked about when we should expect a new full trailer, Peter told us, “If you saw that we had the new TV spot, obviously, the AFC NFC game, and a lot more TV spots are coming, obviously, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some more long-form materials coming soon. But without promising a date, imminent.”
– In regards to introducing Shazam and adding Sivana as the villain, David offered this, “Sivana is kind of the oldest villain for Shazam. It was always that when I came on board. It was always Sivana. I think they sort of played with the idea of having the first movie be both Shazam and Black Adam, and it felt like it needs more set up then you want to spend in the first movie with Shazam. You want to introduce him first before you…” Peter continued, “Shazam’s origin story is big enough to merit its own film, and that is really what everybody discovered early on, and when you see the movie you’ll see that that’s what it deserved and that’s what it got.”
– In regards to the tone of this particular story, David added, “… right from the start, just the concept lends itself to so much fun. Like, a kid getting super powers, what would he do, and like you see here, not just the super powers, but being an adult, like, oh, he’ll try out beer. So, the concept itself just lends itself to a very fun tone, and we really lean in to that.”
– Peter on why this is such a different type of story and feel, “And that’s why Shazam was always going to be different than 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, and I think it’s why DC was so excited about it, was to tell a superhero story that had a completely different tone than anything that had come before it.”
– As our own Paul Shirey stated in his set visit report, this is story a part of the existing DCEU, and there are numerous references to it. When asked about whether all the other heroes exist in this world he responded with, “Absolutely, yeah. They live in a world where these things are real, which is also fun to explore because we don’t really see that aspect of it. Like how would pop culture [be affected], would they still have the toys, the action figures that we have, and they do, it’s just based on real things.”
– When it came to bringing Zach on as the title role, Peter discussed how the actor auditioned for the role, “He sent it [an audition tape] in on a Friday; he self taped, he was back on the east coast, he self taped on an iPhone, sent it in, and I think by Monday, we had him in LA testing. On Tuesday he got the role. Zach is this character, Zach is a 14 year old boy trapped in a superhero’s body, and he would acknowledge that. I’m not saying anything he would not say about himself; he’s a kid. It was just so perfect when we saw what he did with the audition, and he kind of brought that every single day to being Shazam and in very difficult shooting conditions. We shot in Toronto, in the winter, night exteriors for weeks on end, and he just brought to it an enthusiasm that never waned, ever.”
– However, Zach originally didn’t want to submit himself for the role. Peter added, “So you saw him, he was extraordinary. So it was a very easy casting decision once we saw his tape, but it is worth noting that initially two months before that we had gone to him and he had passed, and he just said because he didn’t believe he would ever be cast for that role, so he said, “I don’t want to go on tape for it”.
– When it came to casting Freddy, they had to make the right decision considering the young actor had more screen time than anybody else. David talked about the process of bringing him on, “Well, that casting process went kind of smoothly actually, because New Line were like, “We just did the movie IT, and there’s this kid in there that might be really good”. They let me see the movie and I met him, and he’s perfect.” Peter continued, “I think he was the first person cast in the movie and then once we cast him, we actually brought him in for all the Shazam and all the Billy auditions whenever we were doing our call backs. If they could keep up with him, we knew they had a shot. But he puts a very high bar up there, he’s incredibly funny, incredibly quick-witted, great with improv, and he and Zach are pretty fantastic together.”
– Considering Sandberg’s horror background, Peter added, “I think you can say, obviously these guys read comics and they know that the sins are going to be in some way involved in the story, so without revealing exactly how they’re integrated into the story line, I would say that that’s probably as close as what James did with the trench, to really let David flex, build those sequences that are scary and cool.” For David, his genre expertise helped with, “just getting to design those monsters, you see a little bit of it in the latest TV spot, like the statues and the Rock of Eternity. That was really cool.”
– David expanded on how deep they went into the characters mythology, “There’s certainly more you can do. No, but we made actually some pretty deep cuts into, especially if you saw a little bit of it when he comes into the Rock of Eternity, it’s like these artifacts and things that are from really old comics, so I think very few people might actually go like, “oh I know exactly where all of those are from.”
– Peter continued in regards to that same question, “Basically Geoff Johns and one other person, it’s for them, it’s for those two people we built those things out. But no, I mean, I think that obviously you have a limited amount of real estate when you make a movie, so I think we only just have gotten into what the potential of Shazam is. And also, for our film, it’s about Billy discovering his potential, so it’s about him learning what his powers are and how they work in conjunction with Freddy. It’s kind of a starting point more than anything else for him. So I think there’s a lot more to go.”
– Whether or not we will ever see Black Adam in the Shazam universe, Peter teased us with this, “He’s a perfect adversary. One would hope that eventually you see those two on screen together at some point, but it’s not going to be in this one.”
– When it comes to adding an after credits scene and what they chose this time around, the two didn’t reveal much. But Peter did open up on how they approach that subject, “I think it’s probably the same decision making that one has on all these movies, which is what’s going to be fun, what’s going to be satisfying for the audience, what’s going to be a nice punctuation mark at the end of the movie, that will be again satisfying for the audience. So that’s the debate that you always have. We had a lot of options and I think we ended up with something good.”
– On the subject of whether or not they are focusing on stand-alone films, Peter offered us this, “The mandate for us for this film was always just make the best movie possible. There was never any attempt whatsoever to try and shoehorn it in to any kind of existing storylines or universe, etc. There was tremendous, tremendous freedom that they gave David in terms of how to make the movie and I think that was one of the things that was appealing to him was to take this story. To tell this great origin story, this fun, action-packed, wish fulfillment movie, and go make the best version of it that you can make. So they were incredibly supportive, and I think it was certainly very helpful that obviously it was developed at New Line, which seems kind of outside of the DC world. And then with Walter coming over to DC, it kind of brought everything full circle, and they could not have been more supportive in terms of David’s vision for the film. And I think the film really reflects that clarity of vision that he had from the get go in terms of telling that great wish fulfillment, fun and funny story.”
– One journalist mentioned the reveal of the Black Manta suit at the AQUAMAN set-visit, which lead to a question on what big moment or reveal can we expect here. “Yeah, there’s a moment in the film that I can’t talk about, unfortunately, but it is like the moment in the film where you just feel like, f*ck yeah. And the thing is as well, this was time square and stuff, but Benjamin Wallfisch has really outdone himself with the score on this film. And there is that one moment where his score… where it’s just, I can’t wait for people to see it. But I can’t say what it is, unfortunately.”
– Mark Strong was the first and only actor they approached to play Sivana. And this was one thing that Peter felt strongly about. “It was my one suggestion. But we were looking at these lists and everybody was like, Mark Strong, he’s good in everything he does. He’s just always good, and he hadn’t played a villain in a while. Early in his career he’d done a bunch of them, but he hadn’t done it in a while, and we reached out and he just loved the script, I think he probably wanted to do something his kids would enjoy, and he lived up to all of our expectations. He’s a fantastic, fantastic villain.”
– While Shazam seems to discover most of his powers throughout the new film, the filmmakers hint that there is always more to discover. “He certainly has a degree of control and awareness, but there’s still a lot for him to learn in terms of the ultimate potential of what Shazam is.” Peter added, “Well, you know when the wizard endows on him this ability to say, Shazam become a superhero, there’s no manual that comes with it, so it really is a process for him to learn what his real potential is. He comes to learn somewhat areas of potential, but not the whole thing by any means.”
SHAZAM! will be lighting up the marquee at a theater near you on April 5th! And make sure you check out more from Paul Shirey’s on-set report here!