Shazam! does feel like a bit of an underdog story. (At least, as far as big-budget superhero movies go anyway.) The reviews so far have been pretty stellar, which is a big coup for a franchise of movies that, well, it doesn’t always turn out that way. (Though, the film’s producer, Peter Safran, who we talk to here, also produced Aquaman, so he’s on a bit of a roll. Next up for him is Suicide Squad 2, and we’ll get to that.) Keep in mind, Shazam! isn’t exactly one of DC Comic’s signature characters, and the filmmakers couldn’t even use the character’s name, Captain Marvel, because of a legal snafu with Marvel’s version. Yet, so far so good.
(The TL;DR version: This version of Captain Marvel debuted in the early 1940s at Fawcett Comics. DC sued Fawcett because he seemed too much like Superman. Eventually, Fawcett stopped making Captain Marvel comics. DC then bought Captain Marvel, but forgot to trademark the hero’s name. Marvel Comics, noticing the trademark omission, pounced. So, now, in 2019, we have a movie about a character who can’t legally use his own name.)
Ahead, producer Peter Safran and director David Sandberg take us through the trials and tribulations of putting a fun Shazam! movie – starring Zachery Levi as the unnamed superhero that we’ll just call Shazam – in theaters, while also dodging some legal boundaries that made things … complicated. And, as previously noted, Safran has Suicide Squad 2 coming next, a total reboot of the first movie, directed by his longtime friend James Gunn. How does Safran feel about Gunn also now directing Guardians of the Galaxy 3? He tells us ahead.
I will start with something controversial.
Peter Safran: Uh-oh.
The poster promised there would be gum in this movie, and there’s no gum.
Safran: Oh, crap. I think they have some gum in their arms as they leave the store?
There’s no bubble popping.
Safran: I hope that’s your biggest quibble with the movie.
I was expecting Hubba Bubba or Bubblicious…
Safran: Stay tuned for the sequel. Tons of bubble gum.
What was your approach to coming into Shazam! in the first place? I’m sorry, it’s so weird calling him Shazam. My entire life he’s been Captain Marvel…
Safran: I know.
This is tough.
Safran: Yes. For all of us.
You took a more fun approach to this character…
David Sandberg: I mean, it was just a more fun character. That’s what sets him apart.
Well, is he? A lot of times in the past, he’s just a Superman kind of character…
Sandberg: Yeah, but if you look at his origins, there’s some goofy stuff happening in those old comic books.
Sandberg: So, it’s always been more natural, I think, for him to be more fun. But there’s been more serious versions of him as well. But not serious in like a brooding way, just more sort of earnest. If you look at the Alex Ross version of Shazam, which is just more serious in an earnest way, rather than a brooding way.
Safran: But, it lends itself so beautifully to wish fulfillment. So it was a natural path to go with the film.
How far did you want to dig into his backstory? Because, yes, there is some goofy stuff in there like the Lieutenant Marvels and that whole crew.
Sandberg: Yeah, and you have the Hill Billy Marvel…
Right, who is from the South.
Sandberg: But, again, it just shows that he’s always been more about fun and lighthearted.
So explain how the Shazam/Captain Marvel title works. In the comics, it’s branded as Shazam, but the character is still called Captain Marvel. But in the movie that doesn’t happen.
Sandberg: Captain Marvel of Marvel is so established, and especially with another movie coming out almost the same month as us, it’s just like, let’s just go down the path of Shazam. Because that’s the more unique name as well.
I know you can’t title the movie that, but could you have mentioned Captain Marvel in the movie or was that not allowed?
Safran: It was never really on the table. We never really talked about it.
Let me put it this way, people who know the comics knows that Freddy Freeman becomes Captain Marvel Jr., so what do you call him now?
Sandberg: [Laughs] I mean, we’ll see, I guess.
Well, that’s why I think it gets complicated, because you’ve got a whole family of people that have been known as the Marvel Family. It’s such a strange thing.
Safran: It is. It is. No, listen. It’s a delicate situation that we will clearly have to figure out in a fun manner.
Sandberg: And that’s why we have fun with them trying to come up with a name for him, you know. Captain Sparkle. His name is this, his name is that.
But another complication is if he calls himself Shazam, he still can’t say it because it triggers the lightning transformation.
Sandberg: Well, you could either go with he can never say it, or if he says it with intent? I think if you wanted to you could have it where he could say it if he wanted to without the transformation.
Why Doctor Sivana as the villain and not Black Adam? We keep hearing about Black Adam.
Sandberg: Well, before I came onboard, that was a plan, a path we were going down, but I think they found that it became too much for one movie. Because you really need to set up Black Adam, and to do that, it felt like you need to give Shazam his origin story in a full story before you go down that path, or it’s just going to get too much for one movie.
This goes back to ’80s movies, but how difficult is it having an adult playing someone who’s supposed to be 14? Because Billy, as a kid, is streetwise and cool. But I think if you play that as an adult you just come off as an adult. Even in Big, Tom Hanks was a little more fun loving as opposed to the young Josh Baskin.
Sandberg: Well, what we saw in about a hundred or so auditions we did, before we found Zachary Levi, was that when a lot of adults try to play kids, they sort of dumb themselves down or lower the IQ. But that’s not the key. I think the key is what Zach has, which he has that enthusiasm and excitement about the world. That’s something that sort of disappears when we become depressed adults. As soon as I saw the self-tape he had done, I thought this is the guy. He feels like an enthusiastic kid.
Safran: So it was extraordinarily different early on, but then once we saw Zach, Zach is a 14-year-old trapped in a man’s body. So it became, oh, this is what the character is.
Of the multiple father-son switch movies of the ’80s, it did feel like some the adults were just playing dumb versions of the kids.
Safran: And that is the default mode for adults playing kids. Just lower the IQ. And Billy, yes he is a brooding and dark character, because that’s where he is in his life, searching for his mother. That’s his one goal. Once he becomes Shazam, it’s okay for him to have this boundless enthusiasm and be less dark. Because it is that kind of wish fulfillment, hey, this is really fun. Look what were doing! Naturally, your state of mind would be one that would be a little bit lighter than when you’re just Billy Batson.
You also produced Aquaman.
Safran: I did.
That’s two in a row people really like. What’s the key here?
Safran: I will tell you. The absolute key is to just bank on the right filmmaker. When you have a James Wan, or a David Sandberg, or a James Gunn, you know that the chances of delivering a great movie are incredibly high. So that’s just fortunate. It’s just fortunate to be able to work with guys like this, and we all have worked together on smaller movies. With James Wan, it’s the Conjuring movies, and with David it was Annabelle: Creation. So, I just knew the qualities and skills that these guys bring to the table as truly consummate filmmakers, and I think they frankly make my job pretty easy.
Do you care that James Gunn is now also doing Guardians of the Galaxy 3?
Safran: I love that he’s doing Guardians 3. Just as a fan, I love the Guardians movies so much. I cannot wait to see what he does with Guardians 3.
Sandberg: Yeah, I’m really happy to see that he was back to doing that, because it’s so much him.
I suppose the attitude is if it doesn’t affect his work on Suicide Squad 2, what’s the harm?
Safran: I’ve always believed, that which unites comic book fans, is much greater than that which divides us. And so the whole Marvel, DC rivalry thing is kind of bullshit. Because really we’re all fans of the same thing. I love the fact that he’s directed a movie for Marvel and directed a movie for DC. And the Earth is not spinning off its axis. It’s okay.
That we know of. We haven’t looked outside recently.
Safran: That is true.
Well, look, If nothing else, the fact he’s doing both is extremely interesting.
Safran: [Smirks] It really is.
Sandberg: When I was a kid in Sweden, I didn’t really know about DC or Marvel. It was just comic books and superheroes. One of my favorites was one where they had a team-up between Superman and Spider-Man. To me, that wasn’t something strange. I was like, yeah, they’re both superheroes. Why not? It wasn’t something special.
Well, I remember that being very strange. And we don’t see that very often now…
Sandberg: Well, maybe it’s about time.
I loved Freddy Freeman in the old cartoon. This is a great Freddy Freeman movie.
Sandberg: It is. Jack Dylan Grazer, in particular, he just shines in this movie, and he was the first person cast. New Line had just done It, and they were like we have a lot of great kids in that. Maybe someone could work for Shazam! or one of the characters in there. And then saw him and just thought, he’s our Freddy. So we cast him right away, and then we could use him when auditioning other people to sort of read against.
Safran: In the same way Zach is a kid in an adult’s body, Jack Dillon Grazer is very much an adult in a kid’s body. He’s so smart, he’s so sharp, he’s so astute. His improv skills are sensational. He’s just a really, really talented actor. Anybody that’s a fan of Freddy Freeman from the comics is going to feel like we did a great job delivering on him in the movie.
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