'Shazam!' Director David F. Sandberg on Those Surprise Cameos

The filmmaker explains the surprising DC connection some of his actors have, and looks at the moment his producer told him to “think bigger.”
Steve Wilkie/ & © DC Comics
Zachary Levi (left) and filmmaker David F. Sandberg on the set of 'Shazam!'

[This story contains spoilers for Shazam!]

Director David F. Sandberg is officially on a hot streak as Shazam!’s opening weekend of $53 million marks his third straight critical and financial success after 2016's Lights Out and 2017's Annabelle: Creation.

The New Line superhero film centers on teenager Billy Batson (Asher Angel) who transforms into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) when he says the magic word, "Shazam!"

Sandberg is particularly proud of the marketing for Shazam!, since it managed to protect the film’s many secrets. Among those secrets are quite a few cameos, including the superhero alter egos of Billy’s foster family. Two of those cameos are performed by Adam Brody (superhero Freddy) and D.J. Cotrona (superhero Pedro) — who have had an interesting history with DC Comics adaptations.

“We sort of realized afterwards that both Adam Brody and D.J. Cotrona were cast in George Miller’s Justice League: Mortal, the movie that almost happened," Sandberg tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Adam Brody was The Flash and D.J. was Superman. So, afterwards, we said, ‘Oh, shit! They finally get to be superheroes in a DC movie…’ They didn’t even know they were auditioning for superheroes.”

Since 2015, Sandberg hasn’t stopped working as he first adapted his short film Lights Out for the big screen under the direction of the Conjuring universe masterminds James Wan and Walter Hamada. By the time Lights Out premiered in July 2016, the Swedish director was already hard at work on another film for Wan and Hamada’s Conjuring universe — Annabelle: Creation, which grossed $306 million globally.

With Shazam!, Sandberg came to rely on line producer Jeffrey Chernov, as Hamada had been promoted to president of DC Films during production and Aquaman helmer Wan was busy bringing Atlantis to life in Australia.

“When we first started talking about how to shoot [Shazam!], I was in my sort of normal low-budget mode,” Sandberg says. “The line producer, Jeffrey Chernov, actually took me aside and said, ‘As a line producer, I don’t usually say this, but you should think bigger.’ Then, I felt more free to just come up with cool shit until he eventually said, ‘Okay, that’s too big.’”

In a conversation with THR, Sandberg also discusses his initial surprise over being offered the job and the upside and downside of superhero fandom, as well as the many challenges of the Shazam suit.

Shazam! is the second Philadelphia-based superhero film of 2019. Just how close were we to a Mr. Glass cameo?

(Laughs.) I didn’t even think about that to be honest, but yeah, that would’ve been cool. I’m an Unbreakable fan. I still haven’t seen Glass; I haven’t had time, but I assume it’ll come out on Blu-ray or VOD soon.

When Warner Bros. first pitched you Shazam! after you made two successful horror films, were you somewhat perplexed that they even thought of you for a family-friendly superhero film?

I was, but I didn’t really want to ask them why. I figured that might make them think about it and go, “Why are we doing that?” We enjoyed working together on the previous movies, and it’s the same team, really. Walter Hamada was an executive on Shazam! and during the making of it, he became head of DC. So, it was the same team working together again.

James Wan also produced your first two films, and both of you transitioned from horror/genre to DC superhero movies around the same time. Since James started Aquaman before your movie, did he provide you any advice along the way?

I actually didn’t get a chance to talk to him because he was already away in Australia, working on Aquaman. So, I didn’t see him until after we wrapped, and he had wrapped Aquaman. I visited him in the Aquaman office, but there was no advice beforehand, really.

When you look back at the process of making this film, what proved to be more challenging than you originally expected?

The suit was probably one of the most unexpected challenges. I didn’t realize how complicated those things actually are to make and how you have to build them several times and try several iterations before you get something that actually works. Even during shooting, we still had to keep updating it. We changed the boots because we had something that looked cool on paper, but kept falling apart on set. So, we had to create something new.

I had this idea of having the suit light up practically, but it kept failing in the middle of takes and things like that. So, we had to reinforce wires, and it was such a big deal just to make it work. That was something that I did not expect, but it was worth it, thanks to practical lights. I think it looks great.

Conversely, was there something you were dreading that ended up being relatively painless?

Making movies is never easy, but cinematography-wise, it came quite smoothly. I’ve worked with DP Maxime Alexandre before, and it wasn’t that bad making big action sequences. So, maybe that wasn’t as challenging, but otherwise, it’s just so much to learn on such a different movie, from visual effects to stunts. It’s just on a whole other level than what I’m used to.

Shazam! is modestly budgeted for a superhero film. In general, I believe that reasonable budgets, or limitations of some kind, lead to more creativity, something your film proves. That said, if Warner Bros. asked you to make a $180 million to $200 million Shazam!, would you still have been comfortable making it?

I think so. I still would’ve taken on the challenge, but yeah, the higher the budget, the bigger the risk of failure. So, it certainly feels safer and more comfortable with having a somewhat lower budget. We just would’ve been more comfortable rather than anything. For example, we could’ve shot the carnival indoors. Talking to people on set who had worked on bigger movies, they were basically saying that if this had twice the budget, we wouldn’t be out in the middle of the night in Toronto winter shooting all of the carnival stuff, because you could just build a replica of that carnival indoors. When we first started talking about how to shoot all these things, I was in my sort of normal low-budget mode and thinking, “Well, we could just cheat it like this” or “We don’t have to actually do that.” The line producer, Jeffrey Chernov, actually took me aside and said, “As a line producer, I don’t usually say this, but you should think bigger. You don’t have to think so much in the low budget that you’re used to.” Then, I felt more free to just come up with cool shit until he eventually said, “Okay, that’s too big. Let’s scale it back a little bit.”

You’ve been quite open about how you’re still learning about the craft of directing. You even made videos during Annabelle: Creation to provide aspiring filmmakers with some insight into directing that you thought was lacking from your own experience. After making Shazam!, do you now feel like you’re capable of making anything at this point?

I’m certainly willing to take on anything at this point. The key to directing, I’ve discovered, is to make sure to only work with people who are more talented and more experienced than you are. Everything will work out fine. (Laughs.)

In the movie, there’s a needle drop from Queen during a montage. Even though the rock band’s music is considered timeless, was there any pushback on that choice, since Queen was such a major part of the zeitgeist the last six months?

No, it was sort of a mutual decision when looking through what songs to use. So, no pushback at all with that song [“Don’t Stop Me Now”].

One of my only concerns going into this movie was Zachary Levi and Asher Angel potentially having to imitate each other, since they’re both playing Billy Batson. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that they’re quite different in terms of personality. Asher’s Billy is a kid who has had a heavy life, while Zach’s Shazam is Billy without the lifelong burden. Did you know early on that you wanted to avoid imitation between the two of them?

Asher’s character really evolves throughout the movie. He starts out in not a great place, and then sort of evolves. We tried to have Zach and Asher hang out and learn a little bit from each other. We even talked about having a tick that they could do; they both touch their ears and things. But it felt like that would be too on the nose or too much of a “Oh, I see what they’re doing.” So, it felt like it was better to just have that natural progression to the character.

Story typically influences camera movements and technique. How did this story steer your camera choices?

Well, you want to make it feel big, so a lot of technocranes — that’s a lot of a fun. Normally, I prefer to do longer, unbroken takes, but working with young actors like this, you kinda have to shoot more standard coverage or do a little more cutting just to be able to take those little snippets of performance that you get, especially with some of the really young kids that make cameos or the youngest Billy. You have to address what the story needs, but also what the actors require.

Throughout the film, I kept thinking how Jack Dylan Grazer reminded me of a young Adam Brody. So, you can imagine my reaction when Brody appeared as Freddy’s Shazam Jr. How did this casting materialize, since someone else must have noticed the similarities between Jack and Adam?

It was just auditioning a lot of people. It wasn’t something where I thought, “Adam Brody! He’d be the perfect older Jack.” It was just looking at tons and tons of tapes, and also auditioning people in person until you just find the right one. And when you see the right one, it just clicks right away, like Adam Brody, who’s perfect for Freddy, and Meagan Good, who’s perfect for Darla. It was interesting, because when we did the casting of those characters, we wanted to keep it a secret. So, they didn’t even know they were auditioning for superheroes. [Screenwriter] Henry Gayden wrote everyday scenes that had characters with the traits we were after, but the actors didn’t even know what they were auditioning for.

It’s also interesting because Brody is best known for his role on The O.C., where he, too, played a comic-book-loving foster brother to a troubled kid.

Yeah! Also, we sort of realized afterwards that both Adam Brody and D.J. Cotrona were cast in George Miller’s Justice League: Mortal, the movie that almost happened. Adam Brody was The Flash and D.J. was Superman. So, afterwards, we said, “Oh, shit! They finally get to be superheroes in a DC movie.”

Superhero fandoms can be quite volatile toward directors. Did that factor into your decision to helm the movie?

No, because I didn’t really realize how hardcore people can be. Early on when I got the job and it became official, someone asked me online, “Who would win in a fight between Shazam and Superman?” And I made some joke about how in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Batman realizes the humanity of Superman because both their mothers’ names are Martha. So, I made some joke about how Shazam doesn’t have a mother named Martha, so he probably wouldn’t stop [the fight]. I got so much shit for it online; people were so upset and saying, “Oh, you don’t get Batman v Superman.” That made me realize that some people are not ready for jokes. The same thing goes when joking about Marvel. To me, I’m just as big of a fan of Marvel as I am of DC; I go and see all of these movies. I’m rooting for all superhero movies to be good. So, it was a bit of a shock to realize how sensitive some people can be about this, but overall, most people are quite sane about it. It’s not the majority of people that get that upset. You just realize that maybe you shouldn’t crack too many jokes, especially not about sensitive subjects. I just didn’t realize before taking on the job that that was as much of a thing.

You must be quite relieved that the majority of fans and critics seem to love this film.

Yeah, I’m sure there will be some ugly reactions either way, but it’s a huge relief to see the reception we’ve gotten so far, both critically and from fans. I figured some superhero fans who like things darker might be turned off by the humor and lightness in this movie, but, so far, it seems like most people just love it and embrace it. It’s a huge relief, and I’m very grateful for that.

Are you glad that you don’t have to answer any more trailer questions?

“When’s the next trailer!? When’s the next trailer!?” (Laughs.) Yes, it’s finally come to the point where my timeline won’t just be, “When’s the next trailer?” Even that, people get really upset. I got some really angry tweets such as “Where’s the fucking trailer, you fucking asshole?” It’s an ad for a movie — why are you so angry about not seeing an ad? It just shows the passion that is out there for superhero movies, which is great in some ways, even though it sometimes gets a little ugly.

Plus, directors have no control over when trailers come out.

Yeah, I don’t run marketing, but I am glad how they’ve dealt with trailers because they haven’t spoiled things. It hasn’t been the typical “here’s the whole movie” in miniature format. We’ve actually held off on the big surprises, which I think makes the movie really effective. That’s partly why it’s been so well-received, because people go in and they don’t expect as much. When they see all these twists and turns, they’re really satisfied.

Are you itching to get back to your roots via smaller-budget horror, or are you looking to stay in the blockbuster arena?

Hopefully, I can do both. I love what you can accomplish in a movie like this. It feels like there’s almost no limitations, and you can really tell big stories. At the same time, it’s a huge commitment; it’s two years of your life. Ideally, you’d go from a smaller movie to a bigger movie to a smaller movie.

There are some things in the pipeline, but the number one priority now is just to take a little breath. This is the first time that I have a movie coming out where I’m not already working on my next movie. With Lights Out, I was already shooting Annabelle: Creation when that came out. We had to end a shooting day early on Annabelle so I could go over to the premiere of my other movie. Super Hollywood (Laughs.) So, this is the first time where I’m not already knee-deep in the next movie, which is a bit relaxing, actually. It’s been four years of non-stop moviemaking, which is great, but it’s also exhausting.