For director David F. Sandberg, the road to making Warner Bros. and New Line’s Shazam! Fury of the Gods began with a number of shorts in his native Sweden. One of those shorts, Lights Out, boasted such a solid premise that it was expanded into a full horror feature a few years later.
In 2019, Sandberg was given the keys to one of DC’s second-string superheroes, teaming with Zachary Levi on the first Shazam! movie, which introduced a very different type of superhero, as teenager Billy Batson is given superpowers by the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou). Both of them are back in this sequel, which seems them joined by the extended “Shazamily” to take on the Daughters of Atlas — Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu, and West Side Story‘s Rachel Zegler — who want back the powers that were stolen from them.
Fury of the Gods is a movie that takes its time at first, as it focuses more on Jack Dylan Grazer‘s Freddy Freeman and his fellow orphans-turned-heroes before building to some enormous CG-laden set pieces as more creatures are introduced. The sequel continues Sandberg’s tradition of incorporating scarier elements from his horror background, though you shouldn’t be afraid to take your kids to see this superhero movie.
Above the Line recently hopped on the phone with Sandberg for the following conversation, in which discussed balancing the film’s comedy and horror elements, casting Zegler before seeing West Side Story, and why so many horror directors have made the jump to comic book movies of late.
Above the Line: You directed the first Shazam!, obviously, but were you eager to tackle the sequel, or did it take some convincing to bring you back for Fury of the Gods?
David F. Sandberg: I’m very much a one-movie-at-a-time person, to just focus on that and then see what happens. No, I wasn’t counting on a sequel when we were doing the first one, but then, right after the first one came out, we started talking about a sequel, and it felt like it would be cool to return to this world and get to do even more — to see more of the family, and go bigger and try some different things.
ATL: One of the benefits of doing a sequel is that you’re involved right from the beginning, rather than inheriting a script that was already written before you came on board. So did you already have some ideas that you wanted to include?
Sandberg: Even on the first one, I came on board after they decided to split up Shazam and Black Adam, [but] the script I read for the first movie actually had Black Adam in it. And then, we had to figure out what we would do without Black Adam. This one [was] sort of the same. We originally talked about following the later comics, at first, but they were more fantasy. They go to these different lands through the Rock of Eternity [and] all the doors there. It felt like we wanted something that was a little bit more grounded [and] takes place in our real world, and [then] we can bring monsters and things into our real world.
That’s when we started talking about having the goddesses and actually using mythology since Shazam’s powers come from Gods and mythological figures. It’s like, “Well, what if the powers were stolen and given to Shazam?” That will give the Goddesses, or the bad guys, a motivation that you can understand, like, “Oh, yeah. Of course, they want their powers back,” because [they were] stolen from them and their father was murdered, so you can really understand them. I thought [it] was really interesting to go that way.
ATL: I’ve read some of the Shazam! comics but not all of them, so do the Daughters of Atlas appear in some of the older comics or something?
Sandberg: No, these [characters] are just from mythology, which is kind of cool, because the old mythological Greek gods were the original superheroes, so it felt like a good fit to bring them together with modern superheroes. It was also cool to just take mythological creatures and figure out ways of bringing them into the world. For example, in mythology, Ladon, the dragon, has, like, 100 heads. There was a moment in the beginning where I was thinking, “Is there a version we could do of a dragon with 100 heads? Maybe it’s a lot of tiny heads making up a [bigger] head, or you have heads all over his body or something like that.” We dropped that pretty quickly because it would have just been too crazy.
ATL: What ever happened to Mr. Mind, who was teased in the end credits of the first movie? I assumed you were setting up the Monster Society of Evil, but maybe that would be too weird…
Sandberg: Actually, when we started outlining what this movie would be, Mr. Mind and [Doctor] Sivana were in it, because it was actually Mr. Mind who enabled the Gods to come to our world as part of his bigger plan. But it was just too much story to tell because, I mean, even without it, it’s a full feature. So we had to drop that and just have the Gods come here on their own, but I would love to see more of Mr. Mind because he’s such a special, unique character.
ATL: I really love the fact that the family gets to play a bigger role in this sequel. Even though she isn’t one of the superheroes, Faithe Herman kind of steals the movie, since she’s so adorable. When you cast her and some of the other young actors, were you confident they’d be able to handle whatever you threw at them?
Sandberg: When casting, I tried to cast people who were as close to their characters as possible, because it makes my job so much easier as a director, because then I can focus on all the technicalities and all the problems you run into. Faithe is like that… I mean, she’s just sweet and adorable, and there’s a moment in the movie where she has to say a swear word that we sort of cut off. Even getting her to say that… I just couldn’t ask her to say, “motherfucker.” It just felt wrong. So, I told her to say something like “mother-forker,” because I knew we were gonna cut it off anyway. She’s like that in real life.
ATL: Were the older actors who were playing the Marvel Family able to hang out with their younger selves, just to pick up on their personalities traits and stuff?
Sandberg: The whole “Shazamily,” the actors just love each other, and they get along so well, and they hung out. They’ve been hanging out after shooting as well, which makes me very happy that everyone gets along. I think that helped with getting Helen [Mirren], Lucy [Liu], and Rachel [Zegler] into the movie — they were immediately welcomed into this family.
ATL: I was curious about casting the Daughters of Atlantis. Obviously, Helen and Lucy are no-brainers if you have the opportunity to cast them, but had West Side Story even come out when you cast Rachel?
Sandberg: No, it hadn’t. It was before it came out, so we knew she was in that, but I hadn’t seen her. She auditioned, just like a whole bunch of other girls, but she just immediately stood out, because she’s just such a star. She really has that sort of star quality, which is why she’s in everything now — Snow White and Hunger Games. We’ll see a lot of her, I think.
ATL: Did you actually shoot this sequel in Philadelphia, or did you shoot plates and make the film elsewhere?
Sandberg: No, we shot in Atlanta. We tried to bring as much Philadelphia into the movie as we could, so yeah, we shot plates of things, of course, and with the baseball stadium, even if we had been in Philadelphia, they wouldn’t have allowed us onto the field and do what we did. We had to create our own field and create a lot of it [with] CGI.
ATL: I guess I haven’t spent enough time in either Philadelphia or Atlanta to be able to spot all the differences.
Sandberg: That’s good, and that’s what we’re hoping for. There are some things in the movie that are very Atlanta, if you’ve been there, but hopefully, most people are like you and don’t know [it] too well.
ATL: I loved seeing P.J. Byrne in this, and it cracked me up that a few minutes after he appears, there’s a bridge collapse. I don’t know if you’ve seen Final Destination 5, but he’s in that film, which also features a bridge collapse.
Sandberg: I have seen that. That bridge collapse is famous, and that was actually something I watched again as a reference because they really did [it] so well in that movie. And P.J., he’s just hilarious in everything. [chuckles] He just cracks me up.
ATL: You brought on a few of the same heads of department who you worked with on the last movie, but you’re also working with some new people here in terms of your DP and production designer, so was that mainly due to the location?
Sandberg: I got to work with a lot of new people on this one, which is definitely fun — to get to know more people. I mean, especially because they’ve done so many great things. I’m just a big fan of costume designer Louise Mingenbach. She did the X-Men movies and a bunch of stuff. I think she really knocked it out of the park on this one with the updated suits. I just love working with new people, especially people who have worked on some of my favorite movies. You get to hear their stories, and you get to learn from them, and it’s great.
ATL: I was admiring the new costumes. I thought they were very impressive, and maybe a little more three-dimensional in some ways.
Sandberg: To me, it was like, “Well, we already did the first movie. Let’s not do the exact same thing again. Let’s try some different things.” Some design differences in, like, the capes and things like that, and some things that we couldn’t [quite] get there [for] the first movie, like the design of the boots. They were supposed to look the way they do in this movie in the first movie, but the ones we built kept falling apart, so we had to come up with a new design and then replace them really quickly. But now, because of the things we learned on the first one that we could apply here, we were able to get [the design] to where I wanted it to be.
ATL: One of the things you really nail here is the tone, because when you have humor in a movie and you also have these high stakes with things being destroyed and lots of people in danger, it’s tough to balance those elements. Does most of the humor come from you, or does it come out of working with the writers and with Zach?
Sandberg: It is really a collaboration between everyone from the writers to the actors, [who] come up with a lot. They bring so much to it themselves. That’s the joy of movies, of getting to work with really talented people and bringing it all together.
ATL: Is it hard to balance those things and then also bring in some of the horror elements, which you had in the first movie as well? There was definitely some stuff that was scary, in a good way, for me. I’m not sure whether parents would agree, but did the studio ask you to pull any of that stuff back or were you given more free reign with this one?
Sandberg: It’s a bit of a balance, like you say, and with the studio. I mean, a studio consists of many different people, so you will have some [who will] go, “Yeah, go for it, go full horror!” while others are like, “Hey, maybe scale it back a little bit.” That sort of helps in finding that balance [in] that you get the input from different viewpoints, but I think it’s something that you really need in a movie like this, because among all the jokes and the fun and the charm, you also need to have a real sense of danger, and that there’s a real threat, and that people can get hurt and die. That’s how you get invested.
ATL: There’s always this thing with sequels where they’re expected to be bigger, which, in theory, will make them better. You definitely go bigger here, and it worked out fine, especially with the VFX, which take this film to a whole other level. Was there a lot more prep for this film, and did you have more time to do stuff? I’m curious about how COVID affected the movie, if at all, and if production got delayed or anything like that.
Sandberg: We got delayed a bit. We would have started shooting it sooner if it wasn’t for COVID, but we were very lucky in that we never had to shut down once we got going. A lot of other productions would have. Their lead or their director would get COVID, and they would have to shut down for weeks, but we never had that, so we were very lucky. It was great to get to go big this time, because we see a little bit of the family, all as superheroes, at the end of the first movie. But I think that you want to see more of that — just how they work together and how they don’t work together, [and] then sort of the challenges that they face.
ATL: I had a chance to speak with your composer, Christophe Beck, for the latest Ant-Man movie before I had seen Fury of the Gods [Note: That interview will be on Below the Line soon.] I also spoke with Benjamin Wallfisch, who scored the first Shazam! movie, so I’m curious about the change and what was behind it.
Sandberg: Well, it was because Ben was doing The Flash, and that was doing post and everything at the same time as us, so we had to split up. I’m really glad we found Christophe; he’s done a lot of Marvel stuff, so he knows his superheroes. The thing was that, for me, I didn’t want to work with a new composer and tell them, “Yeah, just do whatever we did in the first movie. Do the same themes.” That’s gonna suck for him to just come in and do what someone else came up with. I let him come up with a new theme for Shazam, and he did a fantastic job, I think.
ATL: I liked his Ant-Man score just fine, but then I saw Fury of the Gods and I liked that score a little better. (Don’t tell him I said that.)
Sandberg: I think he really liked my approach as well, just letting him do his thing, basically, because I’m not a music expert. I’m more of a guy who’s like, “Yeah, it needs to be a little fatter here. A little bit bigger here.” That’s sort of the extent of my notes, really, and then he [could] just go with it.
ATL: I hear you’re prepping another movie that’s more of an original idea, in a way. How’s that going?
Sandberg: I have a few projects going [and] I’m not sure which one will go first. I’m just eager to do more stuff. I mean, [the] next thing will definitely be smaller — a horror movie — since I’ve done two Shazam! movies in a row now, but we’ll see which one of them goes first. I have one thing at Sony [and] a couple of things at Paramount and Netflix. So we’ll see what comes first.
ATL: It’s just good to know you’ll be working and staying busy.
Sandberg: I want to be working all the time because I just love learning more as well. You learn so much on each movie that I just want to keep busy, keep working, [and] keep learning. I’m eager to get better.
ATL: It’s cool seeing all these directors who started in horror like you and Andy Muschietti, James Wan, and even James Gunn, transition into directing these huge superhero movies.
Sandberg: I think with horror, you run into so [many] technical things, and timing, and really playing with the audience’s expectations — things like that. I think if you can do horror, you’re quite well prepared to take on other things as well.
ATL: Well, hopefully, one of these other projects will happen soon, and we’ll chat again in the future…
Shazam! Fury of the Gods opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, March 17, with previews beginning tonight.