David F Sandberg: ‘I love making people laugh or making people scared’
Shazam! director is living his dream of working on big-budget Hollywood movies
If you’re familiar with the internet, odds are you have encountered the Mandela Effect, a quirky conspiracy theory named after the small group of people who argued fervently that Nelson Mandela died on Robben Island and that his funeral was broadcast on television.
Most examples of Mandela Effect are reasonably straightforward: no, Hans Holbein didn’t paint Henry VIII clutching a turkey leg, Darth Vader did not say “Luke, I am your father”, and Chinese tanks did not drive over a protester in Tiananmen Square in 1989, even if many swear they watched it live on TV.
The most elaborate Mandela Effect conspiracy of all concerns Shazaam, a 1990s family comedy starring US stand-up Sinbad as an incompetent genie who grants wishes to two children. No such movie exists and yet, over the years, hundreds of Shazaam truthers have flocked to the subreddit r/MandelaEffect to swap details about the film.
We’re just focused on making the right movies with the right tone for the right character
That theory has an added (possibly parallel) dimension as Shazam! crashes into cinemas this month.
“That’s right,” laughs Shazam! director, David F Sandberg. “That’s why we made this movie. To fix the Mandela Effect from the Sinbad movie. We’re ironing out a wrinkle in the universe.”
That idea is no odder than anything else about Shazam! No other character in comic books can claim to have a stranger history.
Confusingly, especially against the current release slate, the character Shazam was once known as Captain Marvel. The star of the defunct Fawcett Comics imprint was the first comic book superhero to be adapted into film, as part of a 1941 Republic Pictures serial titled Adventures of Captain Marvel.
For much of the 1940s, Captain Marvel was outselling Superman. And then, in 1953, DC Comics hit with a copyright-infringement suit alleging that Captain Marvel was a copy of Superman.
By the time DC licensed the Marvel Family characters from Fawcett in 1972, Marvel Comics had owned the trademark for almost a decade, prompting DC to rebrand the character as Shazam! (Interestingly, that makes Shazam the second Captain Marvel film of 2019 in which no one utters the name Captain Marvel).
“The studio came to me when I was making Annabelle: Creation,” says Sandberg, who has been known to use TheOriginalCaptainMarvel hashtag on Twitter. “I didn’t know much about him. I’d heard the name. So they pitched it to me as the movie Big with superpowers. Right away I thought that’s awesome. What kid doesn’t dream about being Superman? I started reading up on him after that, going back to the 40s and all the way up to the New 52 (the 2011 revamp and relaunch of DC Comics). We take a lot of inspiration from the New 52.”
Working from a cheery screenplay by Henry Gayden, Sandberg’s Shazam! concerns Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a tearaway 14-year-old, bouncing from foster home to foster home until he’s taken in by the Vasquez family. There, he meets other foster kids including future sidekick Freddie Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer).
After defending the disabled Freddie in a fight, Batson escapes on the Metro where, after an icy surge, he finds himself in a mysterious cave with a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who tells Billy that he is the chosen one. Sure enough, Batson discovers he can transform into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) by uttering his name: Shazam! Possessed with unlimited powers, he does what any 14-year-old would: he uploads videos demonstrating his new abilities to YouTube.
The results are a lot more fun than Batman v Superman, and, following on from James Wan’s Aquaman, further evidence that the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) is moving away from Zack Snyder’s gloomy sandbox.
“We’re just focused on making the right movies with the right tone for the right character,” says Sandberg. “Shazam was always a light-hearted character and lot of fun. That’s what I really liked about this. I didn’t really have any mandate. There was nothing to say: oh, you have to do this and you’ll have to tie in with that. We didn’t have to set up all these other future movies. We just had to make the best Shazam movie.”
In keeping with its chequered source, the film has had complicated evolution. New Line Cinema began development of a Shazam! live-action feature film as long ago as the early 2000s. A screenplay was drafted and redrafted by William Goldman, Joel Coen and John August before going into pre-production in 2008.
Primary screenwriter August left the project when the studio, spooked by the commercial failure of the family-oriented Speed Racer, lobbied to make Shazam darker. In 2014, the DCEU announced a raft of films, including the Justice League, new screen adaptations of Fables, 100 Bullets and a 2016 release date for a Shazam feature starring Dwayne Johnson as the superhero’s arch-nemesis, Black Adam.
“They were originally planning on making a film that was Shazam vs Black Adam with The Rock but they eventually felt it was too complicated for an origin story,” explains Sandberg. “By the time I came onboard it was a straight, standalone origins story. But who knows where we go from here.”
Indeed. Dwayne Johnson remains attached even if he does not appear in Shazam! Having scored a 93 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Sandberg is rumoured to be first choice to helm the future franchise.
No wonder the director, who grew up in Jönköping in Sweden, sees parallels between himself and Billy Batson’s chosen one.
A no-budget filmmaker who released horror and genre shorts on Vimeo and YouTube (under the name ponysmasher), Sandberg was accustomed to working on projects where the only cast and crew were himself and his wife, Lotta Losten.
When his 2013 short Lights Out went viral, Hollywood producers Lawrence Grey and James Wan (Saw, Aquaman) swooped in. A feature-length version of Lights Out went into production in 2015 with Sandberg at the helm. The film went on to gross $148 million from a $5 million budget.
“It happened so fast,” says Sandberg. “Maybe even too fast. I’ve been making films since I was 7 or 8 with my dad’s video camera. They were usually violent. They were often war movies. I remember making a Vietnam war movie in Swedish woods when I knew nothing about Vietnam. But Light’s Out was the first time I was ever on a real film set. I didn’t even know when to say ‘action’. I had to ask somebody on set. So this has been a big learning process for me. But it’s really cool because my film school has been making Hollywood movies.”
He has subsequently directed Annabelle: Creation, a prequel to Annabelle, a spin-off series from The Conjuring sequence. That film made $306.5 million on a $15 million budget.
“That was always my dream: to become a Hollywood director,” says Sandberg. “But that’s something you can’t really talk about growing up in Sweden. If you said: I want to be a Hollywood director, people would say, yeah sure, be delusional. It’s such a faraway world. But I think my sensibilities are more commercial, which is probably why I could never get any money in Sweden to make films. I love Lars von Trier, but in terms of the films I want to make I love making people laugh or making people scared. So my wish has come true.”
Shazam! is released April 5th with early previews March 27th