Peter Safran & Henry Gayden talk Shazam!, Black Adam and future of the DCEU

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

shazam, zachary levi

A few weeks ago I had the chance to talk to Producer Peter Safran as well as screenwriter Henry Gayden for SHAZAM! However, due to our more "spoilery" discussions, we held off on sharing for a bit, at least long enough for folks to see the film, which is important given the things they were able to keep under wraps (minus some Funko leaks, of course). But, we didn't just talk SHAZAM!, we also talked the future of the DCEU, Black Adam, AQUAMAN 2 and more. You can also check out some clips with Safran talking about James Gunn on THE SUICIDE SQUAD here, but for everything else, jump below! But, be advised, if you still haven't seen SHAZAM! then you may want to avoid some of the below. SPOILER WARNING!

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Screenwriter Henry Gayden

Q: Was there any directive in terms of what they wanted?

GAYDEN: I think they wanted – we had a script that Dan had written and it was a good adaptation of Geoff John's great New 52 line. And, I think they just really wanted to find a way-I think whatever I brought to the process was a way to write kids and how they talk naturally and a little bit of heart. I never honestly heard of Shazam! or read any of the comics, but I immediately just sort of delved in and it just felt genetically created for me to connect with. I really connected with it right away.

Q: How much of the movie retains what you originally approached in the script? Were there any big changes throughout the production?

GAYDEN: Well, I was with the movie for three plus years, through preproduction and stuff like that, so nothing surprised me, 'cause I was there. If something wasn't working we had to fix it, so I fixed it. When I pitched on it, it was still with Dwayne [Johnson] and Black Adam, so the first year or so it was that. A lot of what I wanted to do was with the kids and Freddy and Freddy being a fan of the superhero world and all that was there, but all the Sivana stuff wasn't there yet, because it was Black Adam at the time.

*Note: Black Adam has since been taken over by screenwriter Adam Sztykiel for his solo effort.

Q: Were you a fan of the DCEU movies coming into this or was that something you had to catch up on?

GAYDEN: I missed Man of Steel and then BVS came out when I was writing on it. So, I started to watch them as they came out. I'd always been a fan of the DC movies including the Batman films in many iterations and then also the Superman films in their first interation. Honestly, the only when I missed when I started was Man of Steel and I watched it right away.

Q: There's been an obvious tonal shift in the DC Universe with WB. Was there any guidance to lighten things up or was that a natural process with the character?

GAYDEN: Yeah, I mean that's just inherent with the property. I think to do anything otherwise would be a mistake. And, no, I never felt any pressure at all. It was always kind of "Here's the property we have, let's just squeeze as much emotion and humor and love out of this thing as possible". It was always us making the same movie from the jump. 

shazam, zachary levi, mark strong

Q. One thing about the film I loved was that it was really clever. There's a lot of little bits, such as the Shazam! and Sivana speech bit. Was that your doing or something that existed before?

GAYDEN: That was during post. It was during reshoots. [David] Sandberg sent me some previs and he was like, "Okay, in the final battle we have Sivana and Shazam! in the air and you need to write dialogue for that." And so they had it all laid out, all staged, and they sent me this video and it just said "Dialogue here" and it showed the shots. And, someone put wind in and I was like, "Oh my God, there's all this wind!" Like, if someone hadn't put that wind tile in it never would've been born. But, I just heard this wind and I was like, "Oh my God, they can't hear each other. Of course." So, then I just wrote this big baroque speech from Sivana that then you cut to Shazam! and he can't hear and it was great and they shot it. Then, in editing, Sandberg added one or two more cutbacks to make it even funnier. And, it was just a beautiful part with everyone contributing and building to make what is probably one of the best jokes in the movie, if not the best one.

Q. At the end there's a significant moment when all the kids are granted the same powers as Shazam! I'm curious if this was always the intent and was it something you focused on when building the kids early on in the film?

GAYDEN: Y'know, I would not say it was the priority notecard that I put over my computer every day. And yet, when you watch the movie it crescendos in such an effective and wonderful way. We knew starting from Sivana coming on board as the main villain we knew we were going to do that, because we had room to do that and that became very exciting. But, we sort of had build the characters already and we had to further define them even more and had to give them a little more so that when we meet Darla and she's super fast, you get that this is the younger Darla. It was not a happy accident. It was very deliberate what we were doing and yet it just kind of came together very organically through the writing and casting of those great actors. And, suddenly, you have a foster home with all these people that we love.

Q. Where would you like to take Shazam! next?

GAYDEN:That's a really good question, because a lot of his personal story is really tied up at the end of this film. What excites me most is seeing that family as they are at the end of that movie with their new powers and how they continue together. That is most exciting to me. I don't have a specific.

Gayden's next script, THERE'S SOMEONE INSIDE YOUR HOUSE, an American Grafitti/Slasher film being directed by Patrick Brice is in preproduction for Netflix and he's currently working on an adaptation of LAST HUMAN at Sony for directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller.

Producer Peter Safran

Q: What is it about horror directors that make them a great fit for superhero movies?

SAFRAN: I think that genre directors are rarely given their due in terms of their real filmmaking skills. I don't think people quite recognize how hard it is to make a great horror movie. What worked so well for horror particularly for James [Wan] and David [Sandberg] is having the ability to craft both great scare sequences but also add levity, add humor where it's needed, to let the audience of the hook for a minute before you ratchet up the tension again. There're real skills that go into making a great, satisfying, audience-pleasing horror movie and I think that those skills translate very well to the world of superheroes, because you're doing a lot of the same things. It's consummate filmmaking and these guys have the skills to do that. Even though these movies are lighter than the genre movies they've been doing they have real tension and real stakes and the jeaopardy, the scares, for example with AQUAMAN it's the trench sequence, for SHAZAM! it's the sins. Those sequences are great and they're a great juxtapositon for the lightness that occurs either before or after.

Q: SHAZAM! absolutely lives and breathes in the broader DC universe with references to Batman, Superman, Aquaman, etc. but it never feels shoehorned in. Is finding a more natural approach to connect these films going forward rather than the more blatant ones?

SAFRAN: Listen, I can't tell you exactly what Warner Bros. and DC have in mind for their future slate, but I know that the films I'm working on there's no pressure to shoehorn in a relationship if it doesn't exist organically. AQUAMAN very much lived in its own world with very little reference to the broader DC Universe. SHAZAM! clearly does as he lives in a world where the superheroes are very real so it would be natural for Freddy Freeman to be a superhero afficionado and reference them. Certainly in my conversations with Walter Hamada that is the goal going forward; just making great individual movies and if they tie in organically, great, and if they don't, that's also great.

Q: Grazer and Levi seem like the perfect match in the film. Was it that was from early on in casting or was there a lot of trying people out for the right fit?

SAFRAN: Jack Dylan Grazer was the first person we cast in the movie. We knew the moment we read the Freddy role that it had to be Jack Dylan Grazer. He had just done IT for New Line, so they were very familiar with him. So, we met him early. He was the first guy cast and we had all potential Shazams read opposite him, because we knew that that relationship was the key crux to the film. And, once he and Zack got together, it was so undeniable-from the table read-their connection was instantaneous; they're both hilarious, they're both equally quick witted and constantly we would just let the camera roll during their sequences just to see what they would give us beyond the page and it was always delightful.


Q: Why was Geoff Johns' New 52 Run the right source material to kick off Shazam?

SAFRAN: We felt that Geoff Johns had really laid out a great storyline with Billy in particular, the foster family-There have been a lot of different origin stories to who Billy was over the years, since 1940, and we felt this was the cleanest and most organic and really a smart way to go; Billy searching for his mother, put into a family he didn't want to be a part of and ultimately, at the end, discovering that family is really about bond and not blood. It just felt like a very good touchstone. Obviously, we move away from it in many regards, particularly with Sivana, but we felt that it was a really good core, baseline to build from and we're all very happy that we did so.

Q: As someone helping to shape the future of the DC Universe, what would you say the future holds for these films?

SAFRAN: I think the future is extremely bright for the DC World in general. I loved WONDER WOMAN, I love AQUAMAN, I think SHAZAM! is great. You've got BIRDS OF PREY, the second WONDER WOMAN, BATMAN, SUICIDE SQUAD, THE JOKER, which was such a great script, great star, great director. I think that they really have their mojo back and are heading in the right direction and the philosophy is develop great scripts with great filmmakers and go make great, individual movies without worrying about having to tie all these things together in some larger manner. So, I think the future of DC is really bright.

Q: Although he's not featured in this film, it feels like Black Adam would be the most obvious choice to face off with Shazam! in a sequel. Is there any thought to how or if he'd play a part in Shazam!'s next chapter?

SAFRAN: You know, my instinct, and this is really just instinct at this point, is that until he's done a standalone movie we won't bring Shazam! and Black Adam together. That's my instinct. So, right now as I sit here, I suspect that there will be a standalone Black Adam movie and then at some point he and Shazam! will face off.


Q: The AQUAMAN sequel has been dated for December 16th, 2022, which feels like a long time away. Can you talk about the reasons for that?

SAFRAN: Part of the reason is it takes a while to get a great screenplay; y'know, something you're really happy with. That's the first step. The second step is that making a movie of this scale and size just takes while. It takes a long time to prep, to shoot and to post and we want to make sure that we give ourselves enought time that we're not chasing a release date, that we're not making a movie for a release date, but instead are just making the best possible movie and then releasing it in the best possible manner. So, there's no deliberate desire to do it later than it should be, but it's about doing it right and not doing it fast.

Q: Are there any other characters or comics that you'd like to bring to the big screen that haven't been realized yet?

SAFRAN: Sure, absolutely. I probably shouldn't mention them, because it would seem like I'm asking DC to hand them over to me. They have such a great, diverse group of characters, both well known and lesser known in their library and I think there are tremendous storylines to be told with so many of them. Obviously, one of the ones that I want to most was SUICIDE SQUAD and I brought James Gunn into that mix and obviously we're making that in the fall. So, I think I will target and cherry pick those ones that I think are really special and hopefully find a way to work with Warners and DC on them.

SHAZAM! is currently in theaters. AQUAMAN 2 washes to shore on December 16th, 2022 and THE SUICIDE SQUAD begins filming this fall for an August 6th, 2021 release.


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