David Sandberg on Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman – The Hollywood Reporter
[This story contains spoilers for Shazam! Fury of the Gods.]
After joining the DCEU in 2017, Shazam! Fury of the Gods director David F. Sandberg is ready to hang up his cape.
With the second chapter of the Shazamily’s adventures now in theaters, the Swedish filmmaker is finally able to open up about one of the highlights of his entire experience. Of course, that would be Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman cameo, which he actually directed remotely from home. The chance to properly include a member of the Justice League also made up for Henry Cavill’s Superman cameo that didn’t pan out on 2019’s Shazam!, resulting in a headless Superman cameo.
But because of that prior disappointment, Sandberg still expected the worst to happen with Gadot.
“[Wonder Woman] was always supposed to be in [Shazam! Fury of the Gods], but I didn’t believe it was going to happen because of what happened on the first movie where we had to do a headless Superman cameo. I thought that was going to happen here, too,” Sanberg tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Sandberg adds: “But then it actually did happen, which was great, because then we could poke fun at the headless cameo of the first movie, with the Wizard [Djimon Hounsou] dream sequence. But we never could have done that if we didn’t actually have Gal at the end because people would’ve been furious.”
Sandberg is also clarifying the timing of the mid-credit scene since it includes Emilia Harcout (Jennifer Holland) and John Economos (Steve Agee) from James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker. With Gunn now the co-CEO of DC Studios alongside Fury of the Gods producer Peter Safran, some viewers might be thinking that they made a late addition to the film in order to connect Shazam (Zachary Levi) to Gunn’s new DCU slate, but the scene was actually shot long before Gunn and Safran took the reins of DC.
“There were supposed to be characters from [Black Adam’s] Justice Society, but that fell apart three days before we were going to roll cameras,” Sandberg shares. “So, Peter Safran, who produced this movie and Peacemaker, made some calls, and thankfully, Jen Holland and Steve Agee were able to come by on very short notice.”
With his duties in the DCEU now coming to a close, Sandberg is eager to return to his roots in the horror genre, and that includes reunions with his Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation producer, James Wan, as well as former DC Films president, Walter Hamada. The latter has executive produced all four of Sandberg’s feature films.
“I actually have one project in development with James … and I have been talking a lot with Walter about finding something to do together. I’ve never made a movie without him, so I would love to do more with Walt,” Sandberg says.
Below, during a recent spoiler conversation with THR, Sandberg also discusses how he was caught off guard by the Fury of the Gods marketing team’s sudden decision to include Gadot’s Wonder Woman in the film’s final wave of TV spots.
Well, you missed your L.A. premiere due to Covid. How are you feeling?
I’m feeling pretty good now, actually. I missed the premiere, but I’m back on my feet now.
You were also ahead of the ChatGPT curve with “Steve.”
Yeah, it’s kinda funny how Steve turned into something timely.
So let’s cut to the chase. When did Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman enter into the equation?
Right from the start and from the first script. She was always supposed to be in it, but I didn’t believe it was going to happen because of what happened on the first movie where we had to do a headless Superman cameo. I thought that was going to happen here, too. So I started to think, “Okay, when she can’t do it or when it falls apart, how do we bring Shazam back to life? Will we have to bring Helen Mirren’s character, Hespera, back? What are we going to do?” But then it actually did happen, which was great, because then we could poke fun at the headless cameo of the first movie, with the Wizard [Djimon Hounsou] dream sequence and things like that. But we never could have done that if we didn’t actually have Gal at the end because people would’ve been furious.
I know Shazam!’s headless Superman cameo was a disappointment at the time, but I appreciated how you turned it into a running gag with Wonder Woman being headless until she wasn’t.
(Laughs.) Yeah, and a lot of the credit goes to the writers [Henry Gayden and Chris Morgan], too.
Did Gal’s reputation precede her on set?
Because of a bunch of situations, I had to direct her stuff, remotely. So I was at home, and I had one screen with a feed from the camera and one feed that was a Zoom window where I could talk to her and everyone on set. It was kind of weird, but it worked out really well. She was super nice and super professional, and it was a dream to work with her.
What have the conversations with marketing been like? I can’t imagine you wanted that secret out, pre-release, but I know you’re pragmatic as well.
I was surprised. (Laughs.) I was just getting back from the press tour, and I got a text, asking, “Hey, why spoil Wonder Woman?” And I was like, “What are you talking about?” So I didn’t know, and they did apologize for not keeping me in the loop. But I understand why they did it, because they wanted to get people to see the movie. So, of course, I understand, but it’s a shame because these days, the only audiences who get to see these movies as intended are test audiences. When they saw the movie, they didn’t know Rachel Zegler’s character was a goddess, for example. For them, it was actually a twist that worked, but then, once marketing started, you have to show her in her goddess clothes and that whole thing is out of the bag. So no one is really going to be surprised that she’s a goddess undercover in a school.
For those who don’t know, you cast Rachel Zegler before West Side Story came out, and while watching the movie, I did in fact wonder if you wanted to withhold her character’s real identity in the trailer.
Yeah, that was always the intention with the movie, but as soon as they started working on the marketing, it was just going to be impossible to keep it secret, unfortunately. But a lot of people actually enjoy spoilers. There’s so many prolific leakers and scoopers on Twitter who have so many followers, and they really want to know every detail about DC and Marvel movies before they see them. If that’s your thing, that’s your thing, but I really enjoy knowing as little about a movie as possible. I just saw The Menu recently, and I thought it was going to be a cannibal movie. So I had no idea what it really was going into it.
I just had this conversation with Matt Reeves recently in regard to Cloverfield and how you could never pull off that kind of release again.
Yeah, you could probably do it with a smaller movie at a lower budget, but a superhero movie? Forget it.
So, the mid-credit scene. Based on the inclusion of two of James Gunn’s characters, Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) and John Economos (Steve Agee), people might be thinking that it was a late addition in order to connect Shazam (Zachary Levi) to the new DCU, but that wasn’t the case, was it? It was already a thing.
Yeah, poor James [Gunn]. (Laughs.) I saw people online going, “Stop casting your wife [Jennifer Holland] in everything,” and it’s like, “No.” So there were supposed to be characters from [Black Adam’s] Justice Society, but that fell apart three days before we were going to roll cameras. I was really upset because we had built that abandoned gas station set, and we could only shoot that scene in that little piece of forest. I was like, “This is so boring. We need something here.” So the art department built that whole gas station and brought in some old cars and things. They made it look really nice with very few resources, and so I was like, “We have this set and we have the time, so we have to shoot something here.”
So, Peter Safran, who produced this movie and Peacemaker, made some calls, and thankfully, Jen Holland and Steve Agee were able to come by on very short notice. I mean, the scene makes a little less sense with them. It’s like, “Why are they recruiting for Justice Society?” but you can kind of see it as they’re working for Amanda Waller [Viola Davis]. So I was just very grateful to get them in there, and it was really cool shooting it because I’m a big fan of Peacemaker. So, sitting there and watching the monitor felt like I was watching a new episode of Peacemaker, and all of that happened a long time ago [before Gunn and Safran became the co-CEOs of DC Studios].
In general, I know you’re allowed to reference pretty much anything you want as long as you don’t show it, but with the Captain Marvel and Avengers references, did that require multiple levels of approval at the studio?
Just one level. (Laughs.) It is strange because you can’t [visually] reference everything you want. I discovered that on the first movie when I put in a reference to Watchmen, with a little Watchmen logo thing, and clearance came back to me and said, “You can’t do that. You have to check with us first.” You’d think, “Well, it’s all DC, right?” but it’s all very complicated rights issues and things.
And on this one, I wanted to have a reference to Detective Chimp in the pediatrician’s office by having a chimpanzee plushy with a little deerstalker hat on him, but clearance was like, “No, you can’t do that.” But with the Captain Marvel stuff, [Michael Gray from the ‘70s Shazam! TV show] was supposed to just say, “Holy moley,” but I was like, “Let’s do one take where you say ‘Captain Marvel’ even though we’re not going to be able to use it. Why not?” And then I asked the guys at DC: “Can we use that?” And they were like, “Well, Marvel has mentioned DC characters in their movies, so why not?”
Neither of your movies ultimately needed Black Adam (Dwayne Johnson), but are you disappointed at all that you didn’t get to explore Shazam and Black Adam’s relationship in a meaningful capacity?
No, not really. The thing about Black Adam is that he has the same powers as Shazam, and we did that in the first movie where we gave Sivana [Mark Strong] the same power. So I don’t think the fight itself would’ve been super interesting, but I do think it’s a missed opportunity. What makes the most sense is to have them fight each other, so it’s money left on the table. But it’s how it is.
There was a period of time where this movie was counterprogramming to Avatar: The Way of Water. Did you actually talk yourself into that idea at one point?
At first, when they put it there, I was like, “That sounds scary,” but then, I actually grew to like the idea. I actually wanted us to stay there. I understand the reason why they moved it because [Avatar: The Way of Water] was taking up all of the IMAX and large-format screens, but I still think it could have worked a little bit like counterprogramming. But who knows?
From the kids to the grown-ups, you have a great cast across the board, but the downside is that you have two worthy actors playing just one role. So was it a tough juggling act to keep everybody involved?
Yeah, that’s why we had to go the route of taking the kids’ powers away. It wouldn’t make sense for them to be kids for most of the movie if they could be superheroes, and you want to see the kids because they’re so charming and great. But it was quite a struggle to give everyone enough time, and it’s a little bit uneven in the movie. It’s also a challenge to shoot as well, with many actors and characters to wrangle. It was actually complicated a bit with Grace [Caroline Currey] playing both young and [Super Hero] Mary. If we hadn’t done that, we could’ve had the adults in their superhero costumes and just swapped them out, but with Mary’s character, Grace had to go away for makeup and costume. So it would take 40 minutes for her to go back and forth.
A wise man once said that moviemaking is nothing but problem solving. So, what was an example of problem solving on this movie?
Well, we had to do one thing with Mary, actually. After they’ve saved everyone on the bridge and they all come together, we have that big shot that starts out with Mary flying in and landing next to camera. And the way you have to do that is it starts out with a digi-double. So it’s a digital Mary, and then it turns into the real Mary, Grace, who’s up on wires and being lowered to the ground. But that takeover just did not work.
Usually, when you go from a digi-double to a real character, you try to do it in a fast motion so you get some motion blur to hide the blending. And even though this was a very smooth, very stable descent, it just didn’t work, and there was not enough time and money to redo the digi-double and everything. So that’s why there’s a bunch of smoke in that scene. (Laughs.) It was like, “Let’s put this plume of smoke across the whole screen.”
So as she goes through that smoke, that’s when the transition happens between digital to real. It’s one of those band-aids that you do in quite a few places in a movie. It’s like, “Let’s add a lens flare or smoke or dust or even shaky camera, sometimes.” It’s something to hide the seams or try to disguise the things that didn’t work.
I’m sorry for spoiling your next YouTube video.
(Laughs.) No worries.
At the beginning of the movie, a museum security guard is frozen with a visual effect that is reminiscent of Dune’s shields, and then you also have a dragon throughout the movie. To streamline things, did the studio refer you to the same VFX companies that they used for Game of Thrones and Dune?
Well, we did use Pixomondo for some of the dragon sequences, and they did the dragons for Game of Thrones. But that’s just what makes sense. If you’re making Rampage and you need a gorilla, you’d call Weta because they did the Planet of the Apes movies. So it just made sense to get those guys.
It’s funny that you mentioned Dune because that was a reference I used. It was something that took forever to get right because it was supposed to be this force field. What Hespera is actually doing is she’s manipulating the water in his body, and the first things we did just did not work out right. And eventually, I was looking at references for force fields, and I was like, “Hey, look what Dune is doing. That could work if we’re doing something similar to that.” So it was just about trying to find something that worked.
What shot are you most proud of in the film?
Probably one of the shots in the stadium battle towards the end. There’s one shot from below the dragon after he just got hit, and it’s back-lit by lightning. It just looks really cool.
Did the Philadelphia Phillies jump at the chance to have a digital version of their ballpark destroyed in the movie?
(Laughs.) I’m not sure. I wasn’t really involved in those conversations, but I’m really glad that we got to do it. The first movie was shot in Toronto and this movie was shot in Atlanta, and neither place looks like Philadelphia. So we tried to get as many Philadelphia references and landmarks in there as we could to make it feel a little bit like Philadelphia, at least for people who have never been there.
You gave yourself a cameo death in the movie. What were you screaming as your last words?
“Släpp mig!” It’s Swedish for “let me go.”
Did Djimon Hounsou appreciate the Wizard’s makeover at the end?
(Laughs.) Yeah, I think so. We can see what he actually looks like and how stylish he can be. That was a lot of fun just bringing him back. He’s a highlight of the movie. We killed him in the first movie, and then for this one, it was like, “Oh shit. It would be good to have him back.”
He got the biggest laugh during my screening. It’s when he rolls his eyes at Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Anthea’s (Rachel Zegler) sweet talk.
Yeah, he’s great. He’s really funny, too. Jack and Djimon were a great combination, with Djimon being the straight man and Jack being the annoying kid.
I also thought it was really clever how the post-credit scene pokes fun at the last movie’s credit scene that you didn’t ultimately fulfill.
It felt like we had to do that because I knew people were going to be like, “Whoa, what happened to the worm from the first one? Weren’t you setting something up? What happened?” So we had to at least do some sort of nod or just show something that says, “Hey, we didn’t forget about him. He’s just still working on something.”
So the Shazam family’s future in the DCU is up in the air, but after two movies, have you scratched your superhero movie itch at this point? Are you ready to move on?
That’s definitely how I feel right now, yeah. (Laughs.) I started my Shazam journey right after Annabelle: Creation in 2017, and so it’s been quite a few years of just Shazam. So I’m very ready to move on and go back to horror and just try some other things.
Are you going to follow Walter Hamada to Paramount and set something up there? Or are you going to accompany James Wan to Universal? Both of your producers have scattered a bit.
Either one would be great. I actually have one project in development with James. It’s not at Universal, but it’s with his company, Atomic Monster. And I have been talking a lot with Walter about finding something to do together. I’ve worked with Walter on every single one of my movies so far. I’ve never made a movie without him, so I would love to do more with Walt.
Well, David Sandberg, congratulations on Shazam! Fury of the Gods, and I can’t wait to see were you go next.
I can’t either. (Laughs.) Thank you so much.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.