Henry Gayden and Chris Morgan Talk Shazam! Fury of the Gods
When I first saw Shazam! I was truly impressed with the mix of humor, horror, and action. And with the latest, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, I found a sequel worth entertaining in. It is funny, smart, and is just as clever and engaging as the first. And much of that credit can be given to the screenwriters behind it. Henry Gayden, who wrote the original film, is back. He is joined this time around by Chris Morgan. The two have done a terrific job of creating a continuation that doesn’t repeat itself, but still maintains the heart of the first.
We recently had the pleasure of chatting with both Chris and Henry about the new film. They opened up about taking on a superhero story and splashing in mythology. The two discussed what David F. Sandberg brought to the experience, and how cool it was to have Helen Mirren on set. It was a pleasure speaking to both, and happily, the film they were talking about is well worth a look – you can check out my review here.
Well, first off, I loved this movie, fellas.
Henry Gayden: Hell yeah.
Chris Morgan: Oh nice.
HG: That’s great, man. Thank you.
Look, it’s hard enough to make a superhero sequel that satisfies, doesn’t feel like more of the same, but stays within the path you already started. What I love about this one is that you mess with the Shazam lore and this character’s history, but you add mythology. How did that come about, and what was the design working with David and finding that?
HG: Well, it was kind of a long road getting there. We started developing this a couple of weeks after the first movie came out, and that kind of natural first step was seeing through Mr. Mind and Dr. Sivana. And we went through that, and ultimately then, we veered into maybe exploring Geoff John’s second run of Shazam Comics. And then, really, none of it told the story that we wanted to tell, which we knew from the beginning, which all we knew from the beginning is we wanted to tell a story of how Billy now has a family and what does he do with that family because he’s probably terrified to lose it?
We knew that, and we knew that was the internal conflict. And so we kept searching for the story that could best reflect and tell that story. And so we sat down one day with David and Peter, the producer, and Walt Hamada and Geoff Johns and I, and it literally started with us just saying almost like random words.
And Geoff Johns went “Atlas” because Shazam has the power of Atlas. He’s like, “Atlas is an interesting person,” so we started talking about Atlas. We all have our phones out, and we’re Googling Atlas. It’s really that basic. And then we hit on the daughters, and then we really started to build something special. And then, eventually, Chris came on and helped us build out a lot of that lore, and I’ll let him talk.
CM: Well, I’d just say the thing I think is so interesting about it, how you get mythology in there is, you have Shazam who has all these powers of the Gods, and now you get to delve into where they come from. You get to play in Greek mythology, which, who doesn’t want to do that? So just a really fun exploration into a little bit more about Billy, a little bit where they came from, and a little bit more about the wizard, how he got there.
HG: And I know… I don’t want to speak for David Sandberg, but he’s not here, so I will. I know he was like, dragons, how do we make dragons new? How do we make that interesting? And one of my favorite things that Chris came up with was this kind of like, fear dragon, which you came up with the design, yes?
CM: Yeah. Just figuring if it’s something that’s guarding the Tree of Life or whatever, that it probably looks or has become like it. Yeah.
HG: And so David had a fun time building that out. And then, ultimately the black unicorn, he got to put in his humor, and his spin on that stuff in a way that I think makes it more memorable.
Well, it’s amazing. That has to be a pleasant surprise to work with someone who is such a knowledgeable man when it comes to horror and putting that in the mix with comedy. What a terrific element this series has done so well.
HG: I mean, it’s truly invaluable. One of my favorite scenes is that boardroom scene from the first movie. And like the Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2 hospital room energy that he brings to the horror, there is such a breath of fresh air inside of that movie and inside of the genre.
CM: By the way, it is pretty interesting as a slight side note here that horror tends to be about moments. And can you manage tension? By the way, so is action. Can you man manage moments? You look at David’s Light’s Out short, and then you can just tell he is a natural for something like this. Suddenly pick those moments, those funny moments, those action moments, and it just paid off. By the way, same thing with James Wan on The Conjuring. We saw The Conjuring and were like, we got to get him for Fast 7.
HG: Yeah, yeah.
CM: Just something about understanding what the audience is feeling, it doesn’t matter what the genre is, and those guys tend to prove it.
HG: Also, I’m going to say one more thing nice about David since I spoke about him. He also started in animation, and it’s really fun to watch the movie and see how he frames scenes sometimes like it’s an animated film, almost like Looney Tunes. There’s a moment where Freddy is sneaking around a room, I won’t get into it for spoiler territories, and he’s framing it almost like it’s an animated short. And it’s so much funnier because he’s doing that. Anyway, so yeah, we like him around here.
Oh, that’s hilarious. By the way, Fast 7 is easily one of my favorites. Amazing job. What I especially enjoyed with this is we’ve already met these characters, which Henry, you helped introduce us to. Now you’re getting to build, and you’re adding three villains that are quite interesting, and that’s challenging for a lot of these movies.
Were you writing it with Helen Mirren in mind?
HG: Well, no, we weren’t really writing for actors. We had just the three daughters and the age range and really built them as some kind of mirror of Billy’s journey, which is Billy is someone who’s experienced loss, and now that he has a family again, he’s holding on too tight. And the sisters are people who’ve experienced loss, and how they are dealing with that and coming into our world. That just felt like a really, really, really big juicy meal.
CM: Can I also just say Henry is very humble. You did write for Helen Mirren. And that’s, as a writer-
HG: Which is a joy.
CM: … One of the most awesome-
HG: But I didn’t write knowing she was her. But I will say that when I was there for production for a while, I made damn sure that I was there for when she was on the throne reading the bird letter. And it was a highlight of that year.
CM: By the way, I think my favorite scene of the movie. So fun.
I mean, that’s not a highlight of the year. That’s a highlight of a lifetime.
HG: Oh my goodness. And the whole set was lit with fire, legit fire, and we were all wearing masks. And I remember looking at my white mask and being like, why is this gray? But it was working.
Wow. Well, look, there’s such a balance with these films. Why do you think this character connects to so many people? Why do you think he is such a special, interesting character?
CM: I can say for me.
HG: You go first.
CM: Because listen, I was a fan of this franchise first with the first film that Henry did. It established the characters and really established this kind of friendship with Billy and Freddy. But there’s something great about watching someone who has every power and ability and is just human despite it and fucks up constantly but doesn’t give up. And I don’t know; there’s something where you just kind of recognize yourself and you root for that character. That’s the thing I think I love about Shazam, is that he’s incredibly human, he’s incredibly wrong most of the time, and you’re just hoping he pulls this thing off. There’s no other character really out there like it. It’s pretty incredible.
HG: And I agree with all those things. And to me, just at core, superhero movies can sometimes get, even great ones can get a little too serious for my taste. I really love just the unbridled joy you can get with seeing a child. It just takes you back to what actual superheroes are, what it would feel like. It makes you think, what would I do? And seeing a child just literally sitting in a warehouse experimenting with what the capabilities are, to me, grounds the superhero movie in such a joyful place that I’ve just loved it ever since.
CM: And to put a finer point on it for me, there’s something about watching Billy go through the process of becoming an adult and kind of messing it all up that just resonates with anyone who has kind of done it. It’s hard, and it’s messy, and it’s awkward, and it’s ugly, and it just makes you love the guy and attach to him.
No, I agree. I’m going to add a little bit to that. We see a lot of movies where the hero is very heroic and we “Oh yeah. He’s strong and he’s fit and he’s capable,” but that’s not how we are.
CM: No, yeah.
We’re like Shazam. We have doubts, and we have all of that. I like his flawed nature.
CM: And to see him succeed despite it.
CM: … Kind of is wish-fulfilling and gives you hope that maybe you can do it to kind of thing.
Now you had mentioned you had been inspired by some of the earlier, some of the comics. Was there a particular story that stood out that you maybe tried to do and maybe had to cut back on because it just wasn’t working with the story you were telling?
HG: Yeah, well, the main two that we followed went down, and then there were a couple of others, but mainly it was Dr. Sivana and Mr. Mind. And it was really fun, and there’s stuff in that draft that I’m really, really proud of, but it never felt like… It always felt like it was too connected to the first one, almost like an extension or the next chapter of the first movie. It didn’t feel like an all kind of news story. And so it felt a little redundant, so we jettison that.
Geoff Johns did another run of Shazam comics that we really pursued. It was wild, it was full of creatures, and they explored all seven dimensions, and the tone felt almost a little too childlike. So what got us when we just started from scratch, it was just like, what’s the best villain for Billy to meet in a world where he maybe doesn’t feel like he deserves his powers? It’s villains who also think that he does not deserve his powers because they were theirs.
Okay, perfect. Thank you so much. We’ve run out of time. Thank you so much guys.
CM: Really appreciate it, man.
Yeah, yeah. You guys are awesome. And again, good luck with this fantastic movie. It’s a joy.
HG: Thank you.
CM: Thank you. Really appreciate it.
Check out more of our interviews from Shazam! Fury of the Gods here!