Monday, April 1, 2019

Former Memphian Writes Shazam! Screenplay

Posted By on Mon, Apr 1, 2019 at 4:23 PM

click to enlarge JACK DYLAN GRAZER as Freddy Freeman and ZACHARY LEVI as Shazam in New Line Cinema's action adventure "SHAZAM!," a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
  • JACK DYLAN GRAZER as Freddy Freeman and ZACHARY LEVI as Shazam in New Line Cinema's action adventure "SHAZAM!," a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

While growing up, former Memphian Henry Gayden read superhero comic books, but he never thought he’d write a movie about one of them.

Gayden, 39, wrote the screenplay for Shazam!, the new movie based on the DC Comics superhero. The movie, starring Zachary Levi as Shazam, opens April 5th.

“When I grew up, I was a comic book fan for three solid years,” Gayden says. “But I was also a baseball card fan for a few years, and a postage stamp fan for a few years.”

He read Wolverine, Spider-Man, and the X Men, but, he says, “Around the time I became a teenager and wanted to meet girls at parties and stuff, I stopped reading comic books for a little bit.”

Over the years, Gayden read comic books and graphic novels. “But it was never my dream to write a comic book movie.”

Shazam! was different. Gayden liked the story of Billy Batson, a young boy who turns into a superhero when he shouts, “Shazam!”

Batson (played by Asher Angel) becomes a foster child who moves from home to home after he gets separated from his mother at a carnival midway. “My mom had Alzheimer’s when I was young. And, so, even though we didn’t lose her physically, we started to lose her a little bit. This idea of this boy looking for his mom immediately hit me. And just this idea of being able to forget who you are and feel the false sense of confidence you can get from escapism, which, essentially, were his superpowers.”

Gayden also likes Darla (Faithe Herman), the youngest member of a household of children at a loving foster home, where Batson ends up. She’s a “people pleaser. Makes people feel good.”

Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), another one of the kids, is “a nerd. "And that’s how I am with movies," Gayden says. "All I do is consume movies and talk about movies.

I immediately connected with the material. I feel like this was genetically engineered for me to write.”

The idea for a Shazam movie wasn’t new. “This thing has been in development for several decades. William Goldman, who wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men, wrote a draft in the ‘90s. It’s been kicking around for a while.”

For research, Gayden hit the comic books again. The character, originally known as “Captain Marvel,” was created by C. C. Beck and Bill Parker in 1939. The first comic book came out in 1940. “Captain Marvel’s name was later changed to Shazam,” Gayden says. “They had a legal snafu and had to change it.”

A native Memphian, Gayden graduated from Memphis University School in 1998 and the University of Texas in Austin in 2002. He moved to Los Angeles in the spring of 2003. “I moved with the intention of writing," he says. "I didn’t know how to go about doing that.
And then I got an internship at a production company through my cousin. She got me an internship at Laura Ziskin Productions. She (Ziskin) was producer on all the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies. So, I worked there as an intern and then I was promoted to assistant for a few years.”

He became assistant to Ziskin’s husband, the award-winning screenplay writer Alvin Sargent, who wrote Paper Moon, Ordinary People, Spider-Man 2, and Spider-Man 3.

Gayden was Sargent’s assistant on Spider-Man 3. “Alvin and I became very close in that project and close friends. We wrote a script together based on a Spanish Civil War idea. I wrote a script on my own, got an agent, and started to slowly get jobs, on and off.”

Gayden’s projects include the 2014 Earth to Echo movie and There’s Somebody Inside Your House, which begins production this fall. It will be directed by Patrick Bryce and produced by James Wan.

Shazam! was “a joy to write. My wife could hear me laughing in my office with the door closed. I had an absolute blast working on it.”

The Shazam superhero was “such a nonexistent character in everybody’s mind. Nobody knew who he was, what the project was. No one at the studio got in our way. It was just me, the director, the producer, the DC executive, and the New Line executive. A small team of people — seven of us — worked together for years, until we had a movie we loved.”

The two teenagers — Brett Breyer (Carson MacCormac) and Burke Breyer (Evan Marsh) — who merciless bully Freddy in high school were a bit more difficult to write at first, Gayden says. “I never really got bullied in a terrible way, growing up. 

An executive took me to dinner and regaled me with stories about what happened to him growing up. He said, ‘This is real. This isn’t some gimmick we’re putting in there.’ Those stories helped me connect.”

Gayden can’t name a Shazam! character he’s not fond of in some way. “If my prison term was to write Shazam movies for the rest of my life, it’d be fine. I love these characters. I wouldn’t complain about that.”

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