‘Shazam!’ Composer Benjamin Wallfisch on Embracing Adventure and Returning for ‘IT 2’

     April 12, 2019

If ever a superhero movie called for an adventurous score, it’s Shazam!. The DC Comics adaptation it literally about a kid becoming a superhero, and director David F. Sandberg’s film is abundant with joy, wonder, and opportunity. To that end, when it came time to composing the film’s score, Sandberg enlisted his frequent collaborator Benjamin Wallfisch to draw from classic adventure films of the 80s, particular of the Amblin variety. The result is a score that wholly embraces the wish fulfillment at the center of the film’s story—it’s uplifting, wondrous, and personally reminded me of John Williams’ stellar work on Hook.

Which is why I jumped at the chance to speak with Wallfisch about his impressive score for Shazam!. During our interview, the Blade Runner 2049 and A Cure for Wellness composer talked about his initial conversations with Sandberg about the score, drawing from his childhood memories of 80s adventure movies, how his process changes (and stays the same) from film to film, and working within the superhero genre—one in which it’s becoming increasingly difficult to stand out. Wallfisch also teased his very different score for the new Hellboy movie and spoke a bit about returning to work on IT Chapter Two, which he’s just begun.

Check out the full interview below. Shazam! is in theaters now, and Wallfisch’s score is available for purchase.

benjamin-wallfischHow did you first get involved in this one?

BENJAMIN WALLFISCH: Well I’m lucky enough to have worked with David Sandberg now for three movies together. We just went out for dinner, it was actually a double date, and started talking about our shared love of superhero films and adventure films and Star Wars, all those classic movies with scores that I grew up on and wore out so much on vinyl. That was sort of the beginning of the conversation and he said well, “Do you wanna try one together?” and I said, “Of course!” It was one of the most exciting jobs I’ve ever gotten in terms of channeling my inner kid and my absolute passion for those scores when I was growing up in the 80s.

There’s a real wish-fulfillment quality to the score that I really liked. It reminded me of those Amblin films from the 80s as you mention, but also one of my favorite John Williams scores which is Hook. What specific scores did you look towards for inspiration?

WALLFISCH: I mean there weren’t really specific scores, it was really more about the feeling that those scores give you when you listen to them. One of the main turning points in the film is when Shazam learns to fly, which is also one of the most comedic points of the film. Hook’s a good example, like Neverland, and there’s John Williams’ Superman, these are all scores that I’m not trying to copy because you can’t copy that. It’s unattainable genius. But at least I remember the feeling that that music gave me as a kid and still gives me now, and sort of trying to reinterpret that in my own way and paying a huge homage to my love of that music. The Shazam character is so unique, the story is so unique—the film covers so much emotional depth, from the very funny to the very dark to very difficult themes of losing your mother effectively. So there was a lot to say narratively, so we had to do something unique and bespoke for this film, but the canvas that we were using was one of paying huge respect to the grandmaster composers like John Williams, Alan Silvestri, Jerry Goldsmith, those guys who are my heroes now.

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Image via Warner Bros.

This is a superhero film, and there are a lot of superhero films around. Is that something that you’re kind of cognizant of as you’re composing the score, of trying to make it something different, something that stands out, or are you just kind of focusing on the work at hand?

WALLFISCH: I think it would be crazy not to look at it in the context of the wider DC Universe, and also just the cultural importance in terms of pop culture that superhero films and comics have. I think one of the things David really wanted to do was kind of make Shazam as a character feel like a classic superhero that is almost timeless, because it’s something that we can all identify with. The bringing out the inner child, what’s it feel like for a kid to be given immunity and flight and super strength, and just the realization that you’re a fifteen year old foster kid that up until then has been struggling every day. Going from foster family to foster family, trying to search for his mother. There’s a wonderful sense of anything’s possible and that was one of emotions we really tried to bring out in the music.

I know you worked on Batman v Superman with Hans, and Hans obviously has a lot of experience with Batman and now he’s doing the Wonder Woman sequel. I know you guys are friendly. Are you guys comparing notes and showing each other stuff as you’re working on these superhero movies?

WALLFISCH: (Laughs) Actually no, not really. Hans is such an inspirational person, I’m so lucky to count him as my mentor and just one of these people that’s just such a generous person in terms of just not just giving opportunities but also the incredible knowledge he’s passed on to the people who he sort of takes under his wing in a way. So no, we don’t need to compare notes. He’s a bit busy (laughs). I think it’s important to kind of approach this with a completely fresh attitude, because the film does stand alone, certainly among maybe the last 10-15 years of DC films. It’s a completely new direction for the DC Universe. That’s exciting. I think David is such an extraordinary person in filmmaking. He’s brought so much of his own personality to this film and especially with humor. It’s hard not to laugh to almost every five minutes in this movie. That’s something fresh and exciting. I mean it’s pretty much like every single film whenever you start it; you have to have a complete blank canvas and not bring any baggage to the story. It’s that sense. That’s one of the things that I find so exciting, that you have to sometimes reinvent yourself with every score. Then there’s still something there that hopefully is consistent across the whole film.

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Image via Warner Bros.

It’s interesting that you say that because I do think that your filmography is very diverse. I mean A Cure for Wellness sounds very different from Blade Runner, which sounds very different from Hidden Figures, and I’m just curious on a process level when you’re working on something like Blade Runner, which is very tied to the sound design and kind of electronic, and then you’re switching to something that’s much more symphonic like Shazam, does your process change in how you actually write that music and compose that music?

WALLFISCH: Actually there are lots of things that don’t change, and a lot of things that are completely different. The things that don’t change is the whole process you go through with the filmmaker to get inside the story, and have the arc of character development and narrative, and try to, you know, get inside the subtext of what they’re trying to do. That’s often where the score lives, is in subtext where things which aren’t spoken or aren’t seen but are felt. That’s what we try to bring out in the score, and what I always try to do on every film actually is spend a good two or three weeks watching the motion picture and just responding to the director’s initial comments and those questions of what is the tone and feeling of this particular scene? How does that impact the rest of the movie?

Then, I just start inventing with total freedom away from needing to sync things to the cut, and that kind of almost brainstorming session brings out some really interesting themes that may become main themes, or secondary themes, or maybe in the end don’t work, but leads you on a path to something that does. Those are the processes that I always try and do, and obviously even when I was collaborating with Hans, that kind of the process that we did very much together was the same.

Then when it comes to the actual scoring cue to cue, I mean, Blade Runner was all synthesizers so everything was done inside the studio. That was a really fantastic way of looking at it actually because what we did in what we call the demo stage, they were not actually demos. If they worked, that would be what’s in the movie so that added a whole other layer in the production which is normally sometimes just there for the final mix.

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Image via Warner Bros.

But, Shazam being a completely orchestral score is kind of, in terms of the execution of the music, the opposite of it. Although interestingly, Blade Runner we did think of with the same kind of color and tone and emotional impact of an orchestra but just without an orchestra. That was a really fascinating journey in itself. And of course, also acknowledging the unbelievably important legacy of Vangelis and kind of bringing that to the new story and updating it. That was an incredible journey and I was just very lucky to go on it with Hans and Denis Villeneuve and Joe Walker, our editor, who’s also an incredible musician. And Shazam, I was studying the process that the composers of those scores in the 80s went through, which was just writing on paper and not using synthesizers, not using computers.

And of course I’m still using a computer; but I wrote everything to start off as a very detailed piano sketch almost and then orchestrated into the mock up synth orchestra to demonstrate to the filmmakers. The process of not going straight into orchestral demo but actually going and doing a piano sketch first: that’s something I haven’t done before, and there were fewer barriers from ideas to execution.

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