Adam Shankman started out as a dancer, broke into choreography, and eventually rose to his current status as a film director and producer, and a judge on the popular FOX network dance competition So You Think You Can Dance. His choreography has been in seen in films such as Don Juan DeMarco (with Marlon Brando) and Boogie Nights, and he has directed episodes of Monk, Modern Family, and Glee, as well as co-producing The 82nd Academy Awards. In film, he has produced the Step Up films, 17 Again and The Last Song, among others, and directed the films The Wedding Planner, A Walk to Remember, Bringing Down the House, The Pacifier, Cheaper by the Dozen 2, Bedtime Stories, and Hairspray, adapted from the hit Broadway musical. Shankman stopped in San Francisco to promote his latest film, also based on a hit Broadway musical: Rock of Ages. We chatted at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where Shankman confessed to doing something one should never do: reading the comments on Deadline.com. Still, he was pleased at the comments about the previous day's casting announcement for his next film This Is Where I Leave You.
Adam Shankman: Every single one of them was positive, except for one about Zac Efron, saying, "His movies always bomb," and I was like "That's actually not true. His movies actually don't bomb." They're not huge blockbuster things, but they don't bomb.
Groucho: I think somebody corrected them on that, didn't they? I read that, too.
Adam Shankman: Oh, did they? Somebody corrected them?
Groucho: I think somebody said, "No, no, you're wrong about that."
AS: Yeah, but I thought that was so cool that people actually were supportive of casting. I've almost never seen that. You know what I mean? (Laughs.) So—.
G: There's a tendency to back-bite, isn't there?
AS: Yeah! People are mean.
G: So this struck me as a surprisingly personal film. And later I read, in doing my research, that John Waters had given you basically that advice on Hairspray, too, to make it—
AS: Make it my own, yeah. He was so kind and supportive when I got that job. You know, I had this weird thing: when I got that job, I wrote him. I asked New Line for his email address, they got me his email address, and I said, "Dear Mr. Waters: My name is Adam Shankman, and I don't think you know who I am, but I've just gotten the job to direct the new version of the musical Hairspray. I hope this doesn't upset you. Please feel free to contact me, but I'm very excited." Within ten minutes, he shot me an email back; he was "I couldn't be more excited. This is so fun." I happened to be in Baltimore at the time, shooting the first Step Up. And he said, "Let's get lunch tomorrow." And I was like "Uuhuayuh! I'm having lunch with John Waters!" And so we went out to lunch, and he just said, "Don't do what I did. Don't do what the play did. Do your own thing. That's the only way this thing is going to work." And that I really took to heart. And, y'know, I've made several adaptations now: Walk to Remember was an adaptation, Hairspray was an adaptation, this is an adaptation, whatever. And it's really important to me to be very, very true to the spirit, the energy, and the core message, but everything past that, it's sort of like I have to do myself, otherwise I wouldn't know—I can't make a—I can't tell a story under somebody else's aegis and rule, you know what I mean? It would be—but that is funny that you thought this movie was personal. It is actually weirdly personal; it's very sentimental for me. This is the only movie I've ever made where sometimes, like, I'll hear one of the recordings or I'll see a scene, and I get a little bit misty. Beacuse it was—
G: Even after years on it, too.
AS: Yeeahh. It just—it was a hard movie to make. It was a hard movie to get made. Really hard. (Laughs.)
G: I was thinking about: everyone on the poster can relate to Hollywood dreams, and breaking in—
G: Everybody's got that story of how they broke in.
AS: And they also, by and large, most of them have also discovered that it's not really worth very much without love. You know what I mean? And that you need to find some center, and some gravity in the midst of all these things. Because, listen: I'm going to be honest with you. There is nothing less natural than fame. Fame is freaky and creepy and weird. And it is an opportunity to make money. And with reality TV right now, I just literally cannot believe why people crave this thing that is actually—
G: Potentially soul-sucking.
AS: Soul-sucking, and a little nauseating. And, legitimately, it is unnatural. It is not natural for people, strangers, to know things about you. And to be invested somehow in your life. And they don't know you, you know? And so I have my own demons and issues that I deal with, where that's concerned. And so making a movie just about people who want to be famous was icky to me. That, to me, I couldn't do that.
G: But it also shows the other direction on that, sort of: "Wanted Dead or Alive" is positioned as this reflection on how people want to chew up and spit out celebrities.
AS: Yeah, I mean, that to me—that number is funny to me. That was the whole beginning of my conversation with Tom Cruise about his character. I said, that song is so important because it gives you a glimpse into who this guy thinks he is. He's literally the most famous rock star on the planet, he is never alone, he is only surrounded by women and liquor and his baboon and his managers and his bodyguards. And yet somehow, in his deluded, man-child drunken mind, he sees himself as this lonely caballero trudging through the desert, alone—you know, tumbleweeds. I wanted him to paint this picture of this anguish and torture for this reporter. But I do know what it is to be alone in a crowded room. Where you're surrounded by people, but you feel very, very lonely. Because everybody's biting at you 'cause it's just all about work. Y'know?
G: Yeah. There was a point, maybe about two-thirds of the way through the film, when I kinda just had a moment out of it where I realized, "This is really pretty dark!" You know? In terms of the—there's a really kind of a shocking honesty about the sleaze and the cesspool of Hollywood.
G: And how ultimately it's a musical comedy—
AS: Yeah, it's a comedy—
G: And you pull back the reins on that a bit, but—
AS: No, I mean, after Sherrie feels betrayed, the only place she can find employment—and believe me, it was a lot longer in the original montage: I had her going and applying for every place short of McDonald's—and she ends up the only place she can get work is in a strip joint—
G: Well, and the self-delusion aspect, too, like—
AS: Well, I had to have them both totally lose their sense of self and compromise. She comes there with all this joy and excitement, and ends up working, y'know, on a pole. And he completely sells out and joins the boy band.
G: And the ironic take on "I Want to Know What Love Is" (laughs): it's pretty—
AS: Yeah, I think singing "I Want to Know What Love Is" while you're having sex on an air hockey table 'cause that's the only manifestation of love that you understand was—I like irony, y'know? I like irony. I kind of do irony. And it's just my sense of humor. And that was an incredibly weird day of shooting, though.
G: Yeah, I bet that would be pretty weird.
AS: Let's line up a two-shot of Tom singing into Malin [Akerman]'s butt.
G: (Chuckles.) Now how did you or the actors who were not previously associated with singing deal with their presumable insecurity about singing?
AS: Yeah, well, I was really clear with them—first of all, the great thing about musicals is there's a ton of rehearsal that you have to do. They've got as much rehearsal—well, excuse me: on Hairspray there was a ton of rehearsal. This one: not as much, but the actors were prepared. First of all, luckily, they were familiar with the songs. So that wasn't scary to them. They also knew that I was going to take care of them; I wouldn't expose them as sounding bad if they sounded bad. But I had, in fact, other than Tom, seen every one of them—and Diego I didn't know—sing. Like Russell sang in Get Him to the Greek, Mary J. [Blige] I think is the obvious one, Catherine [Zeta-Jones]—Chicago, Paul Giamatti had done Duets, Alec I had seen on SNL singing, and Malin Akerman was in a band. So I actually did know that they could all sing. Tom was the wild card, and then of course he ended up becoming, like, the best singer: it was so crazy!
G: That's his thing, right? Whatever it is, he'll climb the mountain.
AS: I mean, yeah. I remember when we were first talking about it, he was shooting Mission: Impossible, and he was showing me pictures of him strapped to the Burj, of him up there, sitting on top of it, and I almost fell off the couch I got such bad vertigo. I almost threw up; I was so nauseous. I said, "How—how—are you out of your mind?!"
G: "And how can you do this to me?!"
AS: Yeah. But he said doing this was harder.
G: Yeah. Yeah, that's interesting.
AS: I was like "Oh my God, what if it's the musical that really takes him down?"
AS: I love that.
G: Well, I guess we're already almost running out of time. I wanted to ask a little bit about Jersey Boys. You recently tweeted about Jersey Boys and created a little stir, right? Am I right?
AS: Did I? I just said—all I did was say that I wanted to do it. I certainly didn't say anything other than that I wanted to it.
G: Right: it wasn't an announcement, but I wondered if it was—
AS: Oh, if I'm campaigning?
G: Yeah, drum-beating for Jersey Boys.
AS: Oh, um, y'know, there's—I'm telling you right now, actively, the only two musicals that are really going on, besides this Dirty Dancing thing that I really can't talk about, are Wicked and Jersey Boys. Those are the only two kind of big ones that they're talking about. And I definitely have more musicals in me, so—I think it would be really, really fun, and it would be a great exercise using my muscles knowing what I know or, at least, what I feel like I know about musical film, and doing something gritty. So that would be really, really fun. Because literally every director on the planet wants to do Wicked, so I've just sort of been sitting in a corner like (meekly:) "Okay, if you guys are interested—." But they're not making that movie anytime soon, because the play is just making too much money.
G: Oh, right, yeah. Well, it'd give you a new shade, yeah, to explore with musicals.
AS: Yeah, I'm doing—I was hired to do—after This Is Where I Leave You, which is my next movie—I've been hired to do The Nutcracker—
G: Oh, right.
AS: Which is a big fantasy action-adventure. It's the non-dance version. And so I already have my big lollapalooza coing down the pike. That's gonna be a big one.
G: Uh-huh. And I have to ask you—I'm sure you get asked this all the time—but what's it like to choreograph for Marlon Brando?
AS: Oh, actually, I don't get that a lot, but I, um—it was—. (Pause.) In all of those moments where all of that stuff was going on, when I find myself working with people who are beyond mythological, I just sort of treat it like work, and I just act like it's just another job, because it really is, and they are completely—and, y'know, there's a lot of like "Oh, wouldn't it be great if we did this," and you just have to listen to that, and then you sit back and go, like, "You're Marlon freakin' Brando. Do what the fuck you want. Who am I to tell you what to do?" Y'know? So it was pretty dreamy just being in his presence. That was great. It was great.
AS: I am a lucky boy. I've had a kind of a cool life.
G: Alright. I guess we have to end it there. But thank you.
G: It was great talking to you.
AS: Nice to talk to you.