Broadway shows haven’t always made the smoothest of transitions to the big-screen, but Adam Shankman’s Rock of Ages delivers an adaptation that’s bizarre and its own sexually-suggestive summer feature: from showcasing star Tom Cruise’s bare ass to backing Cruise’s choice of venue for an out-there rendition of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” – Malin Akerman’s posterior – Shankman takes the material and stuffs as much as he can into it. These choices represent the work he hopes to keep making – distinctive and not what most would consider to be the norm, box office be damned.
Shankman’s been enough of a commercial hitmaker throughout his career to earn the freedom to make those oddball choices, having cranked out a series of box-office success, from Bringing Down the House all the way to The Pacifier. As Shankman tells us, those gems are the type of learning experiences which led him to making Rock of Ages and Hairspray.
Here’s what Adam Shankman had to say about the journey from Juilliard to Rock of Ages, how a work for hire can be more informative than a passion project, and highlighting how enthusiasm can make up for – or even overshadow – hard-won experience:
Did you go to film school?
I did not go to film school. My film school was literally growing up on sets. And then when I was a choreographer I was a crew member. I was on hundreds of sets, and I took that as being my film school. I wasn’t stupid, so I didn’t think my job was the most important and I watched everybody, realized everybody was important, and learned everybody’s job, as a result. It was great.
I spoke to Peter Berg a while ago who said it was great starting out that way, since you know when someone is not doing their job.
Yeah! I mean, that’s why I ended up being a director, as a matter of fact. Not that I thought that was what my trajectory was going to be, but I started because I ended up getting frustrated with a lot of directors who couldn’t answer questions that I knew the answers to; it was weird. I just went, “You know what? I’ll figure it out.”
I read you dropped out of Juilliard, is that right?
I dropped out as a dancer. Ultimately, they were treating me… Listen, when I had gotten into Juilliard I had not taken a dancing class, so it was almost like a Flashdance issue, where I was a maverick [Laughs]. I was a great imitator, but their philosophy was to take the best talent, break you down, and turn you into a perfect technician, where you always had something to fallback on. I think that’s every school does: they want you to be technically sound when they push you out in the world. What happened with me was they were breaking my spirit, because they treated me as a dancer who had 15 years of bad training, instead of a guy who had no training. Anyway, I had to get out of that, because, at the end of the day, I wanted to be a choreographer and they were beating me into submission to be some great concert dancer.
It’s interesting you brought up being a great imitator, because, for Rock of Ages, I’d definitely say it doesn’t feel like a lot of summer movies.
You know what? I’m going to buy you a car, because I love you so much for saying that. It is isn’t like anything else. I kept saying to everyone while making it, “You guys, this isn’t like any normal movie.” [Laughs] It is a comedy, but at the same time, there is emotion, there is karaoke, and it is this and it is that. I mean, it has these big stars, so it’s going to be a splashy, weirdo movie. I guess that’s what we have to embrace about it. One of the things I love about my cast is that… we all had dinner last week, and everyone said they did not care how it does, because they were so proud of being in it. Obviously agents won’t feel the same way, but the cast feels like they are a part of something special and unique, which makes me super happy.
Casting must have been tough. For a movie like this, if one person isn’t on the right page tonally, it could fall apart.
You are correct about that. They were all game. Honestly, Hairspray brought me a lot of credibility for these people. They knew I could do weird, and do it right. A lot of times I do weird and it doesn’t seem weird, but this is actually the same weird; it doesn’t seem as weird as it is. You know, at the start, I told each actor we were playing it as real as possible, because I don’t want to make fun of the era or these people. At the end of the day, I wanted these people to be sympathetic and understandable. Like, I said to Catherine Zeta-Jones, “you are Eva Peron,” and she went, “Alright, yeah!” [Laughs] I told Alec Baldwin he’s been stoned for so long he doesn’t know he’s gay, and he was so into that. I went to Tom Cruise and said he’s the leader of The Dead or Alive. He thinks he’s this lonely cowboy going through a desert and a poet biting at his soul, but he’s never literally ever alone; he has a manager, a monkey, and bodyguards; it’s this poetic delusion. Anyway, that’s how I did it.
He gives a really committed performance.
It goes so far past everything you think of his. He is the most amazing person I have ever met in my life. To say that I am proud is beyond words to have had this experience with him, because it has made me so much better of a director.
Do you get that experience often with an actor?
You always do, but you don’t learn this lesson. This one’s a new lesson about commitment. I mean, you learn lessons about what’s funny and what’s emotional, but you don’t learn lessons about next-level in this way, from an actor.
On screen, what would you say came out of that type of collaboration?
You know, I will tell you two things that were Tom’s ideas on this movie. One of them was going as far as him and Malin Akerman go in “I Want to Know What Love Is.” He said he needed to sing it into her ass, because he had to actually be appreciating her, in that way. Originally when I was told Tom wanted to sing the song into her ass, I was like, “Okay…” [Laughs] Also, it was his idea to be naked underneath the chaps. It was scripted with underwear and jeans, but he said it just didn’t look right. The truth of the matter is, he had seen it in documentaries, the biographies he looked through, and the stuff we had together looked at it. He just went, “No, this was actually real. This is what it should be.” [Laughs] I said there’s no movie star there; it’s a character.
I would’ve loved to seen someone from Warner Bros. reacting to that daily [Laughs].
I can’t imagine if you pulled the dailies apart and watched it shot-by-shot. People must have thought I was losing my mind. No one said anything, thank God. You know, because I am a choreographer, I stage to shoot, meaning everything I have them do I know exactly how I am going to do it for the edit. If you pull that number apart, I think people must have been like, “Oh my God, what is happening over there?”
That reminds me of a quote I read of yours about working on Hairspray. James Marsden asked how far he can go tonally, and you said, “How far is there?” It seems like you went even further here, in that regard.
I said your name is “Corny”! Your name in the movie is Corny, isn’t that a big enough clue? I think this one goes a little further, too. My philosophy is — and this is very specific, from project to project — is: how far can you tell these jokes? If you try to backpedal and wink at what is real… Here’s a great example: Rent. Everything bad that happens in Rent, which is a very dark story, happens off-stage, and people just talk about it. In a movie, you actually have to show everything. That’s the slippery slope: “Okay, if we’re going to see it, what is it that we’re seeing? How are we seeing this, especially if it is not overly graphic?” The thing I don’t show, obviously, is Tom’s penis going in Malin. I don’t show people doing cocaine, but I do have seven people walking out of a bathroom stall to “Waiting for a Girl Like You.” It’s kind of that weird thing of, “How do I show this without showing it?” That’s the difficulty in doing a stage play to a film.
Do you see that as a healthy challenge, where you do have to find more ways to be clever?
I do think you have to be more clever. Seeing people do drugs is very different than suggesting people doing drugs. I mean, that’s why film is such an intense medium: seeing it registers a very, very different thing. For example, in Starsky and Hutch, when Ben Stiller does the coke, they do a ten to twelve minute runner on what it does to him, in order to take the onus off of it. Same thing with Horrible Bosses, where they have to do a whole runner. I didn’t have the luxury of that. I couldn’t do a number about somebody doing blow, ya know what I mean? It would’ve thrown the film off. As a filmmaker, yeah, it’s really challenging.
If you want to look into Rock of Ages deeply, you could say there’s a personal message with Stacee Jaxx, an artist who lost his way because of the money men. As a director, is that something you relate to or see happen?
You know, more than anything, it’s the experience of growing up with my dad, and seeing my dad’s clients hit the top, hit the bottom, and everything that goes with it. Also, you know, I am now on reality television. I’ve now gotten… how do I say this? Vaguely famous, in a way that I never imagined or particularly wanted. I am confounded by people who seek fame, because it is a hideous reality. The reason I think there’s something brilliant about certain personality types in the movie Soapdish is when Sally Field has to go to the mall to sign autographs, in order to feel valid. I think that is so bittersweet, because you’re getting all this love, but it’s fake love, because no one actually knows you. So, yeah, I think that cautionary tale resonates with me a lot.
Couldn’t you say it’s real, because they know your work? Like, if someone comes up to you and says they love Rock of Ages or Hairspray, isn’t that completely gratifying?
It is gratifying, but it’s not as gratifying if they grab you, want pictures, if they handle you, and if they talk about things that have nothing to do with you. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of my life talking to people who come up to me and will actually sit down at my table, as I’m actually having a very personal dinner, asking, “I need to know why so-and-so got kicked off of So You Think You Can Dance.” I’m like, “I don’t know. America voted for that.” It’s a really weird thing. They actually interject themselves, too. My favorite thing is if they say I started a conversation about segregation and exclusion with Hairspray. When I hear that, nothing makes me happier. When I have people come up to me and say I’ve brought dancing and joy to their lives because of So You Think You Can Dance, that makes me happy. When someone physically handles me or emails me a death threat because I didn’t cast somebody, that makes it not so fun. By the way, that happens.
A little more than I wish. You know what? I’m actually going to rip a line out of my own damn movie, when Paul Giamatti says, “I wish the true part was falser.” [Laughs]
[Laughs] When you deal with that, is it best just to get back on set and focus on the work?
That’s exactly what it is. I have to constantly say to my boyfriend, “I am better at work than I am with life. Just keep me on set and you’ll always have a great guy.” It’s really, really nice. That’s why Tom’s great: he didn’t have to act that part of it. He knew what it was and found something that resonates with the work.
How about when you work on a film like Cheaper by the Dozen 2, do you try to infuse the personal or is that just a job?
The truth of the matter is, with Cheaper, that was a movie that happened when another movie fell apart. Steve Martin called me on the day the other movie I was supposed to do fell apart. They were very gracious in offering me a great deal of money to do that. It was such a limited period of time that, I thought, “Can I do this without selling my soul?” When I look inside of it, I’ll never not be able to make movies about families, because I love families. The next movie I am doing is about a family. I think the family dynamic is so fascinating and endlessly explorable that I felt like I could do that, have fun, be with people I absolutely adored, and not lose my soul, knowing full well it was a sequel that was as light as gum wrapper. That wasn’t like, “I’m going to lose my soul doing this, but I am going to do it anyway.” No one goes into anything thinking, “This is going to be a piece of shit, but I’m going to get paid.” I don’t think anybody does that. I thought I was going to do the best that I can. My mandate from the studio, on that picture, was to basically copy the first movie beat-by-beat. I wanted to work, because, the truth of the matter is, you don’t learn anything if you’re not working.
I’m sure it was a learning curve, where you thought, “Maybe I shouldn’t do that again in the future…”
That is correct. You know, I got what I got out of that, and I got away with it. I learned from it. That was a funny movie because I learned something I probably wouldn’t have from another movie: what a 25-shot is, which is a wide-shot that holds 25 characters. I had to hold 25 characters constantly in that movie, because between the two families that’s how many characters there were. You learn.
Wouldn’t you say the commercial success of that film, and others you’ve done in that vein, led to Hairspray?
The joy of having people accept Hairspray, which was essentially in my DNA, was great. Everything up to Hairspray was essentially a job. Even A Walk to Remember, a movie that meant a lot to me, I’ll never stop getting crazy fan mail about. Everything is learning experience, and A Walk to Remember was totally guerilla filmmaking — running around with a camera on your shoulder, actors wiring themselves for sound, and it was just crazy. I love telling stories, and that’s it. Here’s the thing, from here going forward, I’d rather not have to fix something broken or fix something that is questionable, and I’d rather take on something that’s desirable. For my next movie, the book and script are so great, but on that I’m already elevated just by the virtue of doing it.
Rock of Ages is now in theaters.