Best known for a string of hugely profitable big-star comedy vehicles from The Wedding Planner to Cheaper By the Dozen 2, Adam Shankman takes a giant step forward as a director in Hairspray . As he made clear to Sun movie critic Michael Sragow over the phone from London a dozen days ago, nobody could be more pleased than the ebullient Shankman himself.
How John Waters and Tracy Turnblad connected to Adam Shankman:
You know what the whole thing was? What made it such a unique
expression of this particular story? John shot this as an acerbic remembrance of
his childhood and his kind of crazy idolatry of those kids on that show and what
was going on at the time, and he did it in a very John way. Then the musical
came along and did what it was going to do. John came along at lunch and said,
"You cannot do what any of us done, you have to do it in your own way or the
story just won't work. You're fabulous, go be fabulous." Which is very
Tracy-like. I did the same thing, and I ended up shooting the whole movie from
Tracy's point of view, because I'm very Tracy-like. I did the whole outsider
thing, because I'm a gay Jew who grew up in a very Waspy neighborhood in L.A.,
and ended up not having any feeling of the word can't in my growing-up
experience. Parents not wanting me to perform until I was out of high
school. There was a lot of similarity there. But also Marc Shaiman and
Scott Wittman's music always dictated from the opening that you see the world
from Tracy's perspective. You start with "Good Morning, Baltimore" --
where do you go from that? Once again that's all Tracy's point of view. There
was a big discussion, I mean the producers and everyone from the studio going,
"In 'Good Morning, Baltimore' are we going to see the people singing, when we
see them in the background," and I said no, because this is Tracy's world and
how she sees it, not how they see it. Because if I see the background people
stopping and singing, that means they experience the world the same way she
does. So I said let's just blow past that. And once we deal with her singing,
and after we get her off that garbage truck, it's going to be anything goes.
Shankman on the golden opportunities of Hairspray:
Listen, this is a movie that in so many ways you had to close your eyes and charge, and boldly go at it.
Because there's a lot of really great opportunities that John set up for us. You
have to like the message of the movie: have the courage of your convictions.
There's just a go-for-it kind of thing.
It's a very interesting structure. It's not a really normal Act One-Act Two-Act Three structure. Act One is Tracy
getting on the show, then the entire movie changes once she realizes that she
has a higher purpose. The whole notion of integration is extremely vague in
Broadway show until you get right into the middle of it, and then it becomes all
about that. You have to find a balance for both of those things. This is what
John did. John presented this amazing, amazing gift which is that all of the
themes that are so unabashedly correct are wrapped it in such an insane gift
wrapping that you're distracted from this beautiful gift that lies underneath it
all. So you come out bouncing with joy, but later you go, 'Wow, this is staying
with me, and it's staying with me for a reason, and the reason is that
everything inside of it is right, not all the superficial stuff, but the core is
right.' And the musical's score just frosted this cake.
Tracy's certainly the
unlikely heroine of the summer -- no one else like her is out there.
I can't believe it. It doesn't seem possible. John called and left a message that
I will forever have on my cell phone, he called from a train having seen it in
New York, and just said, "You've made me the proudest grandfather in the world."
It's just a huge, huge boon to have been able to further this story's history
with the stamp of approval from the creator in quotes. In the universe that is
Hairspray, John is God, so to have that is great.
The musical numbers spoke to me so much in terms of the guidance of how I was going to do everything. They had to be positioned in locations where they felt right. So if I just intuited
the right choices from being in Baltimore doing Step Up, and all of that, then
hell's bells, that's great. It's such a unique city.
From Hollywood to Highlandtown:
I grew up in Brentwood, but I live now in Los Feliz. I grew up
on the beach, now I live under the Hollywood sign. What I focused on for
Baltimore was Highlandtown. That's where John had that experience and that's
where his remembrance happened. After lunch he threw me in his car and said I
have to show you this. He took me on the whole Highlandtown tour, Patterson
High, and believe me, that imprinted on me in a huge way. Really in no uncertain
terms it feels like time stopped there. I sent my production designer down there
and I said I want you take pictures of every inch of this part of town if we got
it right it's because of that.
John told me this: that it's kind of like
upper-lower-class, these are proud people, who are proud of their possessions.
What little they have they keep really clean, and they keep really up, and they
are proud. I thought, wow, that's really interesting; Edna keeps things really
clean; she doesn't just keep her own things clean, she keeps everybody else's
things clean. She's a shut in. And that led me to weird and wonderful
conclusions with John Travolta. I mean, John Waters and Divine, who knows what
their conversations were like? They were so of the place and of the period and
they experienced that together. And they were also lovingly making fun. We were
not making fun. We were just trying to get the story told properly. John was
proving a point. We were trying to just ride that wave he started.
The directorial education of Adam Shankman:
For me, there was never an end game for becoming a director. Dancing and music were my first love. I was happiest at being a chorus boy. When the opportunity to choreograph came up, it was nothing
more in my head but an opportunity. Then it suddenly became a career very
quickly. Sadly it was because Michael Peters and Lester Wilson died in the same
year, so there was a giant hole in the film choreography world, and all of their
work came flooding on to me. During that period, I was so active, because that's
what choreographers did at that time (special numbers for non-musical films). A
couple of movies had killed the musical, such as A Chorus Line.
Then eight years ago, I was getting a bug to do something more experimental. So I directed
a short film that was all dancing, with no dialogue in it, that ended up going
to Sundance. Right before I started shooting it, my sister, Jennifer Gibgot,
also a producer on this movie, now my producing partner, Jennie said would you
be interested in reading a script for me, we're having trouble getting a
director on it. I said sure, she thought my notes were smart, she asked me to
come in and read with the studio; I will but it's the dumbest thing I ever
heard, they'd never hire me, I have no experience. She said you never know, I
said fine, and I got hired in the room 10 minutes into the meeting. And that
movie was The Wedding Planner. It took another year to get made, a year and
half, but it was a hit and I was on my way.
Here's the thing. As I was coming
up, it wasn't as if I had some burning passion to be a director; it happened and
it suited me; I approached jobs like a dancer who gets gig. If a job came up
they wanted me for, I said, sure I'll take it. I was really only slightly less
picky than that. They'd come at me with something, each had its own reason, its
own timing, or something. But none was I burning to make. The closest one to
that was Bringing Down the House, because I had the opportunity to work with
Steve Martin; that was such a big deal to me. Nobody wanted to make that movie
other than Queen Latifah and Steve Martin, who really wanted to work together.
And that's why the movie got made. And it was Steve's biggest movie ever, and it
had a $33 million opening weekend. It was like a crazy hit that totally came out
of nowhere. No one more surprised than me.
This is the only movie I ever worked on that this was not, 'I want to do this movie,' this was 'I need to do this
movie.' That is like a one-way ticket inside my brain. Up on the screen is
full-blown 100 percent Adam Shankman splattered on that screen for everyone to
Helping Travolta make Edna his own:
Adam Shankman interview excerpts
Sun movie critic Michael Sragow talks to the director of Hairspray
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