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:
I did find out I was doing Hairspray when I was in Baltimore producing Step Up. I texted John Waters to introduce myself. I said like, "Dear Mr. Waters, my name is Adam Shankman, I'd just like you to know that I'm directing the new" I must have sounded like a horrible buffoon. Terribly embarrassing. But I got an e-mail right back from him saying "Let's have lunch tomorrow." It scared me, I was so nervous to meet him, I so desperately didn't want to fail him. I wanted him to feel honored and I wanted to honor the stage play as well. Hairspray for whatever reason just has rabid fans. I don't think I realized what big shoes I was stepping into until now, which is probably better, because this is not a film you want to make from a place of fear.
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 see.
Helping Travolta make Edna his own:
John Waters' muse was Divine. They had a shared experience that John Travolta and I never had. The play was much less arch, and had a more sunny approach to the material that was very Broadway musical. I wanted to bring us back a little more to what John was doing. But I had to take cues from the new music and the lyrics. Edna has lyrics about how she never left the house for 11 years, all this stuff that Divine never had to deal with. We're dealing with a woman who's ashamed of herself and ashamed of her body but has this very sexual relationship with her husband. She's a hurt fragile lady who then Tracy takes out there. She has lines like "the neighbors haven't seen me since I was a size 10," all that stuff. So we started with Edna from a place of hurt and fragility and then built from there. And on top of that John had his memories of his mother and his aunts and stuff and he said I want the butt bigger and the chest bigger, make the waist smaller, so it had more of an hourglass going on. That's just about an actor inhabiting a role and making it theirs, it's not about flying in the face of anything before, it's about making it theirs and fitting it into the current landscape.
The key to the casting, and the movie:
Honestly, we cued everything off of Nikki Blonsky as Tracy. The casting of her set everything. She even keyed off how the actors acted. She's just sunshine. When John and Chris Walken met her they fell in love with her. That's just the effect our Tracy has on everyone. Ricki was more arch, a little more brash.
You can't have Ricki Lake's Tracy sing "Good Morning Baltimore" in John Waters' Baltimore, because John really relishes the honest grit and we put a sunshine musical spin on it. We include him, and the notion of the drunks and the flashers and the rats and the garbage trucks -- we just see them as glorious accoutrements, accessories to this otherwise very ordinary place. Of course, as performers, everybody asked how far they can go, and I'd say "How far is there to go?"
James Marsden asked it, and I said your name is Corny Collins, how far do you think you're going to go? I just said to everybody, let's do small, medium and large, and let me figure everything out later. I am leaning toward in the middle, because anything that got too small, got too serious and weird. And anything too big, you saw giant pieces of scenery sticking out of their mouths, from all the chewing. Never about size, it's about level of commitment. For Michelle Pfeiffer when things got too big, it seemed dishonest, so I just took her most honest performances. Plus, I wanted her because of [her role as] Catwoman [in Batman Returns]. When she commits to playing a villain there's some kind of fantastic relish and deliciousness, plus both characters exist in slightly altered universe and she seems to work well in altered reality.
I told Michelle: Give me a break, the stars of Grease One and Grease Two in the same movie: brilliant. I knew she could sing and dance, because I'd seen it with my own eyes, and I knew she had been a beauty queen, literally, you can go on YouTube and see her beauty pageant. I gave her a really sick analogy: if JonBenet had grown up what would she be like? Michelle was like I totally get that. On this set the motto was go big or go home. It all comes out in the wash and the wash in this case was the rehearsal process. I really pushed them.
The dance moves of Hairspray:
You have no idea of how much Mashed Potato, Pony and Madison is in this movie; there is more of it than you could ever know. I just also throw in enough high kicks and high that you're not noticing. In the back of "You Can't Stop the Beat" they're doing the Madison. "Run and Tell That" is all steps from the period, the Slop, the Hully-gully. When they burst out of the school doors they're all doing the Mashed Potato, but with a lot of aggression, so it's not the same. They're all steps from the period, with a few kicks thrown in, very aggressive about all the steps from the period.
The white dancing should be almost as much fun as the black dancing; it's just a lot more stiff. "The Nicest Kids in Town" was one giant Up With People thing, I have the kids' heads tilt all at the same time. Almost more Mickey Mouse Club than Hullaballoo, although Hullaballo is brilliant, watch old Hullabaloos now, it's all Michael Bennett.
Here's the crazy thing: when we cast Nikki, what it was about her that I loved was that she genuinely enjoyed her body and loved shaking it around. When we got into rehearsal, it became clear she couldn't do the proper weight change for the Mashed Potato and couldn't do the Pony and that became really arduous. We were like, uh-oh. Then, we started teaching her Peyton Place After Midnight with the black kids in detention -- and it was like nothing to her. She snapped right into that; so I was like this is really interesting. She really genuinely had that going on in her. She danced more like the black kids than the white kids. I was like, Once again life imitates art.
A final plea for Baltimore:
I begged to shoot in Baltimore. But what I begged to do was have them build stages. I have to build more than half the movie on soundstages, and you don't have real soundstages. Every time the film commission said we can do this and do that, I said I don't need that, I need stages.
You get the facilities and right tax incentives and the movies will come.