Adam Shankman Interview – HAIRSPRAY

     July 8, 2007

As I said in some of the other “Hairspray” interviews I’ve already run… I got to participate in roundtable interviews with almost everyone involved with the upcoming movie musical and I’ll be posting most of them on the site.

And up now… Adam Shankman -the director.

During the interview Adam spoke about how he got the job, the casting process, how he’s loved the material for most of his life, and a ton of other stuff.

The thing that’s great about the interview is just how honest he was. Sometimes when you participate in an interview you know that the person speaking is completely full of shit. They’re sitting across from you telling a bunch of lies like this is the best movie they’ve been in, or how this sequel is the best yet. Of course you can’t call them out on their lies as you want to get invited to the next event they’ve doing…

So I always love it when the interviewee is honest about the filmmaking process. During the interview Adam tells many behind the scenes stories – he talks about how he originally got passed for the job, how he made them cast an unknown in the lead and made it incredibly hard to find Tracy, and he talks about his anxiety of opening around “Harry Potter” and other big summer movies.

If you’re looking forward to “Hairspray” or just want to read a good interview… take a read.

As always, you can download the audio of the interview by clicking here. It’s an MP3 and easily placed on a portable player.

“Hairspray” opens on July 20th.

Question: Did they come to you and want you to direct and choreograph?

Adam Shankman: It didn’t go down like that. I wanted to do it, I begged to do it and they ended up going with the director of the play and the choreographer of the play; they hired them. I was heartbroken and wanted to kill myself. And because of scheduling, they couldn’t do it, and so then everyone in Hollywood threw their hat in and I didn’t, because I was terrified. I couldn’t go through that again because Marc (Shaiman) and Scott (Wittman) had been two of my best friends for 20 years; so to have lost it after being so close to the material and to feel so uniquely qualified to do it because I’m one of the few choreographers around and Rob didn’t want to do it – Rob, Rob Marshall didn’t want to do it. I was scared and my agent called and said, ‘You are going to consider, Adam, aren’t you?’ And I think they were a little gun shy because they knew I was upset. So Neil (Meron) approached me when I was up in Toronto shooting my opus, Cheaper by the Dozen 2 – God forgive me – and I said, ‘I don’t know if I can go through this again.’ He’s like, ‘Oh, I think you should try; they won’t hire anyone. They can’t just offer it to you; they’re really going to want to meet you.’ I was like, ‘They know what I said before…’ Anyway, I said basically ‘If you promise me – if I go in that room, I better much be guaranteed I’m going to get it.’ And they said, ‘We support you.’ So I said, ‘Fine.’ Cause I had been there before them, so I got it. But I spent over a year like a pit bull biting a shaking and I was so hurt the first time around, so anyway – hey, it worked out. So what do I got to bitch about.

How much did your vision change from the first time to the second?


It was always the same?

Yeah, I had this; this has been in my head since the second I conceived it. I wish it was more difficult than that; I wish I could give you some fabulous story, but I can’t cause I’d be so lying like Matthew McConaughey tells me to do.

Did you go to Broadway and see it? Did you know the play?

Marc and Scott have been my best friends for over 20 years, so I was around when they were writing the songs. And I went to the tryouts in Seattle, and I was at opening night there; I’ve seen the show 20 times. Actually when I got it, I stopped seeing the show because there are things in the show that could have never translated into the show – nor should they. So I immediately became my own entity. John Waters, when I first got the movie, said, ‘I’m so excited for you, you’re such a fabulous choice for this.’ And I was like, ‘Thought bubble, question mark, what?’ And he said, ‘My only advice to you is you have to do your own thing; you can’t do what I did, don’t do what they did. This story only works if it’s told from a really personal perspective, so don’t try to – in this case, imitation will not be flattery for you, so just go for it.’ So I took that really to heart and while always considering the fan base for both the show and the original movie and wanting to make sure knowing they were going to be gunning for me, that I felt very committed to doing it the way I saw it – and I did. That was cool for me cause it was the first time.

What was the search for Tracy (Nikki Blonsky) like?

I think it was more of a nail biter for everyone else; for me, once I said yes, I assumed I was going to find her. I wasn’t like, ‘Ohhh my god, are we going to find her?’ We have to find her because we can’t do the movie if we can’t find her. So I’m hired so she’s going to be out there. But I had very stringent requirement which were a) in the tradition of the other two, I needed it to be a complete unknown – which pissed off every agent in Hollywood. I needed her to be under 19, which really freaked everyone out because that closed the windows so much. I was like, ‘I’m not going to do 90210 casting; I’m not going to. And the broadway community was like, ‘Why not Marissa (Jaret Winokur)?’ ‘She’s 35 and I have to do close-ups; what are you talking about?’ Even Marissa would have felt strange doing this. ‘Why not Rikki (Lake)?’ ‘You must be kidding.’ But in the tradition of Hairspray, Edna’s always a man and Tracy’s always a newcomer, and I was not going to fix that unbroken toy. But I also needed her to be really young and be able to sing and dance, and what happened when I saw over my laptop, Nikki’s audition, I was stricken by something I couldn’t figure out exactly what was the quality, besides thinking, ‘she’s really pretty and she’s really sincere and she seems to have the right thing.’ And then I went back to it the next day – and it was in a block of 50 girls – and then I went back and I went back again and I went, ‘Oh my god, she loves her body.’ And she was out there shakin’ it and singing and I was thinking, ‘She doesn’t think of herself as heavy.’ And that was the moment when I said it’s her; ‘I found her, I found her, oh fuck me, this is awesome! This is like great!’ And then, it turned out that she came from a really working class family; she was totally unencumbered, she likes black guys – no, I’m kidding. No, the whole thing was so amazing that the resemblance and the specific realities of who Tracy was – and then once I met her, I was like, ‘I’m done,’ which I wasn’t allowed to be because I would have upset too many people. So we had to go through the screen test process, but I was right.

Was John Travolta attached when you came on?

He was in talks, they were talking to him, and they were really – he kept saying, ‘I don’t get it, why should I, why should I, why should I.’ And they were giving him every reason under the sun, and then once I came on – I also did a draft closer to what I would have done with it, because it was being written kind of in a vacuum for Jack and Jerry and then they were gone and still doing notes, but it had nothing to do. How do you write a musical number – you know what I mean – when you’re not the choreographer, how do you write that – you know what I mean – and you could tell, it was all like a lot of slugs. Nor can you do – I’m the ultimate person who makes decisions which songs were going to stay in and which songs were going to go; that was fun going, ‘Well, I’ve never liked this number so I’m tossing it,’ to Marc and Scott. And they’re going ‘Really?’ And there were a few of those. And it really didn’t go down like that, but in my head it did. But, it was great. But they were talking to John and I think it was my saying to him that it was because – by virtue of it being a musical, it lives above the normal world, I was going to do everything to keep it super real; everything was going to be as authentic as possible. And I was also approaching all the characters from an actually strangely internal and emotional way, given the themes of it and what was going on in the world; and then I was going to toss it to make sure it was still a comedy. And then I didn’t just say the word ‘great’ because I don’t necessarily thing everything I do is great, but…but it was at least a good comedy and certainly a faithful comedy.

You told Michelle Phieffer she had a piece of the set in her teeth – how did that exactly go down?

She just started laughing, of course. I said, ‘There’s big, and then there’s big. We may want to pull back a little bit.’ But I wanted everyone to feel that. With Jimmy Marsden, he said, ‘How far can I go?’ And I said, ‘How far is there?’ And I said, ‘And by the way, your name is Corny. Clue in, buddy.’ But with Michelle, she knew from our first meeting; I said, ‘I’m coming to you because of Catwoman because you not only got Selina Kyle, but Catwoman so right for me because you really made her physically and emotionally correct on both fronts. And I get how you work from that and I love you as a villain; and because you’re so beautiful, I want to punch you in the face. So this is all the requirements that I need from Velma; and I’m not going to redeem you and you are the symbol of all things wrong with the world.’ And she was like, ‘I’ll do it!’ No, it was a while – she was nervous, but once she got there, she saw what we were doing and it was fine. She went to that first read through and she and Claudia were crying and I had them.

Do you have an overall approach on the casting and the process of directing?

A little of both. A little secret, I’m the child of a shrink; I am, my mom’s a shrink, and my father’s a lawyer. So believe me, I analyze and negotiate. That is a huge amount of the director’s work, especially when you’re working with people who – such a variety. I have somebody who’s never stepped foot outside of New York, whose last job was literally crushing Oreo’s into vanilla ice cream. And I have Oscar winners. So you’re looking at a range here; so you definitely have to cater to your audience, and make each person have their own set of problems. The good news is on this one, this is in no one’s wheel house – or, for those who it is, they haven’t done it in 30 years, so they were out there doing some crazy-ass sh*t. Chris Walken is playing John Travolta’s husband; doesn’t happen everyday, those offers. Everybody was bringing their ‘A game’ while they were in an out of town game, do you know what I mean? So it was – I like that analogy, you just got that for the first one; I’m going to use it in every one. No, it was just a really cool experience because – plus, I had to, unless really needing to, I had to not care. That was their problem to figure out those things because I had a lot to do. And it was only in moments – and I’m really articulate about explaining ‘this is what I want a scene to be, this is where you are here.’ My favorite scene of John’s is right before ‘Welcome to the 60’s’ when he does not want to go outside and you see all that hurt and fear in his eyes and all of that – and that’s the person we talked about from the very beginning him being. I was like, ‘There’s the lyric.’ He hasn’t left the house in 11 years; what is she? She’s a total shut in, and a control freak at the same time because she’s doing everyone’s laundry. There’s all sorts of really cool character clues in there, but I don’t want to get too heavy about it because it’s a big, really fun musical. Happens to have some really serious themes but it’s a really big, fun musical.

Continued on the next page ——->


Can you talk about this coming out in the middle of summer?

How about it coming out after Don Imus did what he did, and Michael Richards, Elijah – Isaiah (Washington) – I have Elijah on my head. This is as relevant as anything and we are truly unusual. By the way, I’m miserable we’re coming out in the middle of summer, but I understand they need the kid dollars; I’m surrounded by Harry Potter and Simpsons and I’m opening up against Chuck and Larry.

This is relatable to today’s society.

Oh, like I said, this is ripped from the headlines, and I’m stunned this is still a problem. I grew up with – I understand we live in a stressed out world, but I can’t believe this country is the land of the free, the melting pot – it’s still afraid of anyone who’s different. And Tracy is a minority because of her weight. Anybody who’s different than Velma is a minority in this movie; it’s not just those two groups, this is everybody. I also think it’s funny that in this movie, there’s not a single gay character – how great is that. I guess the whole movie is a gay character, but it’s really interesting that it’s representative of all minorities. It’s too pertinent really for comfort, but at the same time, growing up with a mirror in our culture’s face, but doing it with a song and a dance and a laugh. So you’re thinking about the song and the dance and then the next day, you’re thinking about what’s going on. That’s what I’m hoping for.

What was the thought for not having the full cameo in the movie and having Rikki Lake at the end?

When is Mama in the movie? It’s at the very, very, very end of the movie at the very end of the credits, which I just found out yesterday. How did you know that, that’s so crazy?

It was online or read somewhere.

No, we just thought that was fun because that’s like the second coming of Christ, yeah. So the three Tracy’s is like the second coming of Christ for Hairspray fans.

It was on Entertainment Tonight the other night

Oh, it was, ok. Oh, the sound that I have to go. But yeah, I did not do any of that on purpose; it’s just how it all unfolded. No intention of that happening.

Who’s the other one; I know Rikki?

Marissa (Jaret Winokur) from Broadway.

Who is she in the movie?

She wasn’t in the movie; she sang it on the soundtrack. That song is very popular from the show and it’s repurposed inside of the movie as the ‘Stricken Chicken’ and so we thought it’d be fun to do it on the album.’

What are you doing next?

Adam Sandler movie called Bedtime Stories.

And the soundtrack of this is coming out?

July 10th

You going to do Wicked?

I don’t know? Do we really want to see a lead actor on the screen who’s green?

(lots of yes’s)

Ok, ok.

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