Extreme closeup: Adam Shankman 

Talking with the director of 'Hairspray' and 'Rock of Ages'

You might not know Adam Shankman's name, but if you've been to the movies over the last 15 years, he's reached out and touched you.

As a director, Shankman has given us The Wedding Planner, A Walk to Remember, Bringing Down the House, The Pacifier, Hairspray and Rock of Ages, among others.

He'll be at the Savannah Film Festival Oct. 28, to conduct a Q&A following a screening of Hairspray.

His credits as a producer are impressive, too - there was the Tybee-filmed The Last Song, 17 Again, both Step Up films, Bedtime Stories, Premonition and nearly all the films he directed.

Shankman began his career as a choreographer - literally stepping in at last minute on a Paula Abdul video - and has choreographed dozens of movies, from Boogie Nights to Mission to Mars to Catch Me If You Can.

And he's a judge on TV's So You Think You Can Dance.

Actors always want to direct. Do choreographers always want to direct?

Adam Shankman: Here's the weird thing: Choreography is directing. You're literally telling people what to do, where to go, when to do it. It's just sort of a subset. And in many cases, like a ballet or whatever, you're also doing the costume design, and the set design with the key designers, so it really is a perfect schooling. A perfect training.

It actually kind of made everything easier. It wasn't anything I ached of yearned to do, ever, it was a natural transition. Because an opportunity arose, and I blithely went into it thinking, maybe naively confident, that it was something I could do and it ended up working out.

It made me think of someone like David Geffen, starting in the William Morris mailroom: I'll keep working my way up until somebody tells me I'm no good.

Adam Shankman: For me, it's always been like "Oh, when will I be unmasked?" Because I'm that guy. But my story was much more in a clichÉ way. It was more like Peggy Sawyer from 42nd Street, where the doors blew open and they said "Where's the understudy?" And I just happened to be standing there. That's how I got into choreography.

And then the way I got into direction was really that. I just sort of believed that I could do it, and I did. I put down all the money I had saved to make a short film, and asked every resource and favor in the world, so it wasn't like I was walking down the street instead of a piano God dropped a movie on my head.

The L.A. dance community is very tight. Every dance community is pretty tight. When I made my short, I literally turned to my two best friends who were working with me in the choreography world ... I had this Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland thing, "What do you guys think about us just putting on a show right now?" And they said "We're in." But of course, on my dime.

Obviously, though, you were talented and ambitious ...

Adam Shankman: I was just confident, but without having any kind of brio. I had no entitlement issue, or thoughts that the business owed me anything. The great news was that I'd spent many, many, many years as a crew member, and I'd seen directors' careers go up and down. I really lived through the grueling hard part of production.

Weirdly, it was always really positive, what I did. Because when singers and dancers and music comes into everything, the set really lightens up. Not to mention that the crew was always happy when cute dancing girls came in. So I was always like the fun part. I worked with so many people and they just all gave me really big boosts of confidence, and were always very supportive. So by the time I got to doing it, it all felt kind of organic. I was just sitting in a different chair on the set, and I wasn't really considering the pressures that were on me in the same way.

Let's talk about Hairspray, which they're screening here. From the moment the musical became such a big hit, it was obvious it would be turned into a film. Was that always on your radar?

Adam Shankman: I've been friends with Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman for almost 25 years now. I was actually around while they were writing it for the stage. So I was highly aware of it, and I was seething with jealousy because, even though I'd started directing films I wanted to choreograph the play. But I lived in L.A., and they were doing it with all these Broadway people. So I just sort of sat around as a fan while it was going on. But I felt incredibly connected to it.
It was the first time I'd ever fought for a piece of material to direct. I had to fight for a year

You have a long history with musical theater. I'm sure that helped.

Adam Shankman: Absolutely! I can speak to it with great ease. I lived in L.A., but I just went back to New York and saw eight plays in eight days. Half of it was musicals. It was incredible how much more at home I felt, and how easy it was to talk the talk with all of my friends who are true Broadway community people. Even going back to see Betty Buckley's cabaret act, I knew every word to every song. It's the chorus boy part of me.

I was an extra on The Last Song when it was shot here. I think they discovered I was a journalist, and they threw me off the set!

Adam Shankman: Oh no, that's horrible! I'm so sorry to hear that. You know, especially at that time, Miley was such a lightning rod for press, and so we were trying to keep it on the DL. Disney certainly wanted that.

OK, Rock of Ages. Coming out of musical theater, was it a stretch for you to get behind that kind of music?

Adam Shankman: I have to be honest, it actually was. It was kind of hard for me to imagine doing a jukebox musical at first. And then I got swept up in the joy of doing it. But the truth of the matter was, while we were making it, I had five weeks of preparation. On Hairspray, I had over three months of preparation. The exact same budget, and Rock of Ages was in fact a bigger movie.

So it was really hard to make, but everybody maintained this really upbeat, positive, we are having the time of our lives kind of attitude about it. I worked with such a talented, joyful cast who were all happy to be there in that sweltering heat. We knew that we were making something kind of really outrageous and really out there.

OK, You've directed John Travolta and Tom Cruise both. Let me be the gossip columnist here: Anything to say for the folks at home?

Adam Shankman: I have to be honest with you, I never heard the word "Scientology" ever come out of either of their mouths. They were just hardworking, incredibly positive, fun guys to work with.

I honestly wish I had more to say, because it would be fun to have stories. But my stories are really just about hard work.

Hairspray screens at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 28 at the Lucas Theatre, followed by a Q&A with Adam Shankman.






About The Author

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung was Connect's Arts & Entertainment Editor from May 2009 to August 2014.

More by Bill DeYoung


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