With Warner Bros. putting “Jersey Boys” into turnaround yesterday, it’s another reminder that getting a musical made in Hollywood isn’t easy. Generally big and expensive productions, not even a smattering of A-list stars in something like “Nine” can guarantee a success, but when they do connect with an audience, it’s the rare kind of genre that invites repeat visits to the theater and big crowds to enjoy it with. And successes certainly endure. Five years on from when Adam Shankman‘s “Hairspray” hit theaters to critical acclaim and box office success, hauling in $118 million at home on its way to over $200 million worldwide, the Savannah Film Festival screened the film last weekend with the director on hand for a Q&A. We caught up with Shankman the day before the showing to talk about his memories of making the movie and where his career has taken him since.
The 1962-set film centers on overweight teenager Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky), who fights to integrate the teen dance program “The Corny Collins Show.” The picture follows John Waters‘ 1998 comedy, which in turn was inspired by the hit Broadway musical that debuted in 2002. But regardless of the stature the project already had, it resonated on a more personal level for Shankman. “It really spoke to me. Because I think at that point in my life I thought I was a chubby high school girl who just wanted to dance. And part of it is because substitute chubby with gay, and you’re in the part,” he explained. “And I’ve had moments where I was told unless I hid who I was in some way that I was never going to get what I wanted and dreamt of. And I said if I can’t live right, I ain’t gonna live. I’m certainly not going to live by someone else’s rules who is wrong.”
And that last sentiment is something that shines through when speaking with Shankman, who is both candid and confident. But not even his perserverance and connection to the material proved to the folks behind the move that he was the man for the job. “I had wanted it very, very, badly. I campaigned for it, I met on it, and I basically got it,” he shared. “And then some of the creative team from the play decided they wanted someone fancier. Or somebody that was more closely associated with the play, which I didn’t know. And then suddenly for reasons which I did not understand, I didn’t get it, and it crushed me.”
In fact, the experience left him so hurt that when producers returned to Shankman when their first choice didn’t work out, he was upfront about not wanting to be put through the wringer again. “Almost a year later, they came back to me, while I was towards the end of making [another] movie, and they said, ‘We’re letting go of the people we hired…but we’d like to know what the landscape is, are you still interested?’ And I said, I’m not interested in doing another dog and pony show, I can’t, it hurt me too much the first time. Unless you can basically tell me I have the job, I can’t go in and audition again.” They agreed to make Shankman the last director they would meet with, and he wound up securing the gig.
And once he was locked in, Shankman had a ball. Casting was more or less a smooth ride, as he won battles to get newcomer Blonsky in the lead and Christopher Walken in a supporting role. And his initial hesitation about Zac Efron was turned around once the actor found his way into the character thanks to a bit of advice from Shankman who told him in the audition not to smile. Overall, Shankman remembers the lengthy production and shoot, which ran from July to December 2008 (including two months of rehearsals) very fondly.
“I was in this incredibly empowered, optimistic moment in my life. And that it made it possible, and really important for me to tell that story,” he reflected. “The central character feels that way, and won’t sacrifice anything for her integrity, and I’m just more cynical than I was back then. I think it’s probably some of the election blues. I think that people are pretty awful right now. I’m a bit of the architect of that because I watch and I spend all my time tracking what’s going on, so it’s hard.”
“You know it’s funny becase when I talk about it with people that I made it with — my line producer [Marc Shaiman, who also co-wrote the songs], my sister [Jennifer Gigbot, producer] — I remember it as the happiest time of my life, and I was floating through the world,” he continued. “And they’re like, ‘What are you talking about, you were crying every day.’ And I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I just remember it as this incredibly satisfying process that I spent with all of my closest friends.”
All told, it was a bit of a rollercoaster experience for Shankman, but in the intervening years, what he felt on that set has informed his own approach in choosing projects. And moreover, he has become sensitive to the grind the studio system can have on a filmmaker. “I think I know now better when something is a good fit for me and when it’s not, and when I should be listening to my instincts a little bit better,” he said. “I think that I have, over the past couple of years, potentially gotten bound up in the studio system a little more bit more than I [had been meaning to]. I was beholden to the corporate giant more than I ever felt before in my life. I have very big projects in front of me, but I think before I do that I might need to do something really small, and kind of for me. And if not indie, then almost indie. I want to just not feel that corporate pressure around me, all the time. That would be really lovely.”
Unfortuantely, that small indie project won’t be the drama “This Is Where I Leave You,” a family dramedy that got put on hold, something that he says “destroyed” him because it had “literally everything I wanted to do” within it. Seeking “really funny things with a lot of heart,” it’ll be interesting to see what direction Shankman goes next, but hopefully it will inspire in him the same enjoyment he had on the set of “Hairspray”: “Everybody just was just thrilled everyday, that’s how I remember it.”