INTERVIEW: Adam Shankman Rolls With Rock of Ages

The acclaimed director discusses the star-studded film version of the hit Broadway musical.

Adam Shankman
(© FOX)
Adam Shankman
(© FOX)

It seems you can’t stop the beat for Adam Shankman. Having helmed the hit film adaptation of Hairspray, he has shepherded another Broadway musical, the megahit Rock of Ages, to the big screen, with a star-studded cast led by Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta, and supported by Oscar and Tony winner Catherine Zeta-Jones, Grammy Award winner Mary J. Blige, Emmy Award winners Alec Baldwin and Bryan Cranston, Russell Brand, Malin Akermann, and — in his musical debut — Tom Cruise. TheaterMania recently spoke to Shankman about the making of the film, which opens nationwide on June 15.

THEATERMANIA: Was the Rock of Ages song catalog your soundtrack growing up?
ADAM SHANKMAN: This music was basically in the background of my life. I was listening to Prince, George Michael and Janet Jackson in the 1980s. That was kind of more my thing. However, this movie takes place right in the zenith of MTV, when they were still only playing music videos. I was a big MTV watcher, and every other music video was one of these bands, from Van Halen and Whitesnake to Guns N’ Roses. So it was all music that I knew incredibly well. And I was going to Journey concerts and Foreigner concerts.

TM: So is the music what drew you to this project?
AS: I laugh now, because at first I was like, I don’t want to make a jukebox musical. Then I sort of checked myself and said: “Adam what are you talking about? Singin’ in the Rain was a jukebox musical. So shut up and give this thing some attention.”

TM: Do you think your sensibility as a director is more influenced by classic Hollywood than by classic Broadway?
AS: No. I’ve been in theater since I was a child. So I would like to think that the stuff that I do on stage is influenced by cinema and the stuff that I do cinematically is influenced by the stage. I’m just a storyteller, but I certainly like to tip my hat to the golden oldies and classic stuff. In Hairspray,, Nikki Blonsky on top of the garbage truck — that was Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand on the tugboat. I put that sort of stuff all over the place.

TM: You did some very interesting things in this film, like the opening sequence in which Sherrie (played by Hough) is on the bus to Los Angeles and all of a sudden, the entire bus is singing “Sister Christian.” What inspired that?
AS: In the movie version of Chicago, it was so brilliantly put in the script that those numbers were all just happening in Renée Zellweger’s head and that just inspired me. I didn’t have the opportunity to have a trick like that, but I did decide that everything in this movie has to be from one character’s perspective. In Hairspray, it was all was from Tracy’s perspective. That’s why the world looked like it did and that’s why it danced like it did. In Rock of Ages, the same was true of Sherrie.

TM: In the stage version, it’s the character of Lonny who narrates everything. Why did you change that?
AS: We had Russell Brand playing that part, and I wanted him to be one of the leads rather than just an observer on the side. And I just couldn’t wrap my head around that fourth-wall narration thing.

Alec Baldwin and Tom Cruise in Rock of Ages
(© Warner Bros.)
Alec Baldwin and Tom Cruise in Rock of Ages
(© Warner Bros.)

TM: Were you nervous about making a musical with performers not primarily known for their musical abilities?
AS: That was a calculated gamble. Personally, I kind of liked working with people who hadn’t been in musicals, because it was them playing in my sandbox and I got to set the rules. I think it surprised some of them how much work it was, except for Catherine.

TM: Can you tell us about working with Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx?
AS: I still kind of shake my head and go, did that really happen? Every once in a while I’ll send him an e-mail that says, you know this could’ve been a disaster, right? He writes back and says that disaster doesn’t even start to describe what could’ve been. We both feel very good about what we did, how we got there, and doing it as a team. He’s a man who really admires the directors that he works with. He never once watched playbacks. He did not want to see himself. He told me, “I know what you’re doing. I see where the camera is. I know what this is going to be.” It’s not like he hasn’t been around. But at an age when most people are playing senators, he’s out there in ass-less chaps!

TM: Do you think there will be more films made by director-choreographers like yourself?
AS: Yeah. There’s already people like Kenny Ortega, who directed High School Musical, and Anne Fletcher, who directed The Proposal, and me. We’ve been a part of the L.A. dance scene for a very long time. And based on what I’m hearing from all the So You Think You Can Dance? people, I know that there’s other choreographers that really want the shot at directing. As a choreographer you’re telling people what to do and where to do it and when to do it, so it’s actually a pretty easy transition. It’s just a matter of your aesthetic and how will it translate. The movie musicals that seem to work are the ones that are not totally faithful adaptations, but are more their own being.