Interviews · Movies

A Conversation with ‘What Men Want’ Director Adam Shankman

The director behind behind Hairspray (2007) and the remake of the Nancy Meyers’ comedy talks to us about his feelings on opening day, choosing your battles, Erykah Badu as living art, and loving what you do so much it hurts. 
What Men Want
By  · Published on February 13th, 2019

Adam Shankman is a productive man. He’s worked as a choreographer, a judge on a major television show, as a producer of the 82nd Oscars, and of course, the director of major studio movies. When he says he can’t imagine doing anything other than creating as a career, look no further than his credits for proof of that, which now includes a successful remake of the Mel Gibson movie we’ve all watched on TBS once or twice.

Throughout most of his filmmaking career, Shankman has made some very family-friendly movies, but with What Men Want, he got the chance to make a completely different kind of movie geared more towards adults, and he clearly enjoyed the benefits of his first R-rated comedy, which is also the sort of crowd-pleaser he wants to keep directing. “I want people to laugh right now,” he recently told us. “And I thought about the opportunity to do that in movies, and I’ve been thinking about that doing much more. I’ve been trying to do something more serious and switch things up and present myself with other challenges, and then the script came to me, and I went, you know what? This is a thing I could do for people that would be good, get people to laugh.”

We talked to Shankman about making people laugh with Taraji P. HensonTracy Morgan, and Erykah Badu and much more on the movie’s opening day, which is a big day and can sometimes make some filmmakers more reflective and candid. As for Shankman, you probably don’t have to talk to him on opening day for him to get candid.

When you read a script, you know it’s a movie worth making if you can see the trailer immediately. Have you experienced that with every movie?

Well, no. The only movie I couldn’t picture the trailer for was Rock of Ages. I couldn’t quite picture how it was all really gonna put together in the trailer and there was a lot going on. So, that was interesting. It told me something, but regardless without shitting on my own work, that was confusing and hard for me. So, that was the first time it’d happened.

I imagine a trailer came more easily to mind with What Men Want. It’s such a commercial idea.

Yeah, I mean, I feel like people want to come after me for trying to please an audience. I feel like that’s part of my job right now. Alright, if you want to hate me for trying to make people happy, good on me.

Well, it got a big reaction from my audience. Is there something makes you say that today?

Yeah, listen, I’m sensitive. I want people to like the stuff that I make. I’m always nervous. I haven’t made a movie in a while. It’s scary, too. Releasing a movie in the theaters in this environment these days is just very different than when I started. I feel more pressure. It feels a little scarier. I have less time, less money to play with. I mean, unless you’re doing Transformers, or Star Trek or something like that, you’re staring down the barrel. So, it’s hard.

I would say not to worry too much with this one.

Believe me, I am not asking for pity. In no way, shape or form asking for pity. I am a lucky, lucky man.

Those are very normal feelings, though. With a movie like this, ADR must be remarkable, just having so much time to try out different jokes. In the editing room, how much did you experiment with the men’s thoughts?

Tons. Tons. One of the things that I wanted to make sure was happening is that the things that she was hearing, not all of it needed to move plot forward. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just putting things in people’s heads solely to move plot forward because I wanted a broad range of internal thought, from the completely mundane to the completely insane, being represented.

This movie did give me that opportunity and, between you and me, and I guess whoever’s reading, there’s some stuff that I wouldn’t have necessarily put it in. It’s sort of like you pick your battles. When you have a producer, or a studio executive going like oh, dude, please just go ahead, put this in, and change this. “You know what? 99% of this thing is fine, so why am I fighting for this?” Those are battles I’m happy to lose and not take on. And some of it might not be exactly what I would’ve put in there, but it’s very close. And you’re happy. It’s a collaborative process.

99%, that’s pretty great. 

In a studio comedy, I guarantee you it was very, very generous.

How was the experience of making your first R-rated movie? Did more freedom come with the rating?

Yeah. With an R, people can behave and speak like people do in the world without fear of recourse. These are people who are course and ambitious. They’re uninhibited, and it just made sense to be able to have that. Yes, it’s taking handcuffs off, frankly. You’re not trying to work around. I think in a PG-13 movie, you still can’t have anybody smoke a joint. Drugs aren’t allowed in PG-13 movies. Sort of weird. Pot’s legal in a lot of places, and you still can’t show smoke.

But people can still get shot and killed and it’s PG-13. 

Oh, absolutely. I know. That stuff is really one that will always be hard for me to wrap my head around.

Over the last few years especially, it’s kind of crazy the MPAA hasn’t changed its stance on that.

Yeah, I don’t know. It’s weird, you know? I gotta be honest with you, I’ve never asked any of the heads of studios I’ve worked with about that, but I know that there must be discussions, especially when there’s gun violence going on in the world. That has to come up. In PG-13 movies, I don’t think you can smoke cigarettes. On the other hand, I think if you took out guns, you would wipe out half of the genres that exist. Westerns would be gone and thrillers and crime. A lot less movies. A lot less to make movies about.

So, a lot of artists have said how funny Erykah Badu is in-person, so it’s great to see her sense of humor in a comedy. How’d she get involved? 

It’s kind of amazing. I was given a list. I came onto this movie in March, so it hasn’t even been a year, is when I came on. They were like full speed ahead, gotta get your notes on the the script, gotta get the script together in time for Taraji’s hiatus. I was just launched forward like a rocket. When we were talking about Sister, you’re looking at the casting list of who would be fun and James Lopez, one of the producers, and Taraji both separately said, please look at Erykah Badu’s Instagram. I said sure.

[Laughs] It’s amazing.

Well, I looked at her Instagram account and then went into a crazy Erykah Badu wormhole because she’s just living art, and it’s also ethereal. You can’t put your finger on any of it. None of it is basic. It’s trying to hug smoke, you know what I mean? It’s like wow, what is going on here? And so, I had everybody investigate and they were like yeah, she’d be totally open to it and into it. I Skyped with her and during the Skype, I started to text everybody and said let’s hire her. Please. There’s no one else. That’s really fun when you’re thinking oh, I need this comedian or that comedian, it’s gonna be this, but then somebody from some Earth bound version of outer space enters into the picture and you’re like, this is what I need.

Spot on casting, by the way. I immediately buy Erykah Badu as a psychic.

A weed dealing psychic. Yeah, who also has a side hustle of hair dressing.

[Laughs] Very eclectic. Since she has such a grand presence, is that a part of why you wanted to give her a grand introduction in the movie?

Oh, yeah. Her character is so important. Listen, I’m still a guy who is, my sensibilities were shaped by the 1930s, 40s, and 50s and directors and you give your actress an entrance. That’s what you want. You want her fabulous. I mean, if those stairs could’ve been 40 times longer, I would’ve had her walk down the whole fucking thing. That’s just how it’s supposed to be. I would’ve just brought in more and more instruments and just made it even crazier. It was really fun and she understood what I was trying to do. She dug it.

Erykah Badu

What does Taraji P. Henson, who’s innately charismatic and watchable, give you as a director maybe some other movie stars you’ve worked with don’t? 

She was very interested in being part of the movie that I want to make. She did not bring in her own agenda about the movie, other than what we talked about with the script. Our intention in making the movie could not have been more in line. The story we wanted to tell, the way I told her that I wanted to tell it. And she was so onboard with all of it that she just gave over completely to the process

I think when she landed, she came straight from Empire, from her hiatus. I think she had a couple days off, just to try to breathe for a second, and then she came straight to Atlanta. And I think, frankly, she was just freaked out. She was overwhelmed. There was a lot she had to do very quickly, but she just trusted me. That is a magical relationship because she becomes me. I’m telling the story through her eyes and I said to her on the first few days, “Listen, I’m gonna know. I’ve been living with her actually longer than you have for right now. Even though you’ve been on the movie longer, I’ve focusing on her now for a couple months. She’s been everything and I’ve been drafting her in my head. I’ve been picking her house. I’ve been choosing her friends. I have been building a world around this woman, just to find her.”

Now that you’re here, for the first few days it’s gonna get a little weird because I’ve made all the choices, basically. But by day three, I will be just drafting behind you because you will know her way more. She is my eye and she is my reason to do this. And she was like I totally get it. Thank you. Great. No problem. She was a great partner. She was a great partner.

I also want to ask about Tracy Morgan, who never tells a predictable joke. When you’re on set with him, do you give him a lot of freedom to improvise? 

Don’t hire Tracy Morgan if you want him to be somebody other than Tracy. Not that character is Tracy. Anyone you hire, you want their essence to be inside of that character. I don’t care if you’re hiring anyone from Meryl Streep to I don’t even know who, whatever essence they possess that you experience of them, you want that quality as part of the character that they are. Otherwise, you wouldn’t hire them. Do you know what I mean? You don’t hire Taraji if you want Jessica Chastain. It’s not an interchangeable thing. They essentially bring something different.

With Tracy, it’s his unpredictability that made him the most appealing. I always made him say what was scripted and then past that, and once I’d moved in on the camera and looked into his coverage, we let it fly.

What Women Want is already very much of its time, and almost plays as a dark comedy now instead of a romantic comedy. This movie was made for 2019. When you came on or start collaborating with [screenwriter] Tina Gordon, how much did you want to make a modern or more socially aware movie?

It was all the writers. That was essential. I’m not gonna name names or point fingers at anybody, but there were some people in development who had what I would call kind of stock, old-fashioned notions about who some of the characters should be and what they should be like, which felt inauthentic to me.

And so, we just made sure that characters, because here’s the thing, the easiest thing in the world to have done for this movie is exclude all those other side stories and just have it be a movie about her and Jamal and the basketball story and then Will, as a side story. That would’ve been the cleanest, easiest thing in the world to do. That’s weird. That suggests that she has no other life, she has no friends. It really starts to push us into very serious romantic comedy territory because that becomes the only other thing that she has, besides work.

This was positioned as a comedy, not a romantic comedy, because I said guys, I’m not making a movie that is about a women who is made whole by the love of a man. That’s not the story I’m telling, and everybody agreed. So in doing that, suddenly, she had a group of friends.

The essential romance is basically between her and Brandon, but really, at the end of the day, the person that she needs to apologize to or make peace with is herself. And then the other things get to fall in place because she is being accountable. That’s what I tried to do. Listen, that’s all very intellectual and obviously the way I go about it is very poufy, but that is what I was trying to do.

You completed this movie in under a year. How intense is that schedule? What’s your life look like?

You just let go of everything else, basically. You kiss your spouse at the door to say honey, I’ll be back from Atlanta in a few months, I love you and, by the way, I’m taking the dog. And you get on a plane and you have a dinner with your friends and you say goodbye and then you come back a few months later and you try to assimilate as quickly as possible. Literally, your whole life is just doing that, which is is as it should be. Or at least, that’s how I like it. Then you’re back to your life again. During the editing process, unless things are going terribly, terribly wrong, your life tends to settle back into normal.

When you get the sense it’s going terrible in the editing room, how do you move forward?

By focusing on the solutions and not the problems. I have a real aversion to people in my position and people in this business in general who feel like we’re victims, when point of fact, we are so privileged to be doing this. That anybody is trusting us with their money to do this and letting us use the time and these resources, I can’t believe how lucky I feel.

I happen to be a person who works very well not just with chaos, but if there’s a problem that happens, my mind very naturally goes straight to solving the problem, not focusing on the problem. I’m sort of organically, I’m hot-wired to be like that. That’s just something that’s lucky that I was born with.

Since you wanted that quick screwball pace, I was wondering with your background in dance and choreography, which is so much about pace and rhythm, how did that sense of precision influence you as director, how you move the camera or pace a scene? 

It’s everything because when I’m reading a script and I’m looking at the way that a writer writes, every writer writes with their own rhythm, in terms of what the dialog is. I know this is gonna sound silly, but the words start to look like notes and drum rhythms to me and I start to feel what the pace of the movie that I’m putting on, because who knows? Another director might put a different thing on the exact same piece of material.

But I start to lead things in the way that my brain is processing in that my brain processes a script a lot like music. For example, just so you know it’s not like I’m just making this up, when Taraji had a second and I was on and we met and I’m really excited but she was running off to Chicago. There was no time for us to spend together to talk in depth about anything.

I called her and I said, “Listen, I’m sending you a piece of music and I want you to listen to it because this is who I think you are in the movie.” And she was like, “Oh, that’s weird. You’re sending me a song.” I was like” Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s not like I’m sending a song by Hall & Oates. It’s a piece of music. You’ll understand rhythmically. It’s not the lyrics, it’s the music.” And she was like oh, okay.

I sent her the original recording of “Sing, Sing, Sing,” an old big band song. I think it was the Glenn Miller recording. I said you are the drum. When the horns do this, this is what’s happening. This tells your story and I think that that sort of really appealed to her. I think she was sort of like oh my god, I get how you think. I get what you’re seeing. I understand. She understood what I wanted her to do, just by me sending her that piece of music. That really helped.

You’ve said you’re a lucky guy, but in your career, you’ve worn many different hats but not only that, been in different career fields at the highest level, and obviously that’s hard work and talent, but what do you, personally, attribute to your success and longevity? 

I’m not afraid of hard work and I was a crew member. I love collaborating and I love what I do so much it hurts sometimes. I love it and without it, it feels like I don’t know what my purpose would be on Earth anymore. And I’m not saying to create the movies that you’ve seen, but to just create.

I understand when I’m on set, my sense of identity is solid. I know what I’m doing there. I know what I’m supposed to be doing there. I know I love making my crew feel good and valuable. I love the actors to feel happy and like they’re getting to do good work. We are in all in a big space and that makes me feel good.

I think that that has drawn actors and projects to me because I think, in general, people have enjoyed that experience with me. I think I also have a lot of optimism, and I don’t take that for granted, and I have that in life and I think my optimism comes out in my work. And I think a lot of people are not optimistic, so they make other types of movies.

I think that that has been something that some people have found valuable. I think most importantly, when I started, I just said yes to opportunities and I didn’t second guess my ability to do it or not. I wasn’t going to sabotage my own career by saying no. I just said yes, and that has created its own set of challenges for me, because sometimes I shouldn’t have said yes. It’s not that I shouldn’t have. It’s like I didn’t anticipate the lessons I have learned from any given experience. I made some good movies and I made some less good movies. I feel totally accountable for that. I think it is that attitude that has really helped me stay afloat.

And my gratitude. I have incredible gratitude for this life that I get to have, and not even in a cheese bag award show speech way. When I go into a meeting, people know that’s how I feel. I don’t walk around with a lot, there’s not a lot of ego that comes along with this particular ride. What I don’t like is people’s agendas. You know, personal agendas that are set by their own egos that get in the way of the work. That I have a problem with, and I will confront that always. I don’t let that fester. I will go like no, no, no. This isn’t working. This relationship isn’t working if you keep doing this or if I keep doing this. I won’t go with somebody like that. So hopefully, it’s those qualities that have kept me working.

What Men Want is now in theaters.

Related Topics: , , , , , ,

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.