Theater of the Obvious: Adam Shankman on Rock of Ages

The director of the Tom Cruise rock musical explains what didn't make the cut on the soundtrack, and his unexpected connection to O.J. Simpson.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


When it comes to music, Adam Shankman knows his stuff. Before he was a director, he was a choreographer for films. Now he’s a judge on “So You Think You Can Dance,” the producer of the Step Up movies and directing movie musicals like Hairspray. His latest is the hair metal musical Rock of Ages, staring Tom Cruise as fictional rock god Stacee Jaxx. We got to jam with Shankman by phone about rock n’ roll, the movie business and stepping up.


CraveOnline: Will we hear the full version of “Sister Christian” on the soundtrack?

Adam Shankman: Not that particular song. There are more full versions of the tracks. That particular one was early on, we sort of designed it exactly like that. There was a longer version of the mashup between “Nothing But A Good Time” and “Just Like Living In Paradise.” I actually don’t know what songs are being released on the soundtrack, but I believe that they may have the longer versions of that.


Some songs are new to the movie, but were any songs not licensed to the movie?

Everything from the show was fair game but then also we got Def Leppard, Joan Jett and Guns n Roses to all open up their catalogs to us. So I just had more to play with.


Did those replace any songs from the stage version?

Yeah, weirdly “Pour Some Sugar of Me” replaced in the song spot “Come On Feel the Noise” but I still have “Come On Feel the Noise” in the end as the last song.


How do you edit rock classics for the movie, because you can’t use the full original master track?

Oh God, they can’t be because as original masters they’re songs. They’re fully fleshed out stories all on their own and I had to actually make them the thoughts and dialogues and monologues for characters. So only certain lyrics work for those songs.


Is the one original song the ZGuyeezz boy band number?

Yeah, completely.


Did any of the ZGuyeezz moves come from your work in the ‘90s?

They didn’t come from my work but they came from everybody else’s. Weirdly in that era I would hardly have been a go to guy for hip hop or anything like that. So that was really taken from everything from Bobby Brown to New Kids on the Block. They’re an amalgamation of everything.


Do you have some choreography go-tos that you know in certain situations this works?

Yeah, I like going for theater of the obvious. Basically when you’re looking for a laugh, I think a lot of times just going straight for literal can be really funny, but definitely in jokes, when I’m telling jokes. Otherwise my go to inspiration is still the classic MGM musical.


Well, they didn’t have any pole dancers propping themselves up parallel to the floor.

No, they didn’t, but I did and I got to because I wanted the whole thing to evoke a mood. I wanted her to be sort of falling into this odyssey. It’s just heightened reality. That’s what musicals are. They’re like reality plus. I think if I was going to be the Cirque du Soleil of strip clubs, I’d sort of do it.


Does Rock of Ages have more changes to the original play than Hairspray did?

Yeah, a little bit.


How did that come about?

Hairspray had already had two incarnations and had kind of worked through whatever issues that they had. Rock of Ages had one so it had a little more room for it. In Hairspray I was dealing with not just the John Waters movie but then the Broadway show changed the John Waters movie considerably. Then I came in there and tightened some stuff up for my version. It was all based on what John Waters said to me which is essentially you can’t copy somebody else’s work and think that it’s ever going to be successful. You have to speak from your own voice. So he said, “Don’t do what I did, don’t do what the play did. You have to do what you do.” I really take that to heart. I just tried to give some things a little bit of more historical context. I wanted to take out the notion of a narrator because I think to me in a movie that would be distracting. It’s just stuff like that.


I was concerned that people laughed at the gay kiss for the wrong reason, like maybe they were laughing at guys kissing and not really being sensitive to it. Is there any concern over that story?

You’ve got to be kidding. No one has ever thought of that. Concern is a funny word. Every person I’ve talked to said that it was the only natural possible thing and they were cheering for it. They were happy about it, is what everybody’s said to me. Where else are you going to go at the end of that song?


Is it a concern or is it important enough to have a gay subplot in the movie?

It’s not important to have a gay subplot but it’s important that every plot be sewed up by an understanding that where you land is what’s really important is finding love. Everything else can be worked through.


Are you still on “So You Think You Can Dance?”

Yeah, I’m on starting this week. I’m doing five episodes. It’s going fantastic. There’s some great talent on the show. As usual, everybody’s just better than ever. You scratch your head and go, “How does this happen every year?” You just fall in love with these kids.


You recruit talent from that show, right?

Yeah, I use “So You Think You Can Dance” dancers in anything I do that’s dance related. They’re in all the Step Up movies. There were a ton of them in Rock of Ages. I try to put them in anything I do.


You said they’re already asking you for Step Up 5. When would Step Up 5 start up?

Oh, God only knows. I mean, we have to get through Step Up 4 opening end of July. The reason that they brought it up is because they like the movie so much so they were just like, “Well, let’s do another one.” And I was like, “Ooh gosh, here we go.”


It seems like a franchise that never has to end.

You know what, it doesn’t. I call it the dance version of Saw. They just keep making them and making them and making them.


What is The CW Project?

Oh, that was sold. It’s so just in the seedling stage right now. It’s another jukebox musical but using a country western background, a country western music catalog. It’s more of a love story. It’s less of a comedy.


How close did Hairspray 2 actually get before they decided they weren’t going to make it?

It just had a completely fleshed out outline and what happened when everything sort of went sideways is that that was right when Warner Brothers bought New Line. So everything just kind of got wonky all over the place.


Wouldn’t Warner Brothers still want a Hairspray 2?

Listen, I don’t pretend to understand why anything happens in this town. I sort of just go with the flow. Having made Hairspray, that was a really satisfying experience and I loved the outline for Hairspray 2, but if there were people who were not going to support it, I didn’t want to get into a situation like that where I was battling over something that I had made that I loved so much.


Is it kind of crazy to you that you’ve directed eight movies now?

Yeah, it’s a little weird. It also became like I produced the Oscars and directed a bunch of TV and have been on TV now and charity things. I’m looking around going how did this happen in my life? I was a terrible kid. I never thought anything like this would happen.


You seem to have your pulse on the audience, even more than some critics do. Do you feel there’s a change coming with movies like John Carter and Battleship not doing well, that things are shifting in what audiences want?

You know what, I have to tell you, from where I sit it is a crapshoot because you never [know]. I don’t think anybody thought Avengers was going to do what Avengers did or is continuing to do. I don't think anybody saw the Battleship thing but I think Universal would even say, “Well, it’s not a problem because we did so well overseas.” It’s just a shifting thing. This is my thing going forward in my career and my life: I believe that movies are opening movies at this point. If somebody sees something different, it’s either a total turn-on or a total turn off. It just depends on where the zeitgeist is right now. I believe more than ever that people just want great entertainment, but I think that there might be in a weird way explosion fatigue when Battleship came out from Avengers.  I think they took up all the explosions for the moment. I don't know what happened with John Carter but all I can tell you is making movies is really hard and nobody goes in to make them sh*tty. I just can’t speak to it. In terms of audience, I think of myself as kind of Joe Audience. I never think that I’m more interesting or better than any of the work or the audience so I still try to always make my movies from if I was an audience member, what would make me happy.


That’s what I mean, the idea of a prepackaged movie isn’t what people want to see anymore. Avengers is something they did want to see.

Yeah, they wanted to see all those guys out there together doing their thing, but you know what it is also? I think audiences like seeing big splashy actors like Robert Downey Jr. just in his sweet spot, just being brilliant. And I thought that Joss did a tremendous job.


You hope it means script and story is becoming important again.

That’s the problem. With these giant movie, you’re sitting there crossing your fingers you’re telling some sort of truth. Listen, I can tell you as a director, when I see lies on a page, when I say lies I’m talking about emotional lies and character lies, then I start to get uncomfortable. When I go, “Yeah, that character would have never really said that” or “God, I’ve heard that too many times” it just gets a little rough on me.


Do you have any great stories from the films you worked on as a choreographer?

It’s weird that you said that. I’ll just tell you about a day that I had that was really weird. I was doing Don Juan De Marco, Casper and a weird little independent movie called like Rockula all at the same time. I was running from set to set to set. I was on my way from the set of Casper out to the set of Don Juan De Marco to do some work and I was on the 101 freeway and all of a sudden all these police cars started passing me and I didn’t know what was going on. I found myself in the middle of the O.J. Simpson chase on the highway. So weirdly I remember less about what happened on set than I do about what was happening in my life while I was doing all those movies.


In Heart and Souls you must’ve done the dance down the street?

Yes, that was my second movie.


I loved that movie.

Thank you.