Advertisement
Share

A wholehearted effort to keep ‘Hairspray’s’ sheen

Special to The Times

TALKING to director Adam Shankman about “Hairspray” is a bit like swimming in a river of raw emotions. Wiry and wired -- he’s in perpetual motion -- the 42-year-old has definitely put his heart, if not his career, on the line remaking this story first told by John Waters in the 1988 indie-cult hit, which then morphed into a Tony-winning Broadway musical. No one has failed with “Hairspray” yet.

“Here’s what I’m scared of,” says Shankman, carefully parsing the words over drinks at a Beverly Hills hotel. “This movie is so right-thinking at its core and its heart is in such a special place that if critics are mean to this movie it will hurt me.”

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jul. 12, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 10, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 72 words Type of Material: Correction
Adam Shankman: An article in Sunday Calendar about “Hairspray” director Adam Shankman said that the film’s producers, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, were Oscar-winning producers of “Chicago.” Although Meron and Zadan were executive producers on that 2002 film, only producer Martin Richards received the Oscar for best picture. Also, the article said that the 2005 film “Cheaper by the Dozen 2" was a Columbia Pictures release. It was from 20th Century Fox.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 12, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Adam Shankman: An article in Sunday Calendar about “Hairspray” director Adam Shankman said the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. hosted a reception for him and his film. New Line Cinema, the film’s distributor, hosted the gathering.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 15, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 95 words Type of Material: Correction
Adam Shankman: An article last Sunday about “Hairspray” director Adam Shankman said that the film’s producers, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, were Oscar-winning producers of “Chicago.” Although Meron and Zadan were executive producers on that 2002 film, only producer Martin Richards received the Oscar for best picture. Also, the article said that the 2005 film “Cheaper by the Dozen 2" was a Columbia Pictures release. It was from Twentieth Century Fox. Also, the article said that the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. hosted a reception for Shankman. New Line Cinema, the film’s distributor, hosted the gathering.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 15, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 100 words Type of Material: Correction
Adam Shankman: An article in the July 8 Calendar about “Hairspray” director Adam Shankman said the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. hosted a reception for him and his film. New Line Cinema, the film’s distributor, hosted the gathering. The article also said that the film’s producers, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, were Oscar-winning producers of “Chicago.” Although Meron and Zadan were executive producers on that 2002 film, only producer Martin Richards received the Oscar for best picture. Also, the article said that the 2005 film “Cheaper by the Dozen 2" was a Columbia Pictures release. It was from 20th Century Fox.

Mixed in with some good early buzz, there already have been a few slings and arrows -- a British cultural critic decrying Hollywood’s penchant for remakes singled out “Hairspray,” sight unseen, and a gay blogger offended by John Travolta’s star turn has called for gays to boycott.

At its core, the movie, which lands in theaters July 20, is a story of outsiders trying to break through -- the overweight teen Tracy, played by newcomer Nikki Blonsky, who dreams of becoming one of the cool kids who dance on Baltimore’s local version of “American Bandstand”; Tracy’s mother, a larger-than-life, housebound, self-esteem-challenged Travolta in drag; the black teens looking to integrate the show, with the implication, of course, of much more at stake. The outsider story echoes Shankman’s own: Having made his mark in Hollywood thus far by turning low-brow, low-expectation, critically panned comedies into box-office hits, he got his chance at gaining some artistic cred.

Advertisement

Here’s Shankman again: “Now that I’m finally really proud of something, if they,” as in the critics, “say this one isn’t good either, it will be kind of ... taxing.”

There’s a back story as to why Shankman is so primed for a fight.

His undisputed talent thus far has been his knack for luring so many willing moviegoers into multiplexes. The real art in his 2005 yuck-a-thon “Cheaper By the Dozen 2,” which he not only directed but also appeared in as Clam Bake Chef, was that Columbia Pictures reaped nearly $130 million worldwide. Shankman had pulled the trick earlier the same year when “The Pacifier,” starring Vin Diesel in a baby sling, made $200 million with its crude crotch, diaper and dog-bite gags.

“I’ve done so many things I’m not super-proud of,” he says. “The comedies I’ve been slapped onto were always movies under the radar. The ones everybody thought were going to be big failures that ended up doing really well.”

If prestige projects and awards have eluded him, this newest endeavor, with Travolta in pink sequins and a fat suit, might change things. It’s still early and the movie isn’t out, yet the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., the folks behind the Golden Globes, have already hosted a reception for Shankman. And before “Oprah” wrapped the season, the host devoted an hour to the “Hairspray” cast.

Inside the studio, head of production Toby Emmerich has openly bet colleagues that the $74-million project will earn $200 million domestically.

All studio bets aside, marketplace conditions will ultimately dictate “Hairspray’s” hold. Besides the difficulties of making an impression in a crowded summer, which means opening between “Harry Potter” and “The Simpsons,” there’s also a backlash from some camps against Broadway musical remakes. Then there’s the intense scrutiny generated by Travolta’s turn as a trussed and stuffed Edna Turnblad, a role that earned Harvey Fierstein a Tony during the Broadway run and was immortalized by the late drag queen Divine in Waters’ original film. Early reviewers have complained that Travolta’s Baltimore accent rings false.

Last month, Kevin Naff, editor of the Washington Blade, a gay weekly newspaper in Washington, D.C., called on the gay community to boycott “Hairspray” because Travolta is a prominent member of Scientology, which claims to cure homosexuality via reparative therapy. This is a topic that makes Shankman turn red and sputter, then order a water with no ice and a Belvedere vodka with soda and two limes.

Advertisement

“John Travolta is, like, one of the most gay-friendly people I know,” says Shankman, who is gay. “He doesn’t bring religion or Scientology into the workplace. And everybody on our set was gay. The producers are gay, the writers are gay, the composer and lyricist are gay, the director is gay, all of the choreography team is gay.”

Dragging in Travolta

BY “Hairspray” producers’ Neil Meron and Craig Zadan’s count, it took exactly one year and two months to persuade Travolta to play Edna Turnblad. The Oscar-winning producers of “Chicago” were called in to meet with New Line execs in 2004 after the studio optioned the rights to make the movie musical from composer-lyricist Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman a year earlier. When word got around that New Line planned to remake “Hairspray,” Steven Spielberg expressed interest but moved on, Shaiman says. As did “Chicago” director Rob Marshall. The Broadway musical’s original director, Jack O’Brien, and choreographer Jerry Mitchell came on board for a bit.

While sorting out star casting -- everybody quickly agreed they couldn’t imagine making the film without Travolta playing Edna -- Meron and Zadan sent a draft of “Hairspray” to every agency in town requesting meetings with any interested directors and choreographers. Shankman, who’d had an early meeting about the project, stayed away.

Advertisement

“My heart was too broken the first time around,” he says. “I couldn’t do it a second time.”

Over the next few months Meron and Zadan met 20 potential candidates in L.A., New York and London. Eventually, a chance meeting between Meron and Shankman in Toronto quickly turned to a discussion of “Hairspray.”

“I said, ‘I have 15 years of choreographic experience,’ ” says Shankman, now at his home in the Hollywood Hills. “You know I can handle this. But you can tell the powers that be that if they’re going to put me through fire again, and then not let me do this, I will literally die. I. Will. Just. Die.”

Shankman grew up in Brentwood, the son of a prominent music-industry attorney father and a psychoanalyst mother who loves movie musicals. He left the West Coast after high school to study dance at Juilliard.

Advertisement

There, the late bloomer felt “extremely inferior” amid the classically trained dancers when all he wanted to do was dance on Broadway. So Shankman dropped out. His first big break was “West Side Story,” staged in a tiny Michigan musical theater. After a few years on the regional theater circuit, Shankman returned to Los Angeles, where he worked his way up through the music-video ranks as choreographer for acts such as Paula Abdul, N’Sync and Janet Jackson. The video gigs led to choreographing about 150-odd movies, which ultimately led to Shankman directing family comedies.

And now back to “Hairspray.” Shankman finally closed the deal with a pitch to New Line centered on “keeping the anarchy of the John Waters movie, coupled with my own sense of humor, married with the outrageous joy and ebullience of the Broadway show,” he says.

Financing the dream

PRIOR to Shankman’s involvement, the film had a “Chicago"-inspired $45-million budget, but the director coaxed an additional $30 million for production costs.

Advertisement

The creative team was intent on circumventing any tendency toward shooting a filmed play. “It’s reinvention, not re-creation,” Meron says. Shankman devised intensive choreography that moved through the city -- actually Toronto, with its production incentives, doubling for Baltimore -- for the 66-day shoot.

He auditioned 3,000 dancers, cast 150 and choreographed 20 dance numbers, oftentimes relying on up to five cameras per sequence with cinematographer Bojan Bozelli’s help.

“The big difference between choreographing a musical onstage versus for the cinema is that with cameras you have multiple angles and multiple takes,” Shankman says. “Your dancers can actually run out of breath because you don’t have to sustain an entire number. So I could make my choreography much more athletic and move my dancers through much more space than what you can do in a Broadway show.”

Finding the right tone for the film was something that Shankman and the producers discussed from the start. The director’s goal was to capture genuine emotion at the expense of camp.

Advertisement

“The movie is so laden with message you can’t play the message, ever,” Shankman says. “I just want people to relate to Tracy’s journey. The craziness of the material will never go away. The whole reason you have a man playing Edna is because everything is all mixed up and crazy and you can’t judge books by their covers.”

It is the underlying theme in “Hairspray” that seems to most inspire Shankman.

“I am Tracy,” he says. “I’m this outsider who always just desperately wanted to perform and be successful.”

Shankman’s identification with Tracy Turnblad is not surprising, Zadan says.

Advertisement

“Adam came up through the ranks as a chorus boy, then tried to redefine himself as a choreographer. That’s being on the outside,” the producer says. “Then he had to do it all over again to convince people he was a film director. He’s always had to fight perceptions of who he is.” And Shankman remains uneasy. He’s at a point in his career where he really needed to make “Hairspray” good “to take that next step and get those better films, the A-List projects,” Zadan says. “And ‘Hairspray’ will put him on a different level in terms of the type of material that he’ll be getting from now on.”

Shaiman, a friend of Shankman’s and a sympathetic observer of the director’s career for almost two decades, says he actually thinks it will be difficult for Shankman to go back to the throwaway studio comedies.

“Once you get a taste of directing a movie that so speaks to your heart and soul, it’s got to change the way you approach the next project you work on,” Shaiman says.

Shankman’s not so sure: “I care deeply about helping a studio that is entrusting me with all that money ... to give them what they are looking for. I just can’t care personally and emotionally with every movie that I do. It would literally kill me.”

Advertisement


Advertisement