As the director of the hair-band rock musical Rock of Ages, Adam Shankman has several story lines to juggle: There’s the one where sweet rock naifs Sherrie (Julianne Hough) and Drew (Diego Boneta) fall in love, but you’ve also got Axl-channeling Tom Cruise as shirtless rock icon Stacee Jaxx, Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand smooching on the sidelines, and you’ve got to find time for Catherine Zeta-Jones, Paul Giamatti, and a baboon as well. Luckily, as a former choreographer, Shankman’s used to making all those wildly disparate elements come together. Vulture rang him up recently to talk about the movie’s high degree of difficulty and the movie star who was hired without having sung a note.
At what point in the process did you actually get to hear Tom Cruise sing? Did he sing something for you before you hired him or did you sort of take it on faith?
We talked about it in theory and in faith, but didn’t seal the deal until we went to vocal coaching and he was so unbelievable even in his first session. We realized we could move forward and it was going to work, and he felt good about it and he was going to get there. Then he spent months and months literally singing four or five hours a day, to the point where I was telling him, “You have to rest.” He sort of refused. I was concerned he was going to blow out his voice, but he’s like a terrier: He bites into it and there’s no shaking him off.
But when you initially cast him, did you have that moment when you said to him, “I know I need to ask this, but … you can sing, right?”
I never had that moment. I, in my heart, believed that we could get there, and maybe I was foolish in just hoping in the way that I did. But here’s what I knew: We were never going to set him up for failure. He just wanted to know what I saw, what to do, and he wanted to know how to fit into it and how he could best serve the film. Here’s the thing: When I saw him do Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder, which I always tease him was his audition for the movie, I realized he had no problem taking the piss out of himself and committing as hard to a comic character as a dramatic character or an action character. He doesn’t do a hundred percent, he does a million percent, so if there was any shred of possibility there, he was going to nail it. Then I saw him dance on the MTV Awards with Jennifer Lopez and I was like, “Oh, okay, the dude can take choreography. That’s interesting.” That’s when it all kind of came together.
Is there a correlation in the ability to pick up on choreography and taking direction well from a director?
There is. It’s the same thing. People have asked me a million times if I had a hard time transitioning from a choreographer to a director, and I say “Sadly, no.” It’s basically the same thing: You’re literally telling people where to go and what to do, and oftentimes, why and how to do it. The biggest thing was knowing how to handle the camera, and by the time I started directing, I had done, like, 70 movies and a million TV shows, so I had a sense of how it all worked.
Which of these songs was the hardest to clear the rights to?
Ultimately, “Paradise City,” but once Axl [Rose] saw the movie without it and he said, “Go with God, this is fantastic.” I got the blessing from all of them.
Did you have to engage in any special wooing with any of these bands?
Def Leppard, we definitely had to do a little bit of extra wooing for. They refused the rights for “Pour Some Sugar on Me” to the play and then they gave it to us. They needed convincing that we weren’t making fun of them.
Unlike the stage musical, Stacee and Sherrie actually don’t hook up in the movie. Can you explain that choice to me?
If Sherrie actually slept with Tom, there was no way in a million years you could root for her and [Diego Boneta’s character] to be together. You would have lost any ability to root for them, and the breakup is much more heartbreaking [because] it’s a mistake.
There is a baboon costar in this movie. Is that the hardest performer you’ve ever had to deal with, or have there been some humans that were a little more difficult?
On this movie, there were no difficult humans, and I think I can say that with great joy. [Laughs.] The hardest thing to deal with is when to yell “Cut!” on Russell Brand because he just keeps going and going and you don’t know what’s going to be gold and what’s going to work and what’s not. It’s just hilarious. Then Alec is laughing the whole time [through takes] and I’m pulling my hair out. But certainly, there was no attitude or diva behavior.
Speaking of pulling your hair out, I want to give the wigs in this movie their due. Did you have any trouble wrangling the big hair in this movie?
You know, I had to talk to the wig department, because initially they were bumping them up really, really huge, and I was like, “The audience will never be able to relate to the characters or appreciate them if they have that hair.” I’ve always said that one bad wig can take down a whole movie, so I was very clear about it. I think Diego Boneta practically half got the job because that was actually his real hair. [Laughs.]
I love the idea that there’s this sort of inverse relationship between how high the wig can be and how much the audience can relate to the character.
We used to name the wigs! Like, Russell’s was the “Nikki” for Nikki Sixx, and Mary J. had two different “Donna Summers” and a “Chaka” and a “Side Chaka.”
Were Tom’s wigs named?
Tom only had a little hairpiece in there! He grew his hair out for the movie.
I wanted to ask about one of my favorite credits of yours: How was it to choreograph the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer?
Oh my God, it was an absolute blast! I am very close to Sarah Michelle [Gellar]. I married Sarah and Freddie [Prinze Jr.]. Joss was very careful directing that episode, but we got along great and we just had a ball making that. It was a great time.
Is it exciting that you and Joss Whedon both have big summer movies out this year?
I love Joss, so I’m so happy for him with The Avengers. I can’t even tell you.