Does anyone make gayer movies than Adam Shankman? In his blockbuster musical Hairspraythe 47-year-old filmmaker put John Travolta in drag and had him whirl around the dance floor with Christopher Walken. Since then he’s directed the cheeky Prop 8: the Musical, as well as numerous episodes of Glee, including the stellar tribute to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Even in his ostensibly more hetero-friendly films such as The Wedding Planner are saturatedwith a distinctly gay sensibility. It’s no wonder Shankman received Outfest’s Visionary Award last September for “his contribution to LGBT arts and media visibility.” With his latest, the colorful film adaptation of Rock of Ages (now in theaters), the Broadway hit comprised of ‘80s rock anthems, Shankman directs Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta as young lovers against a vibrant backdrop of L.A.’s Sunset Strip. However, it’s Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand as club owners slowly realizing their bromance is true love and Tom Cruise as chaps-clad spaced out musician Stacee Jaxx who resonate most. Shankman tells The Advocate about guiding Tom Cruise through his first film musical, the LGBT presence in the ‘80s rock scene, and why The Trevor Project is so important to him.
The Advocate: What is it about Rock of Ages that made you want to make the film?
Adam Shankman: They’d asked me to do it, because we’d had a great time with Hairspray. When I saw the play it was almost difficult to watch it because the audience was so crazy. They were screaming and knew every word of every song. And a lot of them were straight. I always think about gay inclusion, but this had straight inclusion. This show brought straights into the Broadway theater and the gays were also there with open arms, so to speak, and it was amazing. I thought if I could make a musical that will include this demographic and make them feel comfortable…
Would you say this musical has a different built-in audience from other musicals?
I think in general there’s a different audience for musicals period. A lot of the men I spoke to who are big Hairsprayfans saw it with their families. Not only did they like the movie, they loved the fact that it got kids to talk about discrimination at a very young age. Besides it’s the music of my early 20s and it’s still everywhere. “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and “Don’t Stop Believin’” are everywhere. I hear them constantly.
What changes were made in adapting the material for the screen?
There were three changes. I eliminated using Lonny [Brand’s character] as the narrator because I wanted the perspective of the movie to be Sherry [Hough]’s point of view and letting her see the city be so gold and glittery and beautiful and then experiencing the consequences so she can rise up again. Number two was making the villains more emotionally and physically attached to Los Angeles and have emotional stakes in shutting down the Bourbon. Third, I made it so that Sherry doesn’t sleep with Stacee Jaxx because I felt very strongly the audience could never root for her to be with Drew if she had done that. It’s really easy in the play because Lonnie narrates you right through it.
The relationship between the characters played by Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand seems less ambiguous in your film.
It’s more fleshed out in the film but just through one piece of action. It’s almost exactly the same as it is in the play. The creators of the show perceived it differently, but I can only tell the story that I can tell. It feels like it does in the play. They described the song to me as the ultimate bromance, but I asked “Isn’t the ultimate bromance actually being together?” I don’t know about guys who’d sing “I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore” about being just good friends. The funniness of this idea is what got Alec and Russell in the movie. They’re both unbelievable to work with. I knew that with them the comedy would get ratcheted up so much. It’s what they bring. Casting has a massive impact on the tone of the movie and how it will look and feel. I knew with these two the bar was set very high.