Back before ''Hairspray'' was a hit, veteran choreographer Adam Shankman told about feeling ''very exposed'' by his first movie-musical as a director, dealing with fan expectations, finding his Tracy, and making a woman out of John Travolta

By Steve Daly
Updated August 01, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
David James


  • Movie

In a summer pocked by lame threequels, let’s hear it for a terrific threemake: Hairspray, the movie. John Waters first told the tale as a 1988 feature, with drag diva Divine as chunky ’60s housewife Edna Turnblad. It then got musicalized for Broadway in 2002 with Harvey Fierstein croaking Edna’s shtick, and won a passel of Tony Awards. The movie version of that stage show now gives us John Travolta as Edna in a super-jowly fat suit. The $75 million movie opened with the best three-day gross ever for a musical ($27 million), and the tally could reach $100 million-plus. Did director Adam Shankman (The Pacifier, Bringing Down the House, Cheaper by the Dozen 2, The Wedding Singer, and many credits as a choreographer) see all this success coming? We talked to him on the set of the film in October 2006, before anyone knew how it would all pan out.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So there’ve been some pretty great choreographers who’ve become successful movie-musical directors. Why did you wait so long to actually direct a full-blown movie musical?
ADAM SHANKMAN: I really wanted to be very careful. I knew that when I did [direct a movie-musical], I’d feel very exposed. I’ve been able to hide inside my other movies because I was just making what were sort of comic programmers. A Walk to Remember, my sophomore movie, meant a lot to me, because it was about something. It was a story based on Nicholas Sparks’ real sister…. But everything else, they were all about being safe. I mean, The Pacifier? Everyone thought that was gonna be a disaster. I mean, a Vin Diesel family comedy was not going to make $300 million in anybody’s estimation. [Laughter] But it did! For whatever, reason, it did. It hit at the right moment.

So does stepping up to make Hairspray, which has a lot of fans who would be ticked off if the movie isn’t good, make you nervous?
It’s really, really, really scary. I’ve been able to drift through my career without fear of criticism because I know I’m gonna get only criticism. I just anticipate critical slaughter at every turn. That’s kind of the price I’ve paid. I come from a dancer mentality, which is, I go from gig to gig. That’s what I look for. I haven’t ever looked to be important, or to try to do anything particularly interesting. And some people would say I’ve been very successful at that! [Raucous laughter]

Did it feel strange remaking something that had already been remade once?
I had a talk with John Waters. I feel like I’m honoring both [earlier versions] while making my own thing. It’s a huge collaboration. I don’t want to make any comparisons to what was done in the play or the other movie, because every time you do that, a lot of fans go into an uproar. People take things out of context. This is a movie taken from a play that’s already different from the movie it’s taken from. And now our movie is different from both of those. We’re trying to do something different. But it all comes from the same love of the same story, the same period, and the same kind of music…. It’s weird that my most original piece to date is really a second re-creation of something else. In that sense, it couldn’t have been less original. But it’s become a very original thing.

So when you first got the gig, where was the casting at?
John was cast in the movie before I was on. Michelle Pfeiffer was my first choice [for Velma]. Alison Janney was my first choice [for Penny Pingleton’s fundamentalist mom, Prudy Pingleton].

And what went into picking a Tracy Turnblad?
I saw over a thousand Tracys. I insisted that [the actress cast as] Tracy be completely unencumbered. That she be new, a find.

Because I wanted people to have no concept of this face when it came into a close-up. I wanted nobody to have any baggage about the character. She needed to be sparkling and fresh, because that’s what Tracy’s about. I wanted people to be surprised by her. And we ended the search at a Cold Stone Creamery in Great Neck, Long Island.

Where 17-year-old Nikki Blonsky worked. How did you find her?
You’ve probably heard the story that somebody found her on MySpace. Somebody kept calling [casting director] David Rubin’s office and saying, This girl auditioned for the [Broadway] show, and couldn’t even get to the producer level because she was too young. She put an audition recording on MySpace, and we thought, She’s good.

But what made her the best, and worthy to take the Tracy part after Rikki Lake in the original and Marissa Jaret Winokur on Broadway?
She’s a little pumpkin pie. Everybody’s performance is off of her. None of this would work if it weren’t for her…. They didn’t want Tracy Turnblad to be chubby. They wanted her to be fat. And Nikki was that. Throughout the following months, I kept going back to her. She’s just so young, and so confident. She couldn’t wait to play a 17-year-old girl who’s overweight but just wants to perform. It was not a difficult decision.

She’s definitely the right age for the character — 17 when you began filming.
I told everybody, I want a 17-year-old playing this part. I want this girl to be the right age. If I get forced a little older, that’s fine, but I didn’t want to go into Beverly Hills 90210 casting. Or like Stockard Channing, who was 30-something as a high schooler in Grease. Of course, that worked because they were all a lot older than their characters.

Including, of course, John Travolta, who was in his early twenties when he played high-school student Danny Zuko. Getting him and Grease 2 star Michelle Pfeiffer into Hairspray together — that’s pretty great stunt casting.
The second she came up, the thought was, How funny would that be?

NEXT PAGE: ”John also wanted Edna to have a waist. That was a big deal for him. Like if Sophia Loren packed on 300 pounds.”

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