Adam Shankman is no stranger to a period piece. Just look at his film résumé, which has sent the filmmaker to 1960s Baltimore, 1980s Los Angeles, and whatever magical ether the Step Up movies exist in.
But Shankman, 51, is exploring his latest new cinematic universe — glamour-drenched 1930s Hollywood — in his debut YA novel, Girl About Town, which explores a glitzy, jewel-encrusted little treasure of a world which Shankman was only too eager to explore.
The book (to which Shankman is already planning a sequel with his co-writer, Laura L. Sullivan) follows two New York transplants who discover their destiny when they find Fairfax: Lulu Kelly, a poor laundress who suddenly becomes Hollywood’s new It Girl after a bizarre stroke of dangerous luck, and Freddie van der Waals, a tycoon heir desperate to abdicate his premeditated throne. When Lulu and Freddie meet each other in Los Angeles, the pair gets tangled up in a crime they didn’t commit — in front of a town aching for the scandal if they did.
Being an author is new territory for Shankman, but creating art that speaks to the dreams and journeys of young people is certainly not. EW sat down with the producer-director to learn how his rise in today’s Hollywood made way for his journey into yesterday’s.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your lightbulb moment here?
ADAM SHANKMAN: I’m a very nostalgic person. I’m a sensitive person, I’m a sentimental person. I grew up watching old movies. I endlessly know the dialogue. I remember when AMC used to be old movies. I live on TCM — it’s where I go when I need to get centered and cut out the noise of our incredibly challenging modern world.
How did you get involved in writing a book at this point in your career?
I had been approached by a book agent, I guess based on a combination of my tweets and things that I said on So You Think You Can Dance while I was doing my years on there, and they said, ‘Would you ever be interested in writing a book?’ And I had always been interested in writing a children’s book. Now, I was working on three different movies at the time and they said, ‘Would you feel okay about being partnered?’ I didn’t want to be ghostwritten, but I don’t mind being partnered. So through a selection process I ended up talking to Laura, and we got along great. One thing led to another and that particular project [which I was approached for] ended up falling apart, but Laura and I got to know each other — she knew I loved the notion of mysteries and adventures, and that I loved old movies. I knew she lived mostly in the romance space. So we ended up talking a lot about how there’s never been a young Nick and Nora Charles, and trying to figure out what that young YA version of The Thin Man might look like.
That’s a strong jump-off point.
We were trying to think of fun mystery with romance, and in old mysteries, in old Hollywood romance, the greatest romance of all was Nick and Nora Charles. It was a real joy, and I particularly loved the process of developing the characters and getting in there with the period and its values. Forget the themes that are evergreen — being able to reinvent yourself and running away from your past and creating a new future — I was just having a ball writing it as if I was writing an old 1930s movie and not getting hung up on it feeling overly important. Because what I remember loving about the Hardy Boys books and then graduating into the Agatha Christie books was that there was all this intrigue and unraveling of knots, but it was mostly about the fun journey that I was taken on as a young reader.
How did you rewire the old school setting for the YA space?
I wanted the book to be for young readers what the Hardy Boys were for me. I dragged the period into today and really tried to write characters that young women would feel good about reading. [My friend’s 10-year-old daughter] was the first person to read the book. I wanted to get her take on it. And she read it apparently, on her phone, in one day. She wrote me this sweet letter: “It’s my favorite book, I want to know what’s going on, I’m very intrigued, I find [Lulu’s nemesis] Ruby to be feisty and sort of likable, I understand her moxie!” I was like, you’re 10! But I appreciated that letter. The fact that the language and the world were appealing to her was very meaningful to me. If I can get one young person to go back and read Anne Edwards’ Vivien Leigh biography, it’ll have been a success.
The distinction of YA versus adult fiction isn’t as cut-and-dry these days. What kept this in the YA space instead of veering adult?
Some of that was Laura. She kept me there. The first draft of the book was more violent, but it was also more emotionally violent, and I think that’s more what I would have done had I not been thinking in the teenage space. I would have been thinking about sexual situations, because what was true of that time was that a lot of very young stars were sexual. Everybody was sleeping around, living these very chaotic, no-rules lives.
So, since you’re a fan of old movies—
And biographies of that time. I got into that super young. I didn’t just sit back and enjoy That’s Entertainment Part 1 2 and 3, but I really watched them and thought I was watching in-depth documentaries.
So did you have to do heavy research on the time period, or did a lot of this flow out?
Oh, it just flowed out. I happened to know about Judy Garland and Joan Crawford and Elizabeth Taylor — I knew about what they did, the world that they had to live in. But what I did research, which isn’t that much in the book, is how much the mob actually did get involved in Hollywood. And I did a bunch of research on Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, who are now sort of my obsessions. Louella and her husband are much more integral to the second book.
Where will that take place?
The second one is all set in Hearst Castle and all the young starlets of the day are competing to get a role written for them by Anita Loos. Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, they’re all there.
What struck me most was how cinematically the book seemed to be written.
And I’ll tell you what, it’s even less so than the first draft. In the first draft, I think I wrote every single article of clothing Lulu wore. I described each place so completely. It was like my writing a fairy tale. When I work with the crafts people on movies that are period, I get specific, so I’m used to discussing those elements in detail.
How did your filmmaking background come into play? Was it challenging to wrap your head around the idea that you’re not directing or producing this? I mean, not yet, at least.
I am a very pragmatic producer and director, and I see the world that I live in and I laughed as I was writing this. I thought it was ironic that I was writing something that, in today’s market, wouldn’t get made — because it’s period, which is already tricky on a network, although less so on premium cable, and the stars are so young. So who are we talking about? Selena Gomez? Who is playing these parts? I was laughing as I was writing, like, well, this isn’t something that would get made, so I didn’t even let myself think about that.
It sounds like a CW show, but built for HBO.
Yeah. I can see it, but I don’t know who would be in it.
What surprised you about the story you ended up with?
What surprises me, because I’m actually a pretty dark guy, was how light a touch I had in terms of story. I was surprised at how purely it ended up speaking to a young audience. That’s crazy. On the other hand, I made a lot of movies for young audiences. I come from children’s theater. It feels very natural for me to do it. We live in such a scary time. There’s a global cynicism I’ll do anything to help distract from.
What surprised you most about the process of authorship?
The fact that it’s finished is endlessly surprising to me. What surprised me about the process, if I actually get real about it, is how much I could turn inward and feel pride for myself in having done it and how I walked in genuinely believing that it wasn’t possible. It opened me up to learning so much, and just sort of closing my eyes and jumping.