‘Rock of Ages' Director Adam Shankman: Tom Cruise Gave '10 Million Percent'

The helmer talks power pop and recreating the mid-'80s Sunset Strip.

Following an accomplished career as a dancer and choreographer, Adam Shankman has made a name for himself as a director who can deliver both buoyant musicals (“Hairspray" and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s” “Once More With Feeling” among them) and light-as-air comedies (“Bringing Down the House,” “Bedtime Stories,” “Modern Family”).

Now Shankman’s taken on the task of translating “Rock of Ages” – the popular Broadway musical built around ‘80s rock anthems and ballads – to the big screen with an all-star cast headlined by Tom Cruise.

Tom Cruise is known for going all out in the way he often does his own dangerous stunts. Did that translate to your experience working with him?

Ten million percent. I mean, it even got into, like, 'Let's tackle another song.' I was like, 'There's no other song to tackle, Tom. This is what it is.' We laugh, because he's the guy who invented the 30-hour day, we used to say. He never ever wanted to stop working and improving and getting better. He does the same thing with the comedy stuff. I wasn't necessarily going to ask him to do the ass-less chaps in that reveal of him I created a long time ago, but then we were trying on things and he goes, 'Let's wear this.' I said, 'Are you serious?' He said, 'Yeah, man.' What I love about it is because I'm very, very committed to the notion that these jokes and these characters, you can't do them halfway.'

Do you think Cruise could fill an arena, perform and pull off a rock concert in real life?

I say this with no irony: I think that Tom Cruise could literally do anything he set his mind to doing after seeing what he did here and coming right off of what he did on 'Mission 4.' He could turn himself into a throw pillow if he wanted to. That is his real voice, and he worked on that for a long time, really hard. He willed himself into that character and owned it.

Was Catherine Zeta-Jones eager to jump back into the world of singing and dancing a decade after 'Chicago'?

'Hairspray' brought me a lot of cred in this world, so talking people into it wasn't, like, a big stretch. They weren't like 'Who are you, doing this thing?' That was easy, and Catherine and I have worked together on these musical benefits that we've done for her big charity, which is the Motion Picture Television Fund. When I asked her to do this she said yes without having read the script. I kind of sketched out the character and what I wanted her to do: 'Darling, I'd love to come and play,' is what she said to me. 

Can you talk about how you recreated the Sunset Strip – the particular stretch with The Whisky-A-Go-Go, The Roxy, The Rainbow Bar & Grill – and giving it that very authentic ‘80's look?

What we did – since I knew I would've literally been shot and murdered if I had tried to close the Sunset Strip, on top of not being able to afford it, to actually shoot on it for six weeks – I went to a place where the light was the most similar. I had the same palm trees, etcetera, which was in Miami. We got a great tax credit. The city welcomed us with open arms. There's also a lot of similar architecture to be had, and we found two basically deserted blocks. My edict to Jon Hutman, my production designer, and also to Rita Ryack, the costume designer, to the hair and makeup people, was: 'The period makes fun of itself. We don't have to do anything, but try to just make it as real as possible, because the funny is going to come from it being as real as possible.'

What were you doing during the period of time the movie is set in? Did you ever hit The Whiskey or any of those clubs at that time period?

Well, earlier than '87. In '87 I was actually in New York trying to be a chorus boy, but certainly in the early ‘80's. I graduated high school in '82. I went to my first concert at The Roxy when I was, like, 13 years old. Believe me, I couldn't know this better. My father's office was a 9200 Sunset. He was a music business manager. This is like ripping a page out of my life.

Why do you think the rise and fall of the rock star nearly always fits that 'Behind the Music' template?

I think it's because of the level of excess and the amount of money and the lifestyle. There's just no one saying ‘No’ around them. When you're a rock star – and I can tell you this very strangely because I danced behind Janet Jackson once during an awards show – the experience is different from anything you've ever felt: the audience hysteria and the love that you feel – It's literally a drug. So when you step off of stage your life is just like a circus. It's a debacle if no one is saying no to you and you have no roots. Certainly in this era there was virtually no consequences to anything. No one was yelling at people for throwing TVs out of hotel windows. There was nothing but casual sex with no threat of AIDS for these guys. There was endless amounts of money, endless amounts of women, endless amounts of drugs, endless amounts of alcohol. You never heard the word rehab back in the '80's.

Tell me about working with the real life ‘80s rock stars who appear in the protest scene in the street?

Sebastian Bach and all that? That was just fun. That was really brilliant, and one of the things that they expressed to me, and Brett Michaels was on set with me as well – not that day, but he came and I showed him some stuff – and he hugged me. He said, 'Thank you,' and I said, 'Why are you saying thank you?' And he said, 'For not making fun of us,' which I thought was incredibly sweet. I think that these guys just really realized that we were doing something that was more like a love letter.

What '80's song did you get a better appreciation for in working on the film?

'Here I Go Again' by White Snake. My only point of reference for that for so long was just Tawny Kitaen writhing around on a car. And now when I listen to it, that song sticks with me like peanut butter! I can't get it out of my head!

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