Under the direction of Adam Shankman, the feature film adaptation of the smash hit Broadway musical, “Rock of Ages,” comes to the big screen to tell the story of small town girl Sherrie (Julianne Hough) and city boy Drew (Diego Boneta) who meet on Hollywood’s famed Sunset Strip while pursuing their Hollywood dreams. Their rock ‘n’ roll romance is told through the heart-pounding greatest hits of the ‘80s as rockers wail, strings are plucked, and electric guitar sparks fly inside the packed and pulsating walls of a rock ‘n’ roll institution, The Bourbon Room.
MoviesOnline sat down with Shankman at a roundtable interview to talk about what it was like bringing the Broadway hit to life as a feature film. He told us how he assembled the terrific cast; what sparked Tom Cruise’s interest in the role of rock god Stacee Jax; why Mary J. Blige was his first choice for the role of Justice, why he decided to show the kiss between Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand, and why Julianne Hough’s sexy lap dance scene with Cruise was cut. He also discussed his upcoming movies, “Step Up Revolution,” “This Is Where I Leave You,” and the possibility of a “Step Up 5.”
Q: Let’s talk about Tom Cruise, the rock star god.
AS: I’m sorry, I’m not taking any Tom Cruise questions. Next? (laughs) Tom Cruise, the Rock God, was a fantastic adventure and voyage for the two of us. I think the guy was so stunned that anyone would ask him, have the nerve to ask him to do something that was so outside of his wheelhouse, and there is no one who likes a challenge more than Tom Cruise. Believe me, there was never any discussion of lip syncing or another voice or anything like that, because if the guy’s going to hang out on the top of the Burj, he’s not going to let anybody do his singing for him. I think he was so thrilled to have the potential to learn a new skill. As a dad, he’s changed a lot.
Q: He’s been a dad for 20 years.
AS: Not like he has been with Suri. Besides her being biological, that family is so tight and he loves Bella and Connor to death, but Suri Cruise rules that household. But here’s the difference between being a dad for 20 years, he’s older now and he’s had 20 years of being Tom Cruise more behind him and there’s just a lot more music in his house. You can tell. Even Connor is a DJ now. I think the musical element in his house is much bigger, on top of which I was told that they loved “Hair Spray.” Before we get into cast questions, I’m just going to say that “Hair Spray” bought me a lot of cred in the acting community and the comedy community. Actors felt safe with me. There wasn’t a lot of begging and ‘please come and do this’.
Q: What do you think of Tom? He’s not the likely candidate?
AS: For me, he was the only candidate in the second that I said yes, because I’m telling you, his audition was “Tropic Thunder.” The second I saw him in “Tropic Thunder” I thought oh my God, I never knew that this guy could commit to a comedic character with this much success and he’s hilarious and then totally willing to take the piss out of himself, and I needed that from this character. And so then, after that, when this became very real, I thought oh my God, if I get one of the biggest movie stars in the world to play one of the biggest rock stars in the world, he’ll come with some knowledge of that discomfort and what is fame and talking about what this kind of fame is. There’ll be more of a knowledge than if I just got someone else to do it, and someone who had so much fame in the 80s. It all coalesced for me, and no one was more surprised than him that I asked, and we definitely did not say yes until we both thought he could actually pull off this thing. We took him to a coach and he worked with him and in one session I heard it. Believe me, I was holding a glass to the door. It was amazing the range that was coming out of him and the size of his voice. Every note is him. The last challenge I threw him was “Paradise City” and I turned to Adam Anders and I said “Is he going to be able to do it?” and he said “We’ll see,” and he came in and he knocked it out. And that was after he had done “Last Shot.” He’d been away from Stacee for awhile so he worked with the coach again for a couple of days and just blew us all away. I now think there is nothing Tom Cruise can’t do. I said if somebody asked him to play an invisible water buffalo, he would do it very successfully. He would probably say “Give me some time. Let me work on it.” And then that would happen.
Q: How did you approach him? What was his initial reaction? Did you just call him?
AS: No, no, no. I always think this is such a famous story but maybe it’s because I’ve told it a lot. I made a movie with Adam Sandler and I was at Adam Sandler’s daughter, Sadie’s first birthday, and Tom Cruise brought Suri there because that’s the fabulous friendship which makes no sense and I love it. He came up to me. I was sitting in a little baby chair, in one of those plastic, low to the ground one-year-old chairs, drawing with my niece. I felt someone pull up the chair next to me and I heard “Hi, I’m Tom Cruise” and I was like “What?!” and it’s him and he’s sitting next to me in one of those baby chairs. He said “I just want you to know I’m a big fan and I saw ‘Hairspray’ and I don’t even know how you did it. You really nailed that tone.” And in my head, I’m starting to explode [thinking] this is how I’m meeting Tom Cruise. I’m in a baby chair, talking about filmmaking, coloring with my niece. I was not unaware of how weird the moment was for me. I talked for a second, then I said “Give me second. I’m just going to go grab some food.” Then I stood up and the chair stuck to my ass. I literally could not have looked more like an idiot and he laughed. And then, he said “Dude, when are we going to make a musical?” And I laughed and I thought in my head “Never!” and then that was that because I couldn’t understand what that would be. It’s not like we’re going to go make “Damn Yankees” or something like that. And then, this came up and I told you what my thought process was, and I ran into him once again at Adam Sandler’s house at a Christmas party. I had told people that I wanted him and they were like “How could you ever get him?” and I said “I think I can get him. There’s a little part of me that thinks I can get him.” I told him at the party and he thought it sounded insane and exciting, but he was getting ready to do “Mission Impossible” so it gave us a full year to talk about it. And that’s how I got him. And then once I got him, everybody just popped in.
Q: What made you think Mary J. Blige was right for the role?
AS: She was the first person I asked for the movie. I think I just wanted Mary J. Blige to sing around me. Honestly, I felt like my other incredibly dear friend and colleague, Queen Latifah, had done it twice, and this was actually much smaller. You know who they initially asked me to cast? The studio came to me with Whitney (Houston). I said “Honestly, I know Whitney. I made a musical video back a hundred years ago. I choreographed that for her. I just don’t know if that’s the right fit for this right now.” And so I said “I want Mary J. Blige.” And they said “Sure, sure, yeah, right. Go get Tom Cruise and then we can talk about Mary J. later.” But yeah, Mary was the first person I said.
Q: Why did you cut the lap dance scene between Julianne Hough and Tom?
AS: The lap dance scene. It’s super easy to explain. It really upset the mothers. The mothers literally turned against her character because her character sold out so much and she was such an animal in the scene. It was like she was too good and she sold the sex. It was too much. It was interesting the balancing act for this movie because I have to keep it a comedy because that’s really what it is and it’s a series of love stories on top of which that scene was placed. It was at the top of the third act and you just want her to get to the Bourbon Room with those records. There was this huge deviation from the story in order to just do this number. Believe me, the number is brilliant and it is on the extended version and it’ll be on Netflix and all of that. You’ll understand why it got cut because it literally upset mothers. I can’t have mothers saying to my teenage audience, “No, you can’t go see this movie because Julianne Hough is lap dancing Tom Cruise in a G-string very well.”
Q: What was your conversation with Russell Brand and Alec Baldwin about going all the way to do the kiss? In “Hairspray,” you fade out before Christopher Walken and John Travolta kiss.
AS: There was something about that kiss that I thought would have been creepy. That movie takes place in a time of innocence and I just didn’t want people to go “Ohhh…Christopher Walken just kissed John Travolta.” It was really important to me that nobody flinch at that. It was equally as important to me that these guys do this because that was their authentic relationship and the movie is frankly more sexy and adult anyway. But I led with telling them. When I talked to Alec, he said “What would I do in the movie?” and I said “This is your character. You’re a guy from the 60s who started this hot rock club. You fostered all these people. You nurtured them, but you were really stoned. You started getting stoned in the 60s and never stopped getting stoned and you’ve been so stoned for the last 27 years that you didn’t realize you were gay.” And he was like “I’m so in. That’s amazing.” And then, with Russell, I said “You play Alec Baldwin’s lover” and he just went “I’m in!” And that was that. I started with all these people who lived in the 80s but then what was really fun was taking Julianne and Diego (Boneta) and explaining to them who they were and how they fit in, educating them, kicking the country out of her voice, kicking the boy band out of his voice, sending them to rock star college. The whole movie was just such an adventure in that way. It was just a joy.
Q: How did you narrow the songs down because there are so many good choices?
AS: The movie couldn’t be three hours long. It couldn’t be 2 hours and 40 minutes long which is basically from the show. I also had the opportunity that the play didn’t have. Def Leppard, Joan Jett and Guns N’ Roses opened up their catalogs to the movie which I would have to attribute to Mr. Cruise’s involvement. I’ve never talked to the guys but I would think that that’s what did it. On top of which, once again, the “Hairspray” cred. People knew that I wasn’t going to make fun of anything. Bret Michaels hugged me after I showed him “Pour Some Sugar On Me.” I love that I get to say that. Bret Michaels hugged me after seeing Tom Cruise perform “Pour Some Sugar.” This is the crazy world that I live in. It all seems insane to me, but he hugged me. I said “Why did you hug me?” He said “Thank you.” And I said “Why? Thank you for what?” “Thank you for not making fun of us.” I thought that was really special because I think that this period makes fun of itself so much that trying to put a hat on a hat would have been a terrible thing to do, on top of which, this period was the greatest time of my life.
Q: What was it like seeing Tom Cruise singing in front of the people who created these songs?
AS: How about seeing Tom Cruise singing “Pour Some Sugar” in front of Def Leppard? That was freakin’ weird. I was scared out of my mind. Joe Elliott was standing behind me and he said “Oh my God, he’s fucking better than us!” I just died and went to heaven. On top of which, that was Tom’s first day of shooting.
Q: Was he nervous? Did he know they were there?
AS: Tom doesn’t know nervous. You know what I mean? Tom doesn’t do nervous. Tom does preparation. So, he’d been working on that number for months. He is choreographed in that number to his thumbnail. Seven hours a day. Talk to Mia Michaels. It almost killed her how much rehearsal she did with him.
Q: How did you come up with his look?
AS: My biggest point of reference, besides my photo album, from this movie was the documentary, “The Decline of Western Civilization: The Metal Years” and it outlines this period in great detail with these people, including all those protesting mothers and the whole thing. That’s all straight out of real life in the movie. The baboon is out of real life. The baboon is Bubbles, Michael Jackson’s chimp. Everything that seems weird in the movie is not weird. It all came from true shit, if not from some of my convoluted memories, certainly MTV news.
Q: Was that a real baboon?
AS: Of course, it was a real baboon.
Q: It’s unbelievable how well trained he was. Aren’t they dangerous?
AS: I say this with great honesty. They’re very sensitive. Mickey is the main baboon’s name and Mickey was very sensitive. I’ll tell you the one dangerous baboon story. Mickey didn’t like when Paul Giamatti yelled at Diego. Mickey pulled back and Paul said “Is this going to go okay or am I not going to have a face at the end of the day?” The trainer kept saying “No, no, it’s going to be fine.” But Mickey and I would walk around holding hands. He was very sweet. He would sit there and we would play patty-cake. He was adorable. But there was another baboon, the one who screams in the office. I believe that one’s name was Camilla. They knew way in advance what I needed the monkey to do because it was scripted. They put Camilla on the table in that Muammar Gaddafi costume which already was bugging her, and then the trainer would stand across from her next to the camera with Paul Giamatti’s eyeline and his wife would stand behind him and pretend she was hitting him on the head. And so, the monkey would start screaming and screaming because she could not believe that somebody was attacking her trainer. I was like I’m not sure this is safe. I’m going to put my monitor in the other room. But, everything was fine. Nothing bad ever happened. Believe me, more actors were harmed in the making of this film than animals.
Q: The “Step Up” movies keep getting more and more awesome. How does “Step Up Revolution” take it to the next level?
AS: It’s unbelievable. It’s the best dancing by far we’ve had in any of the movies.
Q: Better than “Step Up 3”?
AS: Yeah, because now we put back what we did in the first one and we put in a ton of different styles in there. Travis Wall does all this contemporary stuff. Jamal (Sims) did it. Chris Scott. I mean, it’s sexier and we put more real story back into it because it was starting to go off the rails a little bit. They just talked to me about 5, because they loved the movie so much. I was like if I have to come up with one more reason for people to save the world one dance at a time, I will kill myself. I can’t do it anymore. People keep coming and they’re going to keep making them. It’s the ultimate. Do you know how well these wonderful dance movies do internationally?
Q: What do you have coming up next?
AS: This is where I leave you. I mean, it’s a book called “This Is Where I Leave You.” It’s a movie called “This Is Where I Leave You” based on the novel by Jonathan Tropper for the wonderful Warner Bros. company.
“Rock of Ages” opens in theaters on June 15th.