“What Men Want,” starring Taraji P. Henson, is being billed as a gender-swapped remake of Nancy Meyers’ Mel Gibson-Helen Hunt comedy “What Women Want” — this time, it's a woman who can hear men’s inner thoughts. According to director Adam Shankman, it’s a reimagined version that’s making a deeper statement about how women are treated at work and in the world.
The script appealed to Shankman because it reminded him of "an old screwball comedy.” He made significant efforts to represent a more diverse landscape than the one from 19 years ago. Henson's character Ali, who is a sports agent, has an assistant who is gay and gets a love interest storyline in the film. Shankman says that as director, he was instrumental in making sure the character didn't fall into stereotypical territory.
Shankman is also a seasoned dance and physical comedy choreographer — he both danced at the Oscars in 1990 and directed and produced the entire show some 20 years later, and along the way has created some of the most iconic dance scenes in rom-com history, including the prom dance sequence in “She's All That.”
I sat down with Shankman in Salon’s studio to talk about comedy and dance, the keys to successful directing, and engineering drama at the Oscars. Read a lightly edited transcript below, or watch our conversation here:
"What Men Want," if people aren't familiar, is a reimagining of the Mel Gibson —
Thank you for saying reimagining.
'Cause it really is.
It's so not a remake.
It's not a reboot, but it's a pivot, right, in a cool way, and so ["What Women Want"] looked at what would happen if a man could hear women's thoughts, right? So now it's told from the women's point of view, and this is so timely. So, what about the reversed premise drew you to the project?
Taraji. The prospect of working Taraji was sort of the key component that made me say, "Oh, I really want to do this." At the time I was like, "Oh, they're remaking the same thing with a woman." I was like, "I wonder how that's gonna work."
I understand why the studio would want to do it. It was a hugely successful movie. The Nancy Meyers, Mel Gibson, Helen Hunt version was so successful. I mean, in today's market, it would be like "Star Wars" movie. It was that successful.
And so it made sense, but there was a lot of questionable behavior in there. That movie I think would be difficult today because he is so misogynistic and chauvinistic, but I know that the message of the movie was still pro-feminist because he really learned to respect women at the end of the day, but it was a little more circuitous. This goes right for it.
So, when I read the script, the script was A, very funny. It actually read very, very funny and it appealed to me in the wheelhouse of being very much like an old-fashioned screwball comedy, which is something that I really love, something that I feel very comfortable playing in that sandbox.
Then, I loved the fact that the villain of this . . . in the original movie, the Nancy Meyers movie, Mel Gibson's character was both the hero and the villain. In this movie, the villain is really just the culture surrounding our central character. She has her problems. She's very flawed. Everybody's super flawed in the world, but really there is something more than herself that is holding her back, and so attacking that felt like a good idea.
You've made some really cool, modern, and I think super relevant, important changes in this film.
Before we went live, we were chatting a little bit about the diversity that we see here, and not just in the casting, but in the storylines. So what can you share about those choices? Obviously the script was written, but were you integral in pushing any of those forward?
Yeah. Certainly probably the second biggest part of the movie, which is I would say her central relationship in the movie is with her assistant who's gay, and there was a lot of back and forth about what the portrayal of that gay character would be and how expansive we got there. I weighed in very heavily because in the earlier drafts of the script, he did not seem very realistic and actually relied on some old rom-com tropes where he was like her girlfriend, and that kind of little wise old owl and picking her shoes and stuff like that. Yeah, it was creepy.
Well, that wouldn't play. One of the great parts is that he has aspirations to be a sports agent.
So we can tell a bit about the story.
So that guy, that is his primary objective in the movie. His orientation is not —
Well, maybe even further back. I think he seems to —
Well, he's self-conscious.
Not self-conscious. He's definitely that, but yes, his first thing is about his work and what he wants to be doing, and he kind of wants to be her when he grows up but a better, nicer version of her.
So, in doing that, I also then expanded it and gave her a set of girlfriends that were existing in the script mostly just to serve one little plot point as opposed to fill out her life, and that was really important to me to do that.
I don't know. Across the board, I wanted to make sure that the whole movie looked like what the world looks like, especially the world of Atlanta, and the world of sports, and all of that. So it's diverse because it is diverse. It wasn't hard.
It resonated, that it felt real for today.
Taraji Henson plays a sports agent, the only woman in a giant pond of men. It's like if Jerry Maguire was —
There are very, very few star women agents in the sports world today.
And it is a booming, large, multi-billion dollar business, and so there was also an authenticity to it that I found very compelling.
Absolutely, absolutely. We hear her backstory. She was raised by a single dad who tries to toughen her up, and so she fits sort of a persona of the kind of woman who would try to fit into this —
Yeah, she grew up in a boxing gym with a father whose wife had left him for reasons which have been left on the cutting room floor, and yet we've shot all of it because I wanted to have — when I shot the movie — every question answered, and then as I pared back the movie I was like, "What do I actually need to know? What do I need to know to care about the characters and all of that?" So, over an hour and 10 minutes are on the cutting room floor of this thing.
You gotta go through it to make it, and it seems like an interesting way to approach directing. I don't know if everyone does it that way, but maybe your past as a choreographer informs that, because I imagine you have to plot out all the moves to then see what works.
Yeah. I mean, it's a puzzle. I feel like in drama, I'm having some unknown and some mystery can create more texture and something more interesting. That said, if you've never been through the testing process of a movie, the one thing that is the most gut-wrenching is when an audience just doesn't understand and they're really clamoring for something, and then you're looking at the studio, and I have felt like an irresponsible director and said, "Yeah, I should've probably shot that. But it wasn't in the script, but we probably should've thought of that before." We saw it coming and people just sort of went like, "Well, we don't really have time." I make time.
This is one of the shortest schedules I've ever had to shoot anything. The budget of this was really low, and we had to work really hard to A, make it not look like that, make it feel expansive and big and like a big old comedy, and also to make sure that I felt satisfied that any question could be answered for the audience.
It's a thoughtful perspective. So you started your career as a dancer and a choreographer. I read that you danced onstage at the Oscars, which are coming up —
1990, yeah. Paula Abdul, I was the choreographer.
Oh, it was a couple things. "Under the Sea" was one of the nominated songs from "The Little Mermaid." That was one of the numbers that I danced. In the costume, the costume parade, as it were, was a dance number when they were doing the nominees, and I was Baron Munchausen in the Baron Munchausen piece.
And it was like "Harlem Nights." I think the winner that year was "Driving Miss Daisy."
I remember 'cause I ran offstage during one of the dance numbers and I sort of landed out of a flip and I almost killed Jessica Tandy because she was standing there and almost in my way.
She was already quite elderly, so that would've been—
Yeah, it would've been terrible. By the way, I think she won the Oscar that night.
Thank God you missed her.
I know. That would've been a terrible story.
It ended well, thankfully. What was it about teaching big stars to move that you liked?
Literally nothing that you just said was part of my plan. No. The telling of stories through dance. I grew up on musicals. My parents loved musicals. I had a lot of musical cast albums in my house growing up my mom listened to, and so I think that was part of my life training in a weird way was watching all that fantasy and connecting to it as being more beautiful than real life and full of song and dance. That was of value in my home. My big dream in life was to be a chorus boy. That was my big dream, and sometimes it still is.
There's still time.
Not so much.
Let's put it this way. I could be like one of those chorus boys that walks across the stage with a top hat and that's it.
There you go. Small movements.
Just does little, little movements with his shoulders.
And then I got into it because A, I do love working with actors. When I started choreographing for film, there weren't musicals really being made. So, it was just like a big dance scene here or a big dance scene there, little spotty all over the place, like some of the ones that you mentioned I got to be a part of.
What was really happening in my career, actually what was strange was I was doing a lot of the cartoon-to-film adaptations. I did a lot of them, like "Casper" and "The Flintstones" and "Dudley Do-Right" and a whole swath of movies like that. I know, weird, right?
So you're choreographing then?
In "The Flintstones," I was choreographing the movement of the people in Bedrock.
It was John Goodman and Elizabeth Perkins and Rick Moranis and Rosie O'Donnell in "The Flintstones." "The Twitch" was performed by The B-52s, so I did that, and then I did The B-52s video of that, and "Addams Family." There was a bunch of dance sequences in the "Addams Family" movies, and so I did that, and then "Casper," there was a musical number that was cut but it was all the ghosts and I helped create all the ghost choreography in that. It was strange. "Dudley Do-Right" had some of my favorite things I've ever done. It's hard for me to find them, but I love those numbers that I did in that.
Who were some of the folks you did have to teach to dance . . . who was sort of the most adaptive? I know you've done videos for Whitney Houston, the late, great Whitney Houston.
Well, working with Whitney Houston, the fun part was actually just being with Whitney because she was incredibly fun and she and I loved each other. We got along really, really well. I felt appreciated and valued by her, and that made me feel really good 'cause that was right at the beginning of my choreography career. So that was really fun. The bands I worked with, I worked with Tony! Toni! Toné! And The Time . . . I don't know. I did a lot of stuff. I did a lot of stuff.
So the folks liked you.
The people did like me, which is why I worked because I don't think that I was very good at that time.
No, I'm not saying that because I'm humble. I think I've looked back at my work and I'm like, "Oh, ow, OK." When I did "Hairspray," part of the promotion of "Hairspray" was I ended up being a judge on an episode of "So You Think You Can Dance" and choreographing a number from the movie. Nigel Lithgow, who produced the show, really liked me, and he said, "Will you come back and do more shows?" I ended up doing nine seasons of the show, because I just kept coming back and coming back and coming back and coming back.
When I see what those choreographers are doing and what those dancers are capable of now, it's so magical. I really enjoyed hiring a lot of those people and really trying to lift all of those people up. They all feel like my kids now, so that's been a fun part of my life.
When you were on that Oscars stage, would you ever have imagined that later you might be sitting in the audience —
Well, no, no, no, 'cause better, to the year 20 years later, I produced and choreographed the show. It was my Oscars. That was like my show. So, that was unheard of. I don't think that's ever been done before. I don't think any of the Oscar dancers have ever gone on to actually produce the show.
As they should, so it's good. You're a trendsetter.
I just cried all night that night, because I was going, "How did this happen? How did this happen to me?" I couldn't even track how it happened. It just felt impossible. So, I don't know. It's pretty cool. I don't know. I don't know what to say about it 'cause it's more emotional, but what a f**king job that is, producing that f**king show.
How long does that take?
I think five months I spent on it. I had to drop everything for about five months. I put all of my directing stuff on hold for five months, yeah, and producing.
Who hosted that year?
Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin.
It was the year that "Avatar" was versus "Hurt Locker." It was the first year a woman got Best Director. I mean, the stories of making that show were crazy, and it was the first year that . . . I know this is controversial, but they added back 10 possible best picture nominees, but also an incredibly diverse, extraordinary year in movies that year, but baked inside the show was that brilliant narrative of Jim Cameron having just directed the biggest movie in history against Kathryn Bigelow, his ex-wife, who had directed "Hurt Locker." So of course I sat them next to each other, because that's what you want to keep cutting to, right? That was amazing.
Well, here's a way to circle back to "What Men Want" and Taraji in the lead as a strong woman, and a particularly strong woman character. In this era of Times Up, how do you feel about having more women-led films from either the talent or the directing perspective, and have you as a director helped foster more young directing talent, women?
Oh, yeah, specifically women. I mean, as a producer, I have hired way more women than men. My first movie that I produced was "Step Up" and Ann Fletcher, I hired to do that, and it was her first movie. We just hired a woman director on a project, a woman of color on a project.
I mean, maybe it's because I'm gay, but it's sort of baked into how I did in "Hairspray," that character of Tracy really didn't understand why people wouldn't want her to dance or decide who she was gonna dance with. That has been my approach to life, basically, because I would feel weird if . . . I was like, "Why wouldn't you want me to dance?" You know what I mean?
That's how this talk of diversity is very complicated because it's very sensitive for so many people and I understand why as a person who has been discriminated against, but I have such a lively, optimistic, hopeful view of the world that it doesn't occur to me so much to not do it. I don't have to go like, "Should we?" I'm like, "Who's the best for the job? Whose perspective are we telling? Who is the right person?"
A lot of the time it's women, and for me more often than not . . . Listen, I think women are smarter than guys. So, I can just say that for the right. I'm fine going on the record as that. In general, I think women ... Because I think women culturally and historically have had to navigate more. The more you navigate, the more you evolve, period. End of story. We've had a really good run, us guys.
Yep. So I figure the last few thousand years has been great for us, so it's fine.
It's good. Now there'll be more of a blend.
So what's the most important characteristic one needs to be a good director, do you think?
Listening. Listening. That's also for actors, too, because things change. You need to be able to roll with the punches.
Oh, the most important characteristic actually is just feeling comfortable making a decision. I've worked with a lot of directors. When I was choreographing, I worked with a lot of directors, and actually as a producer I've worked with a bunch of directors who did not feel overly comfortable making decisions. So, what they do is they're like, "Well, let's see if it's like this, and let's see if it's like that," and I was like, "Oh my god, do they even know the story that they want to tell?" That to me is really scary both for production. Now, sometimes I'm sure it works out great, do you know what I mean? We all follow threads, but you have to be nimble, because you're like, "Oh wow, I just learned something, so maybe it's more like this."
I hold this as a life premise, and if it sounds like it's not the first time I've said this, it's because it's not the first time I've said this, but I mean this. I have never learned anything or grown from being right, ever. So, I do not mind being wrong about stuff.
As a director, you have to ultimately make the decisions. You have to be comfortable making a decision and sticking by it and then the fallout is the fallout, and being able to accept responsibility and be accountable for those decisions is I think really important for the people around you because then that makes them feel like they can do that, too.
I'm not one for a blame game. I'm very solution-oriented.
I would make a good director for sure.
You can't really live in a problem on a movie set because the world just will stop.
That's no good.
No. You must make the decision.
You just make the decision.
And really loving the story that you're telling. Also, I would have to say, I have learned by making movies where I could not connect to the story ultimately that I was telling that that's bad. You should feel yourself in the story. Some fundamental part of you should burn inside that story because then it'll be a better movie.