"What Men Want" director: In my version, our culture is the villain

“What Men Want,” starring Taraji P. Henson, is being billed as a gender-swapped remake of Nancy Meyers’ “What Women Want,” where this time a woman can hear men’s inner thoughts, but 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.

“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,” Shankman explained to Salon’s Alli Joseph “Salon Talks.” “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.”

Shankman, whose past credits include “The Wedding Planner,” “A Walk to Remember” and “Hairspray,” told Joseph that at first, he wondered if the new version's storyline would work. In the original, Gibson's character was misogynistic and chauvinistic, while overall, the film’s was still pro-feminist.

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's assistant 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.

"There was a lot of back and forth about what the portrayal of that character would be, and I weighed in very heavily," says Shankman, who is gay. "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, picking her shoes and stuff like that. It was creepy."

The character's primary objective is to become a sports agent like his boss Ali, and his sexual orientation is hardly primary. "His first thing is that he kind of wants to be her when he grows up, but a better, nicer version of her."

Shankman, who is also a seasoned dance and physical comedy choreographer and both danced at the Oscars in 1990 and directed and produced the entire show some 20 years later, created some of the most iconic dance scenes in rom-com history, including the prom dance sequence in “She's All That,” the tango between Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey in “The Wedding Planner,” and many more.

He agreed that his directing style pays unusually close attention to the movement between characters, like a dance. "It's a puzzle, and particularly in comedy," he said.

Watch the full episode above to hear more about the making of “What Men Want” and Shankman’s take on directing the Oscars in 2009, the year Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Academy Award for best director.

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