It’s never easy directing Tom Cruise and his baboon.
Ask Adam Shankman, the director of “Rock of Ages,” who lived many perilous moments in the filming of the rock musical that opens Friday, but none so much as when “Hey-man” the baboon got loose and then bared his fangs a centimeter from the face of his leading man.
WaxWord tracked down Shankman in London to discuss the star-studded tribute to '80s hard rock.
Your father was in the record business. In the film, Paul Giamatti plays a sleazy music manager with a bad sweater and a ponytail. Is that based on him?
That’s not how I see my father. That character is an amalgamation of a lot of associates of him from the record business. But my father -- he worked with everybody from David Foster to Barry White to X -- I won’t say he never wore that sweater.
So basically you had to make this movie.
It was not foreign to me in any way shape or form. My father’s office was at 9200 Sunset at the edge of the Sunset Strip. I grew up at the Whisky, listening to rock bands. I was an MTV addict. This music was a soundtrack of my life, and all I can remember is a life without consequences. All about having fun. I was totally irresponsible.
You didn’t do the Broadway show --
No, but I made “Hairspray” with New Line. And I’m the one they go to for the comedies.
Tom Cruise really sings?
One thousand percent. We were very, very clear with each other: We would not do this if he couldn’t do something great. I didn’t want people laughing at him.
We ran into each other at a birthday party for a toddler of a friend of ours. We were talking about his loving "Hairspray," and he said, "When are we gonna do our musical?" I thought, "Never." Then this came up; it was irresistible to ask him.
Has he sung before?
Not seriously. He has some opera singers in his family, so he’s genetically predisposed. He studied his brains out and found a whole new skill set. If the man wanted to perform in a circus, I bet he could.
Well -- was it "sweetened"?
He was insistent on that. No sweetening, no autotune.
Did he show up fully formed as Stacee Jaxx?
It totally evolved. It’s all based on documentaries we watched. The monkey is based on Bubbles, Michael Jackson’s chimpanzee. There was some Jim Morrison. It was one piece at a time.
Hmm, a monkey. Did you have any disasters on the set?
One day the baboon got loose, and he was running up and down the street yelling at extras. We had to stop for 20 minutes and wrangle him.
Those are canines on that baby. He’s very sweet. Very sensitive. Tom Cruise did a scene where he was actually talking to the baboon -- it’s not currently in the movie -- and he had his face really, really close. Forehead to forehead. I was shivering. But the baboon loves him. Every day we wrapped, Tom would hug me and shake me and say, "I am having the best time, thank you."
How did you cast the rest of the movie?
They were all curious. "Hairspray" brought me cred. And as soon as they heard Tom was doing it, basically anybody I asked said "Yes."
I told Alec Baldwin, "You play a club owner on the Sunset Strip, and you’ve been stoned for so long you didn’t realize you were gay." And he was in. I said to Russell Brand: "You play a sweet, lovely sidekick to Alec Baldwin who then becomes his boyfriend. And Russell said, "I’m in."
I said to Catherine Zeta-Jones: "Just play Eva Peron." It’s my little wink at the musicals.
What about Diego Boneta, who plays Drew?
It was just like "Hairspray," with Nikki Blonsky. I’d be combing through auditions on a casting website, and one day, there he was. I said, "Oh my gosh, I think this is the guy." I auditioned him, he came in six times for me. He finally got the part. He’s from Mexico.
Was there a lot of rehearsal?
Unfortunately there wasn’t nearly as much rehearsal as I’d like. It was the same budget as "Hairspray," six years later with a shorter shooting schedule. The budget was $74 million. Everyone took pay cuts. And we were working seven days a week to play catch-up. I was trying to save up money every week in order to afford to bring dancers from Los Angeles and New York to the shoot in Miami.
That was the most challenging part: It’s all about how few dancers can I get away with to keep the sense of size. How many drivers can I not have driving cars on the Sunset Strip. It was huge pressure of how much to shoot every day.
And you got the dancers?
I got 'em. They’d come in two days before, learn the number in a day.
Those were the girls on the poles in the strip club?
The girls on the poles I found on YouTube. They’re not strippers. It’s a niche world. They compete professionally.
Are you happy with how the movie turned out?
It’s all supposed to be a party -- full of laughter and joy. But it’s a cautionary tale. There’s some of my cynicism in there about the nature of fame. And at the end, it’s "Don’t Stop Believing" -- you can’t squash freedom of speech. Everyone wants to be free to say what they want when they want, that’s the American dream.