What Men Want, now available on from Redbox on DVD, Blu-ray and On Demand, does a gender flip on the rom-com favorite What Women Want. Taraji P. Henson is a knockout as Ali, a sports agent who loses out on a partnership at her male-dominated firm. When an encounter with a psychic leaves her with the power to read men’s thoughts, she uses her newfound gift to pursue a highly sought-after NBA prospect.
This uproarious comedy is an R-rated change of pace for Adam Shankman, director of the quintessential rom-com The Wedding Planner, the tear-jerker A Walk to Remember starring Mandy Moore and the uplifting musical Hairspray, and he has packed the bench with laugh-makers, some expected (Tracy Morgan, Pete Davidson) and some unexpected (former NFL great Brian Bosworth and Grammy-winning singer Erykah Badu, a scene stealer).
Shankman spoke with Redbox about thoughts better left unheard, how The Wedding Planner caused him to stop reading reviews and threatening Vin Diesel.
Redbox: When dealing with studio execs, difficult actors, or, dare I say it, interviewers, are you happy they can’t hear your thoughts?
Andy Shankman: (Laughs) Let’s put it this way; I have a very bad filter so they generally know what I’m thinking. So it’s not much of a problem.
RB: Would you want the power to hear the thoughts of actors you’re directing?
AS: It’s basically a catastrophic weather activity inside of my brain at all times so adding to that sounds like a bad idea. To give you context and history, I grew up with a therapist mother and a lawyer father. My whole approach to directing is to assess and negotiate. I generally am spending a lot of time getting inside their heads anyway to get the best performance and make them feel as comfortable as possible.
RB: From The Wedding Planner and Hairspray to What Men Want, you seem to have a knack for knowing what audiences want.
AS: I am fundamentally an optimist, so everything I do runs through that filter. I will always do things that relate to family, try to find the good in people and that entertain. The kinds of stories I’m interested in telling in this next phase of my career will be emotionally and culturally challenging. That said, my next movie is a sequel to Enchanted, which is a pure joy.
RB: How did you become involved with What Men Want, which is your first R-rated movie?
AS: I read they were making it and it seemed like a natural fit. At the moment I was told Taraji was attached, I jumped at the opportunity.
RB: She seems like a very shy and introverted person. How did you bring her out of her shell? (Editor’s note: he’s joking).
AS: Next question (laughs). Taraji is a legitimate force to be reckoned with. When I got the job, she said, “Please, I spend so much time (on Empire) portraying this angry woman that I would just value time to be running around and having fun.” I said, “You’ve come to the right guy.”
RB: When you have a performer like Tracy Morgan, do you encourage improvisation?
AS: There was a ton of improv. That’s not Taraji’s first instinct, but if someone is standing next to her and they start going, without a blink, she will match them toe-to- toe. The second she feels comfortable in the skin of her character, she just knows who that person is and inhabits her with a fierceness. It is great to watch. God help the person who tries to go at her; she’s right there with them.
RB: At what point did you realize you had a secret comedy weapon in Erykah Badu?
AS: The point at which I did a Skype with her after being pressured by one of the producers, James Lopez, and Taraji to look at her for the role. I love Erykah, but (I only knew her as a singer). They told me she went to performing arts high school and that she is an actor and I had to talk to her. The second her image came up and we started talking, I was sold. I called Paramount and I said, “Look no further. We have something very special here.” When we were shooting her first day. It became clear that her scenes would be impossible to get through because she is so funny.
RB: You’ve directed comedy geniuses and dramatic actors not normally associated with comedy. How is your approach different with, say, Steve Martin vs. (The Wedding Planner star) Matthew McConaughey?
AS: I’m one of those directors who is interested in talking to the actors a lot before shooting, so I feel like I have a real relationship with them. This isn’t just a job; this will be committed to film; it’s meaningful for me to make sure everybody is going to be proud of what they do. With Steve, I worked more from the outside and with Matthew I worked more from the inside. I could give Steve, who is very instinctual, very basic notes; “I need you to move this way I need it to move that way.” With Matthew, I needed to talk to him about why he would move this way and why he would move that way. He had never done a romantic comedy before so I approached it with him as I would if it were a drama. And he would just go; that process worked with us.
RB: Critics attacked The Wedding Planner, but people love that movie. You can’t turn on basic cable without coming across it. Do you pay attention to reviews?
AS: Not after that movie! That was a real bucket of cold water. I’m not going to say it didn’t flip me out for a long time. In my memory, nothing (bad) had been said about me in my professional life and to have people come at me for what I thought was a sweet movie, the vitriol they unleashed, it was as if I had done something horrible to all of their families. The day it opened was a very dark day and then the movie went on to be No. 1 at the box office for three straight weeks. I turned to everybody in my orbit and I asked how do I deal with this, and they said it’s the easiest thing in the world; just do your job, don’t read (reviews).
RB: Let’s go back. You were a dancer. At what point did you say, “What I really want to do is direct?”
AS: I started choreographing and after 12-13 years in that world and doing so much work for television and movies, an actor suggested to some producers that I would make a good film director. I had never considered this. They came to me said to make a short film. This is before digital. An idea (for the film) occurred to me and I wrote it down in treatment form. Crew members with whom I had worked agreed to help. Seventy-five dancers, many of whom I had employed, were all willing to work for free. I created this thing and behind my back, the producer submitted it to the Sundance Film Festival. It got in. At that moment, everything sort of shifted.
AS: That was a surprise to me, too. The head of Disney pitched me the idea for The Pacifier. It had been written for Jackie Chan and I said okay. Then she said Vin Diesel is now attached. She swore to god that if I met him, I would love him. I was very hesitant. I very manipulatively borrowed my sister’ infant and brought him to the meeting. The baby went straight to Vin and played with him the entire time. He spent the entire meeting holding this baby and I said, “I know what to do with this movie. Here’s the deal: if you ever try to be funny I will have you killed. I just need you reacting to the mayhem going on around you and you will be a success.” And he said, “I could make that deal.”
RB: I’ll give you the last word on why What Men Want is what audiences will want.
AS: I just want people be able to watch this movie and for two hours laugh and have a good time. Any opportunity we have to laugh in these challenging times is valuable. This is what I have to offer this year.