By Kirsten Coachman
In the new comedy, “What Men Want,” Ali Davis (the superb Taraji P. Henson) is smart, fiercely driven, and is poised to make partner at Summit Worldwide Management, where she represents the top female athletes. With champagne at the ready, Ali’s celebration is cut short when she passed over for the promotion in favor of a male junior agent. Determined to show the men in her office that she can play in their lane, Ali announces that she is throwing her hat in the ring to sign the next NBA superstar. With the help of some mysterious tea, Ali can suddenly hear what the men around her are thinking and looks to finally level the playing field.
Directed by the Emmy-nominated Adam Shankman (“Hairspray,” “A Walk to Remember,” “The Wedding Planner”), “What Men Want” is an invigorating take on 2000’s “What Women Want,” helmed by Nancy Meyers, filled with both laugh-out-loud moments and plenty of heart. Academy Art U News recently sat down with Shankman to learn more about his new film, how being a choreographer influences his directing style, and why comedic outlets are so important these days.
What appealed to you the most about directing this film?
Taraji Henson was the reason. Candidly, I was looking to do a drama or a thriller. I wanted to shake everything up and sort of change my personal career narrative as it were. And when I heard she was doing this, I found that to be really interesting. I was sent the script, and it was incredibly funny, felt very timely, but with her in it, it felt very fresh and alive. And the opportunity to do something really legitimately funny, while saying something that felt of the moment, felt like a good opportunity.
I liked that Taraji embraced this role that’s a bit on the zanier side. When you have an actor that’s stepping outside of what audiences are used to seeing them do, how do you go about establishing an environment on set that allows them to let go?
In different ways. Taraji wanted to make a movie like this. After they’d hired me and I was talking to her about it, I sent her a piece of music. I sent her the original recording, the big band recording of “Sing, Sing, Sing,” and it’s just those crazy pulsating drums and horns and I said, “Here’s the movie and this is what you sound like in the movie. This is the character.” And I think that that really surprised her that I went through the piece of music, and I said that this is when this happens and this is when this happens. And I think she was so struck by the fact that that’s how I explained the movie to her. I think she was like, “Okay, why not?” Like, it was a totally different way of thinking about things. And she’s very musical in her approach to things. And I’ve worked with a lot of musical actors. Like, Steve Martin is incredibly musical. Jennifer Lopez, very musical. I mean, these people are rooted in their love of music in large part, as is Taraji.
And so we spoke that language; we spoke the language of that encyclopedic knowledge of old movies from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s – those comedies. I said to her, I will not ever let this become a man bashing movie, which she was really happy about because she did not want to do that either. And I said this will never be a movie about a woman who is made whole by the love of a man. And she said, “Let’s make this thing. Let’s do this.” So once we had that dialogue and then she heard what was in my head, what the movie sounded like in a weird way, we were just all in. She also knew when you listen to that piece of music, you know it’s going to be physical. When you hear those tom-tom drums, it’s like, “Oh sh–, okay, here we go.” You know, this is not going to be two people sitting at a table in a restaurant having coffee.
Taraji’s character Ali works in sports management, a space that’s occupied primarily by men, and she’s extremely driven to be successful in a field where she’s had to carve out her spot at the table. How did you look to balance this aspect of Ali’s character with humor?
I think the best comedy happens when the person’s natural, emotional, or physical stakes are the most dramatic and the most authentic and the fact that this is an important thing for [Ali] is what makes the comedy work better.
One of the best comedies, I think, of the last decade is “Bridesmaids” because Kristen Wiig’s character was sinking deeper and deeper. [And] when she thought her life could just not get worse, it just got worse, and worse, and worse. And the fact that the one thing that she had to hold onto–this friendship–was being pulled away from her, made that movie be as funny as it was, but I think of “Bridesmaids” as the best drama of that year. So that’s how I think about comedy. I’m not the director who’s just like, let’s throw some more jokes at it. My feeling is if a scene’s not working, [don’t] throw another joke at it – let’s make the character’s emotional stakes higher. That’s my approach.
When you’re making a comedy, when do you know that you have that laugh?
I have to trust myself. In a comedy, everything’s a crapshoot. Basically, in making a movie, everything is a crapshoot. You just hope it’s going to all come together. It’s a puzzle but you don’t have the outline and the pieces aren’t carved yet. So you just have an idea of what you think it’s going to look like in your mind, which may not look like the studio thinks that looks like, and it may not look like what the producers think it looks like. But I try to be as transparent as possible when I say, like, “This is what I think the movie is gonna look like and what it’s going to be like and what it should feel like.”
You work on the script, you get it there, and then everybody just crosses their fingers. I’m lucky I have a very solid track record of delivering. I have garnered a lot of trust, and, with this one, I thought it was funny enough and smart enough and that is all the best I can do. And then everything else is up to the gods. It’s like any book, any article, any stories like that, everybody’s gonna have their opinion about it. I have literally no control over that. All I can do is do the best I can with the resources that I have.
As someone that does choreography, how does that influence how you direct your actors?
I’m very nimble in terms of when the actors come in, I will have it staged in my head in the mornings. There’s not a lot of times that an actor will walk in and I’ll go, “Oh, I don’t know where I want you to go.” I know where I want them to go. I know what I want the background to be. I know those things because my job for 30 years has been to move people around in space, basically. So that muscle is very alive in me. When, when I sent [Taraji] the music, that means that I was also suggesting that the movie was going to be very propulsive and very physical. And so that’s how I just directed it. I directed the camera that way. I directed the actors that way. I keep everything moving, I keep everything as alive as possible so that when things are still, that they’re still for a reason and that lands. People think that I embrace movement the most. Movement is easy for me; it’s stillness that I think is more compelling. Because in a world that’s so kinetic, when things stop, that’s a big statement.
You had Taraji surrounded by an incredible supporting cast. I really enjoyed her scenes with Josh Brener.
That relationship ended up being the most important one of the whole shoot. The way that they bonded off-camera because they are together for so much of the movie, it actually took a lot off of my plate because the level of support that they gave each other was unquantifiable in terms of how much it helped me. They absolutely loved each other so much. It was just great to see and those scenes work really well and were very easy to shoot because they played so well off each other.
You also had Phoebe Robinson and Pete Davidson who are both making their mark right now. What made you think of them for this film?
When you bring in people like that, you’re bringing in an energy of people who know that this isn’t just another job. They haven’t been worn down by the industry. They haven’t had the number of disappointments that would make somebody salty. They are wild cards because you don’t know everything that they are going to offer. I asked both of them to do the movie because I’m a fan of theirs, and so I asked them a lot. [laughs] Phoebe has an insane schedule and Pete has a really tough schedule, so getting them to Atlanta [for the shoot] was challenging.
These days it can be tough to find the humor in things, but I think that laughter is such a vital emotional release.
Why do you think it’s important to have these comedic outlets, like your film, right now?
Even coming into a theater so you can share laughter with people is something that has been devalued in the marketplace right now. When you see this movie and you are sharing this laughter with a big group of people. It is like a collective sigh and a release from all of the negativity and tension for just those two hours that you’re in it. And I have experienced that now with this movie time and again, and because so much of comedy has moved into the streaming space that we just aren’t getting as much of it in the theaters. And so when a good one, like I hope people feel like this one is, comes along, when you are collectively sharing that laugh, especially at things that are legitimately laugh-worthy, then it’s a great thing.
At the Academy of Art, we have a variety of entertainment-related disciplines, including directing. What kind of advice do you have for students that are getting ready to start their thesis films?
You can’t have an ego. You have to try to get as much on the page as possible. Try to feel as good about the script and really understand it in your heart of hearts what you think you’re making your [film] about. Keep that at the center of your heart. You cannot get hit by the train of this success without being on the tracks of this business, you just have to be as true to yourself. I have made things that were very true to myself and I made things that were not, and it hurts me, actually, when I think about things because these things live on forever and it does not go away. So when you make something that you don’t feel like you did great, it’s partially how you identify yourself and it can be very treacherous that you have to just keep going on because you have to believe in it. Believe in yourself.
“What Men Want” is now playing in theaters.
This interview has been edited and condensed.