Shankman's Winning Job: Producing The Oscars Adam Shankman has one of the coolest, most stressful jobs around: He's producing the Oscars. The Hairspray director, who is also a judge onSo You Think You Can Dance, joins Fresh Air to dish about seating arrangements and speeches.
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Shankman's Winning Job: Producing The Oscars

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Shankman's Winning Job: Producing The Oscars

Shankman's Winning Job: Producing The Oscars

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GROSS, host:

With just a little more than two weeks to go before the Oscars, Adam Shankman is a little stressed out. He's co-producing the Oscar telecast with Bill Mechanic and neither of them has ever done this before. Mechanic and Shankman are making some changes this year. We asked Shankman to talk about what they're up to. He directed "Bringing Down the House," and the movie musical remake of John Waters' film "Hairspray." He's also a choreographer who got his start dancing in and choreographing for music videos. He's a judge on the TV show "So You Think You Can Dance."

Adam Shankman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So the official Oscar poster says "You've never seen Oscar like this." So what - give us an example of something youre trying to do different from how its been done.

Mr. ADAM SHANKMAN (Film director, producer, dancer, actor and choreographer): Well, the most obvious two things are that they're 10 nominees in the Best Picture category and the morning of the nominations Bill and I were basically dancing a jig because the nominees represented a true cross section of, you know, the movie lovers taste. And, you know, to go from "Hurt Locker" and "Education" all the way to "Avatar" and "Blindside" to "District 9," I mean it just represents everybody. And so that's really, really thrilling and how we're handling that is very smooth and elegantly and hopefully in a way that makes people want to go out and see the movies whether they win or not. And then the other obvious thing...

GROSS: Is that why it's 10 nominees now, so that there's more depth for...

Mr. SHANKMAN: Opportunities.

GROSS: ...for movies to...

Mr. SHANKMAN: More opportunities for popular movies to come out.

GROSS: be able to say nominated for Oscar.

Mr. SHANKMAN: Well, its not to be nominated for an Oscar, it's to say come watch the show because the movie youve is on it. You know, "Avatar" really kicked that up, because everybody's seen "Avatar" so there's a real footrace there. There's actually footrace between a couple in some of the categories which, you know, its really hard these days because there's so many award shows that come before the Oscars they kind of cannibalize the Oscars, and I think, the special ness of the Oscars.

GROSS: Yeah, the way they all say, well, we predict who the Oscar winner's going to be.

Mr. SHANKMAN: Yeah. I mean...

GROSS: So how is that affecting what you want to do, given that they're - weve already seen a lot of these people accept their awards and wear their best costumes and yeah.

Mr. SHANKMAN: That's how it affects it is that some actors say like, you know what? I'm overexposed. I dont need to do the show. I dont want to do the show because I've been to the Golden Globes and the Grammies and the SAG Awards and the Haiti tribute and, you know, so they just dont want to come on the show if they're not actually nominated, and it's horrible because that means they're not being part of their industry. It's the Super Bowl of the year.

GROSS: So when you say they dont want to be on the show, you mean as presenters?

Mr. SHANKMAN: Yeah, as presenters. Yeah, as presenters. We have a few key players not in place right now. But we have our desired list. We have - but there's a few key ones missing. We have almost everybody.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SHANKMAN: We have almost everybody.

GROSS: Now, how did you choose Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin to host? They co-star in "It's Complicated."

Mr. SHANKMAN: What happened was Bill Mechanic and I met, had lunch, and we very much - we first had a pretty radical idea about who we wanted to host the show, which the Academy swatted down because it was too big a wildcard.

GROSS: Youre not going to tell me who that was, right?

Mr. SHANKMAN: You know what? I actually am going to tell you, it was Sashay Baron Cohen.

GROSS: Oh no. Oh wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHANKMAN: And they thought it was too big a wildcard. They thought it was...

GROSS: Oh, that would've...

Mr. SHANKMAN: ...just too unpredictable.

GROSS: Oh, what a good reason to watch.

Mr. SHANKMAN: Hello, that's my thing. I mean, you know, once you get hired to do the show, we dont control the nominations, we dont control the winners, but we control, you know, everything around all of that stuff, and our job is to put on the best show possible and really give the audience - not just the people in the room, but the viewing audience, the people who pay our bills, you know, a great, great evening. And so I loved the idea.

GROSS: Yeah, if you had Sashay Baron Cohen hosting, you dont even know who'd be hosting because he might do it as one of his characters and...

Mr. SHANKMAN: I know. I mean it would be, it would just be spectacular. But I think the Academy felt like not only is it unpredictable but it could overshadow the nominees. Anyway, so anyway then we immediately went to this idea of co-host. And the very cool thing about the co-host thing is that we didnt realize there haven't been co-hosts in this fashion since 1928, which was the first year of the show. And so that's another way that its going to be very, very different because they're going to share the duties, their comedy is going to be very, very snappy. We both - we all love the way that Neil Patrick Harris did the Emmys, how he really kept them moving along, and Alec and Steve are going to be - and they're doing a lot of that stuff too.

But what the great thing was, was by having Steve, it anchors it in kind of a tradition and he is one of the most beloved hosts of the show theyve ever had. And then we thought Alec made a great comic wildcard, and they bring out the funniest versions of themselves with each other. The chemistry between them is so magical. When I say it's like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, I'm not kidding.

GROSS: Are they going to sing?

Mr. SHANKMAN: I'm not going to tell you that.


Mr. SHANKMAN: That would ruin the surprise.

GROSS: So tell me one thing...

Mr. SHANKMAN: Chipmunk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Thats our safe word.

Mr. SHANKMAN: That's our safe word when she starts going into territory that I'm not going to talk about - chipmunk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So last year there were former winners of Oscars who presented - who read the names of the nominees...

Mr. SHANKMAN: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: ...and presented the Oscar.


GROSS: So youre doing that again this year, right?

Mr. SHANKMAN: We loved the idea. We're doing something a little bit different with it, but in point of fact, something like that is going to be done and it has to do - the way we're doing it has to do with a bit more of interconnectivity because what was really, really stunning about last year the way they did that was the video clip build-up to the reveal of the stars, I mean the editing of that stuff was so breathtaking and so big that when those screens went up and you saw the five walk out, youre just like going, whoa, my God, it was so dramatic and beautiful. And then in many cases the presenter then started talking about the person they were nominating and they clearly didnt know who they were, basically.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHANKMAN: They were, you know, there was very little connectivity in there, and I think that was because it was a great idea on Bill Condon and Larry Mark's part that it sounds like it took - like it didnt kick into high gear until later and I think it was hard getting people to do it, actually. So we are taking the idea and playing with that.

GROSS: All right. And youre not going to tell how.


GROSS: But that's okay. I'll be watching.

Mr. SHANKMAN: No, no, no, that's fine. I mean just know that it will be sort of maybe not as dramatic but definitely a little more emotional.

GROSS: My guest is Adam Shankman. He's co-producing the Oscar telecast on March 7th. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Adam Shankman and he is one of the producers of the Academy Awards, which will be broadcast March 7th.

I dont know if you feel comfortable answering this, but since we're talking about award shows - I wonder what you thought of the Grammies.

Mr. SHANKMAN: I - okay, I thought that it was a very interesting try at a business that has been so ravaged because, you know, basically I mean it was -what was so incredibly weird was they had on an almost four hours show, it felt like, where they did 22 performances and gave out like eight or nine awards. And, you know, every time a person would come up or they'd introduce a person, they say earlier today so-and-so won seven Grammies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHANKMAN: And you know, but it was serious, but their ratings went up 35 percent. So you know, they were onto something with that. I personally felt they frontloaded some of the best acts too early into the show and then some of the less energetic acts were a little too late in the show. Like, they didnt pace it right for me, personally. Sorry, Grammy people. But that's just my take on it. But I mean that is truly a reaction to an industry that has been devastated. I think that's what happened on that show.

GROSS: Can I ask you something? I know youre a choreographer and director and producer and not a costume designer, but I think...


(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I think you still have an opinion on this.


GROSS: I feel like I'm so tired of seeing dancers in S&M fetish wear, maybe especially...

Mr. SHANKMAN: Yeah. I think once again, that's a reaction - that comes from the old school video world of, you know, this is what is sexy - how do you show sexy without being overt? And you know, I think a lot of people just go straight for overt and obvious because it's the easiest place to go. You know, its not particularly creative - and you know, it's funny because a lot of times you'll see them dressed like that when they are singing even if it's like a song about a breakup. It's sort of strange. It's sort of like there's nothing in there that says like anything about lifestyle being that like crazy vinyl look, you know? But it is a very easy place for people to go to be overtly sexy and so I think that's why it happens.

GROSS: So since youre going to be backstage, do you have to worry about what to wear or...

Mr. SHANKMAN: Oh my God. I'm so excited about what I'm wearing. You have no idea. Are you kidding?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHANKMAN: I am wearing the most beautiful - Tom Ford is making me...

GROSS: No. Oh no.

Mr. SHANKMAN: Yes. I can't believe it. It's - like, I saw it, I did my fitting and basically started to weep. It was like a clothing orgasm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHANKMAN: It was unbelievable, it was so beautiful. So I'm very excited about what I'm going to be wearing. Because then, you know, afterwards we have to go to the Governors Ball and do our thing and either hang our heads in shame and leave in a stretcher or walk around like, you know, with our arms up like "Invites."

GROSS: So do you want to describe what he made you?

Mr. SHANKMAN: What he made me? The tux?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SHANKMAN: Oh, it's so cool. It's like kind of from "Casino." Its a little bit more of like a, the jacket, it's like this beautiful fabric. I feel so like superficial, but whatever, with these beautiful silver threaded gold circles in it in the tux jacket and with this perfect fit. It's like cut to make me look like a superhero, basically.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHANKMAN: And then a shirt that basically was made by blind angels, its so beautiful. The fabric is so brilliant. This big beautiful puffy black bowtie with a low cut black vest that has kind of rooting(ph), if you know what that is, the way...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SHANKMAN: ...the texture of it, and then just, you know, gorgeous pants and gorgeous shoes and gorgeous everything, and I, you know, basically I'm going to put it in a glass case when I'm done. Or you know what? That's going to be my version of a wedding dress.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHANKMAN: You know, put it in a box and never to be touched again except on sad moments when I'm playing "All By Myself" by Eric Carmen and Ill just open it up and, you know, look at it.

GROSS: So one last question: now youre producing the Oscars and 20 years ago you performed in the production of the...

Mr. SHANKMAN: (Singing) "Under the Sea."

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yes, in "Under the Sea."

Mr. SHANKMAN: And the costume number. I was Baron Munchausen's in the costume number. Yeah, there's no dignity.

GROSS: So whats the difference in how it looks watching from home on television...

Mr. SHANKMAN: Its so sexy.

GROSS: ...versus the being there on stage?

Mr. SHANKMAN: Its vibe is kind of actually gorgeous mid-century and its just, its sexy. There's screens everywhere and, you know, being in the room - well, first of all, being in the room, its very hot and its not particularly comfortable and, you know, there's camera equipment all over the place and youre there and youre just watching. It's like going to a big Broadway show, you know, with a gigantic stage and then - but being on the stage and looking out, basically you see in the first 10 rows every movie star who's ever breathed, you know, it feels like, and youre close enough to touch Merlyn Strep.

So for these - I mean it's crazy, you know? But I think for the - I think it's actually nicer for the TV audience because it's just more comfortable. And there's also all these great games that youre going to be able to play this year because weve done so much work to create like inter-connective tissue between the presenter and, you know, the nominee or the winner or the tribute that I think it will be fun for people to try to guess how the things are connected. There's a bit of a six degrees kind of a thing that we're doing.

GROSS: Well, thank you, Adam Shankman. Thanks so much for talking with us. Good luck. Good luck with the ceremony and the broadcast.

Mr. SHANKMAN: Thank you. I need it. I need it. Cross your fingers and watch. Watch it. You know, watch for either the train wreck or for the fabulousness. That's what I'm thinking, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Adam Shankman is the co-producer of this year's Oscar telecast. He also directed the movies "Bringing Down the House" and the musical version of "Hairspray," and he's a judge on "So You Think You Can Dance." The Oscar ceremony is March 7th.

You can find links to interviews with all five of the Best Director nominees on our Web site,, where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can find more information about our guests by following us on Twitter and finding us on Facebook at nprfreshair.

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