From the Set: Rock of Ages


“I want to make a musical for heterosexual guys”

Those are the exact words uttered by director Adam Shankman who seemed somewhat weary and even a bit emotional as they reached the end of filming on his new movie Rock of Ages.

Last summer, had a chance to visit the Miami set where they had closed off a section of a less-populated area of the city–North Miami Avenue between the 13th and 14th–to reconstruct Sunset Boulevard a.ka. the Sunset Strip circa the 1980s. Over the course of the evening, we had a chance to watch Julianne Hough performing an early number from the number, as well as talk to Boneta, director Adam Shankman and choreographer Mia Michaels.

If you don’t pay much attention to what is happening on Broadway, the movie’s based around the hit Broadway musical of the same name that created a story around some of the classic ’80s hard rock and hair metal songs. The show originated in Los Angeles in 2004 with the cast including the likes of “Talking Dead” host Chris Hardwick and Tenacious D co-frontman Kyle Gass – before moving to Broadway in 2009 and becoming an enormous hit. To give you some perspective on how popular the show has been, there are numerous fansites and fans who have gone to see hundreds of times all over the world.

Shankman already had experience translating a Broadway musical to the screen, having helmed the movie version of Hairspray, and gotten the likes of John Travolta, Queen Latifah, Christopher Walken, Zac Effron and Michelle Pfeiffer, to help make it a big hit for New Line, so he seemed like the most obvious candidate to do the same for Rock of Ages.

“It’s pure Adam Shankman,” the director told us when we sat down him for an extensive interview. “My whole experience of this is about saying ‘thank you’ to the play for existing and then turning this into an entirely different animal and maintaining the spirit and energy. I was so stunned when I went to see the play that the house was full of straight guys rocking out, freaking out, and loving a musical. I was like, if I can make a musical for straight guys, then I’d be a rock star. That is a big deal for me to be able to grab that audience and make them ashamedly admit that they love a f*cking musical that is really sexy, that would be awesome. So that was my way in to doing this whole project, doing a musical for straight guys.”

In the movie, Julianne Hough (Footloose) plays Sherrie Christian, the naïve girl who comes to Hollywood seeking her fame and fortune and getting caught up in the inner drama at a local rock club called the Bourbon Room. There, she bonds with the equally ambitious Drew Boley, played by newcomer Diego Boneta, taking on the role played on Broadway by “American Idol” star Constantine Maroulis. Tom Cruise plays famed rocker Stacee Jaxx, who is scheduled to play the very last show with his band Arsenal at the Bourbon Room, a show that will save the club from closing until Stacee’s manager, played by Paul Giamatti, steals the box office receipts putting the club into a bind.

The movie also stars Russell Brand, Alec Baldwin, Catherine Zeta Jones, Mary J. Blige and Bryan Cranston as various satellite characters around the young couple, all of whom who affect the ups and downs in their respective careers that threatens to end their relationship. Unfortunately, none of the bigger stars were around on the day we visited, but we spent a lot of time talking to Shankman and the two young leads.

The Set: Recreating the Sunset Strip

The Bourbon Room is the Sunset Strip rock club that acts as the central locale for the musical that took Broadway by storm in recent years, and for the movie, the story wasn’t just going to take place inside the club, but also all around it.

We’ll freely admit that we didn’t spent too much time in Los Angeles in the ’80s, but like most, we’ve probably seen it in enough movies to have some idea what it would look like, and we were immediately blown away when our van drove around a corner and we suddenly found ourselves in Hollywood’s famous Sunset Strip as it may have looked in the late ’80s. We had literally been driven through a time warp back into a time and place that few of us have experienced for ourselves.

It took production designer Jon Hutman and his team eight weeks to build this expansive set which took up four or five full blocks, and it included Hollywood landmarks like the Whisky A Go Go, a rock club where lots of big metal bands got their start, as well as the Roxy Theater where many famous rock acts would play. The ersatz Strip also included a realistic facsimile of Tower Records complete with vintage mental album covers and posters that may have been in the windows circa 1987. They also recreated Carneys Express Limited, a hot dog and burger joint on an old train, and they created that down to the smallest detail including the picnic table outside.

Looming above the entire set was a recreation of the very first giant billboard of Hollywood personality Angelyne which had an ongoing presence on the actual Sunset Strip for many years, and off in the background, we could even see the authentic 20-foot high “HOLLYWOOD” sign they had built next to the Florida Turnpike to make it feel even more legit. To be honest, they probably could have added the famous landmark with CG later so the fact that they actually took the time to build it for real shows the dedication that Shankman and Hutman had to authenticity.

Shankman explained to us why they decided to build such an elaborate set in the outskirts of Miami. “We all know that if I had used the real Sunset Strip it would have been impossible to try and shut down the Sunset Strip day and night for six weeks. We would have been public enemy number one in Los Angeles. The city wouldn’t have done it and it would have been costly. Reality also is that there are a lot of gaps, a lot of business in between the iconic things. I decided on Miami because besides the tax incentive, the light, the palm trees and certain stretches of land made it completely right for Los Angeles. We found an area and I said to my incredibly brilliant production designer John Hutman, who knows how to do things with paste that no man could imagine. We came here and basically I gave him a layout of the most important iconic businesses that I can remember from growing up in Los Angeles. My dad’s office was at 9200 Sunset. So I grew up looking at the Sunset Strip, literally. The things that I remember are the Rainbow Room, the Roxy, the Bizarries, Tower, I grew up my whole life going there, Filthy McNasty’s and I said, ‘I need these things and now fill it in with other iconic buildings,’ so that’s kind of how it happened. He gave me a plan and we gutted it, kept going back and forth, but we called it the greatest hits. There’s Beacons because it had to be because that f*cking building is there and it’s like what else does it look like? It looks like Beacons on Santa Monica. But we have our Angelyne and we kind of have everything. We have what I need, let’s put it that way. He even did a couple extra things. Ben Franks was never in the plan and that is here now. There is great extra stuff.”

To give the set an authentic vintage feel, they’d even created an old Shell station, and the original Frederick’s of Hollywood lingerie shop, which made us wonder if they had any problems getting rights to use any of the places that no longer existed.

“There was nothing that I wanted that I couldn’t get. I needed that f*cking blow-up bitch on Tower Records from the Rolling Stones video and the Rolling Stones wouldn’t give us the exact girl so I made John give us another one. So there was nothing I gave up, there were just things that I adjusted to.”

The outer face of the Bourbon Room was built in a way that fit right in with this environment, although they built the interiors at a local Fort Lauderdale night club called Revolution Live. Besides the Bourbon Room, they had created the exteriors of the Venus Room, the strip club where Sherrie ends up working, although creating the interiors proved to be a bit more of a challenge, as Shankman told us. “The Venus Room is actually built in the original Playboy club here and its way down in North Miami in a hotel. We scouted it with flashlights, there was rubble and trash bags, and I turned to him and said, you have a lot of nerve bringing me to this f*cking room. He said, “No, it’s going to be amazing.” I was like, how the f*ck are you going to turn this into what we need? He said, “I’m telling you, paint and carpet.” I said, ” You can make chandeliers from paint and carpet, good luck.”

Recreating the Sunset Strip wasn’t just about the buildings, as they also had brought in vintage cars and motorcycles to ride around on the streets and all the extras were dressed appropriately as if they were denizens of ’80s Los Angeles – either dressed as Goths or metal chicks with big hair. We’d see more how all of these elements came together while they were shooting.

The Songs: Mixing Old Classics with New

Even more important than creating the environment was getting the rights to all the songs from the musical, because those party-friendly rockers and metal power ballads play a large part in why so many people have loved the musical. Whether or not you want to admit it or not, almost EVERYBODY knows all of these songs, many of them being karaoke mainstays, so creating a musical around them was a genius idea.

One of the sticking points with the musical was that Def Leppard, the ’80s metal band who performed the song “Rock of Ages” that gave the musical its title refused to give them the rights to use their songs. That’s changing with the movie as not only have Def Leppard given their blessing for the production to use some of their songs but a couple of them even make a cameo in the movie. And if that’s not enough, they’re even going on a “Rock of Ages” summer tour with Poison to tie into the release of the movie. (Apparently, Brett Michaels holds no ill will against the show having been concussed during a Tony Awards performance with the cast.)

But going back to the movie, we were told they ended up using roughly 23 songs (including mash-ups of two or more songs) and while the Def Leppard songs were a nice addition, they did have to lose some of the songs from the show to make it work as a movie.

“I went off of the play and kind of chose the ones that I really understood and loved because it is a jukebox musical so you have to put songs in characters mouths that were actually right, but then I changed a bunch of stuff, too. Like when Drew is telling Sherrie about his life I did a really fun mash with Adam Andrews, who is a genius and the best in the world at this, of “Jukebox Hero” and “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” That’s not in the play. So he’s telling his story where Alec (Baldwin) and Russell (Brand) are jumping around drunk and singing “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” It was all based on the fact that they have the same rhythm and they both have the word Jukebox in them. So that was that. Then I did a mash-up that is not in the play, which is “We Built This City” and “We’re Not Going To Take It” as the protest outside the Bourbon Room, which is going to be a big thing. To be perfectly honest, each song on their own I’m not a huge fan of but when they are shoved together they are f*cking awesome. So the energy, the spirit, the drive, the themes of the play are not changed. I just made everything make sense. I have “Pour Some Sugar” in place of “Come on Feel the Noise.” I got rid of “Final Countdown.” I got rid of “Oh, Sherrie” because that was too on the nose for me. I really tried to make it as not winkie as possible.”

They’ve even written a few original songs for the film, including one called “Rock Angels,” performed by singer Porcelain Black, which Shankman told us about:

“Porcelain is f*cking unbelievable; who knew that bitch was going to be like that?” Shankman laughed. “She came in and we were all like, (snaps his fingers) ‘Ooh, she said that!’ Porcelain sings an original song that I had Adam Anders and Desmond Child write for me called “Rock Angels.” Now Desmond wrote a lot of the Bon Jovi songs and he’s written so many of these ’80s rock anthems that I wanted a new one. There has to be authenticity in everything. We have two original songs, both written by Adam Anders. “Rock Angels” was with Desmond, and I was very careful while I was crafting that to make sure that they didn’t pull us out of the period or the style. They literally sounded like everything else and when we were shooting the stuff the crew was Googling, trying to find out who the songs belonged to, so they thought they were real songs from the period. So that was a big win for me. There was a love montage sequence that I couldn’t find the exact right real song and I had a really strong feeling about not doing a needle drop there so I wanted to see Drew and Sherrie going to see a band together because that is what they love live music. It’s very easy to explain. In “Hairspray,” in neither the John Waters movie or the play, they talk about Negro Day over and over again but they never show it. Drew and Sherrie talk about loving live music over and over but they never go to see it, so I’ve shown it. They go to a little concert.”

The other original song by Anders is called “Undercover Love” and it’s more of a joke song for Drew when he’s convinced by his manager, played by Paul Giamatti, to join a boy bad. They even shoot a music video with Hostel creator Eli Roth as the video director. From what we were told by Diego Boneta, it’s a pretty crazy over-the-top sequence that was created specifically for the movie as Drew’s career starts getting turned into different directions.

Choreography: Creating the Musical’s ’80s Moves

While we were talking to Shankman between set-ups, he saw his choreography partner Mia Michaels walking by and he called her over with a, “Yo, bitch! Come here!” Even though Shankman comes from a choreography background, he brought in the choreographer best known for her stint on “So You Think You Can Dance?” to help him teach the actors just the right ’80s dance moves. Even so, it’s been tough for the long-time friends to agree on how to approach the dancing since they come from different backgrounds.

“Our friendship has even grown stronger from this experience,” Michaels said about how they’ve been working together. “We didn’t get to the spend the time we wanted to as friends because we were both working so much, but it was really interesting and cool, since I was working with my friend, and he’s the director and there was a trust. He would just direct me, and then let me go and guide me. Our vision was very cohesive together, and very few times did we not agree.”

“I don’t think we ever didn’t agree, but, we never didn’t agree,” Shankman said quizzically. “Here’s the reality. Mia comes from a concert role, originally, and I come from pure commercials. I’ve always sort of marveled at our ability to chat and match, because honestly I think of myself of as a little bit of hack, and I think of her as an artist. The truth of the matter is sh*t has to get done, so she came in, and I said, “Okay, I have to do a boy band number with Running Man* and Roger Rabbit*.” (*We’re assuming these are dance moves.) And Mia’s just like, ‘What are you f*cking talking about? I don’t know how to do that,’ and I said, ‘Have fun!’ and I walked away. I come back in and she had put together a perfect boy band number, like the New Kids on the Block, from the period, but she was just sitting there? just staring.”

Doing boy band choreography wasn’t the only thing Shankman threw Michaels’ way as a challenge, because she had to fill much of the musical numbers with sexual rock energy.

“Sex and humor are the two big choreographic sort of points in this,” he told us. “There is so much sexual energy in this movie, and I’ve never done a lot of sexual energy in any of my movies, and it’s been fun. I watched ‘Rock You Like A Hurricane,’ and I feel like I shouldn’t be watching it.”

“He opened that can of worms for me, too,” Michaels concurred. “I’ve never brought sexuality into my work because it was such an art form as far as my craft, the art of dance, and Adam was like ‘This is what we have to bring it to the table.'”

“It’s part of the story,” Shankman said.

The Mega-Star: Tom Cruise Sings and Dances

A lot of the chatter around New Line’s adaptation of the Broadway musical was that they were able to get mega-star Tom Cruise to play a key supporting role as Stacee Jaxx, the world-famous rocker who threatens to destroy the romance between Sherrie and Drew when he arrive at the Bourbon Room to play a gig.

“The impulse casting was the same as the impulse to get Travolta for ‘Hairspray,'” Shankman told us when the subject of Cruise came up. “The impulse on ‘Hairspray’ was find the biggest male musical star in the world to play this part. With Tom it was find the biggest movie star to play the biggest rock star.”

Shankman says he’s sick of telling the story on how he first met Tom Cruise but he told it anyway. “I was at Sadie Sandler’s first birthday party, and I’m not friends with a lot of movie stars. I know them, and I work with them, but I’m not friends with them, but I went to this with my niece, and we’re sitting in those plastic chairs for little kids that are this tall. And so I’m like, in this thing, doing it, and all of a sudden, another one pulls up next to me, and actually Tom sat down in another one next to me, and I had never met him before, and I was terrified. It was Tom f*cking Cruise! And he’s like ‘Dude, I just want you to know I’m a big fan of ‘Hairspray’ and Suri loves it. We’ve seen it, like, a hundred times,’ which, by the way, is more than me. ‘I thought you did the most interesting thing with the tone,’ and he started talking to me about filmmaking and tone. I’m sitting in a one-year-old’s plastic chair, and so is he. And I got very – honestly nervous. I wanted to walk away because I was so freaked out. I got a little star-struck to be honest.”

“So I said, ‘Listen, Dude, we’ll talk about it in a second. I’m gonna go get some food. Can I get you anything?’ and I stood up and the chair stuck to my ass. So, I’m standing there talking to Tom Cruise with a plastic chair on my ass, and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. So the tone was set, and he would make jokes then with me, ‘When are we gonna do a musical?’ and I’m like ‘Ha, ha, never,’ and then this project came up, and to me, there was something that made sense about having somebody of his stature playing that part. I needed somebody of his stature playing that part. I thought it was add some gravitas to it, but we both agreed that we weren’t gonna do it unless we knew he could sing.”

“We put him with Axl Rose’s singing guy because I needed the songs to be really rock, I needed the voices to be rock ‘n’ roll, not Broadway,” Shankman continued. “He started working with him, and on the second vocal session, I was in the this sort of side room, and Tom was at the piano working on it, and the guy got him to sing way the f*ck up, and it would have thick, amazing sound to it. Apparently, Tom has some opera singers in his family, so he’s genetically predisposed to be able to sing, basically, is the reality. So just because he hasn’t done it, you just have to train him. No one’s ever asked him. That’s the weird thing. No one’s ever asked him, and he loved that somebody had the nerve to ask him.”

Getting Cruise to move like a rock star was going to be another challenge for Shankman and Michaels.

“I knew he could dance because he did this little thing with Katie at one of my MPTF benefits. And then he did the MTV Awards with Jennifer Lopez as Les Grossman. So I knew that he could move. What I didn’t know was it’s like a stunt. You have to rehearse it into him. It doesn’t come naturally. He’s not a dancer – he has to learn it and drill it. There’s nothing he does in the movie that wasn’t choreographed to the knuckle. Beyond that, he wants to know why you’re doing it. If you’re doing a hip roll or something like that, Tom wants to know why.”

“It’s a different world because he has always wanted dialogue. We spent hours talking about a hip roll. Hours,” Michaels added about working with Cruise on Stacee Jaxx’s moves. “He’s not a dancer, and he couldn’t count music, so he didn’t hear music the same way. I’m very complex when I listen to music, I hear it inside. So, I’m like, “That beat that’s not there, you need to hear it on the (duh duh duh duh),’ and he’s looking at me like I’m an alien.”

“Yeah, choreography is more instinctual, and he wanted the instinct broken down,” Shankman said. “It’s challenging for us to have to explain things that are just organic, but what happened is he caught up to us. After the initial thing, I started to say to him in cuts, ‘Shut up and f*cking act,’ and I started to do that, and he would laugh, and it would be great. There’s a giving over to it, but guys, it’s Tom Cruise! He’s doing a musical. How f*cking scary must that be?”

Stacee Jaxx was also such a specific character that they had to develop every detail down to his stance, and Shankman explained how they found it. “We were Facetiming a costume fitting, and I was watching him getting fit, and Tom is like a square body guy, and he had to arch his back to have them put the Bret Michaels headband on him. He was wearing this weird fur coat and sunglasses. And so he got in this weird arched position. And I took a picture of it while we were Facetiming, and I sent the picture to him and I said, “This is who you are in this movie.” And he became that guy. But here’s the scary thing about Tom. You have to be careful what you say, because he listens so much. It’s like, he really takes what you say and then starts to pull it apart. There’s no version of ‘whatever,’ with Tom Cruise, you mean it. It’s all or nothing.”

“All he wants to do is learn,” Michaels agreed. “He’s so insatiable with learning anything he doesn’t know, so he took on dances, like this thing that is really?”

“It’s nuts!” Shankman jumped in.

“He went full-out,” Michaels continued. “I think we were all, like, ‘Oh my God,’ because he’s so intense, and he’s never tired, and he’s just like a superhero, in a way. He’s very alien in that way because he never stops. He goes and goes and goes. We had to deal with all the other celebrities in the entire film, and so there we are with Tom, just sucking every ounce of our being from us. Once I fell into his rhythm of his rehearsals, and how he liked to work, we were unstoppable. And I hope I work with him for the rest of my career.”

“I’ve never seen anybody more dedicated to being good in my life, like who cared more,” Shankman agreed.

Shankman decided it was time to put his money where his mouth is and after talking to him for roughly 40 minutes, he brought the entire group of journalists into his trailer and showed them the roughly-edited performance by Cruise as Stacee Jaxx doing Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” It was an absolute revelation to everyone visiting the set since none of us could imagine Cruise personifying the character, let alone singing metal. Shankman also showed us a small portion of the movie’s musical number for Pat Benatar’s “Shadows of the Night” as sung by Mary J. Blige, who plays Justice, the matron of the Venus strip club.

The Shoot: Sherrie Arrives at Sunset

The day we visited the set, they were actually shooting the film’s first musical number when Julianne Hough’s Sherrie first arrives on the Sunset Strip and gleefully sings David Lee Roth’s “Just Like Paradise” as this gloriously grimy world of Los Angeles unfolds around her.

As she walks down the street singing, some homeless guy accosts her as she walks past, but then a police car skids to a halt in front of them and they get out to arrest the homeless guy. She continues on as three hookers approach and proposition her, but that’s not going to stop her from singing.

This was where we got to see all the pieces of creating this environment come together as the Sunset Strip was just teeming with life with the vintage cars we saw earlier driving in the background, not just on the cross-street directly behind where Hough was performing but even the next block down. All of it was running quite smoothly every time they called “action” and we were really impressed with the scale of this opening musical number.

We watched Hough perform the same scene over and over again, and she seemed to have so much energy and enthusiasm that she was absolutely a joy to watch. Even Shankman seemed to enjoy what was happening on set because at one point, we saw him literally doing cartwheels.

Part of the fun of making the movie was meeting some of the original rockers who performed the songs and while none of them were there when we were on set, we heard that the likes of Def Leppard, Brett Michaels from Poison and members of Journey would show up to check out the shoot as well as making cameos, and fans of the original Broadway musical might be thrilled to know that there’s even a cameo by Constantine Maroulis.

Late in the day, we finally had a chance to talk to the two young actors starring in the movie, Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta, and you can read our interviews with them on the next page.

Continue to Page 2 of the Set Visit >>

(Thanks to Steve Weintraub for sharing the on-set photo.)