Q&A: Getting Answers to “What Men Want”

Director Adam Shankman (Center) and Taraji P. Henson on the set of “What Men Want”. Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures/Paramount Players.

Director Adam Shankman on Empowerment, Sports, and How the Original “What Women Want” Would Not Work in This Era

Arturo Hilario

El Observador

In the new film “What Men Want”, Taraji P. Henson stars as Ali Davis, a successful sports agent who has, until now, been able to navigate the boys club that exists within her career.

When she is passed on a promotion she begins to question herself, and before she can even begin to piece together a solid plan for the future, a fantastical situation involving drinking a spiked tea leaves her with the ability to hear men’s thoughts. Hijinks then ensue from Ali trying to navigate her world with these abilities. If this sounds familiar, a similar premise is what led the popular romantic comedy, “What Women Want” in 2000 with Mel Gibson as the “hearer”.

Titles seem to be one of the few things that attach the new film to Gibson’s though. Adam Shankman is the Director of the new “What Men Want”, and although he’s thankful for the first film existing, does reinforce that the contents of this film are in many ways a world away compared to the original.

Filled with comedians, sports cameos and a lot of ad-libbing, and co-starring Tracy Morgan, Richard Roundtree, Josh Brener, Tamala Jones, Brian Bosworth, and Erykah Badu, this is certainly a more comedy-centric approach.

In the following interview Shankman reveals how “What Men Want” was made, why its central theme is very important, and what a shared movie universe with the cast of “Girls Trip” would actually entail.

Hello Adam. Thank you for the time to chat. To start off, could you tell me if “What Women Want” has anything to do with this new incarnation besides that shared premise?

No, it’s really just the shared premise of the curse movie, where you’re suddenly curse with the abilities to hear inside the opposite sex’s head and past that, we have basically no other shared DNA. the story is very different. The first one was a really ‘dyed in the wool’ romantic comedy. This is a comedy with a romantic element to it. Obviously, we’re very grateful that the first one was made, but the first one right now, if you sort of look at it, in terms of what’s happening today, I don’t know that it could be made right now because Mel Gibson’s character is such a misogynist, and such a chauvinist that I think his character would be pretty reviled in today’s social climate.

We put Taraji’s character in the middle of an industry that is deeply dominated by men. She is competing legitimately in a man’s world. If you look at the real sports agent culture, there’s very few women agents. More everyday thank god, but there has been a barrier too, so she is really in a den of wolves in this one. So, what happens is that in the Mel Gibson movie he was really the villain of the piece. His own beliefs, his disrespect for women, his beliefs that they were second class, etc. in this movie, the villain is really the culture that our central character has put herself in the middle of. By choosing a field where she’s in a male dominated workplace, she’s gonna find herself in a competitive space.

It is because of the field that Ali works in that it is also a sports-related movie. Had that always been the plan from the beginning?

When I came into the movie it was already that she was a sports agent. And then, as we progressed the different cameos kept shifting and growing and changing and who was available and who wasn’t available. It was always that she was a sports agent, yeah.

Would you say that this is a sports movie as well?

I think rather than saying it’s a sports movie I would say that there is a lot of fun in there for men. We definitely worked hard to make sure this was not a “man bashing” movie, that every kind of man who would’ve crossed her path is well represented. That we say some actually really positive things about certain men. And that the sports cameos are going to be very fun and fulfilling for the audience. But yeah, I wouldn’t say it’s a sports movie in the traditional sense, like “Remember the Titans”, but there’s definitely a sports element in there and a lot of great stuff for guys.

You see aspects that touch on female empowerment, fatherhood. What would you say is the core or heart of the film or the main idea that is going throughout the film?

I think the main idea is about the central notion of learning to appreciate yourself and not play by the rules that you believe were carved out for you by other people. I also think that there’s a strong message about the value of listening to each other and not making assumptions about the world around you. She has a line early in the movie where she says to her father, “how am I supposed to win in a system that’s rigged against me.” And he says, “you just have to do you.” And that is really shorthand for, “you have to keep carving your own path.”

I think one of the things that is a misconception is that there is a single path and that’s really the single path to success. And I think that’s what at the end of the day the movie ultimately uncovers but in this incredibly toxic, negative-spun environment that we live in today, to have a place that you can go with your friends, your family, alone, with a date, or whoever, sit in an audience and laugh, then walk out going like, “Oh yeah, she self-actualized by being forced to listen to other people.” [So] the power of listening, and opening up your thoughts and ideas is very, very underlined in the movie.

Speaking on the cast, there are a lot of great, funny people in this. How was it working with them, and did they get to do a lot of ad-libbing, especially with the stuff going on in their heads?

Basically, what I did is I cast people very specifically who I felt comfortable saying, “okay we’ve now shot the scene scripted, let’s start playing around with the script.” this movie was not a big budget movie and we had to shoot it incredibly fast, the fastest movie I’ve ever shot other than “A Walk to Remember”, and so we were flying by the seat of our pants every day. I knew that it was important to get the foundation of the script and then let them kind of take-off. I would just guide them through that kind of improvised take or takes that we would then do. And because everybody has a different style of improvising and not everybody matches up you have to keep everybody on message for what the scene is, or else it can go off the rails. That became a really fun part of the shooting and I know that the actors really felt, from what I’m led to believe by them, they really felt understood and appreciated and it was an incredibly fun set as a result.

There’s a lot of stuff in the movie that’s not scripted but I did shoot everything that is scripted.

It definitely changes things that it is rated R, right?

Well, it’s really helpful. You know I’ve never shot an R-rated movie and it’s funny when I took the job people were like, “Let’s see how you handle R-rated material,” and I was like, “I live in an R-rated world!” All I’m doing is being able to show and say things that exist as opposed to having the handcuffs on, to be careful to not show these things. It always makes me laugh, it’s sort of that thing again [of] making assumptions about the boxes that people live in. it’s exactly what the movie’s about, you are hog tied to other people’s ideas of what you’re capable of and you sort of have to force yourself out of the box if you want to get there.

Were there any challenges that you can recall in making “What Men Want”?

The big challenge was just the schedule alone, just trying to get everything because when the movie was assembled it was over an hour longer, I had to cut down three storylines out of it that ended up being superfluous and I shot a lot more movie. Which is crazy to think, that there was that much more movie in there. But, the biggest challenges for me were to make sure that we never even got near this notion, even though there’s romance in the movie, that Taraji’s character is made whole by the love of a man.

Because, you are always sort of pulled magnetically in that direction when you’re making movies like this and there’s a romantic element, optically you’re just going to suddenly find yourself in the land of, “look, she got loved, she’s made it”, or “his love made her feel better”, and that’s just not this movie at all. The other one I found was that there was that when I came on the assistant character Brandon was written as gay, but he was written as very stereotypically and to try and move people into a more authentic space where they could accept that there were other kinds of gay characters that were funny, was very challenging.

Based on this project, is there any avenue that you see a sequel for “What Men Want” happening?

I’m not gonna say yes, I’m not gonna say no because people have liked so much of the stuff in the movie that this question continues to be raised and if it were, let’s put it this way, Sister (Erykah Badu) would be a big part of it. She’s just too good a character. Here’s what my sequel is I suppose: Taraji’s character goes on a trip with Sister to Europe and runs into all the “Girl’s Trip” girls and they all drink Sister’s tea and it just turns into a free-for-all. Everybody having the power.

And finally, why should people go see “What Men Want”?

I’ll tell you why. We need to laugh as a society. We need relief. We need to laugh collectively and sitting in that room hearing people laugh is absolutely infectious. This movie has kindness and joy running through its veins, and strong messages of empowerment and kindness. I would recommend it just so that we can collectively as a culture kind of have that experience.

“What Men Want” is now in theaters.