Earthbound: Adam Shankman on Step Up Revolution and the Oscars

The filmmaker dishes about the future of the dance franchise and the reality of producing the Academy Awards.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

I love The Dark Knight Rises. The impossibly dark drama We Need to Talk About Kevin was my favorite film of 2011. But I still love the Step Up movies, damn it, and I think so should you. With every passing sequel, these ecstatically melodramatic dance movies are espousing a brand of refreshing neo-sincerity that's also infecting some of our finest motion pictures, like The Avengers and Chronicle, which are making waves by embracing pop culture history and classical genre tropes in equal measure. Perfecting the wheel, not simply reinventing it; that's what I love about the Step Up movies. They're feel good musical entertainment to the nth degree, and they show no sign of stopping anytime soon.

One of the key figures in the Step Up franchise is producer Adam Shankman, who's been with the series since the beginning and has been working as a producer, director and choreographer for two decades. With Step Up Revolution premiering on DVD and Blu-ray today, I took the opportunity to speak to Shankman about the future and sweeping appeal of the series, as well as his experiences producing the 82nd Annual Academy Awards in 2010, which gives him a unique perspective on some of the issues plaguing the telecast for years, and what we should have in store for us at the Oscars this year.

CraveOnline: I’m one of the most vocal proponents of the Step Up franchise.

Adam Shankman: [Laughs] Thank you. We need people like you.

When I talked to Scott Speer, when Step Up Revolution came out in theaters, he said for Step Up 5, you were talking about Swim Up: Synchronized Swimming and Step Up in Space. Did you decide on one of those yet?

[Laugh] I was kidding, of course?

Damn it!

What we were talking about, really, was “what is the next frontier?” But it does look like there’s more of these in the pipeline, so we’re going to have become a little more earthbound.

Is it necessary to be earthbound? Because I think Step Up in Space writes itself.

[Laughs] There’s a part of me that agrees with you. However, there are budgetary concerns. We don’t want it to look like an Ed Wood movie.

You said, in an interview last summer, “If I have to come up with one more reason to save the world one dance at a time I will kill myself.” Is the well in danger of running dry?

As of right now, the well is not in danger of running dry. We have come up some scenarios that I find satisfying. To me, there’s two components of these movies that are important make people like them, which is, number one, it is about shared experience of discovering a family, and discovering a family through this medium, through dancing, and the love of dance and what dance can do. So that’s number one. Number two, I have gone back to saying that I really want there to be stakes. As cliché as some of them may be, that there are actual, genuine stakes. Because remember in the first one, those were real stakes, and we actually went so far as to have a young teenager die because of his surroundings and his difficult life. So I just want there to be legitimate dramatic underpinnings for us to go forward.

So more death in the future, is what you’re saying…

I don’t foresee any deaths happening soon [laughs], but as long as there are legitimate stakes, I feel good about the movies going forward.

At this point, is it possible to make a Step Up movie without Adam Sevani?

Yeah, I would say that as much as the fans love him…

We do.

The fans absolutely adore him, but the Step Up world can exist without him. Listen, there was a point at which people thought that the Step Up world could not exist without Channing Tatum, and that happened. So…

Well, you replaced him with Adam Sevani so everything was cool.

It’s a very strange swap.

I feel like a lot of Step Up movies are playing in a way that I imagine is very personal to dancers. That perhaps someone like myself, who dances very, very badly, maybe has to appreciate on an academic level. There’s a line in Step Up Revolution, “Either you’re a professional dancer by the end of the summer, or you come home to Cleveland and you work for me.”

[Laughs] Well, rather than call it that, I would call it “aspirational.” The world that I would choose is “aspirational.” Of course the movies speak to dancers in a very significant way, but at the end of the day, fingers crossed, they do bring up, even vaguely, bigger issues. They all, like I said, end up about finding family.

I discovered something while I was doing a little bit of research for this interview. Is it true that you played a driver in the movie Rockula?

In Rockula? [Thinks] In Rockula… I did. That’s true. I barely… It was a one-day gig for me. I can’t remember what I played though. But I was in that movie.

That’s one of my favorite movies.

Yeah, I’d have to go back and look at that. I can’t quite remember what I did in that. Back then, when I was acting, I did a few movies. I played a waiter in some movie called Midnight Cabaret. I ended up being in this crazy movie called Frankenstein Sings [aka Monster Mash] because one of the actors dropped out, and I literally fit the wardrobe, and I was the choreographer, and they literally didn’t ask me. They just put me in the movie. So yeah, crazy.

You produced the Academy Awards a couple of years ago.


Is there a level of creative freedom in that job, or are you mostly responsible for keeping everything going in a very manic timeline?

Both, actually. They give you a ton of freedom. When they hire you, there’s only two things that they are in control of, that they have to agree on, and that is the host – they have to condone who your choice is, they can nix that – and then who makes it in the “In Memoriam.” Those are the only two things that the Academy does. Our year, they had sort of said, “Well, there are these two awards you don’t have to show in broadcast,” and so we built the show around that, and then they came back and said, “Actually, you do have to put it in broadcast.” So we had to kind of amend the show, but creatively, from the set standpoint to the show run, to who’s on it, that’s all us.

Which two awards did they initially say you didn’t have to put on the show?

I think it was the ones that they do at the Governor Awards? I can’t remember, it’s like Lifetime Achievement, there’s just a few awards and it’s an entirely different show for that, that’s not broadcast.

One thing that I think a lot of people talk about is whether or not the Best Song nominees should be performed. Do you have a take on that?

I do. After a lot of research, what has become true is, what people do like is when the people who sang it originally in the movie or for the soundtrack or whatever sing it live. But if somebody else covers it, the audience doesn’t like it. My feeling is, not every song is going to be as appealing. Whether its craftsmanship is Oscar-worthy is not the issue, but does it provide propulsion? And you can’t just put on one or two of the nominees. If you put on one, you’ve got to put on them all. So it’s all about that, and if the producer is feeling like every song is worthy of live TV, then that’s one thing, but if you don’t feel like that, then, you know, you don’t.

A lot of people wonder if the Oscars need a shot in the arm. Do you feel like there’s something that the awards show is missing, maybe now that you’ve worked on it?

Well, I feel like the real back and forth on the Oscars particularly, you’ve seen it reflected in all the other shows, is the youth component, and how many awards versus how much entertainment you put on there. The Oscars still get bigger ratings than all the other shows, so that hasn’t killed it. Nothing’s killed it. But yeah, a fresh perspective. I tried to really do some fun stuff in there, put young people on it, do the horror tribute, do the John Hughes tribute, those were the things that the Academy questioned, and I was trying to do just what we’re saying. Give it that youthful shot. Because I remember, growing up, I always enjoyed the entertainment value, and seeing where people do things as opposed to just accepting awards. So it’s not like anybody sets out not to do that, but yeah, I think that it would be nice. I’m really hopefully that this year something fabulous happens. When I look at what it looks like the Best Picture nominees are going to be, I think we have some potential for a good show, especially with Les Mis screaming out in front, and Silver Linings and Argo, they’re doing well. The hard part of the show is just the movies that are nominated do not make a lot of money. I hit the jackpot, because my year I had Avatar vs. The Hurt Locker. So I had the biggest movie of all time, basically, against a small, personal movie, that were made by exes. You know what I mean? They were a couple. So they story of the evening was already laid out for me, which was brilliant, which was amazing.

What is next for you as a director? After Rock of Ages, I’m not sure what’s coming up.

You know what? I’ve had things that have been in front of me, had things that stalled, some things are start… I’m actually just in the reading process right now. I’m looking around.

Are you looking for another musical, or is that incidental at this point?

That’s incidental. I can make them, I love making them, I certainly am getting my fill. I’m shooting an episode of “Glee,” I’m doing a Christmas “Glee” right now. So it’s not like my ever take my finger off of that pulse, but I certainly want to do more character-driven dramedy probably. 

Follow William Bibbiani on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.