Adam Shankman grills 'Glee' creator Ryan Murphy

The longtime friends explore censorship, reinvention

Adam Shankman, left, Ryan Murphy (Photo by Marc Royce)
Adam Shankman: What has been your biggest bump on the show?

Ryan Murphy: One of the early episodes in, where we were figuring out the tone. It was the third episode we shot. The pilot had gone well. The second episode had gone well. And then I watched the next one and I absolutely hated it! I thought nothing worked. So, I had to go to the network executives and say, "I need to reshoot four scenes. Will you give me the money?" They didn't agree with me, but I was so passionate about it. And I did reshoot. I had to go with my instinct.
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Shankman: "Glee" changed -- it took the turn for, "Oh, this is huge" -- when Sue Sylvester's (Jane Lynch) sister was introduced with Down syndrome.

Murphy: That was the changing-point for me, too. Because I felt, "This can be a show about social causes, and it could go deeper." At first I thought the fun was going to be fun, pop, lighter than air.

Shankman: What's the ratio between the emotional episodes versus you wanting to do just something light?

Murphy: We run in a pattern where we'll do one that's just sort of a regular journeyman episode -- comedy and also drama, 50/50 we call it -- and then we'll do one crazy spectacular bit, which is Britney Spears or Madonna. And right after that we'll do one that rips your heart out.

Shankman: How did Madonna react to the episode?

Murphy: I was really nervous about her reaction. So I sent the script to her. The cool thing was that she never ever gave me any notes. She's like, "I don't want to read the script; whatever you want to do." She gave me carte blanche. That, I thought, was strange because I had worked with her before and she's very controlling. Then when I sent her the episode, she watched it with her daughter and said how much she loved it. We're going to do another Madonna one. We're doing a Britney one, and then we're going to do a huge one after the Super Bowl.

Shankman: I laughed so hard when you pulled out that stilts number in the Madonna episode. I thought of ("Glee" choreographer) Zach Woodlee, who was one of my assistants for years. I keep texting him, "Haven't you run out of stuff yet?"

Murphy: That stilt thing was his idea. That's the best part about my job: I encourage people to go nuts. And I did love that Sue Sylvester would have cheerleaders on stilts. But he found those people.

Shankman: Out of curiosity, how much do the music choices that you make inform an episode, as opposed to an episode informing the music? What's the process for you?

Murphy: It's always the theme, the character, first -- and the music last. We sit in the writers' room and we're like, "What is this issue about?" We're doing an episode right now on religion and what God means to young people. It's a very controversial episode because there's actually a character in there who says in front of the class, "I don't believe in God."

Shankman: I don't know if you've had to deal with this: In movies, you're not allowed to say the word "God" during an airplane screening. I also had a movie where I had to dub the word "vagina" out of a character's mouth. And I was like, "Well, what else would you call it? That's the medical term!"

Murphy: Did you have to call it "chi-chi" or something?

Shankman: No! They put the word "frittata" in her mouth. Jennifer Lopez actually said in "Wedding Planner": "He followed me around for an entire summer, asking me if I had a frittata"!

Murphy: Wow.

Shankman: Yeah, I saw it on an airplane. It was my worst nightmare. You know, you sucker-punched me when you had the guys sing "What it Feels Like for a Girl" during the Madonna episode. That was unbelievable. Because it was painful.

Murphy: It's weird, I'm always moved by that show. On the religion episode that we're writing, I'm brought to tears many times just sitting in my office working on the script. I don't know if it's because it's about youth --

Shankman: It would most likely be about you exploring your feelings.

Murphy: Does that mean I'm out of touch with my feelings?

Shankman: No. That means you're totally in touch with your feelings, and you're doing it through your writing. But do you ever get complaints about who's getting written for more?

Murphy: They do it in a very passive-aggressive way. What they'll do is -- particularly if I'm directing, which I try to do every third or fourth episode -- they'll show up and I'll say, "How are you today?" And they'll say, "Memorizing my one line in this episode," with a big smile. And I'll be like, "Oh, OK." But you know, they're kids, somewhat. They never know what we have planned for them, so I think they read an episode with one line and they're like, "Oh, I'm done."

Shankman: Because you have a big ensemble, you're going to have a much easier time. I remember working on an iconic show that I will not name, with a super-creator and a super TV star -- and the fights between them! "I created you!" "No, I created you!" -- were so outrageous.

Murphy: I did a show that ended really, really badly. By the end of it, I couldn't stand the cast, nor they me. So several times during the first season of "Glee," I brought the cast into my office and said, "OK, let's talk, let's take the temperature so that we don't build up animosity." We have to be humble. And grateful and gracious.

Shankman: Because this goes away. You know, I grew up in the business, and of all of my dad's clients, the best ones were the ones who'd been down and come back because they're so much more grateful.

Murphy: I've felt that in my career, where I've been down and I had to sort of reinvent myself. And then, when you're lucky enough to have a success, you're like, "OK, this doesn't happen all the time." You do change molecularly. I felt I did. Did you ever feel like you had a downturn?

Shankman: I never had one. Fourteen movies, no flops.

Murphy: Do you chase commercial success or awards?

Shankman: I don't chase awards. That's why the Emmys are so crazy for me -- especially after exposing myself in a very, very naked way with the Oscars (which Shankman produced). Because in that show, when we put it all together, there was way too much of me. On top of which, I felt super vulnerable. So it was scary.

Murphy: For the Oscars, who would your dream host be?

Shankman: I loved my guys so much this year. But a host pair that we talked about at one time was Robert Downey Jr. and Ben Stiller. Because they bring a huge star presence on top of a sense of irony. I wanted Sacha Baron Cohen and the motion picture Academy were like, "Absolutely no!"

Murphy: It would be fun if you and I did the Oscars.

Shankman: Would you ever want to work with me?

Murphy: Of course! Wait, I thought you were doing an episode of "Glee"! Are you now taking that back?

Shankman: Give it to me and I'm on, baby!
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