Prior to directing, Adam Shankman was one of Hollywood 's top choreographers, with credits that included George of the Jungle, Boogie Nights and The Flintstones. He made his directorial debut with The Wedding Planner, starring Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConnaughey, and most recently had a huge worldwide hit with Bringing Down the House with Steve Martin and Queen Latifah. Shankman's latest film, The Pacifier, marks a huge departure for star Vin Diesel who plays a tough-as-nails Navy S.E.A.L. assigned to protect the endangered children of an assassinated scientist working on a secret weapon. Out go the wetsuits and hand grenades and in come juices boxes and a minivan. Shankman talked to us about turning the action hero into a comic, working with ducks, and wrangling uncooperative babies.
Q. Is there a huge difference between directing Vin Diesel in a comedy and directing someone like Steve Martin ?
A. Yes, of course. With Vin Diesel, you just say you are the straight man, don't try to be funny, don't do anything, just play the reality of your character. With Steve Martin you say go nuts. You know, get out there and do the thing that Steve Martin does.
Q. Vin Diesel famously likes to be involved in every aspect of his films. How did that work on The Pacifier?
A. I told him he wasn't allowed to be. I said, this is my world. You're welcome to hang in there with me, but please don't tell me what to do.
Q. And he went along with that?
A, A million percent, 'cause he was terrified. He had to learn, this was not his genre. Plus, I think he just thought I was funny and so he sort of trusted that I would take the reigns and do whatever was needed.
Q. And when did you first realize that he could be funny? Vin Diesel in a comedy does seem a bit of a stretch.
A. Oh, the first time I met him I knew. He was very sweet and he was very charming and funny, and so I knew that he had it in him, I knew that he had a sense of humor. Plus he laughs a lot at me. And he loved the kids. So that's all I needed to know: that he had a real vulnerable side, which he does, and that he was going to be great with the kids.
Q. He didn't have to audition for you, did he?
A. No, because when the movie was offered to me, he was already involved. And I was really up for it because my sister had just had a baby and I had actually said to my agents, I'd like to make a family movie, something like the old 1970s Disney movies that I grew up loving like crazy. Things like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, movies where there's always a lot of comedy, always a lot of car chases and villains, but the guns never actually go off. And this one had the same spirit to me, so this opportunity came up and I said I'm interested, but I don't know about Vin Diesel. So the next day I get a phone call and it's like, hey, this is Vin Diesel and I'm around the corner from your house, can I pop by? I got so scared 'cause I thought he was going to come in and, like, hit me or something.
Q. So he just turned up?
A. And he stayed for two hours. And he's like a kid, he's like a sweet kid. And we talked about everything apart from the movie. We talked about living in New York, we talked about theater.
Q. Often there's a difference between an actor's public persona and who they really are. How would you measure that difference with Vin Diesel?
A. It's extreme. The tough guy thing is like Vin is at the start of the movie, but who he really is, that's the guy at the end of the movie. Now everyone has to see the movie to see what I mean.
Q. So how did it work out between Vin Diesel and the five kids in the film?
A. The truest thing you see on screen is those relationships. They loved him, he loved them. It was like he was their big buddy and he could not keep his hands off the babies. He loved having the babies with him all the time. We'd be wanting to shoot and he'd want to be playing with the babies in the nursery.
Q. Do you think we can learn a lot from children?
A. It's been said before, but, yes, trust, hope, all those things. You know, you learn to lie, you learn to be bad, to be prejudiced. Kids don't know those things. I think of myself as totally a Peter Pan guy. People are always asking, when are you going to grow up? But I'm doing my thing, I'm sending out good messages into the world about families, giving money to homeless folks, and still get to have fun, so what do you mean grow up?
Q. Not only do you have kids in the movie, you always have a duck. How was the duck to work with?
A. For me the duck was a dream because the duck always hit its marks. For Vin, it was tricky 'cause it was biting him the whole time.
Q. So what was difficult about making The Pacifier ?
A. There's a scene where Vin says I love you to the toddler and the kid has to say it back. I could not believe, that took us about an hour to get that to come out of that kid's mouth. I mean, those kids loved Vin, but we had the camera over him, and he's in bed and we had four people from his family standing there going saying, say I love you, Daddy , say I love you, Daddy. We were about to give up and then all of a sudden out of nowhere he just went, I love you, Daddy . Of course, then, when we turned the camera around on Vin , he said it every time. Suddenly he was like, okay, now I'll say it 'cause there's no camera pointing at me.
Q. You were a choreographer before you were a director. Can you explain how you made the transition?
A. I had been choreographing for nine, 10 years, and I had done almost 50 movies. And it was really rolling along, but I was getting sick of getting in the head of directors that didn't know what they wanted, which is very frustrating as a choreographer. And I decided to make a short film, just to see if it was something that I could do. But at the same time my sister, who's a producer, sent a script to me and said will you read this because we're having a lot of problems getting a director on this. You know, I just want to get your thoughts. What's wrong with this script?
Q. This was The Wedding Planner , right?
A. Yes and I read it, and I gave her my thoughts, and she thought my notes were good. And she said, I don't suppose you would mind meeting with the studio about maybe directing this? I mean, I never thought they'd hire me, but I just thought, let's do the meeting because that'll be exciting. And I happened to know the head of the studio 'cause I'd worked for her on other projects before. And she hired me in the room. So I suddenly got my break. And it was kind of a fluke because I hadn't ever called action when I got hired.
Q. You weren't nervous your first day?
A. Yes, but I had staged more scenes and told more people what to do and told more cameras where to be, so believe me, I was ready. And it ended up being a really nice job for me because, I see stories very clearly in my head and so making decisions is not difficult for me on set. And that's what directing really is, decision making, decision making, decision making.
Q. Do you read your reviews?
A. No, never. I'm sensitive, you know. And like with The Wedding Planner, the film had been my whole life for a year and it was fun and exciting, and then the reviews came out and it was like I had eaten everybody's grandparent's head and murdered all of their children. And nobody warned me about that. So I have never read a review since.
Q. What reaction do you expect on The Pacifier?
A. This is not a critic's movie, and I don't care. I mean, I've seen it with advance audiences and they love it. It's an audience movie.
Q. Do you see it primarily as a movie for kids?
A. I see it as primarily a movie for families and I did that with great intent, so that parents won't be bored while the kids are watching. And I'm totally excited that this movie's going to be out there, because these are dark times in many ways. And here's a movie with a really nice message and lovely performances, and a surprise performance from somebody people thought they knew but didn't, and a lot of good jokes. There's enough in there for me, do you know what I mean? And I think audiences will love it too.