IAR SET VISIT: 'Rock of Ages'

Wednesday, 30 May 2012 10:00 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR SET VISIT: 'Rock of Ages'

Are you ready to rock?

Opening in theaters on June 15th is the big screen adaptation of the smash hit Broadway musical Rock of Ages, which was directed by Adam Shankman (Hairspray). The film truly features an all-star cast that includes Julianne Hough (Footloose), Diego Boneta (Mean Girls 2), Russell Brand (Arthur), Alec Baldwin (TV's 30 Rock), Bryan Cranston (Drive), Paul Giamatti (Sideways), Malin Akerman (Watchmen), Will Forte (MacGruber), Oscar winner Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago), singer Mary J. Blige, and international superstar Tom Cruise (Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol). 

Rock of Ages tells the story of small town girl Sherrie (Hough) and city boy Drew (Boneta), who meet on the Sunset Strip while pursuing their Hollywood dreams. Much like the musical, the film features rock 'n' roll hits of the era from such legendary artists as Def Leppard, Joan Jett, Journey, Foreigner, Bon Jovi, Night Ranger, REO Speedwagon, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister, Poison, and White Snake

Last summer, I had the pleasure of flying to Miami, Florida (along with several other members of the press) to visit the set of Rock of Ages and talk with some of the cast and crew. While on the set, which was a recreation of the famous Sunset Strip circa the '1980s, I had a chance to speak with director Adam Shankman, and actors Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta, as well as witness filming, and even get a sneak peek of Tom Cruise singing Def Leppard's classic song "Pour Some Sugar On Me." 

Upon arrival to the Downtown Miami set I instantly felt right at home as N.W. 14th Street had been amazingly transformed into Los Angeles’ famous Sunset Strip. However, this was not the sparkling Sunset Strip that you see today, instead the set resembled a dirty, sleazy Sunset Strip of yesteryear. While I’ve lived in Los Angeles for over fifteen years, I grew up in Boston during the ‘80s and my only memories of the Sunset Strip in that era are what I saw in Guns N’ Roses videos. So I can’t say if the set was an exact match but it looked very authentic with the exception of several landmarks being much closer to each other than they actually were at the time.

The streets were filled with Hollywood institutions of the ‘80s that had been precisely replicated for the film such as The Bourbon Room, The Roxy, Whisky A Go Go, Ben Franks, Dukes, Guitar Center, Towers Records, and even an Angelyne billboard featuring the blonde wannabe celebrity. On the day of our visit, the scene we witnessed the filmmakers shooting involved actress Julianne Hough in front of Sun Bee Liquor & Food Mart looking at trade magazines like Billboard. White Snake is playing in the background while cops, hookers, pimps, and just all-around bad people are harassing her.

After the crew was done shooting the scene, we had a chance to chat with actress Julianne Hough about her role and the process of making the film. She began by describing the plot of the movie and how it differs from the original stage play. “It’s set through Sherrie’s eyes. We start with Sherrie arriving in L.A. on Sunset Blvd. It basically starts out with her getting mugged and then she gets a job at the Bourbon Room,” the actress explained. “The Bourbon Room is basically where every major band that has made it has gotten their start. So she knows who Dennis Dupree (Baldwin) is. She is a singer and wants to meet him and be involved. But she needs a job to start out with so she ends up working at the Bourbon Room. She meets Drew, who takes care of her for a little bit and they end up falling in love.”

“So then Stacee Jaxx (Cruise) is the biggest rock star out there and he is coming to do his last show with Arsenal (his band) before he goes solo,” she continued. “While he is there, there is a miscommunication that happens and Drew thinks that Sherrie slept with Stacee, but it didn’t happen. So they have this argument and she quits dramatically. The Bourbon Room is going under because they haven’t paid their taxes so the Mayor (Cranston) and his wife, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, are just trying to get rid of the Strip and clean it up. So they are just trying to get enough money for the Bourbon Room to stay open. Meanwhile, I am ‘Mr. Burn Out’ and Drew has gotten a manager and he is basically not a rock star anymore. He has gotten into this boy band. So we are both doing separate things that we do not want to do. In the end, it all works out. I will leave you with that.”

As fans of the musical know, there is a scene where Sherrie gives Stacee a lap dance and we followed up by asking Hough if that scene is still in the film or if had been taken out. “I was learning that I might get this role, and the play was coming into L.A., so I went and saw it before I technically had the role, but we were in talks already. When I saw the play I did see that part and I was like, oh yeah, that is going to be fun and it’s going to be with Tom Cruise,” the actress laughed. “So there is a sort of lap dance thing that happens. It is a little bit different. There are some differences in the play that there is in the movie. I like the fact that Stacie doesn’t sleep with Stacee and it is just a misunderstanding. I think it is more likable for her in the end. You kind of want her and Drew to get together.”

Since the actress is also well known as a singer, we asked Hough if it was a challenge for her to sing the music in the film, which is a much different style than she is used to performing. “Totally. I tend to sing in the country accent. I don’t ever really realize that I am doing it,” she explained. “It is not even necessarily words because I can finagle my vowels to sound a certain way. But it is certain flips that I would do on certain notes. So I definitely had to work hard on that. But the songs are great. If you think about it, a lot of the country songs today are the same kind of melodies as 80s rock songs.”

We followed up by acting Hough to name some of the actual songs that her character sings in the film. “I do ‘Every Rose (Has Its Thorn),’ ‘Rock You Like A Hurricane’ with Tom Cruise, ‘Here I Go Again,’ ‘Waiting For A Girl (Like You)’ with Diego, and ‘Don’t Stop Believing’. ‘Jukebox Hero’ turned out so great and we had so much fun with that number. There is ‘Almost Paradise,’ ‘Nothing But a Good Time,’ ‘More Than Words,’ and ‘Heaven.’ I love that one. We almost cut that out because it kind of stopped the flow. But we thought; it is such a nice breather for this movie. Everything is just so up so we kept it. The mash up between ‘More Than Words’ and ‘Heaven’ is just beautiful.”

We continued by asking the actress what other actors she sings with in addition to Cruise and Boneta. “Mary freakin’ J. Blige! It is kind of ridiculous,” answered Hough. “We were at the read-through before anything started and not a lot of the vocals had gone on yet. Tom actually started singing through the read-through and we were like, crap. We all have to start singing now,” laughed the actress. “So we all started singing and at the end of the read-through Tom was like, ‘do you know why I did that?’ I was like, no. Why? He says, ‘so that we could hear Mary J. sing live.’ I said to him, you are a genius! But Mary J. is literally unbelievable. I sing ‘Every Rose Has a Thorn’ and Mary J. has this huge part that goes over everybody’s vocals. It is ridiculous and so beautiful.”

The actress went on to discuss how she prepared for her role and her outfits in the film. “I actually changed my diet and exercise routine a little bit because in the ‘80s the women were not twig thin. They looked like they were eighteen years old and they had curves. So I definitely beefed up some of my exercises and lifted weights. Then it was just my vocals and dance rehearsals. My outfit was awesome,” she continued. “It was definitely a take on Steve Perry with his tails. So I had a little jacket and didn’t wear pants. I just had a leotard on. It was really fun, though. There was a lot of fringe and stuff. Choreographer Mia Michaels said; ‘you look like a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader because there is white and fringe,’ but it was really fun.”

Since we were standing on the “fake” Sunset Strip, I asked Hough what her initial reaction was when she first saw the impressive set. “I am such a visual person and being in the surroundings helps so much. We saw this all being built as we were here and we were doing things on other locations, but we would always come back to this location for rehearsals and stuff,” explained the actress. “We would see little bits come up and it was so exciting. It was like, wow, we are recreating the Sunset Strip in Miami in like a crack addicted location,” she laughed. “Hopefully this does Miami some good!”

After we were done speaking with the talented Ms. Hough, we had a chance to speak with actor Diego Boneta about his work on the film. We began by asking the young actor which of the film’s ‘80s songs was his favorite to perform. “That's hard to say. I really like shooting ‘Jukebox Hero,’ which is the last one I did. It's a mash-up of ‘Jukebox Hero’ and ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.’ It's like a rock and roll version of ‘Greased Lightning’ (from Greece). It's just great. Adam (Shankman) showed me some of the cuts, and it just looks amazing.”

Boneta admitted to us that he had not seen the Broadway musical before being cast in the film and chose not to see it once he got the part, but we asked him if he went back and looked at any actual music videos from the ‘80s for research. “I started out singing, and I released two albums in Latin America and Brazil,” Boneta explained. “My influences are basically the bands from the songs I'm singing in the movie. Ever since I was a kid, the music that my parents played was ‘80s music, from U2 to The Police to The Rolling Stones. Then, I liked it so much that I started listening to more ‘80s bands when I was growing up. These songs and these bands are my influences. It's really a dream come true, being a part of this movie, and singing the songs that I grew up listening to.”

The one thing that we all went through was the preparation of the movie, which was really intense,” Boneta continued. “It was five weeks of vocal rehearsals and movement rehearsals. I learned how to play guitar for the movie, which is something I had always wanted to do, but never had time to learn. Now, that's all I do! I don't even watch TV when I get home, I'm practicing guitar,” he laughed. “Vocally, the challenge was learning to sing with that raspy-ness, without hurting my vocal chords, which is all thanks to Ron Henderson. He's the vocal coach of the movie, and he helped me develop that higher range that all the singers had in the ‘80s. Ron was the gatekeeper to really help me find my voice. It was not only learning how to do that stuff, but also finding my own rocker voice. I didn't want to sound like Steve Perry or Lou Graham. It's not that I don't like them, they're amazing, but you want to find your own voice, and that was a very cool adventure to go through.”

We next asked the actor to discuss the audition process and what’s it been like for him to work with icons like Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, and Mary J. Blige. “The whole audition process was like a month. It was very intense. I met Adam (Shankman) towards the end of the process. I read the scenes for him, sang the songs, and it was great. There was an instant connection, and he's a really fun guy. In the room, it flowed really well,” he explained. “This is a dream come true for me. I'm very humbled to be a part of this movie, and grateful towards Adam.”

“Working with these amazing actors and people has helped me a lot,” he continued. “I've learned so much. I think Tom Cruise really inspired me. This was the first time he has ever done a musical, and just seeing the way he prepared for this. All the rehearsals he did, all the preparation, vocal, choreography, guitar, was really inspiring. The second he got to the stage and got to perform, he just lost fear, committed 100% and connected to the audience. Me being a performer and a singer, I got chills every single take.”

We had been told that some actual ‘80s rock stars had visited the set like Def Leppard, so we asked Boneta if he had a chance to meet them. “I was not on set the day that Def Leppard came in, but I will tell you what was really cool to watch. I had a week off shooting, and I went back to L.A. for my sister's birthday,” he explained. “A friend of mine invited me to a Journey/Foreigner concert. It was great to see the actual band members perform, and what was even cooler, was to see the audience who attended the show. There were guys my age, couples, people my parents' age, and my grandparents' age. I just kept thinking, wow, this is the audience these songs communicate to. It would be amazing to get this audience to watch the movie. There were not just girls, not just guys, and not just old people, but it was everyone. That was really cool.”

The actor also talked in further depth about his relationship with Shankman and what it has been like to collaborate with the talented director. “He's been involved in every single thing, from rehearsals, to us recording the soundtrack, to wardrobe, to our look, everything! He's 24/7, and his heart and soul is devoted to this movie,” he said. “I think that's what's really amazing about Adam. He's the captain of the ship, and having so many big personalities and big actors in this film, I think sometimes that can be risky. Our main goal was to look out for what's best for the movie and the story. It's very healthy and there's a lot of teamwork.”

Again, as fans of the musical know, Boneta’s character begins his career with rock star aspirations but eventually “sells-out” and joins a boy band. In fact, there is a scene in the movie where they are filming a music video for the boy band and Eli Roth (Inglorious Basterds) plays the video’s director. We asked Boneta about the scene and working with Roth. “First of all, as an actor, it was a great scene, because Paul Giamatti was in it. It was a long scene, like two and a half pages, and Eli Roth was the director. Just working with amazing actors is such an honor, and I'm just so humble to be having scenes with these guys,” he explained. “I couldn't stop laughing with Eli Roth, and Paul, just everything he does is great. It's like having the absolute best dance partner.”

“Something that I learned on this project that really surprised me was that the same way I studied and rehearsed the songs, meaning the intention, the feeling, the interpretation, the intensity, was similar to how I approached the acting scenes,” he continued. “Tom and I were having this conversation, when we were practicing guitar. It's crazy how after learning to sing and record at the studio, it's just the same way you approach acting. I had never realized that before, because it was the first time I had ever done both at the same time. That was really cool, and it really helped both.”

Realizing that we were once again conducting the interview on the brilliantly recreated Sunset Strip, I asked Boneta to discuss his initial reaction to first seeing what Shankman and his team had been able to create in Miami. “I wanted someone to pinch me, to make sure I was in Miami. I wasn't born when the Sunset Strip looked like this, but I think (production designer) Jon Huntsman has done an amazing job with these sets on the Sunset Strip, and the interiors. He has really set the mood for us, and it has helped us so much. As actors, it really helps us to get in the zone. If we have a great set, it's another thing to help us. Jon and Adam really killed it.”

After that, we finally had a chance to speak with the man-of-the-hour (no, not Tom Cruise), director Adam Shankman! The director began by telling us that in order to make the movie he had to significantly cut the budget of the script before he could start shooting. We followed up by asking Shankman exactly what he had to lose from the script to make the film. “I will never lose anything that an audience will miss, let’s put it that way. I turned things that were scripted as effects into in-camera stuff, which is sexier. There was a lot of stuff that had effects in it and I thought it was too smooth. I thought it would be sexier if it were in-camera cuts.”

“I actually opened up stuff,” he went on to explain. “It was really interesting, because I was a crewmember before I was a director; I know what it is to have to fix things. But this whole movie is like meta-paced. Like if you blow on any of the sets they’ll fall down. Tom Cruise never laughed so hard. I said Tom, do you realize we put a bed and a bureau in our craft service area and called it an apartment. For Malin Akerman, that was her apartment, it was in our craft fucking service area,” the director laughed.

We followed up again by asking Shankman if there are any big moments from the Broadway musical that did not make it into the film. “Okay, here is what it is and I had this with Hairspray too. The play is 2 hours and 40 minutes or something like that. Obviously the movie can’t be that long so that stuff had to go anyway. So I kind of did a greatest hits version of it but it was my greatest hits so they (fans) are either going to like it or not. There are things that people are going to lose their minds over, in a good way. The biggest change I made, well two big changes, first was that in the play the point of view is from Lonnie (Russell Brand), the narrator’s perspective. The point of view of the movie is Sherrie’s perspective. So I made it into our lead character instead of a side person.”

“The second thing is that I changed the two villains of the piece because I didn’t understand why two Germans wanted to change the Sunset Strip,” Shankman continued. “I could never understand the emotional investment so I took it from what was going on in the period and made it more like Tipper Gore’s censorship. When I watch the greatest documentary about this, the documentary that this whole fucking movie is based on, The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, I got the idea from the whole parents against satanic music thing. I used that because it was actually real and I pumped it up like I did in Hairspray with racism. So I used that theme about creativity in this and rock ‘n’ roll, and metal, and all of that because it’s not satin’s music, its fucking Journey! It’s REO Speedwagon, are you insane? So I used Catherine Zeta-Jones and Bryan Cranston as two public officials trying to shut it down on things. So rather than making it completely non-related to Los Angeles characters I made it people who are running Los Angeles and there is a real investment.”

The director went on to discuss the different songs from the ‘80s that he has chosen to feature in the film. “Well 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-up 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.” But it was all based on the fact that they all have the same rhythm and they both have the word Jukebox in them,” he explained. “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, which is going to be a big thing. To be perfectly honest, each song on there own I’m not a huge fan of but when they are shoved together they are fucking awesome. So the energy, the spirit, the drive, the themes of the play did not change. I just made everything make sense.”

We followed up by asking the director exactly which songs he cut from the actual musical. “From the original I cut out … well for example, Def Leppard wouldn’t give any of their music to the play, in fact in the opening of the play they talk about that. But Def Leppard gave us ‘Pour Some Sugar.’ I have ‘Pour Some Sugar’ in place of ‘Come on Feel the Noise.’ So ‘Pour Some Sugar’ is new. I got rid of ‘Final Countdown.’ I got rid of ‘Oh, Sherrie’ because that was too on the nose for me.”

Next, Shankman discussed why he decided to rebuild the Sunset Strip in Miami rather than shoot on the real street in Los Angeles. “Here is the thing we all know, if I had used the real Sunset Strip it would have been cost ineffective, or cost 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,” he laughed. “The city wouldn’t have done it and it would have been cost impossible. Reality also is that there are a lot of gaps, there are a lot of businesses in between the iconic things. So 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.”

But we have our Angelyne and we kind of have everything,” Shankman continued. “We have what I need lets put it that way. Ben Franks was never in the plan and that is here now. There is great extra stuff.” We followed up by asking if there was anything he wanted for the strip that he couldn’t get because of licensing reasons. “There was nothing that I wanted that I couldn’t get. I needed that fucking 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 Jon (Huntsman) give us another one. So there was nothing I gave up, there were just things that I adjusted to.”

The director also talked about the impulse to cast Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx in the adaptation of the famous play. “The impulse of casting him was the same as the impulse in casting (John) Travolta, in Hairspray. 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,” said Shankman.

Shankman went on to talk about the “singing test” that he had to give Cruise before they began shooting the film. “We put him with Axl Rose's singing guy because I needed the songs to really rock. I needed the voices to be rock ‘n’ roll, not Broadway. So he started working with him and on the second vocal session, I was in this sort of side room. Tom was at the piano, working on it, and I listened. The guy got him to sing way the fuck up, and it had a thick, amazing sound to it. Apparently, Tom has in his family some opera singers, so he's genetically predisposed to being able to sing. But because he hasn't done it (before), you have to train him. No one's ever asked him (to sing in a movie before), that's the weird thing. No one's ever asked him, and he loved that somebody had the nerve to ask him.” The director went on to tell us Cruise’s one request to him before agreeing to do the film. “He said, ‘listen, I won't do if you're going to try and improve me. If you going to try and just fix me digitally, and all of that, I have no interest in that. It has to ALL be me!’”

Finally, the director asked us if we would like to go to his trailer to see a rough edit of a scene from the film featuring Tom Cruise on stage at the Whisky A Go Go singing “Pour Some Sugar On Me.” Of course we accepted the offer and had a chance to see the fantastic footage. By now, you have probably seen most of it on YouTube or in the trailer but I can tell you that when I saw it last August … it was pretty damn impressive. Cruise is actually singing and looks like Jim Morrison crossed with Axel Rose. The scene left everyone in the trailer in awe and excited for more.

After the screening, Shankman had this to say about Cruise’s performance. “This is a guy who is forty-nine years old … he should be playing a senator! This is what he’s doing instead. That is his voice, that’s him singing and we did not really help him. That is him singing, he is dancing and every single movement from every finger is choreographed. He worked on all of that. I could not be more proud,” he said. “But now, the weirdest thing is that not only do I have him doing that, but I have Russell (Brand) doing that, Catherine (Zeta-Jones) doing that, Alec (Baldwin) doing that, Diego, Julianne, and Paul (Giamatti), I mean, I have them all with that level of commitment. So I mean it’s intense! It’s super intense. I’ll show you one more thing… Let’s watch ‘Shadows of the Night.’”

With that, the director showed us one last scene that featured Mary J. Blige singing with Hough. Afterwards Shankman talked about Blige’s character and her role in the film. “(Her character) is in the play. It’s you know, that wise black woman who’s always there to give us some help. Mary J. Blige is the Queen Latifah (Hairspray) character. You know, she just gives it this incredible warmth, and she’s this person who blows you away. She’s just incredible.”

Just before we left, Shankman had one last thing to say about Tom Cruise’s commitment to his craft and his creative process. “You know it’s so funny. When we started talking he was doing Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and I was sending him a lot of images, video, and all of that. Everything imprints on him and I didn’t realize that all the guys I was showing him, none of them had any shirts on. So what became of the costume was it suddenly started dissolving,” the director explained. “He was like, ‘No, I wouldn’t be wearing a shirt here, I wouldn’t be wearing a shirt.’ I was like “Oh, no, he doesn’t wear a shirt … okay.”

To hear IAR's Managing Editor Jami Philbrick's immediate thoughts after leaving the set of Rock of Ages, please watch the video player below featuring Philbrick, Steven "Frosty" Weintraub and Aimee Carlson.


Video courtesy of Collider.com.

Rock of Ages starts singing in theaters on June 15th

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