The 1962-set film centers on overweight teenager Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky), who fights to integrate the teen dance program "The Corny Collins Show." The picture follows John Waters' 1998 comedy, which in turn was inspired by the hit Broadway musical that debuted in 2002. But regardless of the stature the project already had, it resonated on a more personal level for Shankman. "It really spoke to me. Because I think at that point in my life I thought I was a chubby high school girl who just wanted to dance. And part of it is because substitute chubby with gay, and you're in the part," he explained. "And I've had moments where I was told unless I hid who I was in some way that I was never going to get what I wanted and dreamt of. And I said if I can't live right, I ain't gonna live. I'm certainly not going to live by someone else's rules who is wrong."
In fact, the experience left him so hurt that when producers returned to Shankman when their first choice didn't work out, he was upfront about not wanting to be put through the wringer again. "Almost a year later, they came back to me, while I was towards the end of making [another] movie, and they said, 'We're letting go of the people we hired...but we'd like to know what the landscape is, are you still interested?' And I said, I'm not interested in doing another dog and pony show, I can't, it hurt me too much the first time. Unless you can basically tell me I have the job, I can't go in and audition again." They agreed to make Shankman the last director they would meet with, and he wound up securing the gig.
"I was in this incredibly empowered, optimistic moment in my life. And that it made it possible, and really important for me to tell that story," he reflected. "The central character feels that way, and won't sacrifice anything for her integrity, and I'm just more cynical than I was back then. I think it's probably some of the election blues. I think that people are pretty awful right now. I'm a bit of the architect of that because I watch and I spend all my time tracking what's going on, so it's hard."
All told, it was a bit of a rollercoaster experience for Shankman, but in the intervening years, what he felt on that set has informed his own approach in choosing projects. And moreover, he has become sensitive to the grind the studio system can have on a filmmaker. "I think I know now better when something is a good fit for me and when it's not, and when I should be listening to my instincts a little bit better," he said. "I think that I have, over the past couple of years, potentially gotten bound up in the studio system a little more bit more than I [had been meaning to]. I was beholden to the corporate giant more than I ever felt before in my life. I have very big projects in front of me, but I think before I do that I might need to do something really small, and kind of for me. And if not indie, then almost indie. I want to just not feel that corporate pressure around me, all the time. That would be really lovely."
Unfortuantely, that small indie project won't be the drama "This Is Where I Leave You," a family dramedy that got put on hold, something that he says "destroyed" him because it had "literally everything I wanted to do" within it. Seeking "really funny things with a lot of heart," it'll be interesting to see what direction Shankman goes next, but hopefully it will inspire in him the same enjoyment he had on the set of "Hairspray": "Everybody just was just thrilled everyday, that's how I remember it."