What Men Want is a new comedy starring Taraji P. Henson (Empire, Hidden Figures) and directed by Adam Shankman (Hairspray). Releasing this February from Paramount, Henson plays a sports agent who gains the ability to hear men's innermost thoughts.
Related: What Men Want Red Band Trailer
When Screen Rant visited the Atlanta set of What Men Want earlier this year, Shankman was busy directing a scene in where Ali (Henson) overhears more than she cares for, illustrating how the comedy in What Men Want is found in the contrast between character's spoken words and their inner thoughts. The scene includes quite a lot of ad-libbing, which Shankman explained his approach to along with his views on on-screen diversity and working with Henson, who he considers "one of the best physical comedians."
How frustrating or not frustrating do you find the ad-libbing? Do you encourage it or does it make your job harder?
It does not make my job harder. I actually like it, the set is very loose, I like the actors to feel very free. It's a funny movie, it's curated nicely in order to create because so much is going on in everybody's head. That's such a wild--everything we scripted, none of it might ever be used because we may find something in the editing room. And one of the things that I was, that I really got really excited about when I decided to do this was not making the things in people's heads only exist to motivate the plot forward.
I want the things in people's heads to be as random as the things that are in people's heads. And that to me was where the true comedy can play, because that's the misconception about what everybody thinks about men or women. Either what women want or what men want. Everybody lives in this horrible cycle of assumption and that causes so much and people feel unsafe because of all of their assumptions, y’know, generally. I'm just trying to blow all that up.
I read a quote that was like, ‘Your thoughts are not real.’ So building off of that, how many of the thoughts in this movie are real?
They're not real. Well, not only are they not real, they are also fleeting. And they tend to not necessarily reflect what your instincts are and where you're going to be in two seconds from now. So if you're trying to glom onto somebody by the way you think they're actually thinking in a moment, it's generally not going to be like that. In point of fact, I probably think 500 times a day that I'm fat or that my skin is really bad or that everybody's looking at me and thinking that I look old or whatever. No one's thinking that I look anything, no one cares, y’know? It's all of that, but I have those thoughts. Sometimes I think I'm hungry when I just want to fill my time, that's just kind of what it is.
And so I think that the comedic opportunity is to sort of play with that and so I'm trying to play with that in the movie. And in terms of just the spoken ad-libs, I told everybody, ‘We're free to do whatever. I can cut around anything.’ So it's all fine if I don't like it, and everybody is offering me variations, from what's actually scripted to whatever.
And how important was it for you to strike that balance between comedy and the ultimate message of the movie?
It's a going to be a challenge until the very, very end because this is a deeply laugh-upon-laugh-upon-laugh-upon-laugh movie. It's sort of the nature of it, and I'm proud of that and I'm embracing it. But that said, I don't think anything is funny that can't be pitched as a drama. Like, if the stakes aren't authentic, then I don't think it can actually get as funny as possible.
In terms of the balancing the message, I've made sure the message is baked in to the scenes, hopefully in as non-expositional as possible in terms of the organic relationships between people, do you know what I mean? They feel free by the end to express it but I have a lot of withholding it, because they’re thinking it. So we can hear it in their heads, so it makes it easier.
At this time do you see the movie that you want to make? Is it coming together?
It is, it is. It's going to look much bigger than the budget is. I have made certain choices that will make sure it has a very, very big feeling. The movie that I wanted to make was deeply diverse and never, ever addressed race. That was really important to me.
Because, listen between Bringing Down The House and Hairspray I don't know how much I can keep saying the same thing - it just doesn't f--king matter, do you know what I mean? We're all in this, and right now we're in a time, particularly now, we're into such a period where there's a microscope on these issues in a way that, there always has been, but it seems to be very loud right now, the microphone is very loud on this, like, right now. And I just said, let's just not pay attention to it.
Like, Taraji’s the lead in it, no one's mad at her in the movie because she's a black woman. Everybody's a little bit in the wrong in the movie, in that, she's being kept down as not part this sort of boy culture but of being in a super boy cultural world that she has chosen to be a part of. And she was taught by her dad, the boxer dad who's like super sports and also, y’know, was just telling her, ‘You need to punch first because as long as you're on the offense, you will always survive.’ So that's kind of her issue, is that it's all kind of about winning. And it's also about that reassessment about what is the nature of winning. When do you win? At what point do you win and at what cost? Trying to say that in a light, fun way, I am super excited about it.
With the movie, into your point, yes not only is the diverse nature of it being beautifully ignored but visually presented. But also, I mean, by the way, I would say the Black Panther did the same f--king thing. It’s like, ‘Look, here's the world, here's what the world looks like, and we're like, not even going to say anything about it, really.’ Do you know what I mean? Listen, it's crazy, I've been openly gay for so long and considered in my own dumb, pathetic way a minority, that like, I think I've always gone, ‘Why does this matter? Why should it matter?’ And I'm actually saying, it doesn't.
Is that in the film?
In the film, it's visual, all visual because we're not making it an issue because it's not the central issue of the movie. So to put it on top of that would be irresponsible. By the way, we also have her assistant is gay who has put himself in a very, what would be thought of as a very unsympathetic environment to a gay man, and he is showing that he knows more about sports than everybody. And so it was like, love can be found there as well, y’know? I want to do something that's, like, this is sort of what life looks like, let's talk about the issue of not understanding what each other are thinking, do you know what I mean? And then we'll just move from there, so that part of it is really fun.
The other thing I’ll say is that Taraji is - and you have to remember, I have spent the last 30 some years of my life dealing with physical comedy, look at my resume, it's like that's what I'm hired to do is, like, physical comedy - she is one of the best physical comedians I've ever worked with. Period. End of story. Like, I can say that flatly, no problem, it's like she's up there with the Sandy Bullocks, Sarah Jessica Parkers, like the way that she uses her body, it's really beautifully in the mix of a kind of a golden age of these kinds of comedies. And as I said to Taraji, she was like, ‘What do you want?’ And I just said, ‘I'm just going to put you in a pencil skirt and heels and the rest will happen.’ I said, ‘That's what makes the funny. The higher the heels, the tighter the pencil skirt, the funnier it's going to get.’
Because it's like that restriction that women put themselves in when they’re trying to move through life. And it's whatever fashion or sexy does always ends up as long as you're--when you're trying to battle your way through life, it's just not great armor. So the physical comedy element of it is kind of some of the best I've seen, honestly, in a really long time. And I'm not doing tricks, I'm not slowing down people down like, ‘Ooh, noo,’ I'm not doing that. I'm just letting it kind of happen and it's been pretty dreamy, not going to lie.
- What Men Want (2019) release date: Feb 08, 2019