Adapted from both John Waters’ 1988 screenplay and Thomas Meehan and Mark O’Donnell’s book for the stage musical by screenwriter Leslie Dixon, the 2007 film version of Hairspray is directed and choreographed with an infectious giddiness by Adam Shankman.
Hairspray excels in the crafts; the candy box colors and attention to detail illuminate the work of production designer David Gropman, who fashioned the physical universe of heroine Tracy Turnblad’s Baltimore on the brink of social upheaval. He tells Below the Line how he came to the project.
“I was first called by producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron in February of 2006 in regards to Hairspray. I then had a phone interview with Craig, Neil and director Adam Shankman. Adam was interested in a design philosophy that would in no way play into aspects of kitsch or a ‘musical comedy’ style that one might expect from a Broadway adaptation of John Waters’ original film of Hairspray,” Gropman said. “Adam wanted a Baltimore of 1962 that was honest and authentic. Letting the more outrageous notes be the inherent nature of the material itself.”
The majority of the film was shot at Toronto’s Showline Studios. Lord Lansdowne Public School was used for all of the high school exteriors and some of the interiors, while the old Queen Victoria School in nearby Hamilton also was used for interiors. Gropman explained how he recreated the American city of Baltimore in Canada. “I had a fast and furious trip to Baltimore in March, when we were still exploring the possibility of shooting some of the film on the streets of Hairspray’s hometown. That was followed by an equally quick trip to Toronto to see if their neighborhoods could stand in for 1962 Baltimore. Many of the neighborhoods we looked at seemed to be a very good match in scale and spirit (realizing that even in Baltimore all exteriors would have to be taken back to 1962). Most commercial streets in Toronto even have the streetcar tracks that were part of Baltimore’s cityscape up until the early 1960s.”
Gropman had enormous praise for his department and revealed a close working relationship with his art director, Dennis Davenport. “Dennis has worked with me on a number of projects. I knew that Dennis would assemble a strong crew. The crew consisted of some new talent, like master scenic artist Cameron Brooke, and old, like construction coordinator Jim Halpenny. Although I had never worked with set decorator Gordon Sim before, we had known one another for many years,” he says. “The collaboration with my entire crew was very stimulating and rewarding. Collaboration is, I believe, an important and necessary way to keep the design process fresh and alive, letting things go off center enough to bring the look a little closer to real life.”
The set sixteen hues that filled the palette of Hairspray were juxtaposed colors fashionable in the early 1960s. “I decided on a very close and specific color palette from the onset. The idea was to take iconic colors from the ‘60s and dull them down enough (dead yellow, muddy salmon, soft aqua, and a heavy dose of my favorite greens) to keep them at arm’s length from musical comedy territory. We ‘published’ the palette so that all departments had the same rule book. Everyone’s close attention to the same sixteen colors helped to give the film a strong, unified look.”
Gropman talked about the simpatico in the colors on the sets and the wardrobe. “Costume designer Rita Ryack and I are old friends. We have collaborated a number of times on both film and theater projects. Rita never had to look at the rule book as we are very much in sync. In addition to lots of sharing of ideas from the beginning, we made daily visits to each others’ shops and offices.”
Research and planning to build the sets took months for Gropman and his team. “Official preproduction began for me at the end of May. I began intensive scouting with location manager Fred Kamping, who I have worked with on two other Toronto projects. We concurrently began designing the Corny Collins Show and the interior of the Turnblad apartment. We also began developing a library of ideas for commercial exteriors to be applied when those specific locations were settled on. At Showline Studios, we built the interiors of the Turnblad apartment, the Har Dee Har Hut, Velma and Amber Vantussle’s bedrooms, Penny’s ‘bomb shelter,’ The Corny Collins Show, and the exterior of the Turnblad back yard. The major commercial streets for the film’s opening number, Good Morning Baltimore, and ‘Welcome to the Sixties’ required the covering or modifying of some 60 businesses.”
Asked to choose a favorite set was next to impossible for Gropman. “The Corny Collins Show was great fun because I not only got to recreate a ‘60s TV studio, but the scenery that sat within it. One of our most challenging sets was the Turnblad back yard
because it was a late decision to build it as a studio set. And turning a three-way intersection in Toronto into pure Baltimore was very gratifying.”
Gropman revealed his favorite after all.
“But one of my favorite sets would have to be the Har Dee Har Hut. It was great fun to see everyone who entered that set transported back to a childhood memory of walking into just such a magical place. And for a production designer, there is no greater reward than that.”
— April MacIntyre
Oscar, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, The Cider House Rules (shared with Beth A. Rubino, set decorator)
Art Directors Guild, Excellence in Production Design — Contemporary Films, The Shipping News (shared with Karen Schulz Gropman, art director; and Peter Rogness)
Art Directors Guild, Excellence in Production Design — Contemporary Films, Chocolat (shared with John Frankish, supervising art director; Lucy Richardson, art director; and Louise Marzaroli, assistant art director)
BAFTA, Best Production Design, Chocolat
Written by April MacIntyre