I think I can honestly say that I went from not particularly caring for Dax Shepard's brand of comedy (I was never a fan of "Punk'd") or acting to really digging the guy, all in the space of just a couple of years. He didn't make it easy with turns in CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN, WITHOUT A PADDLE, LET'S GO TO PRISON, and EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH. But there was something nicely heroic about what he did in Jon Favreau's ZATHURA.
The turning of my attitude toward Shepard was gradual, but it definitely began with Mike Judge's 2006 work IDIOCRACY, where I saw Shepard's potential as a comic actor most fully realized. And even while he continued to be in sub-par films (THE COMEBACKS, OLD DOGS, WHEN IN ROME), he often rose above the material and put in great performances in each of these films. His work in the solid BABY MAMA might be his best purely comedic work in a mainstream movie (not including IDIOCRACY, which Fox buried upon release to the point where I can't call it "mainstream").
But then Shepard did two things that moved me firmly into his camp. The first was a small indie work called THE FREEBIE, directed and co-starring Katie Aselton (wife of Mark Duplass). The film starts out funny and light but quickly turns serious and tense as a happily married couple tries to spice up their relationship by agreeing to sleep with other people on a particular day. The film is almost entirely improvised, and Shepard does extraordinary work in it. As soon as he finished shooting THE FREEBIE, he did the pilot for the very successful family drama, NBC's "Parenthood," where he plays the most free-spirited of the Braverman grown siblings, Crosby. I consider him the single most entertaining and versatile performer on the show.
After taking a stab at directing (along with co-helmer David Palmer) his first feature, the action-comedy BROTHER'S JUSTICE, Shepard has taken on a project near and dear to his heart in more ways than one. First off, HIT & RUN (also co-directed with Palmer) pairs Shepard with his real-life significant other, Kristen Bell. Second, the film is something of a throwback to the "car porn" (as he calls them) films of his younger days. He grew up loving the films of Burt Reynolds and stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham. Give him SMOKEY & THE BANDIT, CANNONBALL RUN, STROKER ACE, or HOOPER any day of the week. Keeping those films in mind, you have some idea of what Shepard was going for with HIT & RUN, in which he plays witness protection participant Charlie Bronson (named after the character in the movie BRONSON, not after the star of the Mandom commercials).
I caught up with Shepard several weeks ago when he passed through Chicago to preview HIT & RUN to an extremely receptive audience. We spoke while the film was playing, so I was able to give him an assessment of the audience's reaction. Please enjoy my talk with Dax Shepard…
Capone: The crowd’s responding, so that’s a good sign.
Dax Shepard: You’ve seen it?
Capone: I have seen it.
DS: Did you see it with a crowd or by yourself?
Capone: It was with an audience, yes.
DS: Oh, OK. How long ago was it?
Capone: In the last two weeks.
DS: OK. Do you live here in Chicago?
Capone: Yes. I actually spoke with you and Katie on the phone when you were promoting THE FREEBIE.
DS: I think I've done four interviews with Ain't it Cool. Jon and I, for ZATHURA was the first one. I think that helped me, him be my gateway into Ain’t It Cool News. I think I got a fair shake.
Capone: THE FREEBIE was a couple of years ago. It was not that long after it played at SXSW.
DS: Yes, yes. And I had shot THE FREEBIE, and the day after we wrapped that movie, I went to do the pilot of "Parenthood," which I start shooting season four next Monday.
Capone: I had a feeling that part of the reason you were doing this tour so early was because you had to start shooting "Parenthood," which I watch and love.
DS: Oh, you do? Oh, that makes me happy.
Capone: I love that you guys, at least last season, you started the season up a little earlier than everybody else.
DS: I know, and I don’t know if that was an amazing idea because I don’t think people thought that the shows were starting. Typically, your first show of the season is your highest rated show, and ours wasn’t last year. I think our second week was higher than our first week, which clearly indicates that there was an error in strategy. In conventional strategy, at least, assuming you want people watching your show. [laughs]
Capone: Sure, I do want to talk about the show later. So you started out a in comedy, then moved into drama with THE FREEBIE and "Parenthood," and now you’ve moved into action with HIT AND RUN. Is this a plan, to do a little bit of everything just so people know you’re versatile?
DS: I was trying really hard to be calculated and clever about my career when I first started, and it completely backfired on me. WITHOUT A PADDLE was my first movie, and that movie actually did a ton of business, but I was like, “That was too soft and more aimed at for kids, so I’ve got to do something hardcore.” I did IDIOCRACY with Mike Judge, one of my heroes, which seemed like a slam dunk. That movie made 14 cents.
Capone: True, but people still talk about that movie.
DS: Yeah! I don’t mean to at all complain about how any of this has come out in the end. And in the long term, it’s been great. I had been offered WEDDING CRASHERS and IDIOCRACY at the exact same time--ot in the Vince or Owen roles--but still. And I picked the Mike Judge movie, and then in the years after, I kind of regretted it, but now even more years after it, I’m super-duper grateful I chose the one I did. But all along the way, I thought like, “Oh, now I need an edgy movie--LET'S GO TO PRISON. Now I need this.” And you know what? None of it fucking worked the way I thought it would work.
With THE FREEBIE, Mark Duplass called me and said, “Hey, can you start shooting this movie tomorrow? We literally just fired our actor.” I was like, “Fuck yeah! I’ll be down there. Where do I show up?” With "Parenthood," I was in a meeting, Imagine was producing something that I had written, a one hour [show] that I had written. I was in there getting notes on the script, and they just said, “Oh, you’d be really great in the show we’re doing, 'Parenthood.' Would you want to be in that?” and I was like, “Sure, I’d love to be in that. Where do I start?” Again, zero expectations and a great outcome. Zero expectations for FREEBIE, great outcome
Then this movie, I wrote a movie I wanted to see, and I directed a movie I wanted to see. I had no expectations. I didn’t think we’d do as well as we did on our foreign sales or get picked up by Open Road. I’m getting a wide release on this movie that I just made with my friends as something I want to watch. Again, I had no goal. This wasn’t my goal, and somehow this worked out way better than I would have ever dreamed it up to work out.
Capone: In my introduction to the film, I was trying to school the audience about carsploitation films.
DS: Car porn.
Capone: Speaking of which, it had to be pretty cool to just be able to work with Burt Reynolds in WITHOUT A PADDLE.
DS: Oh my God! My first movie, no less, you know? You know you have these moments when you know exactly where you were? I had just landed in Las Vegas, I was taking a cab to a hotel when the director, Steve Brill, called me. He was like, “You’re going to be real happy about who we hired to play D.B.’s friend.” I’m like, “Who is it?” He’s like, “Burt Reynolds.” I’m like, “NO! Come on, my first movie is going to be with Burt Reynolds?” Yeah, I went to his trailer every single day for lunch, and was like, “Tell me more about CANNONBALL RUN!” I just was totally geeking out. I asked him for all these Hal Needham stories.
Capone: This is your Hal Needham movie. I mean, that’s what we’re looking at here.
DS: Yes, it is.
Capone: The cars only exist to go fast and to be destroyed in fiery crashes.
DS: Right, right. I can’t wait until I have a Hal Needham-esque budget one day to really blow some shit up. Yeah, this movie is very much a throwback. In fact, our stunt guys, they had a blast doing this movie because there’s no CGI. If we were going to jump cars, we’ve got to fucking jump cars. If we're going to drive through a barn door, we drive through a barn door. Anything we do, we had to do. It’s all really fast driving and stuff that they did in SMOKEY AND THE BANDI and CANNONBALL RUN, so it’s kind of a weird throwback.
If you go on a FAST AND FURIOUS set, you shoot one of those action sequences for two and a half weeks, and your effects supervisor is there telling you you can’t do this, and there’s balls hanging in green screen. All this shit. That wasn’t us, it was like, “OK, here’s our playground. We have a hangar over here, we’ve got barracks here. Now, what can we do? And let’s all have fun.”
Capone: Now, you say “stunt team,” and I assume that you mean stunt coordinators because it seems like, just rewatching it now that it’s the actors' faces in a lot of those shots.
DS: It’s me 100 percent of it. I did 100 percent of my driving. If for no other reason than it’s my real Lincoln. I’m not going to watch someone else drive my Lincoln. And that’s my real off-road racecar, so I’m not also going to let anyone drive.
Capone: I guess that’s what I meant, I was looking at you, and I could see your face.
DS: That was another thing that the actors loved too. Michael Rosenbaum, we put him in the car on a dirt road, mounted the camera to the hood looking at him and were like, “Do you know how to do doughnuts?” He was like, “I think I might have done one in 10th grade,” and we were like, “Fucking go for it! Dump the clutch, turn the wheel and spin.” [Bradley] Cooper got to do doughnuts. They got to mess around in cars the way that they would never would have been allowed to on a studio movie.
We had this amazing guy, Jeremy Fry, who’s an instructor at Rick Seamans' stunt school. If he’s not number one, he’s in the top-three best drivers in the business. So, he [doubled for] Cooper, so he and I did all the battling. We had a riot. So yeah, I got to horse around with some of the best guys in the business.
Capone: Beyond SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT and CANNONBALL RUN, which you mentioned earlier, what were some of your touchstone films when it came to car movies?
DS: Well, I’m attracted to different ones for different reasons. I love BULLITT, not that I got so sucked into this chase as is much as that it’s Steve McQueen driving in it. There’s something very visceral about that, when the actor is actually driving, and it’s not cutting to some close up of a guy shaking a steering wheel. So, I really responded to BULLITT, of course. I like the original DEATH RACE with [David] Carradine. I loved that it was a bunch of weird cars racing. Then all of the Hal Needham ones, HOOPER is my single favorite. I’m not a big proponent of remaking movies, but if I were to ever remake one, I would want to remake HOOPER. I just love that movie, I could watch it seven days a week.
Capone: Was HIT & RUN your compromise: "I’m not going to remake that, but I want to make a movie like that."
DS: Yeah, yeah. It definitely is my childhood fantasy, acting out SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT on my Big Wheels with my brother, that’s what this is. At the same time, the movies that I most love since then as an adult are PULP FICTION, my number one movie, of course, it should be everybody’s. So, I’m very much drawn to more violent, dialogue-driven movies, so I’m definitely trying my best to rip him off in this movie as well. I’m trying to smash Hal Needham and Tarantino into one genre if it can be done, with no money on top of it. [laughs]
Capone: Speaking of Tarantino, what did you think of DEATHPROOF?
DS: I thought the driving stuff was awesome. I thought that Kurt [Russell] was so kickass and so believably a tough guy. He compromised a bit on the dialogue. He kind of left that somewhere else, and it became all about the car stuff, which, it was fun, but you have the single best dialogue writer in the world directing a movie, you want that. I want it all! I wanted the car shit, and I wanted Vincent Vega talking too.
Capone: What did you think of BELLFLOWER that came out last year?
DS: Again, for me, a huge cocktease. I saw the poster, I saw the one shot of it doing a brake torque at the stop sign with the flame coming out of the smokestacks, and I was like, “Yes! I’m in!” And then I went and saw it, and it was a horror movie! I was just like, “What the fuck happened to this car?” I’m sure if was a great; it wasn’t what I was expecting.
I had a similar reaction to DRIVE. I went and saw DRIVE, and I was like, “Oh wait, this isn’t really...maybe you should not be called DRIVE. It should be called LONG, SLOW STARE, or something else." It was a cool movie, but it wasn’t a car movie.
Capone: The few chases there are are pretty cool in it.
DS: The first one was really great; it was super clever and well thought out and well mapped out, and I really, really liked it. The one with the rental car Mustang, and he’s driving backwards, and then all of the sudden a car flips, and I’m not sure why. They lost me on that one a little bit.
Capone: You’re just sitting there going, “That wouldn’t happen.”
DS: Yeah. I’m the dick that was in the test screening going, “You should have driven across that field in a fucking Tatum!”
Capone: In this film, you’re swapping out different cars every 15-20 minutes. Was that just to line up these cool cars?
Capone: And show how they drive differently in different chases?
DS: It is car porn. So, I’m going to give you the coolest old car in the world my opinion. I mean, it’s the one I chose to build. It’s a 700-hp Sedan. So, once I’m done showing you that, and I’ve shown all the tricks it can do, I thought let’s move into one of my other favourite cars, which is the Cadillac CTS-V station wagon. That’s a 550-hp station wagon. That deserves a scene in the movie. The fact that they made that car needs to be rewarded. [laughs] It makes no sense. It gets one mile to a gallon; no one’s ever going to put their child in it. I need to applaud that for GM’s [General Motors'] sake. I had written that scene originally to be a ZR1 versus a CTS-V, but there were no ZR1s in the movie fleet, as it were. They’re very expensive.
I worked for GM for years, and I had certain things that I brought to the table to the investors, which was like, “I’m married to Kristen Bell, we can get her for a bargain. I own this Lincoln, I own a super-expensive, off-road racecar; it’ll be free. And I have a great relationship with GM; I think I can get cars for free from them.” So, that was the cultural capital I brought to it in hopes that someone would finance the movie.
Capone: You have this relationship story going through the core of this film. Why did you think that was important?
DS: The core of the movie really is a love story. That’s not the foot that I’d lead with as far as trying to get people to go see the movie. But at the core, it’s definitely a movie about two people that are drastically in love that have much different backgrounds, and can they trust each other? That’s the core of Kristen and mine’s real-life relationship. I’m from a much different background than she is. I’m a sober fuck-up who’s done all kinds of terrible things, and she’s a very good person, and I think she was terrified of my past when we first met. This movie is a metaphor for that real-life thing she and I went through.
None of it is improved, weirdly, but it is improved in that a lot of dialogue came from absolute real-life, verbatim. As simple as, I built that car for a year and a half in real life, and on the first trip to go out to eat in it, she goes, “Honey, this car sounds like it’s going to break. You spent a lot of money to make this thing sound like it’s about to blow up.” That scene’s in the movie. Or the fight we get into in the orange grove. That’s very much a real fight that we got into with just the details being different.
The reason that I made the movie that way with that love story at the core of it is I think the movies that do best when they get broad, like I would say SIDEWAYS. If you turn that movie on two-thirds of the way through it, and there’s a naked guy chasing a tow truck, and then they just smash into a tree for no fucking reason, and they fall out of the car. It’s super broad. If it started off that way, you would think you were watching a Sandler movie or something, but they earned it. They poured enough foundation to then have the freedom to go there and make it pretty crazy and make all that stuff seem a little more believable.
I just thought if I anchored this thing in a really good relationship that’s believable and is relatable, then I think I can have Bradley Cooper in dreadlocks and have me be a bankrobber and have all these heightened broad elements still feel like it’s happening in the real world. You can either have exaggerated characters living in a real world, or you can have real characters living in an exaggerated world. I don’t think you can have both, and I kind of went with real characters in an exaggerated world.
Capone: And then the secondary relationship is with you and Bradley. Every time you guys talk in this movie, it’s so unbelievably awkward and painful. These were clearly guys that were close friends at one point, and there’s a certain level of betrayal there that has not been forgiven. Talk about giving Cooper all of that prison-rape dialogue.
DS: Out of any scene in the movie, that was the hardest to pull off. It was not any of the car chase stuff, it was those moments. That scene as written could have gone a number of different ways that were terrible, that would have sucked. That’s definitely the scene I’m proudest of in the whole movie. Because I’m genuinely mortified that this happened to someone I loved, and I’m responsible, and now I’m trying to find the silver lining in a situation that there is no silver lining. You can see my desperate attempt to make him feel better about what happened to him, and then I just keep making it worse and worse and worse.
Again, that’s a pretty crazy scenario that he got raped in prison by a Filipino dude, but the sincerity with which we play, I think we pull it off. If we were winking at the camera at all during that, I think it would come across as a very crass, stupid butt-fuck joke scene. But it’s deeper than that. It’s a guy really trying to help his friend through something, who he’s enemies with, but he betrays the fact he still loves him. It’s just very complicated.
Capone: Oh, I think it’s pretty simple. [Both laugh] You were talking before about how you did all your own stunts. Was there a certain element of getting away with something in terms of the insurance and permits?
DS: Absolutely. We stole shit; we lied about what we were doing. We did not disclose that I was driving. We got away with murder--we really did. We did stuff that you shouldn’t really do, that you’d never be allowed to do on a studio movie or with a great insurance provider that was actually on set with us. As simple as we would hire these CHP [California Highway Patrol] motorcycle cops to drive in front of us and behind us. We would drive my racecar down the PCH [Pacific Coast Highway] and in the L.A. River. You should have much more police coordination than what we had driving racecar down the street. We took advantage of everything we could. Again, we could never make this same movie twice, I think people would be on to us.
Capone: You’re listed as a co-director on this. Was there a division of duty. Was David more like the action guy and you handled everything else?
DS: No, there really wasn’t any kind of division. We had done BROTHER'S JUSTICE together. We had a very simple understanding of how we work, mostly unspoken, and he operated through all of BROTHER'S JUSTICE. So, he’s making as a camera operator directorial decisions on BROTHER'S JUSTICE, while I’m in the scene improving making directorial decisions of how the scene is going to go. We have these two realms that we’re both steering, and that worked out great in that movie. So I thought let’s just do that again. I have my hands full with the driving and the acting and everything else, so let’s have both of us on this project again. It’s a very easy system for both of us to work in.
Capone: Sure. Yeah. I love the idea that your character has chosen the name is Charles Bronson, not because of Charles Bronson the actor, but because of the guy who they made movie BRONSON about.
DS: Yes, yes. [laughs]
Capone: There’s going to be like five people in every screening that might get that joke.
DS: I know.
Capone: It’s so funny! Why did you do that?
DS: Because I loved that movie, and I thought what if that led to even more impostors. Exactly what you’re saying, it’s like, “It’s now to the power of three” by the time it gets to my movie.
Capone: I want to know how people react to that, because they’re going to think you’re making it up.
DS: Right! Well, only nine people saw that movie in America, right? It was so great, and it launched Tom Hardy. I’ve got to tell you, that’s what’s really the most fun and rewarding about traveling the country and showing a movie. We showed BROTHER'S JUSTICE at a million different places. There were several jokes that still no one ever got. And then we went to Austin Film Festival. And we fucking won that somehow, the Audience Award, with our shitty, looks like it was shot on toilet paper movie. There’s a point in BROTHER'S JUSTICE where my agent, we’re trying to tell him what kind of movie we want to make, and we’re saying like, “It’s like a Chuck Norris movie, like GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK, blah, blah, blah. Then I go, “STILETTO NIGHTS.” That’s not a Chuck Norris movie, and no one knows that. But when we got to Austin, they heard STILLETO NIGHTS and they were like on the floor laughing at how preposterous would it be that there’s a Chuck Norris movie called STILETTO NIGHTS.
Capone: They are so inside baseball there, that you almost can’t trust their reaction to anything you see.
DS: And some of them, look, they don’t land, and I just stick with them. There was a big section of this that I did cut out. I assumed more people would know about it than did. It was Iraqi Dinar joke,. The guy I race my off-road car with, the navigator is this 50-year-old guy who has bought so much Iraqi Dinar currency, and he really believes it’s going to become worth billions of dollars. I’ve been pitched so many times, the endless potential of a Iraqi Dinar, it’s so absurd to me that people believe this, and so I wrote all of these Iraqi Dinar jokes.
Capone: There is one in the movie.
DS: Some stuck in, but there was this whole moment where Kris and I were in bed, and she’s been offered the job, and I can’t leave witness protection, and then I suggest maybe we should buy a Iraqi Dinar. I have this money set aside. If it takes off the way the Kuwaiti dollar did in ‘97, it could be worth $300 million dollars, whatever. We tested that; no one knew what the fuck Iraqi Dinar was or why that was funny, so that one I ditched. [laughs] There was a couple of racist jokes in BROTHER'S JUSTICE that people couldn’t get behind. I left them in there because I think they’re funny. Some of these things, you’ve got to have some kind of commitment to what you like.
Capone: You said you were back on Monday to "Parenthood." Do you have any ideas what’s going to happen Crosby at this point.
DS: I’ll tell you what’s not going to happen, I’m not going to be hooking up with hot new chicks every week, which is a total drag. [laughs] I mean it will be really fun that I’ll be working with Joy [Bryant, whose character married Crosby at the end of last season] every day because she’s my favorite. But it is really nice to have them bring in beautiful girls for me to have storylines with. Yeah, I was cheating on Joy Bryant with Minka Kelly while engaged to Kristen Bell in real life. Nothing will ever top that three weeks or however long that affair lasted. It reminds me of Bradley Cooper in that movie SHE'S NOT THAT INTO YOU, and I called him one day, and I go, “How’s it going?” He goes, “It’s going pretty damn good. I just had a scene where I made out with Jennifer Connelly, then we had lunch, and then I had to make out with” whatever other hot girl in that movie he made out with. It’s like, “Yeah, that’s a good day.”
Capone: So now we’re going to enter into married life.
DS: Married Crosby, yeah.
Capone: So what does that entail?
DS: Well, it’s going to entail Crosby with shorter hair, simply because I cut my hair in the off season, so I guess that’ll be a physical change that will be an expression of the marriage. I have no idea what [showrunner, executive producer Jason] Katims has planned. There are actors who try to micromanage their own storylines. I like being surprised with what happens. I don’t need to know where I’m going. I just like knowing what’s happening in each scene; it’s not a preoccupation of mine.
Capone: Whenever I watch an episode, I do feel there are a couple scenes in each episode that are just throwing people in a room and letting them talk to each other unscripted. Is that accurate?
DS: That’s a very accurate assessment. That’s a very astute observation.
Capone: It doesn’t feel like it’s…
DS: …been written?
Capone: Right. It just feels looser than some of the other story-driven moments. You don’t see that on TV that often.
DS: Absolutely, and that is one of the trademarks of our show. What happens there, it’s never constructed that way, where the writers are like, “Oh, and then this scene, have a fun birthday scene. Actors, just go.” What more often happens is you get to set, and we’ve all read it, and we’ve all kind of gone, “This doesn’t feel so much like a scene in our show. This one, it’s just not fitting. What if you did that, and I did this, and then I say this, and she comes in and says that.” It would be like doing an improv scene with four concrete suggestions, but we know where we’re getting to, we do.
We’ll improv a whole scene knowing we have to hit three or four different things. At least once an episode, we have a scene like that. Those are always my favorite because something happens when everyone’s improving and has to listen that well to each other and play off one another like jazz musicians. Something special happens in those scenes. Whether they drive the story forward all that much or they don’t. There have been a lot of scenes like that where all the brothers and sisters get together, and we’re smoking pot or something like that, and then all hell breaks loose, and those are just really fun.
Capone: Yeah. I love those scenes. You don’t realize you’re in them until you’re deep in them, and it’slike, “Oh, wait. Oh, they’re just talking here. They’re just riffing."
DS: We have certain directors that really cater to that style and push that style. Some of the actors on the show love that, and some of them hate it. I love it. We have this great director, Adam Davidson, who directs usually a few a year, and he really will push us in that direction. You’ll see whole scenes that won’t even resemble what was written.
Capone: Cool. Well, thanks for talking, and Forgive me if we cover some of the same material in the Q&A.