The Parenthood star, and writer/director of the new action-comedy Hit and Run, talks car jumps, Punk’d pride, and past demons.
This feature appears in Complex's August/September 2012 issue.
Growing up in Milford, MI, Dax Shepard loved two things: cars and comedy. The veteran funnyman, and writer/co-director of the new action-comedy Hit and Run, credits his affinity for automobiles to his domestic upbringing—in addition to his mother’s job at General Motors, his stepfather served as an engineer for the company’s Corvette division. As for Shepard’s partiality to laughter, it comes from a much darker place, one of adolescent ridicule and self-defensive responses.
For Hit and Run (opening in theaters nationwide Wednesday), Shepard, taking a break from starring on ABC’s hit series Parenthood, combined his two biggest passions into one hilarious, vibrant car chase flick in the vein of old Burt Reynolds classics like Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run. Shepard stars as Charlie Bronson, a former getaway driver living under the Witness Protection Program with his girlfriend (played by the actor’s real-life fiancée Kristen Bell). When his girl gets a promising job interview hours away in Los Angeles, Charlie offers to drive her there himself, kicking off a string of high-speed chases with his old, now-pissed-off partner-in-crime (a dreadlocked Bradley Cooper) and a bumbling U.S. Marshal (Tom Arnold), amongst others.
Hit and Run is the second film that Shepard has co-directed with his good friend David Palmer, though its wide release and starry cast give it a much bigger standing than 2010’s Brother’s Justice. It’s also an amalgamation of the budding filmmaker’s biggest joys, marrying his aforementioned vehicular and comedic vices with the presence of main squeeze Bell and the freedom of an independent production.
In this candid and lively interview, for the My Complex feature in our August/September issue (on newsstands now), Shepard opens up about his the inspirations behind Hit and Run, his troubled past, taking pride in his Punk’d origins, and approaching comedy with unflinching honesty.
Interview by Matt
Hit and Run, which you wrote and co-directed with David Palmer, brings back the old-school way of making nitty-gritty action-comedies, when car chases has real cars and no CGI. Was that the driving force behind the movie?
Yeah, it’s definitely way more Smokey and the Bandit than it is Fast & Furious. Like, when you’re watching a Fast & Furious movie, at any given time 80 percent of what you’re seeing came out of a computer and didn’t really happen, whereas there’s not a single effects shot in our movie. [Laughs.] If I jump cars, I jump cars.
Were those the kind of films you grew up loving as a kid?
Well, my number one movie is Smokey and the Bandit, Burt Reynolds' epic, tour de force film. I think I saw it for the first time when I was six, maybe even younger. And then I loved the Cannonball Run movies, and I also loved Hooper, another from Burt Reynolds. I loved any Hal Needham movie, basically. If you don’t know who Hal Needham is, he’s a stuntman turned director who did all the and Cannonball Run and Hooper and some other stuff.
What was it about those movies that drew you in as a kid?
Well, I was a car nut, like, immediately out of the womb. Anything with cars, I loved. I knew what day the trash guy came, and I used to wake up early and make sure I was outside to see him. Anything machinery-oriented, I was almost autistic about.
Did that come from your dad’s influence?
Yeah, my dad was a car salesman, and then my mom worked for General Motors, and then she married a dude—I had a stepdad for a minute who worked for the Corvette group at General Motors, as an engineer, so he worked on all the handling of the Corvettes.
During that phase, she was married to him when I was maybe 10-13, I used to get to go on the test tracks at GM. The Corvette group at GM owned all of these competitive vehicles, so they had a Lamborghini Countach, a Lotus Espirit, a Ferrari 308. He had all of these amazing cars he brought home, so, yeah, it just kind of cemented my car fetish.
Considering that Hit and Run is both about that and comedy, it seems like something that must have been in your head for a long time.
Yeah, my thought was always, if given the opportunity and any kind of budget that I could work with, that my first pick would be to do a car chase movie.
Now, when I write, I can’t resist writing comedically. I start off writing a scene that’s supposed to be very dramatic and then invariably I find something funny about that scene and it becomes a little funnier. So that’s just gonna happen no matter what genre I’m writing in, I think—me trying to make it funny.
And then, of course, it was important to me that there was some story under it that you were sucked into, other than, “They’ve gotta get the shit they stole from the bank across the country”—whatever fucking devices are in most car chase movies. I was hoping there’d be something in Hit and Run that hooked you a little more than that emotionally.
And how did you settle on the exact story beats from there?
I think largely the fact that, in real life, I’m an ex-drug addict/ex-dirtbag and [my fiancée] Kristen is an ex...perfect human being. [Laughs.] The arguments our characters have in Hit and Run are very similar to ones we had when we first started dating. My past was overwhelming for her. But I don’t think anyone gives a shit about how deeply personal the movie is for me. [Laughs.] In general, humans are interested in fucking, car-jumps, and shit that makes us laugh, not other people’s emotional trials and tribulations.
Why don’t you think people give a shit about that sort of thing?
You don’t ever run up to your buddy and go, “Dude, did you fucking hear that Michael had a fucking breakthrough with Carol? I guess they were in couples therapy and he finally figured out how to admit that he’s intimidated by her using her cell phone and it made him feel neglected!” [Laughs.] That’s just not the kind of thing dudes are fired up about.
But I, personally, am very interested in that, the psychology of why people do the things they do. There are fears and underlying motivations for almost everything we do, and that interests me, but I don’t think that’s something people like reading about in magazine.
You never know, though—I’m sure there are plenty of people who share that same interest.
That’s true. You never know, there could be one other Dax Shepard out there. A young Dax Shepard.
When you’re writing a film like Hit and Run, do you consciously try to balance the comedy and the drama to make sure those kinds of people stay happy while watching?
No, actually. With this, I wasn’t. I’ve written so many other scripts for studios, where I’ve went and pitched them and then had to deliver something that they would hopefully try and make. This, though, I went and found money. My partner Nate and I went and found money on our own, so I had zero obligation to write anything other than a movie I’d want to watch. It’s the first script I’ve ever written with that kind of freedom, so, honestly, with every scene I was writing I just asked myself, “OK, so what would I love to see happen in a scene like this?”
You’re seeing exactly what Dax wants to see, not what Dax thinks you might want to see. Naturally, I like the outcome because I wrote exactly what I wanted to see, you know? [Laughs.] I had no restrictions. I didn’t intend to make it broadly appealing or anything. I’ve been delighted throughout all of these test screenings that we’ve had, where larger audiences do like it. That’s been surprising; I’ve been really grateful for that, considering I didn’t consider them while writing it.
There’s a lot of gay stuff in there, though, that we got a lot of shit about on cards written by homophobic young teens, so clearly had I designed this for them, I would have done a better job at not offending them. But, alas, I did.
You got a lot of notes saying you should tone that stuff down?
Yeah, yeah. [Laughs.] One of our first Hit and Run test screenings down deep in Orange County, we got a lot of homophobic responses on cards, but I absolutely didn’t change any of that stuff. I think, definitely, different ethnicities have different levels of homophobia, given how religious their ethnicity is, you know? Like, a lot of Mexicans are very Catholic, so they’re a little less into gay stuff, I guess.
I think it’s ridiculous and stupid, but I wasn’t shocked. It’s up to us—guys who they might think are “cool”—to go, “Oh, yeah, you can be masculine and also be in favor of gay marriage.” Maybe we can push the pendulum a tiny bit.
You mentioned that you’ve written a bunch of scripts for studios that haven’t been made. How frustrating is that side of the screenwriting process, and, in turn, how liberating was it to finally get a chance to do your own thing?
You know, it’s amazing, and it’s still very hard to comprehend that we have a wide release. That really hasn’t set in yet, because, yes, you’re used to nothing but failure in this business, as a writer. It’s one of the hardest things in the world to get something that you’ve written produced.
I would say, the first script that I wrote, got sold, and didn’t get made, I was absolutely heartbroken and crushed, and then the second script I sold and didn’t get made, I was a little less shocked. By the third one, you sell it assuming it will never get made, which is a very weird way to work. It’s like that old fucking metaphor about the tree falling goes. To know that you’re doing something that will probably never get consumed is a weird way to work.
With this, we knew we were going to make this movie while I was writing it. We knew that with this cast, we could get X-amount of money and that we were going to be able to shoot, so that made writing it so much more fun. I wrote it so quickly knowing we were about to shoot it. It just changed the entire experience. And then we shot in a very short amount of time, in six weeks, and then Kristen went back to work. Twelve hours after we wrapped Hit and Run, she started House of Lies, and then five days after we wrapped, I started back on Parenthood.
Everything worked out perfectly, where we were all able to slide it in. From getting the idea to wrapping production was about three-and-a-half months. The entire process, from conception to distribution, will be about 14 months, which is incredibly accelerated in the movie business.
I’ve spoken to indie filmmakers who’ve worked on projects for as long as nine years, sometimes even longer.
Yeah, I don’t have that disposition as a person. I have a finite amount of time that I can be on fire for something, so if I don’t haul ass and get it done within a year, it’s not going to work. I’m not James Cameron—I don’t know how he worked on Avatar for eight years, or however long he did. I’m so impressed by that but that’s not my attention span at all. I have to go quick and get it done or I’ll lose interest.
Now that you’ve had this really successful and liberating experience with Hit and Run, do you now want to stick with that do-it-yourself approach to making movies? Or is the reality that something like this is a one-in-a-million sort of experience?
Yeah, if anything, doing Hit and Run made it 15 times easier for me to now do Hit and Run again, a new Hit and Run. Because the people who originally gave us the money, it was quite a leap of faith for them, that I could deliver that movie with that cast for that price. It was very risky, but now that I’ve done that and shown them that I can do that, it will be a lot easier for me to get money in the future.
And, in fact, we are already in a position where we will be able to shoot… As soon as I wrap this next season of Parenthood, we’re going to shoot something immediately again. So it made it easier, by a long shot.
Look, I love money as much as the next guy, and I would love to get paid the big fat check to do a big studio movie and direct and have lots of time, and then be paid to do nothing but focus on the editing and all of that—that would be amazing. But I have a hunch that the movies I’m currently writing wouldn’t get green-lit by a studio. I do think they would get distributed by a studio once they get made.
I don’t think anyone would have green-lit Hit and Run, but once we had finished it and people could watch it, Open Road was happy to distribute it. So that’s my hunch about how it will go in the future for me.
Is directing something you’ve always wanted to do?
I would not go so far as to say I have ADD, but I am certainly a lot happier when I have a lot on my plate. I like directing movies for no other reason than you’re busy for a few of those 14 hours, and after about eight hours you’re ready to get back on the highway and head home. The only thing that’s on par with doing cocaine is directing a movie. It occupies your brain at 100 percent.
What’s really interesting is, through this whole crazy ride I call my career, I feel like what I’ve finally learned on Parenthood is how to just be myself on screen, as an actor. I wasn’t trying to be another character; I was just trying to be myself. I decided when I was making Hit and Run that I was going to make this movie as true to who I am as I can get while still making an entertaining movie.
I’m a guy who is into gay rights and gets into bar fights and is super into cars and is a sissy actor—I’m all these weird things, so I just tried to put all of that into a movie. It’s the result of all these different things.
You say Parenthood is the first time you have been yourself on screen. Does that mean that you look back on the stuff you did prior to Parenthood with some discontent?
No, there’s no regret whatsoever, and I’m actually really grateful that I took big swings earlier in my career. Like, I’m really happy that I played Frito in Idiocracy. I don’t think I have the courage anymore to play Frito in Idiocracy, so I’m glad I did it when I was 28 and more fearless.
But I don’t think my ability to do characters is particularly special. I don’t think I have more of a knack than other actors for doing exaggerated characters. Now, I do think I have a knack for being Dax Shepard. I’ve figured out how to do that over the course of 37 years. I just have more belief in who I actually am now, and I don’t think I have to create a fictitious person anymore to hold people’s interests.
To what do you attribute losing that fearlessness as you’ve gotten older?
I guess I feel like, maybe, you just can’t do it all. You’re either an actor like Sean Penn or you’re an actor like Daniel Day-Lewis. I can’t imagine Daniel Day-Lewis being himself in a movie like Mickey Rourke is in a movie. You don’t really see those actors do all of it, where they do super convincing characters and then they do super-naturalistic, real stuff. I don’t know. I don’t know what the reason for it is, but, I guess, I’m in very good practice of being more natural right now. I guess just the idea of creating a character terrifies me.
People first saw you on MTV’s Punk’d, alongside Ashton Kutcher during the first season. What did you learn from your time on Punk’d?
Well, I will say that, to this day, it was the biggest test of my acting, for sure, because it was real life, and people either believed you or didn’t believe you that you were punking them. So, in that sense, it was a great education in being natural and not broad or over the top.
I was very aware of the fact that Punk’d may be my first and last time on television, and that I had to break out from that role—it was life or death for me. They didn’t pay me for being on Punk’d, so, just to survive, I knew I needed to transition into movies. But I’ve never had the shame about being on Punk’d that the media wants me to have. I’m not embarrassed that I was on Punk’d. So many reviews of Parenthood’s first season started off like, “You’ll never believe who’s good on Parenthood—the guy from Punk’d!” [Laughs.] I did an episode of the new Punk’d this year to show people that I’m not embarrassed by it. I don’t know why I would be.
You mentioned that you’d been writing Hit and Run scenes that started off dramatically and your natural inclination is to make them funny. Where does your love and appreciation for comedy stem from?
I had to go to Special Ed classes all through high school because I was dyslexic, so I had to leave the classroom when they came and got all the stupid kids. The embarrassment of that could have turned me into one of the Trenchcoat Mafia guys. But I figured out how to make fun of the situation faster than anyone else. Comedy has always been my defense mechanism. My response to everything has always been, “What’s funny about this? What can be funnier about this situation?”
That’s the route I chose. There were a lot of things in my childhood that were not Norman Rockwell-y, so that’s just my worldview. That’s just how I deconstruct information. [Laughs.]
I’ve spoken to a bunch of comedians and comedic actors, and the majority of them talk about how their comedy derives from really dark childhoods. It’s pretty fascinating.
Yeah, and there have been a couple of comedians who talk about coming from a more pleasant background, and I think their comedy reflects that background, and it’s not good or bad. I don’t believe in a hierarchy for comedy, or anything, for that matter. If you have an audience, you have an audience, and no audience is any better or worse to have than someone else’s audience.
Other comedians I know love to bash Tyler Perry, but I think there’s something quantifiable about art. The people who go to Tyler Perry movies fucking love Tyler Perry movies. That being said, I just saw Billy Crystal’s one-man show about his dad, and he explains how when he first expressed an interest in doing comedy, his dad immediately was like, “Well, let’s go get all the best comedy albums ever made and let’s sit down and study comedy!” And I was like, “Oh, he had that dad. OK, I didn’t have that dad.”
Most comedians I know didn’t have that dad, and that explains why Billy’s comedy is, for the most part, lighthearted and uplifting. But that’s certainly not my take on life. My kind of comedy is more concerned with weird sex stories and weird drug stories.
The dynamic between your character and Kristen’s character—ex-criminal and an ex-perfect girl—comes directly from your real-life relationship’s early days. When you’re writing that, is it surreal, or even difficult, to get so personal?
Not for me, no. My character in Hit and Run, like me, has so many flaws, and Kristen’s is just as perfect as she is. In real life, I have a lot of character defects and a lot of shortcomings, but I’m hyper-honest. That’s one of my few good qualities. I’m not embarrassed by being human; my fallibilities as a human unite me with other humans.
I have fucked up a million times in my life and I will fuck up a million times more, and I like exploring the frailty of human beings. I hate people who judge Miley Cyrus’ parents. I find that to be so laughable that anyone would be up in arms over the fact that this girl took a cell phone picture of herself or maybe smoked pot. If you raise your kid all the way to 18 and those are the two worst things he or she does, you’re a hero.
I’ll go on Howard Stern and talk about all the ways I’ve fucked up. I’m not embarrassed that I’m flawed. So writing is just an extension of that. I enjoy watching that. I’m more drawn to that than to superhero movies; I like stories about people who have demons or have something fucked up that they’ve done.
That outlook would really lend itself to drama, I’d think, so it’s interesting that you still manage to find comedy in everything you do when you’d probably be really good at writing straightforward, humorless dramas.
Right. Well, I would like to say that there’s definitely some broad shit in the movie, but it’s all sincere. There’s not one scene in Hit and Run that’s written with the intention of getting a laugh, though it’s definitely a comedy. Our biggest runner is, by far, the revelation that Bradley Cooper has been fucked in prison, and that always gets the biggest laughter, but that came out of a honest, sincere conversation between my best friend Nate Tuck [one of Hit and Run’s producers].
One time, we were watching this HBO show Hookers at the Point, and in it there was a scene with this guy getting a blowjob from a hooker in the backseat of a car, and while he was getting blown, he started saying, “I want some balls in my mouth! I want to suck some balls!” And then she was saying, “Oh, you’re kinky.” Me and Nate were saying to each other, “What is going on psychologically with this guy?” [Laughs.] He had said that he’d just gotten out of prison, and this led to a very sincere and long conversation between Nate and I about, “Do you think black guys maybe don’t feel gay in prison fucking white guys because we’re such pussies?”
We were really theorizing about how that’s the way they feel in prison, and how we would feel if we were black guys fucking white guys. In the movie, it’s clearly a joke, but it is something that did come from a honest place at one time. [Laughs.] It wasn’t constructed solely to be “funny.” It actually is a sincere thought I’ve had, and everything in the movie is a sincere thought or argument I’ve had.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)