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.