In the fast-car comedy Hit and Run, actor Dax Shepard plays an ex-getaway driver named Charles Bronson who risks breaking Witness Protection by driving his girlfriend (played by Kristen Bell) to Los Angeles for an important interview. Things get crazy when they are chased by a bitter criminal associate (played by Bradley Cooper, in dreadlocks) looking for the money from their last failed robbery. Gaining notoriety from his role as Ashton Kutcher's sidekick on MTV's show "Punk'd," Shepard can currently be seen on the show "Parenthood." Off-screen, he is engaged/basically married to actress Kristen Bell (they are not formally married out for the cause for equal marriage in California). Hit and Run marks his second time co-directing a feature film, his first being a mockumentary titled Brother's Justice, also co-directed with collaborator David Palmer.
In an exclusive interview, I sat down with Shepard to discuss the experience of directing your wife in your own movie, his growing interest in expressing masculinity and violence, the reason nerds want to kick his ass, and more.
Hit and Run opens in theaters August 22. With this movie, your wife plays a character harassed by a crazy ex-boyfriend. How do you feel about the concept that behind every good person is a crazy ex?
Dax Shepard: Well, Kristen has dated really good people. What people never want to acknowledge is that they're the common denominator in all of their break-ups. They never go, "Maybe I'm the fucked up one."
Was it a no-brainer to cast Kristen in this movie? Is it scary or easy to direct your wife?
We had a bunch of experiences beforehand that let me know it was going to work. Kristen has been auditioning a lot. We work on her auditions all of the time. We have this great trust, and she asks in numerous occasions for adjustments in input. I thought that would be not difficult, which that is the hardest part for people in a relationship to be giving a critique of the other, that is inherently dangerous. It can really trigger a lot of vulnerability. But I think it helps that we both do it, and have a lot of experience being vulnerable, embarrassed, or humiliated, and all of these things that an actor is subjected to. We're very gentle with one another.
Does the business stay on set, or do you talk about this work when you're at home?
We drove to and from set together every day making this movie, an hour there and an hour back. We would learn our lines for the next day on the ride home from work. There, we would discuss everything thematically, and what we need to know about the scenes anyway. When we got to set, she would have all my thoughts already. We got along suspiciously well.
I have to say, the chemistry between you two is undeniably natural.
We decided that if we were going to do this, then we have to do it 100 percent. We can't pretend that there's not a level of intimacy between us, in a way to prevent our privacy. We pretty much shattered the notion of us being private by doing this [film]. We just went head-long into it. We showed all sides, from my use of naughty words to her political correctness.
Was she not wearing make-up in the first scene with you two in the bed? Was that something you had to push her to do?
That's something I don't get involved with. I've seen a lot of directors micro-manage actor's looks, and that's not a huge concern of mine. I prefer the actor feels super confident and bulletproof, because people do their best work when they feel comfortable. It's a fucking movie. How many school principals look like Kristen Chenoweth anyway? I'm not Susanne Bier, I'm not going for verisimilitude above all those things. I'm not willing to do 95 takes. It's just not my personality, I don't think I can add that to the world of cinema.
With David Palmer also directing, what was your contribution to directing?
Well, I wrote the thing. It starts with my vision, and then the collaboration starts during prep. We shot-listed 95 percent of the movie before we started shooting. We had a very small window to get this thing filmed. We had a great game plan going in. Obviously that stuff changes when you get on set. [Previously], Palmer and I did Brother's Justice, and we came out of that to develop this unspoken communication. In that movie he was the only operator, making the only visual directions on what you see. I'm in the scene, making internal direction decisions on where the scene is going. I'm guiding the actors in the scene, and he's guiding the look.
Did working on 'Brother's Justice' relieve any stress of sitting in the director's chair for 'Hit and Run'?
It bolstered my confidence in knowing when we have good stuff and when we don't have good stuff. Brother's Justice is only 80 minutes long, and all this footage, some stuff worked, and some stuff didn't. We had really weird discoveries. We tested the film once, and everyone hated these two scenes, and they were two of my favorite comedic scenes. We were just beating our heads against the wall about why they didn't work. Then, I thought, "Those are the only scenes that are on sticks, instead of hand-held." It just feels different to them, and they don't know why. So we put a hand-held effect on it, and then it worked for the audience. Just stupid stuff like that; and having faith that when something is good, I can move on. I feel like I have a good barometer when something is working and what's not.
The hand-held works in 'Hit and Run' for its more intimate moments.
I am a big fan of that. On the show "Parenthood," we have new directors, who have a lot of free rein. Our best directors are the ones who use hand-held.
When did you want to become a director?
It started in [L.A. comedy group] Groundlings. Before Youtube, the only place you could see a filmed sketch was at Second City or Saturday Night Live, or Groundlings. We would show them on TV. I started making shorts in 2000, 2001. I made a few that were really popular shorts. I then had this deal with Break.com and I wrote and directed fifteen shorts for them. Then Brother's Justice just came out of that. I didn't go to film school, I did it because, was I going to hire someone else to do this? No, so I did it myself. I found that I enjoyed it. And now that I've directed this with a huge crew and going the whole nine yards, I've liked it more than I did before. I can finally say, "Yes, I would like to do this more than acting. It's far more stimulating than acting."
Would you like to stay in the action genre for upcoming projects?
Yes. Here's the other weird realization. I have been in these comedies — I can do that, it comes naturally to me. But when I'm watching trailers for movies, I am getting excited for The Dark Knight Rises ... anything that's gritty or raw. [Quentin] Tarantino is my favorite director. Savages I was super excited to see that, but it didn't turn out to be that good. I like all these grittier movies. I decided, I should direct movies I want to see; that aren't lay-ups for me. I'd rather do stuff with violence, and more masculine themes.
In the movie, your character's name is Charlie Bronson. I assume that's a direct reference to the action star, who is then referenced in the Nicolas Winding Refn movie about the British prisoner?
I love that movie. It's so good. [Tom] Hardy's willingness to be naked the whole movie is really impressive. It's gritty, visceral. I like violence a lot. I have been in a lot of fist fights. I race cars. I'm more or not embracing who I am and what I like to do, which is a culmination of someone who is crazy about his girlfriend, and I like communicating with her, and I think I do good self inventory. I'm a fucking liberal gun owner. This is who I am. I have tons of guns, and support Planned Parenthood. I am just supporting whatever this weird combination of things that is me, and try to translate that to movies. Hopefully there isn't a big movie-going section of this country that isn't strictly left or right, etc.
Before I go, I have to ask. Did you do it with the coffee shop girl in the Katie Aselton film 'The Freebie'?
Had I personally made The Freebie, I would tell you. But I can't, with respect to Katie [Aselton] and [producer] Mark [Duplass]. It's a troubling ending. What did you decide?
Man, I think you did it.
I find it to be interesting. Even if I didn't know what I did in the story, [Aselton's character] is in a fucking toilet. He was going at her — she's getting fucked. Now me in the house with Frankie, it's a cute little scene. To me it's a lot more obvious. It's hard to put the brakes on from where she was at compared to where I was at.
Quick Questions with Dax Shepard
Favorite fruit? Banana. I like that it comes with a wrapper. I always feel ultra safe about eating a banana.
Favorite summer movie? Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. [Nolan] is a number one surgeon.
Not the Schumacher films? No, thank you.
Age of first kiss? Sixth grade, Sasha Cross. Straight to heavy making out. She was in eighth grade. My brother gave me a very cool haircut in sixth grade, and everything changed for me. I had this great side-spiked hair deal, and the world opened up to me. I am gonna go ahead and straight brag right now — she was the hottest. The two hottest girls in middle school were Sasha Cross and Denise Valentine, and every guy hated me in the eighth grade. It seems to be a theme that I've kept going, now that I'm married to Kristen Bell. A lot of nerds want to kick my ass for that.