Dax Shepard on Idiocracy, Hit & Run, and Van Halen's film-music delusions
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Dax Shepard’s résumé is a catalog of dopes and dirtbags, but there’s more to him than meets the eye. He first came to public attention running point for Ashton Kutcher on Punk’d, but that was after studying with The Groundlings and getting a degree in anthropology from UCLA. Roles in Employee Of The Month and Without A Paddle landed him in the realm of lowbrow, dude-centric comedy, but recently he’s explored the boundaries of marriage in The Freebie and endeared himself to an older female audience as a regular on Parenthood. Hit & Run, which he wrote and co-directed, comes as close as any project to encompassing the various sides of his personality. Shepard stars opposite his real-life partner Kristen Bell (they’ve sworn not to get married until gay couples can as well) as a former getaway driver who’s forged a new life under witness protection. Trouble arises when his girlfriend (Bell) gets a once-in-a-lifetime job offer in Los Angeles, home to the criminals Shepard is dodging. Choosing love over security—and, to an extent, common sense—Shepard tunes up one of a score of vintage automobiles and sets out for the coast, with his parole officer (Tom Arnold), a local cop, and, soon enough, his former partners-in-crime giving chase. Drawing heavily on Shepard’s own car collection, Hit & Run is a gearhead’s delight, but it’s also full of well-crafted scenes that lay out the difficulties and rewards of long-term romances. In a small, subtle way, it has more surprises than a spy thriller. Recently, Shepard sat down with The A.V. Club in Manhattan to talk about his bumpy career path, why he dislikes the Fast And The Furious movies, and how to sneak girl stuff into a car-chase movie.
The A.V. Club: Hit & Run is being sold as a car-chase movie, but the setup, with you and Kristen Bell in the car for long periods, gives you opportunity for some fairly introspective dialogue. It’s a major component of a road trip, just sitting next to someone else in an enclosed space—
Dax Shepard: Communicating. Yes! That’s the majority of what happens on a road trip: long chats.
AVC: It feels as if you sneaked those scenes into the movie.
DS: Yeah, there’s some hoodwinking happening in this movie. I think a lot of guys are going to see a car-chase movie, but they’re also going to get my weird theories on communicating with your loved ones. It’s certainly not just generic Fast And Furious, like, “Here’s dudes; they need to kick some ass and peel out, and that’s that.” We put as much importance on the story between Bell and me as we do getting in and out of the car chases.
AVC: You can be too glib about the connection between your relationship in real life and on screen, but it seems obvious watching your characters that there’s a real natural rapport.
DS: Well, that could be said about [Bradley] Cooper and I. Cooper and I, in real life, are best friends. Tom Arnold and I are really best friends. So it’s like, it wouldn’t irk people that everyone in the movie are best friends playing best friends, but it’s dicey being in it with your lover. People are quick to point a finger at that. But it’s funny—if you’re friends, it’s fine.
AVC: They feel like real conversations, like when she’s dressing you down for using the word “fag,” and you’re explaining you didn’t mean it in a homophobic way.
DS: Yeah, yeah. And some of them are. If they’re not ones K.B. and I have had specifically, they’re ones I’ve had in other relationships, or I’ve overheard people, or friends of mine have told me. Certainly her reaction to my Lincoln Continental, that’s my Lincoln in real life, and her reaction to it when I finished building it was the same as her reaction in the movie, which is, “This thing sounds like it’s going to break.” After I’d just spent a year and a half and an untold fortune. Not what you want to hear.
AVC: It seems very true to life when you pull that Lincoln into a gas station, and David Koechner waddles up and starts drooling over it.
DS: That’s every fucking gas station we pull into in that car. It invites that kind of interaction.
AVC: It’s nice how your character lies about not knowing how much money he put into the car, and then a few scenes later, we realize he knows exactly how much he spent.
DS: Of course. He just wants to get the guy out of there. And he’s assessed that that guy does not have the money to do any kind of motor swap at all with that piece-of-shit pickup truck. When you own a Harley or a car like that, every gas station you stop at, some guy will explain to you that he used to have the exact same thing you have or whatever. It’s an interesting experience, having something like that.
AVC: Do people even notice it’s you behind the wheel? Or do they only have eyes for the car?
DS: It’s probably 50-50. When I go to real hardcore car stuff, they have no fucking clue. They don’t know who an actor is post-Burt Reynolds. The real hardcore 50- to 70-year-old car guys that are at Bob’s Big Boy on a Friday night in Burbank, they haven’t seen a movie in decades. [Laughs.] Which is kind of great. I dig that.
AVC: This movie came together in a matter of weeks. How much of that was, “This is my relationship. I love cars. These are my friends. Let’s see how much of that I can comfortably fit into one movie”?
DS: Yeah, this is all my interests and hobbies, all of it wrapped into one project. It’s cars, which I love, it’s my real-life fiancée, who I love, and it’s all my best friends. It’s got violence, which I love, and it’s got evolved, self-actualized communication, which I love. Almost anything I’m interested in is in this movie. I don’t know what that leaves me for the next movie, but yeah, a lot of it’s in there.
AVC: You’ve played a lot of characters who are, well, not so smart.
DS: Uh huh, yes. Idiocracy, I was playing someone functionally retarded, I think. Yeah. Baby Mama, I play a guy that’s kind of stupid, Carl Loomis. Employee Of The Month, I’m a dick, but I’m not really dumb. Let’s Go To Prison—I don’t think John Lyshitski’s dumb, he’s just a fucking dirtbag. But he’s kind of clever in his own way, I guess.
AVC: So it’s startling to hear your opening monologue, where Kristen Bell’s character is fretting about a job interview and you tell her she’s right where she needs to be, and there’s no need to worry. It’s not peppered with three-dollar words, but it has a certain amount of—
DS: Self-awareness—and being present, and aware, and conscious. Yeah. That’s the theme, probably, of that opening, and a theme I’m interested in in life. It would be stupid for me not to put that out there as something I think about.
AVC: Even the way it’s shot is striking, opening with that big close-up on her face in what looks like natural light. She’s not slathered in foundation, and you can actually see her pores.
DS: It’s not flattering, it’s not glossy, Hollywood-y.
AVC: It’s certainly not unflattering, more like she actually looks that good without assistance.
DS: I mean, she does not look bad. I’m saying there’s no pantyhose over the lens. We’re not on a 150-millimeter lens shooting from the ceiling so she’ll look perfect. We’re on a 23 right on her face, you know? It’s rough.
AVC: There’s a genuine intimacy to it.
DS: Well, I approached it as if there are three different movies going on. Kristen and I are in an indie, like a Sundance indie. Tom Arnold’s in a broad comedy. He’s in Raising Arizona. Everything he’s in is shot on a wide lens, and he’s physical. Bradley Cooper’s in a Michael Mann movie. We were on dolly for him, which we weren’t on for anyone else; we were on crane for him. And yet we’re all in the same world together. But that was the approach each time we shifted characters. Soderbergh had his three different film styles for Traffic, and it was like we had three different looks for our three different story points.
AVC: Did you worry about fitting those different styles into the same movie without the audience feeling like they’re being constantly yanked around?
DS: Not a bit, because what unifies all those things is my sensibility performance-wise. And I have a very exact sense of what is too broad or what’s not broad enough. I don’t waver in it. It’s very consistent. I just know when I want something, whether I think it’s in tune with the tone of the movie. So no matter what happens, whether one guy’s chasing a van that got away from him, which is a pretty broad concept, his reaction to it is human, vulnerable, embarrassed—it’s all real. That’s what unifies all this. Every one of these reactions to all these different things is an egocentric, vain, real reaction.
AVC: Looking at the shape of your career, it’s not an easy thing to pin down. You move around a lot.
DS: It’s very confusing. I couldn’t have planned it this way, that’s for sure.
AVC: It would be hard to plan going from The Freebie to Parenthood to Hit & Run, that’s for sure.
DS: Funnily enough, I did The Freebie, and 12 hours after we wrapped The Freebie, I was on a plane to shoot the pilot of Parenthood.
AVC: That must be deliberate to a certain extent.
DS: It’s not. You know what? I did a lot of things that were deliberate, and they all backfired. I was trying desperately to become Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler, and it did not work for me. I took a lot of leaps that I shouldn’t have, traditionally speaking. I paid the price for that. I was not as hire-able for a while. But then I just gave all that up. I’m a writer; I’ve worked as much as a writer as I have as an actor, so I was in a script-note session at Imagine for a TV show I wrote that they were producing, and they happened to say, “You’d be great as Crosby, do you want to do this show we’re doing, Parenthood?” I said, “Yeah, let me read it.” And then I went and auditioned, and all of a sudden, I’m on Parenthood. That turned out to be one of the best things ever. I thought I never wanted to be on TV. I was dead wrong. I’m almost always dead wrong about the things I think I want, vs. when I just go with the flow, I’m always happy where I end up. So I end up on Parenthood as a total fluke. I end up in The Freebie as a total fluke. I haven’t had an agent get me a job in five years. I just know Mark Duplass; he said this. I know Imagine; they said this. I’m friends with everyone. I have the ability to pull together the essential elements for a film, so I make one. I didn’t plan three years ago, “Oh, I gotta make this movie” or anything. Even genre: I’ve done comedy, and I’ve done stupid broad comedy; now I’m on a one-hour drama, now I’m in a car-chase movie. [Laughs.] Who knows?
DS: They’ve become superhero movies, which frustrates me as a car lover, a car racer. Seeing cars fly over trains—I don’t even know what the fuck they’re doing when I see these trailers. It’s not for me. As soon as something is computer-generated, I emotionally completely unplug. I’m like, “Oh, well, this didn’t happen. No one’s at risk, there’s no stakes. It’s all happening on a hard drive.” That doesn’t excite me. Our movie doesn’t have the most out-there stunts by a long shot. We didn’t have the budget to jump it over a fucking gorge.
AVC: They’re mostly your cars, right? So you’re not going to wreck them.
DS: [Laughs.] And they’re my cars on top of that. With that said, I think our car chases are more satisfying than most of the ones you see in movies, because they’re all 100 percent real. I am actually driving the car in every single frame of the movie, and Kristen’s really in the passenger seat. When that Lincoln flies out onto the road going 50 dead-sideways, and the camera’s on us and you see it, you’re like, “That’s different! I’ve never seen the actors in the car doing that in a wide [shot]!” So I think that’s something that’s special about ours, that’s definitely something we bring to it. Whereas, like I said, we can’t compete with a Michael Bay smashing 120 brand-new cars. We didn’t have that budget.
AVC: Or jumping a car onto a moving train.
DS: [Laughs.] Yes, and onto the space shuttle, which then lands on a 747. Yeah, we didn’t do that.
AVC: It feels like the movie is taking place in actual, contiguous space.
DS: To me, Hooper—not when they jump the Trans Am over the gorge, because that is a jet car, and that’s not what I’m into—but them driving that red Trans Am through that old factory and they’re felling smokestacks, they’re falling really right behind the car, I mean 200-foot-tall smokestacks smashing down on the ground 20 feet behind the car, that blows my mind. That is so impressive, in my opinion.
AVC: You mentioned Idiocracy, which got one of the strangest, most feeble releases of any studio movie in recent memory.
DS: Oh, no kidding. What’s funny is, even in the theaters it did come out in, they didn’t list it correctly with Moviefone. I remember that was a big issue. They had listed it as “Untitled Mike Judge Comedy” with Fandango, so even people who wanted to go see Idiocracy couldn’t find it. Very weird. Now, with hindsight—you know, fuck that. Not even now with hindsight. Even when it was happening, in a weird way, I think it was the perfect way for the movie to come out. Because had that movie come out on 3,000 screens, and if Fox had spent $40 million marketing it and everyone ran out to see it, they would have been hypercritical of the set design, the way he handled the future, the computer-generated stuff at the beginning. That movie works great as an underdog. It’s the same thing that happened to Office Space. Mike Judge is the absolute king of animation, and he’s made $100 million, and yet he’s an underdog. It’s like this weird, perfect—I don’t know how you make $100 million and still be the underdog, but he’s figured that out.
AVC: It seemed like a fairly shoestring production—
DS: It wasn’t. That was a $30 million movie. I would love to have $30 million. What’s really weird to me is not that Fox didn’t release the movie. That makes total sense to me. What I’ll never understand is why they made the movie to begin with. That doesn’t make any sense. I don’t know why they’d give $30 million to make that movie.
AVC: After it’s made seems like the wrong time to cut their losses.
DS: Yeah. They had the balls to make it, but not release it. It’s usually the other way around. Like our movie! I probably couldn’t get a studio to have made it run. That certainly would have had notes on a lot of different sections; the word “fag” wouldn’t be in it, the butt-fucking thing wouldn’t be in it, all these things that kind of define it wouldn’t be in it. But having made it, seeing how it was executed in front of an audience, we sold it. I think you can sell stuff if you have the balls to go make it and you execute it well. There’s a million different ways to bring what’s on paper to life, and it can be really mishandled.
AVC: It seems like Hit & Run has several million dollars’ worth of music cues.
DS: Yes. We got really, really lucky. I was trying to stay within our music budget, and one of our two main producers, Andrew Panay, who did Wedding Crashers, and has been a friend of mine for a long time, he said, “Stop worrying about the budget. Put the music you want in the movie for now, let’s test it, and then if we test it and it tests well and the studio’s seen that it tests well with this music, then we go to them and ask for more money for the music.” And I was like, “All right, let’s do that.” We did that, and God bless Open Road [Films], they bought us that music. We really have Aerosmith, “Sweet Emotion.” We have Hendrix; we have all that stuff. For me, that was one of the best things that happened in the process, finding out I was going to get good, good music for the movie.
AVC: That can really foul up a lot of independent productions, when they build a scene around a song without realizing it’s going to cost several times their budget just for licensing rights.
DS: My first movie, Brother’s Justice, I made for nothing. I had all this great music in it, tested it, then had to take it all out. People will say the roughest part about making movies is when you’re editing, getting rid of scenes that you absolutely loved or are close to your heart, but they’re not working for the story. For me, that doesn’t even compare. I killed a million scenes in this movie that I love. Didn’t hurt a bit. But having seen Brother’s Justice 3,000 times with Coltrane in it, I had the Cannonball Run theme song, I had all these songs in it, that was the most heartbreaking thing. To have gotten close to the movie with all that music, and then to have to put crappy, generic, license-free music was terrible. I hated it. It was just soul-crushing. I would always way rather have a big music budget and figure out how to cut corners on the production side.
AVC: You can’t begrudge musicians one of the few remaining avenues where they can reliably get paid for their work, but—
DS: They fucking charge you, man. They are not joking around. And some of these people are absolutely delusional, too. Some of these bands, they’re asking five times as much as The Rolling Stones are asking for their music. I’ll say it, fuck them, like Van Halen. You would not believe what they think their shit’s worth. Like 20 times what Metallica will charge you.
AVC: There’s that infamous moment in the documentary Mad Hot Ballroom where a woman’s cell phone rang on camera, and because her ringtone was the theme from Rocky, the publisher wanted $10,000 to license it.
DS: I know, that should be a fair-use thing. Like the Hollywood sign. That one cracks me up. You can’t put the Hollywood sign in a movie without paying them. That is a landmark in L.A. I’m sorry, remove it from our skyline, then. You know? How dare they. That should be public domain, right? But it’s privately owned, and they enforce that. They sue people. If you see it in the movie, they’ve paid for that. Because we had it in Brother’s Justice, and we had to take it out. I have intimate experience with this.
AVC: You mentioned Let’s Go To Prison, which is another funny movie that about four people saw.
DS: Oh, thank you. That’s the one that really slowed my career down drastically. It wasn’t entirely fair, either, because Will [Arnett] and I were never on the poster. The poster was a bar of soap. I think the bar of soap should never work again, but I don’t think it’s fair to not even put us on the poster and then blame us when it doesn’t do well. That’s a little rough. That one I’ll say I’m still a hair resentful toward.
AVC: Was it the movie itself, or did they not release it right?
DS: I think they made a gamble, and I guess that it could have worked, but they hung the entire campaign on a homophobia joke. You could argue we’re hanging a lot of our campaign [for Hit & Run] on a homophobia joke, but I would argue that ours is not about homophobia, it’s about a guy really desperately trying to find the silver lining in a very bad situation and just getting himself in deeper and deeper. But that’s not our whole campaign. Anyway, I digress. All you saw was the fucking bar of soap. I had so many people say to me, honestly, “Have you seen this bar-of-soap ad on Sunset? Do you know what that is? It says Let’s Go To Prison, and there’s this bar of soap.” Like, not knowing I’m in the movie. And asking me if I have any clue what that thing means. Rough.
AVC: So some people didn’t get it, and those who did were like, “Don’t want to see that movie.”
DS: Yeah. What’s great—time really does heal all wounds— is that movie has legs. I mean, that movie is on Comedy Central twice a week, still. Six years later. It’s on nonstop. I get tons of people come up to me and tell me that they love Let’s Go To Prison.
AVC: It’s got Dylan Baker and Tim and Eric in the cast—not too shabby.
DS: Yeah, well, fucking Michael Shannon won an Academy Award after that. Or was nominated, I don’t know if he won. Now it’s like a shitload of people have seen Idiocracy. Tons of people have seen Zathura and like it. So in a weird way, I think most of the movies I’ve been a part of have had a really long afterlife, and that makes me happy. Because there’s definitely disposable movies, you know. Without A Paddle, that movie, it’s still on TBS every weekend. It’s still sticking around and around and around, just kind of circulating.
AVC: You said Let’s Go To Prison got your career off track. Was Baby Mama an important turnaround?
DS: Kristen and I met—she had Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and I had Baby Mama, both releasing one week apart, both Universal. I don’t know. I think being in that movie was fine—like, from being in a movie with Dane Cook, it certainly helped get me back in the graces of working comedians or respectable comedians, I don’t know.
AVC: And women, who might not have been interested in the bar-of-soap movie.
DS: Oh yeah, that’s for sure. Well now, with Parenthood, I have to imagine that’s a predominantly female audience. And I think they’re flipping around on the weekend, like, “Wait a minute, what’s Crosby doing in this gross comedy?” [Laughs.] I think both fan bases are equally shocked.
AVC: That’s kind of the arc of your career as well. The audience for Punk’d was probably mostly young and male.
DS: Oh yeah, young guys who love to scream out of car windows. That seems to be their unifying quality. This is a smarter movie than that. But all these movies we just listed, I brought my vibe to those movies, whether or not the whole movie had that vibe. Like Employee Of The Month, I’ll be arrogant and say, is funnier because I’m in that movie, and I brought my voice to that role, and that role in particular in the movie is entertaining. I’m actually proud of that. It was really nice to have control. It was nice to not just have control over my domain in the movie. It was really wonderful to be able to extend it to the whole tonality of the movie.
AVC: That’s the blessing and the curse of being an actor. You don’t have control over how it turns out, but you get to go home at the end of the day.
DS: Yeah, none of the other people in this movie have been working for 15 months on this movie. There’s me. That’s the drag of it. But the reward of it is infinitely bigger.
AVC: You’re not exactly going to cut yourself out of the movie.
DS: Well, I’m pretty brutal on myself. If someone’s got to go, I’ll kill myself. Because I have to go to bed with K.B.