Wild ride: Dax Shepard writes, directs and stars in comic tale of couple on the run

Hit & Run is the perfect summer wrap-up movie, a wild and funny comedy involving a guy with a witness-protection past (Dax Shepard) on the run for his life, accompanied by his long-suffering but supportive girlfriend (Kristen Bell). Yes, it’s a car-chase film, but along with the impressively lensed and stunted automotive pyrotechnics, there’s a quirky, defiant, fresh comic voice here, starting with a wonderful scene in bed between the two leads that runs a quick gamut of emotions.

Although he got literally physically sick in his car in the middle of our phone interview, Shepard, who wrote and co-directed with David Palmer the Open Road release, proved himself a real trouper (he did do all the stunt work in his film) as he recounted the genesis of his caper.

Film Journal International: Was this film autobiographical in any way?
Dax Shepard: Before I was an actor, I was in witness protection. No, I’m a complete beer-head and had been wanting to make a car-chase movie for a while. I was looking forward to working with my friends, so we sort of took everything and put it in the blender.
Cars are my number-one fascination. I race as a hobby and it’s what I’m most obsessed with, so all the car-culture stuff was very second nature. That’s my real-life Lincoln Continental and ultimate racecar.

I have my fingers crossed for this movie. I’m punching in enough attractive elements so hopefully we can squeak one by and it will be more than just about a car chase. Culturally, a lot of boys will go for the car chase, but I hope everyone will hear a new comedic voice.

FJI: You and Kristen Bell have extraordinary chemistry.
DS: Isn’t she just the most lovely human being alive? We’ve been engaged for a while. It’s so much fun to write for her because she can do anything—comedy, drama, even that Broadway song she sings, which she pulls off. And she’s a little trouper in any situation. I did every single stunt in those cars and she wanted to be fully there too, right there with me. If I was going to do all the driving, she didn’t want to be pushing me in a wheelchair. A lot of the details were kept from the insurance guys.

FJI: I adored the first scene with you two in bed, arguing, making love and even hitting each other. So sexy, real and funny, with every emotion from romantic to nasty.
DS: I basically had to condense the entire theme of our relationship in four minutes, from tragedy to irony to really connecting emotionally. I had to show everyone that these people have a very, very trusting, open relationship.

I will often be watching a movie and think, “Wait a minute! These two are in love and they didn’t even have a conversation about having a favorite book or make an effort to show us one thing that makes their connection unique.” They don’t show how these two special people have found each other. It’ll be like she’s a director and he’s a director and that’s why they’re in love. Well, okay, if you say so.

FJI: Besides her, you’ve assembled one of the strongest ensemble casts of the year. Kristin Chenoweth is a hoot as her raw-talking, lusty boss, maybe her best big-screen showing yet.

DS: You’re basically looking at our real-life social circle. Everyone in the film is our real-life friend and I wrote every single one of those roles for them. She’s one of Kristen’s best friends. I have to say that she’s so adorable. There’s nothing funnier than watching them together. I think she was excited to be there, up for anything in which she‘s able to play against type that she’s done in the past.

I’m just a huge fan of Tom Arnold, one of my best friends. Any time he’s playing vulnerable or embarrassed, he’s right in the sweet spot of comedy. I pretty much have him in the entire movie, being embarrassed or humiliated.

Beau Bridges was the only actor that I had not known or written a role for specifically. It was very flattering for someone of that caliber to join us, even though we didn’t have a personal relationship. It was fun directing him, but also intimidating to attempt to direct someone like that, whom you revere.

FJI: Your movie looks terrific as well. I’m sure it wasn’t a huge budget, but was it hard to get financed?
DS: It was, shockingly, surprisingly easy. We had such a finite amount of time to get the movie prepped and shot. We were on hiatus from [my TV show] “Parenthood” and were gonna do it in one place and decided not to. We were looking for another location and thought we were not going to make my deadline. But after a week of looking around, my producer found some private equity, which we deposited to pay for it, and one week later, we started prep. So it was super-quick, miraculous financing.

It was modestly budgeted, but we made up for it for it through the work of my DP, Bradley Stonesifer, just a bear of a man. We had never worked before and he got some very impressive stuff.

FJI: Did you study filmmaking formally at all?
DS: This is actually my second feature. I directed a small movie, Brother’s Justice, that I paid for, that came out last year. I also made like 20 different shorts that I shot myself, and have been on countless film sets. I paid attention from day one to the camerawork. What lens were they using? Why were they riding the dolly? When was it handheld, and what was the theory behind that? I just picked it up as I’ve gone along.

FJI: I think you have a comedy movie first by featuring your own version of the app Grindr, which you here call “Pouncer.”
DS: Jess Rowland, the guy who plays the gay sheriff who uses it, is one of my best friends. He was the one who introduced me to Grindr. We’d be in a restaurant and he’d be telling me who there was down to party with someone, and I thought that was amazing.

We were going to use the name Grindr, which was in the script, and we asked permission to use their name. They opted not to, so we came up with Pouncer, which I ended up liking a lot better than Grindr anyway. [laughs] Like a great big puma!

[As for being the first to use it,] I started getting nervous because we shot this 16 months ago, and during the whole last 15 months, I thought there was no way that someone was not going to beat us to it. Well, the movie comes out in two weeks and I haven’t seen anything so far.

FJI: That gay character is really funny and adds something to the mix.
DS: I definitely wanted everyone to see that his being gay is not the joke. The fact that there’s a technology that allows you to fuck strangers is the joke. That is amazing, not the fact that he’s gay or not gay. He’s certainly not acting arch or stereotypical, which is what I really wanted to do.

FJI: With all these funny performers, was there a lot of improvising?

DS: There wasn’t because we had a very tight shooting schedule, six weeks. If we had gone long one day, there wasn’t a day to add to the end of our schedule. Literally 12 hours after we wrapped, I had to go to “Parenthood” and Kristen had to go to her show, “House of Lies.” We weren’t in a position where we could make up any lost scenes, which meant that when we got something we didn’t play around. It was very tightly scripted.

FJI: Your film has something of the feel of Preston Sturges’ comedies, with all these wacky characters running around in a frenzy, all somehow linked together. What are your film inspirations?
DS: Thanks! Yes, Sturges—All About Eve, no, The Lady Eve! Amazing! I also love Hal Needham, who directed all the Smokey and the Bandit movies and Hooper. What he captured was people having fun. He wasn’t out to win the Academy Award: He got his best friends together and they had a blast for three months and then got to watch a 99-minute version of those three months.

The best filmmaker in the world without question is Quentin Tarantino. I worship him as a writer more than anything. If Hal Needham and Quentin had a baby, maybe Hit & Run could be it.

FJI: So I have to ask, what was it like being on “Punk’d” [Ashton Kutcher’s MTV prank show]?
DS: It was a lot more fun to watch than it was to shoot, pretty stressful because there’s no second take, you know. There was no coverage. Did it help hone my comic skills? Well, definitely, there was no faking it. If you were too broad, the entire thing would be blown. That was not acceptable. It did really help me in terms of being in a believable range and very rooted in reality.

I’m very still rooted in reality. In Hit & Run what you’re seeing is a lot of crazy circumstances, but the characters are playing it very realistically. No one tried to be funny; actually my mandate was that if everyone played it like a drama, I promised it would be funny.

FJI: Were you always funny, growing up?
DS: Yes. I’m from Detroit, but it wasn’t referred to as funny in class as much as disruptive. But I was always making jokes, for sure. I did stand-up for a while, some years back and then I got busy. I was a sketch comedian at the Groundlings before I got “Punk’d.”

It was crazy seeing the Academy Awards this year. Four members of my original comedy troupe were either nominated or winning, including Octavia Spencer, who won for The Help, Tate Taylor from The Help and Nat Faxon from The Descendants.

FJI: What’s next for you?
DS: I go back to “Parenthood,” which is a wonderful job to have. It’s one of the nicest working environments I’ve ever been in. Everyone gets to come out a little bit with their own personality, a very rewarding shooting experience. We’re on our fourth season.
I’ve written another movie and hopefully in March we’ll be shooting in Hawaii. On Hit & Run we had enough of California in July, so we are definitely ready for Hawaii, a good location.

FJI: Is Kristen in this one, too?
DS: Of course. She’ll be in all my movies. She also going to be singing

FJI: Finally, I have to ask you about your name, Dax.
DS: It was from a very popular book in the 1970s called The Adventurers, by Harold Robbins, in which a lead character is named Dax.

FJI: So your mom named you after a trashy bodice-ripper?
DS: Absolutely. It’s like saying, “Maybe I’ll name my child after a ‘Jersey Shore’ character or something.” I’ve even seen the movie of The Adventurers, with Ernest Borgnine! It’s pretty darn good. Dax was a South American revolutionist, and why wouldn’t he be?