Dax Shepard moves behind the camera for 'Hit & Run'
Dax. It’s not a name you see every day. Neither is Dax Shepard -- exactly -- an actor who’s a household name. You’ve seen him, though. If you took your kids to the sci-fi fantasy “Zathura,” he played the astronaut at the story’s center.
If you caught the goofball comedy “Idiocracy,” he co-starred as Frito, one of the stupidest people in the world. If you’re a member of a more general audience, and you watch the NBC series “Parenthood,” he has the choice role of the well-meaning but errant Crosby Braverman.
Yeah, you know Dax Shepard, if for nothing else than for the almost constantly panicked look in his big, blue eyes. And these days, he’s more than just an actor.
In the new action comedy “Hit & Run,” which opens Aug. 24, he stars as Charlie Bronson (it’s explained in the film), a man with a complicated past that’s catching up with him just as his girlfriend (real-life fiancée Kristen Bell) is finding out about it. Shepard also wrote the script and both co-directed and co-edited the film.
Shepard, 37, sat down to talk about the independent movie last week in Los Angeles. But before getting him to discuss writing and directing and themes, the question had to be asked: Where did you get that name?
“Oh, there was a best seller book in the ’70s called ‘The Adventurers’ by Harold Robbins,” he said. “The lead character’s initials were D.A.X. and he went by the name Dax in the book. It was kind of a smutty, steamy romance novel. My parents both read it; they both agreed on the name.”
He chuckled to himself, then added, “I recently had a very weird experience. Kristen and I were in Tennessee for the Country Music Awards. I was getting a massage, and the woman mentioned that she had kids. I asked what their names were, and she said Henry and Dax. I said, ‘Oh, my God, you read “The Adventurers,” too?’ And she said, ‘No, he’s named after you.’ I thought that was very surreal.”
When Shepard found out that an independent producer was interested in providing money for “Hit & Run,” he sat down and wrote the script in just under three weeks, spinning out the tale of a guy who voluntarily leaves the Witness Protection Program so his girlfriend can take a new job in the city they had fled. Besides being filled with full-throttle, extremely wild chase scenes, the film features a sweet, romantic story that carries a feeling of honesty in the dialogue. Just like on “Parenthood.”
Shepard was happy to hear that, but explained, “Improv is encouraged on ‘Parenthood.’ So if you’re responding to things that I say on the show, and you think they sound natural, that’s because quite often that’s how I talk. So I then write a script in my voice.”
Those words he wrote for the film turned out to be what were used. The tight production schedule didn’t allow for improvisation.
“Typically, improv on a movie set works best when you’ve gotten it, as written, and now let’s play and see if we can discover a moment or a joke or whatever,” he said. “But in our case it was we got it, let’s haul ass to the next set-up, because we cannot possibly lose any time.”
Yet, despite the constraints, Shepard felt confident with director’s duties, which he shared with his production partner David Palmer.
“Making a movie is a mechanical process,” he said. “It’s not ethereal. It’s point the camera there, move the object through this frame, now cut to this. I had already made a bunch of shorts, then I made the movie ‘Brother’s Justice’ (with Palmer). And all the time I’ve been on sets as an actor, I was drawn to talking to the cinematographers and the camera operators. So over the past 10 years, I think I’ve acquired the required base knowledge to implement my vision. It didn’t scare me. But other things terrified me: Would we run out of money? Would we run out of time? Would the actors be difficult? I obsessed about those things. But establishing a consistent tone didn’t scare me. And ours is wrestling with a lot of different things. There’s a love story happening within a broad comedy, with the violence of a Michael Mann movie, as well as ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ thing with the cars. We could’ve gotten into big, big trouble.”
One of his staunchest supporters was Bell, who was quoted in a recent interviewing as saying that Shepard was “so cute as a director.”
Asked about that, she now said, “It’s like when you see your significant other take on a different role, one where they’re more of a leader but they’re also doing a stellar job. You know, he had the headphones on and was sitting behind the monitor and looking really closely at the screen and would do the sign to roll or yell action or cut, or come in and secretly give notes to people. I was overwhelmed with how adorable it was.”