Dax Shepard Talks Directing 'About a Boy's' Take on 'A Christmas Carol'

The 'Parenthood' actor-director returns to the NBC comedy — behind the camera
Ben Cohen/NBC

Dax Shepard first crossed over to Parenthood showrunner Jason Katims' other NBC series About a Boy during its first season when Crosby Braverman joined Will's (David Walton) poker game. While Will's financial burden could set up a need for the musician to return to the studio — the Luncheonette needs business! — Shepard instead is returning behind-the-scenes to direct the sophomore comedy's holiday episode.

During this week's "About a Christmas Carol," Will takes on the Ebenezer Scrooge role, as Christmas is his least favorite holiday thanks to hearing his hit song "Runaway Sleigh" all … the … time.

Will, who is embroiled in a lawsuit over said track, takes a trip down memory lane to revisit his old residences, girlfriends and family members in a bid to prove that he was the song's lone writer. Meanwhile, Fiona (Minnie Driver) will stop at nothing to make her son, Marcus (Benjamin Stockham), keep believing in the magic of the holiday.

Shepard took some time away from filming the Parenthood series finale to talk with The Hollywood Reporter about why his most recent television directorial job was both a new challenge and a dream come true.

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This About a Boy episode isn't your first time in the director's chair. What was new or challenging about this specific show and experience?

I've directed two features and a Parenthood, and all three of those allowed for a lot of zig-zagging and discovery and room to breathe. You had a lot of freedom to shorten some things and allow others to find a new gear that maybe wasn't on the page. You're pretty confined in the half-hour to your 22 minutes, and that definitely took some adjusting. I think what traditionally happens in that show is that they will end up losing a scene or even two scenes, where this one was a lot more story-driven than other episodes of the show because it was this Christmas Carol story, so it was a specific challenge knowing we couldn't lose an entire scene from the episode. So, while shooting, I was trying to be a lot more conscious than I would normally be of the pace of each scene and how long they were coming out.

How did it come up that you were taking on the holiday episode? Were you specifically looking for a tentpole, or was it solely based on scheduling and your availability?

I got lucky in a number of ways with this episode. I watched three cut episodes, and then I read four scripts leading up to my episode, which [I knew] was eight. I opened eight, which I knew was mine, and I noticed it was written by Katims. I was like, "Oh my God, how lucky; I'm getting to direct one that Jason wrote!" Then I started reading it, and it was the Christmas episode, and it was [a play on] A Christmas Carol, which for me was a triple whammy because I am head over heels in love with Jason. I am the biggest Christmas fanatic there is, and then I get to have this well-worn Christmas Past/Christmas Present/Christmas Future structure. All of it, I just felt really lucky about. Because I am so fanatical about Christmas, I wore different Christmas outfits every day that I directed. I brought Christmas music; I overdecorated every set; I had my family come down for the snowing scene. It was like a Christmas carnival for me!

Did being such a Christmas fan make you feel more connected to this particular story?

One of the things that I really latched onto [was] in the story they've been such vagabonds and they've landed in so many places, but the one thing Fiona makes really consistent [for Marcus] is Christmas. That definitely was something that paralleled my life. My mom was a janitor on night shift, and she had three kids [as a] single mom. We barely got by, but the one thing we did as if we were the Rockefellers was Christmas, which is why I'm so obsessed with the holiday. We got so, so spoiled every year on Christmas, no matter how tight things were the rest of the year. It was kind of this three-week fantasy that we had once a year, so I could really relate to Fiona's storyline.

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While Fiona's storyline has a lot of fun to it, things get much more serious with Will having his own Christmas Past/Christmas Present/Christmas Future moments.

It definitely veered into the Parenthood world with the stuff with Will and his dad. That stuff was really kind of grounded, and I know personally from my own father/son issues that it's really complicated, and I thought that it was a realistic, relatable way that fathers and sons have these crazy conflicts that no one can really remember where they started, but they're just difficult. So I was really happy that I got an episode that happened to have this. It was really nice to do those scenes in addition to the comedy. I remember at the table read Walton saying, "Wow, this one is a little dramatic, huh?" And I was like, "Yeah, it's going to be so fun." And to watch him go for it and use a different gear that I haven't seen on the show and to feel like I created this environment where he was free to go for it and then to see this amazing result, it was the first time I'd had that experience where I felt like I was part of doing something great and unexpected. I just was really, really blown away with him.

How was your approach different from those dramatic scenes between Will and his dad (Geoff Pierson) to those between him and his ex (Nicholle Tom)?

The scene [between Will and his ex] was the trickiest because it was as written the most comedic, but that was one where I thought, "You know, Christmas Present — which is what that one really is — is supposed to be where he thinks because [Bob Cratchit] is poor, he's going to have this terrible Christmas, and then he witnesses them having dinner and he realizes for the first time there's something much more important than money. That's the crux for me of A Christmas Carol." So, I thought that it would be really great if he goes in going, "Geez, what's happened to this girl? She used to be such a sexpot, but now she's got all these kids!" I really wanted to turn them quickly on a dime and show them as a family partying and singing and showing how fun it is. I kind of wanted that to be somewhat of a real moment for Will, where he realizes all of this stuff [he's] been avoiding and afraid of actually looks kind of fun. The father scene was always going to be, "Well, this is going to be your life if you stay on this path." That one was really kind of easy, but the other one really had to pivot into this really sweet moment.

You do get to create a bit of Christmas magic at the end of the episode, but did that come with its own challenges?

We were working with kids, and I felt like we had a very tiny window to have the kids in that [final] scene. We had a very hard out at 10 o'clock, and I wanted this crane shot, and anytime you get the crane out, then you have five different snow makers, so there were logistical issues. One of our night shoots was the little candlelight montage, and that was almost all shot in real time. I think we shot it for 12 minutes, and about three minutes of it made it into the show. That was like, "No, we can make this!" That, to me, is the most fun part — when you're kind of in a panic state, and you're trying to make really quick game-day calls to save the shoot day. That's when I'm most excited and I feel most engaged.

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How would you describe your directing style now — has it evolved or changed at all thanks to shows like About a Boy that you've worked on?

It definitely stems from my preferred acting style. I personally have the most fun acting when I don't know what's going to happen, when someone throws me a curve ball and I have to adjust. My favorite acting partners are the ones who improv a lot, because it forces me to listen more and to actually engage and react. So I'm most comfortable in a chaotic, messy situation, which is what Parenthood does really well. We have a real loosey-goosey approach over there, and the consequence is that we capture real moments, often because we get things we didn't even know were going to happen — legitimately real moments. I like to direct that way [too]. I like to direct really fast; I like to do series; I like to make people do something a completely different way without ever cutting; I like to get everyone out of their comfort zone just to see what happens. Obviously, there are scenes in anything that require a ton of planning, because either they are super mechanical or you're using a crane or they need to look beautiful. But when the engine of the scene isn't an event happening, when the engine of the scene is something emotional or character-driven, I think it's best to have two people just really hanging it out there and seeing what happens. And so, for me, I prefer to set up a scenario where we're covering both actors and they're free to explore. I got do that on Parenthood [as both an actor and a director], and I got to do that here too.

About a Boy airs Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. on NBC. Check out an exclusive clip from the holiday episode, below.

Twitter: @danielletbd

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