Dax Shepard on His 'CHiPs' Film, 'Africa' Music Video and Possible 'Parenthood' Revival
The actor-director also explains why he'll always cast his wife, Kristen Bell, in everything he makes.
Following his six-year run on NBC's Parenthood, Dax Shepard has been busy directing and starring in a film adaptation of the 1977-83 buddy motorcycle cop series CHiPs. The project, in which Shepard takes the Jon Baker role opposite Michael Pena's Frank "Ponch" Poncherello (a character made famous by Erik Estrada in the original), filmed throughout SoCal thanks to the real California Highway Patrol. "People around the world know what 'CHiPs' means, and I believe that brand was created by the TV show," says Shepard, who insists the movie will be a "humongous departure" from the original. THR caught up with the star and director, who will speak during the opening panel of the Film in California Conference about the filming process. He was days away from finishing the edit of the movie, which hits theaters Aug. 11, 2017. "Just enough time for all the topical jokes to get bad," he jokes.
First off, why a CHiPs remake?
I was always a fan of any TV program with vehicles as its stars. I loved The Fall Guy because of the brown truck, The Dukes of Hazzard because of the General Lee and CHiPs because it had motorcycles, dirt bikes and off-road trucks. I went for a ride in a dune buggy when I was 2 and have been obsessed ever since. But I was writing another script and I was making a Poncherello joke and I didn't know how to spell it, so I googled it — and not only did the spelling come up but this great photo of Jon and Ponch popped up that I had never seen before with them just staring off into the distance. They looked mildly tough and cool. It was such a family show but this image was kind of edgy. I just thought, "Guys on motorcycles can hold an edgier tone. I think there is a cool version of the movie that could be made." So my pitch [to Warner Bros.] was that it would be more like Bad Boys — the action would be more intense, the bad guys would be scary and the blood would be real.
Was it imperative that you shoot in California as the TV show did?
It was, and I had a locked budget, so the only way it could have been done is with an incentive. Had we not gotten it, we'd definitely have had to go to Louisiana or Atlanta, which felt criminal considering the word "California" is actually in the title of the movie.
Did you have trouble shooting scenes on the highways?
There's two sections of the highway where they tend to let people film: a little piece of the 710 and the 105. As I was watching [The People v. O.J. Simpson], I noticed they were on the 710. We also really wanted to shoot at the CHP central office. That required some wooing, for sure, because it is an R-rated comedy, and that's scary territory for a government agency.
How different will the film be?
Tonally, it's very 2016. It's a hard R. The only characters that are back are Jon and Ponch. I wanted to come up with new stuff. I feel like the show exists in the same way that I loved the Batman TV show when I was a kid, but I certainly loved Christopher Nolan's completely opposite [film] version of that.
What's been the most challenging part of the filmmaking process?
In a practical sense, shooting motorcycle action is difficult. It's very easy to fake car action with actors — there's a lot of rigs that exist and there are all kinds of tricks. But motorcycles are a unique thing to try to capture well.
Did you and Pena do your own stunts?
Michael learned to ride for this film, so he is doing some riding, but he's not doing a ton of stunts. I did a ton of stunts, but there are also stunts in the movie I could never do. Guys jump 60 feet in the air on motorcycles, which, as the father of two kids [with wife and actress Kristen Bell], I'm not in the market for.
And your wife is in the film, too, yes?
Yes, she plays my wife in the movie actually. I don’t think I'll ever make anything that she's not in. She's just too dependable. She's one of the very few actors that every single take is usable, so she's a very efficient person to shoot with. And when you're on a very tight budget and most of your days are blocked out for action, she's who you want in the other scenes.
I have to ask about the music video you and your wife made for Toto's "Africa." Were you surprised it went viral?
I mean, any time something goes viral I think that's shocking because it's really hard to do, as a lot of branded content curators find out. But at the same time, it was something that we had for four years on our iPhones, and anyone we had shown it to had really, really liked it a lot. And my daughters watch it on repeat for 15 minutes straight sometime. So I did feel like there was something sticky about it, but I would obviously never bet anything could be viral.
Why did you end up releasing it?
It's CHiPs related why I ended up putting it out, really. I had written a chase scene that involved "Rosanna" by Toto in CHiPs and initially they didn't want to give me the song because they thought I was somehow making fun of them. So I got a hold of David Paich, who wrote all that music, and I said, "You can't imagine what a huge Toto fan I am. I'm going to send you a video to show you just how deep my dedication is." He called me back and he was like, "You can absolutely use any song ever that we have written."
So after I had let it out of the family to him, I just thought, "Oh, who cares if this is out here." It's a weird line to straddle, the things you don't want anyone to see and the things you don't care if people see. But I thought this one just induced happiness, which is never a bad thing.
Would you be up for a Parenthood revival in the future?
Oh, for sure. That was the funniest job I've ever… well, no. Directing is the funniest job I've ever had. But it was definitely one of the great, just the most beautiful six years. It was wonderful so I'm not opposed to it.
Do you want to do more directing in the future?
That would be what I choose to do if given the choice. It's just so much more stimulating, and I'm acting in the things I direct so I get to do that as well. When I'm on set as an actor and I'm there for 12 hours, I'm stimulated for an hour of it but if I'm there as a director, I'm stimulated for the entire 12 hours and I want to be there longer. As an actor, I'm usually ready to go by the end of the day — but as a director you want more and more and more. It's the most incredible jigsaw puzzle you're solving all day long, and it's really energizing.
A version of this story first appeared in the May 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.