Directors make movies for all different reasons — perhaps because of a love of the craft, the need to tell a particular story or a personal connection to the material.
Dax Shepard, the writer, director and star of “CHIPS” is in it so that he can do big stunts.
His previous film, “Hit & Run,” was filled with big chase scenes and his latest, out Friday, has him zipping around on speedy motorcycles.
He sees the Dax Shepard brand of filmmaking as the heir apparent to the old-fashioned action movies, like the kind director Hal Needham used to make, films like “Smokey and the Bandit” and “The Cannonball Run.”
“I think Hal Needham is obviously a spiritual adviser,” Shepard tells amNewYork. “Definitely motor sports and comedy is the kind of zone I will try and stay in. ... Since all I do personally is watch videos of things jumping, I feel I am a bit of an expert on it.”
He recalls a meeting with an insurance provider for the film, and they gave him a list of all the stunts. They hashed out which ones Shepard would be allowed to do. He did wheelies on motorcycles, hill climbs, rode on the beach and rode down stairways. But, as he was looking over the list, he realized that they missed one of the stunts: a car chase scene in the opening of the film. A scene that Shepard’s character isn’t in at all.
“They’re like, ‘Why would you do that? It’s not even your character,’” he says. “I said, ‘I only write and direct these movies so I can do this [expletive]. That’s why I’m doing it.’”
“CHIPS” is big screen adaptation — a re-imagining, really — of the classic NBC series starring Larry Wilcox and Erik Estrada that ran from 1977-83 about a pair California Highway Patrolmen. In it, he plays Officer Jon Baker, a rookie on the force trying to make a change in his life that could bring back the affection of his wife (played by his real-life wife, Kristen Bell). He is partnered up with Michael Peña’s Frank “Ponch” Poncherello, an undercover federal agent looking for crooked cops after a theft.
As a buddy cop comedy, so much of the film is reliant on the chemistry between the two leads. Of course, when Shepard pitched the film to Warner Bros., saying that it had to be made with Peña playing Ponch, he had never met the man.
“He’s the only guy right now who could play Ponch and take it into a whole new tone,” Shepard says. “I think if you had anyone with less cachet or less gravitas than Peña, who’s so proved himself as a really amazing actor, I would have had too hard of a time shaking the ’70s tone and doing something more ‘Bad Boys’ or ‘Lethal Weapons’-esque.”
Shepard says that he took Peña, a scene-stealer in everything from “Ant-Man” to “The Martian,” out on a “blind date breakfast to try and woo him.” And the chemistry came quickly, because they’re real-life dynamic is very similar to that of the freewheeling Jon and straight-laced Ponch.
“Our relationship parallels the characters in a way,” Shepard says. “... It was a leap of faith for him. He didn’t see ‘Hit & Run’ until right before we started shooting. He didn’t really know if I could direct, I don’t think. As he came to trust me, we started becoming legitimate friends.”
Much like Peña didn’t know Shepard before the film, he also didn’t know how to ride a motorcycle, a pretty important skill for starring in “CHIPS.”
“So Michael had never even sat on a motorcycle before we started shooting,” Shepard reveals. “He took lessons and it’s almost more impressive than what I did, because he went from never sitting on one to on the highway, doing dialogue at 65 miles per hour. He did great.”