If you mainly know Dax Shepard from his long-running role on Parenthood, you probably didn’t expect to hear that he was writing, directing, and starring in a big-screen adaptation of CHiPs. But Hollywood is a magical place that is full of nearly constant surprises, and that’s exactly what Shepard, who is a noted motorcycle enthusiast, just did, with the movie CHiPs — an R-rated version of the 1970s comedy about two California Highway Patrol cops — which premiered this past Friday. Vulture caught up with Shepard before the film’s release to talk about why he made a CHiPs movie, the importance of Michael Peña, and riding motorcycles through every part of Los Angeles that he’d ever wanted to ride a motorcycle through.
So why CHiPs? Why make a CHiPs movie?
A very good question. Because I’m always looking for something that will hold both comedy and motor sports. I’m looking for anything that I think I can combine those two things and that someone will make. So this movie’s got the safety net of being a global brand, a global property. I couldn’t have gone into any studio and said, “The movie’s called, uh, Eat My Dust” — well, that’s actually a title — “Burn Rubber, and it’s me and Michael Peña, and we’re on motorcycles.” They’d go, “No thank you.” It had to have a safety net, and the safety net I found was CHiPs, which as a kid I saw it, I was 2 when it came on originally and I think I was 8 when it went off the air. And I lived in Detroit, and it was cold and cloudy every day, and you’d turn this show on and for an hour you were in California, and it was beaches and palm trees and this weird pair on motorcycles, and as a kid, I was in. I didn’t follow any of the plotlines, and I didn’t know what the show was about, but it just had California and motorcycles. I thought, this could hold a Bad Boys version of the movie, because your heroes have motorcycles, so it’s got an inherent coolness if we just keep pushing in that direction. So basically, it’s cynical, I’m a cynic, that’s why.
You exploited the system.
Yes, exactly. [Laughs.]
It’s funny, as the movie’s been coming out, I’m realizing how recognizable CHiPS is. People are really aware of CHiPs.
It’s very interesting, because as we’re testing the movie — in the editing process, you’re having many test screenings, and you’re learning stuff and changing things — and you get all this data, you get reams of data, and one of the things we found out really early on is that only 14 percent of people know the property who are coming to the screenings. Yet when the theme song comes on, at least half the people, there’s a smile. And then when Estrada comes on, 70 percent of the people clap. So it’s very confusing. They might think they don’t know it, but they might know it? It’s very weird.
It’s something that’s just kind of sunk in.
Even more depressing is I make that joke at the end of the movie where he’s like, “Where we’re going, we don’t need doors.” [Ages] 18 to 25, no fucking clue. Then you show the tire marks on fire, doesn’t mean anything. “Oh, tire marks on fire!” [Laughs.] So the whole thing for me has been a very rude awakening of how old I am.
When did Michael get involved? Did you know you wanted to do the project with him from the start?
Yeah, before I knew that I was going to be in it. When I went to the studio, I was there to get a writing job and hopefully a directing job. I had been on TV the last six years — I didn’t think at all that they were going to let me be a lead in a movie. But I knew it had to be Peña to play Ponch, because like I said, I was trying to take something that is very time-stamped in 1977 and by today’s standard has some camp and cheese to it, and I’m trying to bring it in to the Bad Boys–Lethal Weapon world, and I just knew I needed a really great actor who had some actual gravitas to help me get there. And by my estimation, Peña was the single option for that. And the studio obviously loved that idea — every studio loves Peña. Then they suggested that I be Baker, and I was like, “Oh, wow. Okay, great, I would love to do that.” So I left the meeting, I sold this thing, and I realized, oh my god, I just sold a movie starring Michael Peña, but he doesn’t know that, and I’ve never met him. So the next thing was like, “Oh shit, I’ve got to go woo Michael Peña and get him to sign on to what is a kind of ballsy, dangerous commitment.”
You guys seem like you’ve known each other forever. The rapport is very solid.
That’s pure luck. Because I’ve done movies with people I love, and we have no chemistry. And then for whatever weird reason, he and I were just a really good odd couple right out of the gate. I started seeing dailies come in and thought, Oh thank god, we have some kind of chemistry going on. We have some spark.
You guys have this dynamic where he’s constantly moving around and you’re always watching him.
Well, I made him so uncomfortable. He doesn’t make eye contact with me a lot in the movie, but I’m always trying to check in with him. The very traditional archetype for this type of relationship is that there’s a straight-laced cop and then there’s a loose-cannon cop. I didn’t really want to do that, so I approached it more that there’s a female energy, and there’s a male energy, and I’m very much the female energy in the movie: I have an emotional intelligence that he doesn’t have, and he has this logical intelligence. I just thought it was more fun in a scene to see two people arguing and they’re both making super-valid points, but on different planes. That to me was a little more intriguing.
Working with Peña as both a co-star and a director, how did you try to use him and make the best of his talent?
You know, he’s not known for being a comedian, per se, but he certainly understands comedy. And because the comedy is not — in fact, I had a very well-known producer who they kind of wanted to come on and produce for a minute, and he’d read it and he’d tell me, “This is not funny.” Because any stand-alone line’s not that funny — the only thing that’s funny about it is that you really get to know these people’s character and you immediately know what would be the worst thing that could happen to these guys. And then they’re just constantly in a situation that you know they hate to be in. So it’s mostly being driven by character and not just funny lines. You couldn’t have given one of my lines to Peña, it wouldn’t have been funny, and vice versa. He approached it like he was doing a drama, and I did too. It got funnier the more sincere we were.
There is a real sincerity to the whole movie that is different than a lot of comedies, and especially comedy based on preexisting …
[Intellectual property], yeah. I think the traditional approach is a parody, and that was the only thing I really wanted to steer away from. We almost knew more what we didn’t want to do than what we wanted to do. We were like, we don’t want to be parody, we want to take the world seriously, we don’t want to be winking at the camera, we don’t want to be in on the jokes.
This is your first movie as a solo director, right? You did some co-directing?
Sure, but it was exactly the same thing.
What did you feel like you had to work with on this project that you didn’t have before, both as a director and a writer?
Hit and Run was a big learning curve for me, both as a writer and as a director, because I made mistakes that you make — you learn everything in the editing room, because you’ve got to deal with the corner you painted yourself into so often. So, for instance, in Hit and Run, I had all these great scenes, the dialogue in them was great, the actors in them were great, but I would have like, four scenes in a row of people seated talking. And I don’t care who’s in those scenes or what’s being talked about: You can’t shake that. There were scenes where I was like, “Why didn’t I just have them fucking fixing the van, why did I have to bring them inside and sit them down?” So shit like that, where I was like, I will never have people seated talking, or if I do, there’s going to be three good scenes in between with a lot of activity.
But mostly, Hit and Run I did for a million dollars, so my camera car was a Polaris RZR and my head panned and tilted and that was it. On this, I had the Porsche Cayenne pursuit vehicle with the Russian arm that boomed and telescoped, and I had drones, and I had helicopters, and I had an electric motorcycle with a hard mount. I had a fucking — this thing we called the cock ring that self-leveled the horizon. I put it on the bike looking at me and I’d be in a turn and it keeps the horizon — that had been invented for this. They have it in Moto GP, but it’s on the back and it’s a really tiny lens, but this was this huge contraption. It would go haywire all the time, so I’d be leaned over in a fucking turn, knee out, and that thing, which had been stable, would just get confused and start spinning, it’s like a 65-pound camera spinning, and I’d be like, holy shit!
The whole time I was watching, I was like, “How are they driving motorcycles through Elysian Park? This is where my girlfriend walks her dog.”
I’ve lived here for 22 years, so everywhere I’ve ever been where I was like, It would be kind of cool to ride a motorcycle here. I got to do that, which is wild.
How did you try to take best advantage of the fact that you had this green-light? A literal green-light.
As I said, the thing I thought was really great about the TV show, and what made it so appealing worldwide, was the California of it. I really think the biggest star of CHiPs is California, and I think the biggest star of our movie CHiPs is California. So it was just really cool to go, “Okay, I know I have this scene, I’m going to accuse him of being molested, I found out he’s been jerking off — what would be an awesome backdrop? Fucking Dodgers Stadium.” That kind of freedom was amazing. Or like, “I want to fly a helicopter into the L.A. River, you know, and then I want to tackle the guy.” I ride my bicycle right there all the time, on the L.A. River. Normally, as a director, they send you to a city that has a tax incentive, and you don’t know the place, so half your energy is just figuring out how to piece together these things written for another place. This was the opposite.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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