Chips: Interview with Writer-Director Dax Shepard

What happens when you team up a former X-Games star with a busted-up body and a painkiller habit, and an over-sexed undercover Fed with too much confidence, give them each a badge and a bike and set them loose on the highways of Southern California?

If you’re writer-director Dax Shepard, you deliver a buddy cop comedy loaded with enough action, stunts and hard-R humor to push it to the legal limit.

Shepard stars as Jon, opposite Michael Peña as his partner, Ponch. “This is about two very different guys with vastly different agendas and skill sets, who have to learn how to ride together, pick up the slack for each other and ultimately trust each other with their lives,” Shepard says.  And if that sounds a little high-minded, “It also has nudity—though granted, mostly of me—and epic chases, destruction, and explosions.  I don’t think we went more than three days on this movie without blowing something up.  The action is real, the jumps are real and the fights are almost real.”

In other words, this ain’t your parents’ “CHIPS.”

Jon Baker is a newly minted officer of the California Highway Patrol, CHP for short.  Jon’s a mess.  But, fueled by optimism, prescription meds and a single-minded desire to make good and win back his ex-wife, he’s ready to face any challenge or humiliation with everything he’s got.  For now, that means playing it by the book, keeping his nose clean and writing lots of tickets.  Just one problem: he’s stuck on day one with a take-charge partner who doesn’t give a damn about any of that.

Francis Llewellyn Poncherello, aka Ponch, is actually Miami FBI agent Castillo, a guy with a big success rate and the swagger to match.  He also has a pathological weakness for women, especially women in yoga pants, which is a much bigger problem now that has to straddle a bike every day.  Perpetually cocked and locked, he’s in L.A. undercover to smoke out a dirty-cop robbery ring inside the CHP.

Of course Jon doesn’t know this up front, including the fact that he was picked as Ponch’s partner only because they figured he was too green to ask questions.  Or get in the way.

But when things get real out there, these two newest members of the force have to find a way to get past each other’s bulls**t and get on with it, because they have only each other to rely on.

Producer Andrew Panay, who collaborated with Shepard on the 2012 romantic action comedy “Hit & Run,” signed up for the ride as soon as he read the script.  “It’s incredibly funny, and wall-to-wall action,” he says. “The comedy is edgy and the action is a little throwback because it’s not a lot of visual effects.  We did most of the stunts in-camera, and Dax does a lot of his own stunts, so it feels authentic.”

“I can think of a lot of movies that are funny but I don’t remember the action, or it was just background,” says Peña.  “This is obviously a comedy, but Dax wanted the jokes and the stunts to work together so when we transition into the action sequences there’s validity to it.  He really gets the setups and the payoffs and how to break down the characters so people can relate.”

It helped that Shepard was writing about something he loves—motorcycles—and that he knew the players.  “I started this project knowing Michael and I were Ponch and Jon, so I could play to our strengths.  A lot of times you’re writing in a vacuum because you don’t know the cast, but I could be more specific here.  My passion is motorcycles and cars, so I knew we’d be doing a lot of riding, and that gave me the freedom to write scenes where we’re talking trash over a chase.  All of that definitely informed the kind of story I was going to tell.”

Shepard was committed to showcase a range of stunts with high-performance machines. “I wanted great motorcycle action from a variety of disciplines, so we have motocross-style stunts, road race stunts, drifting, a lot of different things,” he lays out.  “We needed bikes that could jump and corner tight with amazing speed and braking, bikes that could handle stairs.  But I couldn’t do those things on stock CHP bikes because the logic wouldn’t hold up.  The bad guys could have whatever they wanted, and that was a completely different vibe, but I had to figure out how to get Jon and Ponch onto cool motorcycles to catch up with them. That introduced the premise of Ponch being undercover FBI.”

The writer/director also took a page from his own life by giving Jon the need to figure out what makes people tick.  “Jon’s always trying to understand why he does what he does.  I’m very much interested in what drives me, or what drives other people, so that became a part of the character,” Shepard explains.  That translates into Jon trying to analyze his hug-averse partner, or, say, figure out why Ponch requires so much “alone time” in the bathroom multiple times a day…

A running joke in the film, Jon’s touchy-feely observations contrast with Ponch’s more down-and-dirty commentary, like the way he has to enlighten his out-of-circulation partner on the current sexual scene—namely certain back door maneuvers Jon had no idea had gone mainstream.

Either way, what it boils down to is them being themselves.  And being guys.  “Ponch and Jon come from opposite directions on so many things,” says producer Ravi Mehta.  “Not only tight-lipped versus TMI, but Jon’s a stickler for the rules and Ponch likes to fly by the seat of his pants, so they start out not clicking at all.  But once they’re through fighting it, and let their guards down, they actually feed off of how different they are.  That’s when it becomes more of a bromance and a true partnership.”

That means owning their screw-ups as much as merging their talents.

Citing the inspiration he drew from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s TV series created by Rick Rosner, who is now one of the film’s executive producers, Shepard says, “To me, the key elements of that show were the setting, the bikes, and the fact that Jon and Ponch were heroes.”  And as much as those characters were unique to the show, his Jon and Ponch are different. This is a new incarnation, with its own personality—a big-screen “CHIPS” for a new generation that takes the stunts, action, and comedy further than the small screen would allow.

It wouldn’t be the CHP without Southern California.  “The CHP is emblematic of California and we worked incredibly hard to keep this production in Los Angeles,” says Mehta.  “We made sure L.A. was featured in the art direction and the action, so audiences will see parts of the downtown area as well as beaches and deserts.  There’s even a chase through pine trees in the Angeles National Forest.”

“Growing up in Detroit, where it was overcast a lot and freezing cold, I loved L.A.-based films,” says Shepard.  “For me it was a two-hour vacation to sunny SoCal.”

But this take on California living is far from laid-back. “The story is constantly moving,” says Vincent D’Onofrio, who stars as Lieutenant Ray Kurtz, a veteran cop with the power to make a whole lot of trouble for the new recruits.  “It wows you with the action and the motorcycle scenes.  Then so many of these actors are also great comedians and they’re just killing it.”

The “CHIPS” main starring cast includes Adam Brody as Clay Allen, an FBI agent Castillo shoots “accidentally on purpose” in Miami before taking this West Coast gig as Ponch.  His arm in a sling, the still-pissed-off Allen follows Castilo to L.A. as the bureau’s point person on the case.  Rosa Salazar also stars as CHP officer Ava Perez, who shares Jon’s love of hot bikes…and possibly other things, if only he’d get with the program.

Not surprisingly, “CHIPS” bears little resemblance to the day-to-day lives of actual CHP officers, some of whom worked with the production to keep everyone safe during their location shoots on active roadways.  “The officers on set with us were great sports,” says Shepard.  “It goes without saying, we have nothing but respect for the job that law enforcement does every day to keep us safe in the real world.  Everything we did was to the extreme and played for entertainment.”

In fact, there was a great deal of cooperation between the CHP and the filmmaking team, from informal pre-production meetings over the content and logistics of the script to a tour of the organization’s Sacramento training facility.  “During the shoot, they gave us escorts on scouts, which gave us freeway access that would have otherwise been nearly impossible to secure,” Panay recounts. The filmmakers were even granted access to the CHP headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, which, he adds, “was something we had been hoping for and was the pinnacle of our working relationship.”

 

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