Compared to building your own hot rod, building your own movie takes far more patience, far more money and far more patience. Ask Dax Shepard, the actor who wrote and co-directed "Hit and Run," his movie opening today that's a throwback to the era of "Smokey & The Bandit" -- and a starring vehicle for the hot-rod in his driveway, a 700-hp 1967 Lincoln Continental, that provides the smoke for the banditry.
Shepard, 37, is known for his roles on NBC's "Parenthood" and several films dating back to his early work as one of Ashton Kutcher's prank-pullers on "Punk'd." But during his slower years, Shepard was also indulging his gearhead side; when the chance came to buy a 1967 Continental in straight condition with just 41,000 miles, Shepard jumped -- even though it meant the Lincoln had to either sit in storage for a few years, then do service as a daily driver around Los Angeles.
"I've owned for it about 12 years," he said. "I was still a dead-broke struggling actor, and I sold a dependable Honda Civic to get that car." The Continental "didn't stop, was slow as hell and handled like a bathtub full of water," problems Shepard slowly tackled over the years since, eventually including an upgrade to a 414-cubic-inch Ford racing engine.
Most Hollywood types eschew hobbies that could lead to grease stains on their manicures, but Shepard has been around hot cars his entire life. A native of Milford, Mich., his parents worked in the auto industry, with his mother at General Motors and his stepfather doing chassis engineering on Corvettes. That gave a 10-year-old Shepard access to the Corvette competitive fleet, which ran to a Ferrari 308 and a Lamborghini Countach.
And the car culture influenced his taste in movies; Shepard says he still watches "Smokey & The Bandit" a few times a year, and when he began considering building his own movie, the template was an easy choice. "It's a nonpretenous approach to filmmaking," Shepard says. "It's celebrating a lifestyle more than pushing any kind of political agenda. It's good old boys having a great time."
But as awesome as the Hal Needham-Burt Reynolds era remains, Shepard knew a modern movie has to deliver more. For "Hit and Run," a low-budget, independent movie, Shepard recruited fiancee Kristen Bell, buddies such as Bradley Coooper and Tom Arnold, and the cars in his garage -- the Lincoln and a Tatum Class 1 Baja-style racer, another 700-hp monster. (His GM connections also allowed him access to a few choice models, including a Cadillac CTS-V wagon, a favorite among the automotive press.)
"I think audiences have evolved," Shepard says. "A movie has to deliver on more levels than the cars have to go fast and Jackie Gleason delivers one-liners. If I could ground this movie in a real-life relationship, the action, the threats, the violence around them would make the relationship feel that much more real."
That reality included doing his own stunts -- less out of an emulation of Hal Needham and more from the lack of funds, which meant keeping the insurance company in the dark about putting two stars in a race car bursting through a barn door. "They don't typically love when the lead actor is doing stunts," Shepard says, "and they really don't like it when the director's doing them."
Beyond just the names on the poster, Shepard had to recruit hundreds of people to get the movie made. "When you build a car, it either runs a 10-flat quarter mile or it's doesn't," he says. For an independent movie, "you have to rely so many more people to execute your vision, and it requires a lot more trust...The result isn't quantifiable, because something emotional has happened."