CS finds California love on a CHIPS set visit
Meet our new Ponch and Jon in Warner Bros. Pictures‘ film adaptation of the beloved television show of the ’70s injected with the action of today. That’s right, more explosions and motorcycle stunts but the same bromance.
ComingSoon.net visited the Southern California set of CHIPS last year to get an up close look at the making of the film. On a blustery day, we caught up with writer, director and star Dax Shepard (Jon Baker) as well as cast members Michael Peña (Frank ‘Ponch’ Poncherello), Kristen Bell, and Vincent D’Onofrio. So while it was unusually cold out and visiting press was all wrapped up, the actors were busy shooting scenes as if it was prime LA weather.
Actually, it was incredibly important to Shepard to maintain the West Coast (Best Coast) vibe that’s associated with the show’s iconography but still create a story of its own. The idea hit him while writing a script for a friend. He revealed, “I made a Poncherella joke, but I didn’t know how to spell Poncherella. So when I googled it, a picture of Jon and Ponch came up that wasn’t like the normal full-body, goofier one. It was like a tight shot of both of them in their helmets kind of staring out and I was like, wow, they look pretty bad-ass in this photo. And then I thought, you know, I think there’s like a bad-ass version of this movie waiting to be made.”
Bell chimed in on that point while keeping warm in her director/husband’s jacket in between shots, “I remember sitting on the couch and him saying, ‘You know, nobody has done anything with CHIPS. That property CHIPS is just sitting there and everybody loved it. Why has nobody done anything with it?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s a really good idea. You should do something about that,'”
The process of getting to play with the IP was a matter of getting in touch with the producer at Warner Bros. and it was on a whim that he even got to present the idea. “I had gone there really just to pitch my version as a writer, with hopes of putting my hat in the ring to direct, and in that pitch, my producer said, ‘I’m in. I love it, and then you’ll be Jon,’ and I was like, ‘All right, get me out of this office right this second, before he changes his mind,'” he laughed. “The other key ingredient to that pitch other than me just pitching a tone was, he said, ‘Well who’s Ponch?’ and I said, ‘It’s Michael Peña or I really don’t think this tone works,’ and he’s like, ‘I’m in. I’m all the way in,'”, and added the slight catch he walked away with, “I had never met Michael Peña.”
When we brought up the story to Peña at the end of our crafty break in one of the hitch trailer lunch rooms, the Ant-Man and End of Watch actor echoed the hilarity of the circumstance of his premature casting. “That was really interesting, because they’re like ‘Dax Shepard wants to meet with you about CHIPS.’ I’m like, ‘Oh my God, that’s great. Holy cow!’ And he’s like, ‘What do you think?’ and I said, ‘I think it’s awesome! Are you going to go in for a pitch?’ He said, ‘I already sold it,’ and I’m like, ‘With me attached?’ He’s like, ‘Yep.‘ I was like, ‘Holy sh*t. That’s amazing. Okay, cool.'”
And fast-forward to being on set for the shoot. Shepard was operating on all cylinders to make sure that his film lived up to the pitch that depended so much on his relationship with Peña. Letting us into how the movie will differentiate from other TV-to-big screen adaptations, Shepard shared, “I’d say this one is action first and comedy second. It takes a lot more energy to do the action, but you know, as much thought has gone into both, but I think I’d rather go into a movie expecting an action movie and then end up laughing a lot more than I anticipated. It takes itself seriously. The bad guys are very scary. Vincent D’Onofrio is a f*cking beast and should be feared.” And added, “D’Onofrio is like a very old school CHP. He and a few other officers are crooked and then Ponch shows up as an undercover FBI agent to help crack this ring and then, you know, inevitably, he gets in his way.”
Prolific actor Vincent D’Onofrio, who decided to play his character Ray more straight than some of his more ‘out there’ characters, described his motivation to be that of someone who feels justified in their actions. “Ray is on a mission and he wants to protect his son and he wants to make a bunch of money and get the f*ck out of dodge. I’m playing it close to the vest. I’m speaking in my own voice and I’m going from my own heart and just putting myself into circumstance of the character.”
While D’Onofrio gets to pretty much work with a blank slate, Michael Peña faces the responsibility of giving his version of an iconic character. It’s not something that is lost on him, “I was like, sh*t, there’s no real way to capture what Eric Estrada did with that Ponch character,” he admitted, “but I did know that the meat and potatoes of the movie is how the two guys interacted. I was like screw it, I’ll just work on that and try to make it my own as opposed to like me trying to invent some character, because I think that, I think the way that people define Ponch is how people reacted towards him.”
Working with Shepard’s vision for a more modern Ponch based off his sensibilities really helped Peña chisel out a new take on the character. “He’s a really good storyteller,” Peña praised his co-star/director, “because he did improv, he’s really good at saying the same thing in a different way or adding to it. So, if you have an inkling of a joke, you know, he can add onto it and change it in order for you to make it work, which I think is great – especially when you’re asking for an alt.”
Reuniting with Shepard is his wife and comedic actress Kristen Bell, also playing his on-screen estranged wife. “I play a delicious, sassy piece of arm candy, yeah. Karen. 100%, it is the real house wives of CHIPS.” Bell joked about her inspiration, “I didn’t base Karen on anyone in particular, but I live in Los Angeles, California. Karen would have a reality show in a heartbeat if anyone offered it to her.” While she doesn’t have much in common with the character, Bell told us how Shepard tuned into her more aggressive nature and created a whole character out of a stretch of that into an original character for the film. Getting to be someone who’s an exaggeration is always fun for her. “The fine line between likable and unlikable is really fun to straddle. Karen doesn’t have the best of intentions at all times, though she fully believe that she does,” she confided in between takes of the shooting we got to see.
The scene we were being shuffled around was an action set-piece at a decrepit warehouse where Karen is tagging along with Jon and Ponch that ultimately ends in a shoot-out and exploding building. Bell acknowledged that she was being “the third wheel” to Jon and Ponch, because the film is truly about keeping true to their camaraderie, the action and the California backdrop. Shepard listed off, “The only thing we’re really faithful to is that we blow sh*t up without almost any reason, like if you open your door and slam it too hard – your car might blow up.
D’Onofrio, who grew up with the show, offered his take on the film seeking to keep in the magic of what made the original so special. “I think that if you’re of the age where it’s nostalgic, I think you have that going in,” he said optimistic of the film making a connection with today’s audience. “You have the nostalgic feeling going in and you want it to be really cool and funny and I think this will deliver that. I think that for people that are old enough, or the right age to have seen it when they were kids, they’re going to find it really cool to have this whole kind of Dax Shepard version of it.”
Referencing the more Bad Boys and Lethal Weapon, D’Onofrio observed that audiences may be surprised by the route they’re going in that’s purposely unlike the TV to film reboot of 21 Jump Street, which tied that property directly to the past series. Stating that he thinks, “people that have never seen the show, will look at it as a standalone action movie about California Highway Patrol, which is pretty cool.”
“I believe if you actually tried to isolate what was so appealing about the show, it was two buddies. Which as a kid, for me it was motorcycles and it was California,” Shepard concluded.
And it’s true, if you grew up when the show was on – even if you lived in the exact opposite of California, the show made it seem exotic and like a fantastical far away place. Shepard asserted that point in his interpretation. “I was getting to see two things that I really loved and didn’t know a ton about when it was on TV, and I think internationally, that is what was so sticky about it. California is a huge star of the movie and the motorcycles are still the star of the movie,” he said about making sure to shoot the film in So-Cal.
While we weren’t on a beach or cityscape location, the Palmdale shacks surrounded by the mountains under the orange and purple hues of the Pacific skies perfectly backdropped a new origin for an iconic duo. Realizing the core remained the same, Shepard declared: “It’s truly a love story between Jon and Ponch, because they meet and they’re strangers and they’re super different and then they fall in love. So, weirdly, even tough it’s tonally different, the appealing factors of the series will still be the appealing factors of the movie.”
CHIPS opens in theaters on March 24th!