Director Jon Watts Talks about his Action-Thriller Cop Car and Taking on Spider-Man
Two young kids are walking across a field, goofing around as young kids do, when they come upon a seemingly abandoned police car and they do what any kid might do given the opportunity and they take it for a joy ride. Unfortunately, that car belongs to the local sheriff who has been up to no good with a car full of evidence that can implicate him, so he’ll do whatever it takes to find the boys and get his car back.
That’s the premise for Jon Watts’ second feature film Cop Car, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and has continued to make waves during its run of the festival circuit. Watts cast newcomers James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford as the kids, but possibly the biggest coup was getting Kevin Bacon to play the corrupt county sheriff, as he revels in the chance to play a guy who has a lot of secrets, many which we discover as the chase ensues.
Although it isn’t Watts’ first film, it’s the type of breakthrough film in terms of storytelling and directing that Hollywood came a-calling as Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures handed the reins of their latest Spider-Man movie to the 34-year-old NYU graduate.
ComingSoon.net: I know a little bit about “Clown” (Watts’ earlier film) and how it came together with Eli Roth involved, but I never actually got to see it. Was it easier or harder to get a second movie going after that? It can go either way, really, after making the first movie.
Jon Watts: Yeah, I mean, “Cop Car” came together kind of amazingly fast. We had finished “Clown,” because Ford and I were writing our next project. We had a paid writing job, which was great, then as a little break from writing, we wrote “Cop Car.” (Laughs) Then Kevin (Bacon) wanted to see “Clown,” once he became involved, so I feel like having made “Clown” actually really helped get “Cop Car” made because Kevin wanted to see if I’d done it before, if I was going to embarrass him, I guess.
CS: How did the idea of having Kevin play that role come up? Was it just like “Oh, Kevin Bacon would be perfect for this?” Because he’s played a lot of different kinds of characters, but this is also very different for him.
Watts: I never imagined we could get someone of his caliber at all when we were initially talking about it. It was just sort of wrote it for fun. But then, he liked it and he was really interested. He read it. He wanted to see “Clown.” He wanted to talk to me. He had all these amazing ideas for the character. In the script, there’s almost no description about who he is or his backstory or any real explanation. But when he read it, he said he could just see the character and really wanted to do it. We had an amazing little window after he finished “The Following” and before he went on his Bacon Brothers tour. He was able to come up to my hometown and shoot it. I couldn’t quite believe it.
CS: Did he always want to get involved as a producer from the get-go and did that help get everything else together? Or was it already in motion and you just had to find the actors?
Watts: No, weirdly, we got some money to make it before he was attached. I mean, he was sort of under the assumption that we would get a recognizable name, but we got money through foreign distribution based on the premise and the script, which is really great. So it took a lot of that pressure off that I think people have to face for financing and we made it for really cheap, which doesn’t hurt.
CS: What was the original idea? Was it just that the kids find a cop car and it came out of just trying to figure out where it came from?
Watts: I had this recurring dream as a kid about being 10 years old and driving around in my mom’s car with my friend Travis behind the wheel, and we’re not getting in trouble, but he’s going faster and faster and I’m getting more and more terrified that we’re going to get hurt. It’s been like that ongoing stress dream that I’ve had since I was a kid. I always thought that was an evocative image, two kids driving around in a car. I thought maybe it’d be cool if it was a police car. Then I pitched it to Chris Ford, who I write with, and he said, “Well, whose police car is it?” Then once we figured that out, we just sat down and wrote the script.
CS: It’s very evocative of something like “Stand by Me,” a coming-of-age story but done in a different way. How did you find the two kids? I think Hays is probably more experienced, but James is completely new and this is the first thing he’s ever done?
Watts: Yeah, James had never been in a movie before at all, so the whole process was completely new to him. But we did a big nationwide casting search. I watched a lot of tapes. I went to a lot of different cities, seeing callbacks and seeing kids in person. But they both just had this seriousness and stoicism that the other kids lacked. I wanted you to really feel like even though they’re making kind of dumb 10-year-old decisions, I wanted to feel like they really believed that these are the right things to do. But I didn’t know who was going to play who. James was in New Jersey and Hays was in Virginia, but we cast them both and flew them out to Colorado and had them read for both roles. This was like three days before we were shooting, too, so we didn’t have a lot of time. But they just both felt right. They felt like they belonged to this world. We just had to shave James’ head. He had like a Justin Bieber haircut, so we had to toughen him up a little.
CS: When you and Chris are writing is the sky the limit? Do you not worry about things like getting a budget, having to find kids, etc? I assume you want to just be creative, but you also have to eventually figure out how you’re going to make that movie or how someone else is going to make that movie.
Watts: It’s funny because we didn’t try to write it on a low budget, but we did want it to be really lean and spare and stripped down just aesthetically. So in the end, that lends itself to being able to shoot it for a low budget, so it all sort of worked out in the same way. It wasn’t like there were things we didn’t do, that we wanted to because we didn’t have enough money. We did exactly what we wanted to do, so it was a nice pairing of budget and aesthetic.
CS: How did you work with the kids as far as having them drive and creating that illusion? Is that movie magic you don’t want to reveal?
Watts: It’s movie magic. I don’t want to reveal it because when you realize how we did it, it’s like, “Oh, that’s so obvious.” (Laughs) It takes all the magic out of it. But they are behind the wheel of the car as it’s driving around, so you don’t really have to ask them to do much acting in a situation like that. They’re really having as much fun as they look like they’re having.
CS: Those kids really worked out great. and I imagine people who see the movie will want to cast them in other things. I’m not sure if that’s happening yet but it will eventually.
Watts: Yeah, I know Hays has already booked a couple of things and I know James is close to booking some things as well, too. It’s nice now that “Cop Car” is coming out, that people really get to see them. They’re both so excellent.
CS: Kevin doesn’t really talk very much, because he doesn’t have a lot of lines. Was there more writing and you just realized you could do without having all that dialogue?
Watts: Yeah, I mean, he told me that he used to evaluate a part based on how many lines he had, you know, whether or not he wanted to do it.
CS: That’s how most actors do it I’d imagine.
Watts: I think he said when he read it, he just completely saw the character and he was excited about the idea of creating a character with everything else, not with dialogue, but with his physicality, with his wardrobe, with the art direction of his house and his truck and things like that, you know, the way he moves. Because essentially everything he says is a lie. Almost every line he has until really the very end is some sort of bullsh*t. We don’t explain anything about how he got there and how he’s gotten himself into this situation, so it’s like a very visual performance, a very physical performance. He’s amazing and I think he was really excited about that opportunity.
CS: He’s a great actor, but I think he proves it every time you see him in something like this, where he’s just so different.
Watts: Oh yeah, he can do anything. He’s incredible.
CS: Because the location is fairly remote, how did that work out as far as doing it fairly low budget and with a small crew and shooting these big vistas without having a big crew? I can’t imagine you had a huge crew, because you had to hide them all from the camera.
Watts: No, we had a very small crew. I mean, that’s my hometown. That’s right where I grew up, so I’m very familiar with the area. We had a few people come out from LA, but there’s also really great crews in Denver and some guys in Colorado Springs, too. So we had a really lean, stripped-down crew, but everyone was like, incredible, really, really, really great on every level. Honestly, the winds picked up out there, like, when you’re out on the plains, so you can’t set up a tent or anything like that. It would just blow away. You couldn’t put down a monitor because it’ll blow away (Laughs) or get like, enveloped by tumbleweeds. So we didn’t even have the option of having a large crew.
CS: I read that you had people doing double duties and performing multiple jobs.
Watts: Yeah, and it’s a lot of fun. I mean, like one of the producers was also Kevin’s stand-in, for example. Yeah, everyone was always working, which is great, because it wasn’t a set where people are sitting around bored.
CS: I spoke to Sissy Spacek a couple years ago, and she told me that was exactly how Terrence Malick did “Badlands,” where basically the actors were carrying paint and doing all this stuff. As she was telling me the story, I was thinking they don’t make movies like that anymore.
Watts: Really? That’s so great. I mean, “Badlands” is my favorite movie. That’s one of the very, very few movies that I believe there’s like one or two scenes that are shot in either Denver or Colorado Springs – very rarely do people shoot in that part of the country. But no, it’s a very different kind of experience but I think everyone had a good time. I had a good time. It’s hard work.
CS: You should try to read her memoir if you’re a big fan of “Badlands.” It has some great stuff about that movie.
Watts: Oh yeah, that’s a good idea.
CS: I was reading about your background doing stuff for “The Onion Network,” doing a lot more comedy. While “Cop Car” has some funny moments from the situation, it’s not a comedy per se, but is that where your instincts lie?
Watts: Well, there’s a lot of similarities I think between a thriller and a comedy because it’s all about tension. It’s about building tension and setups and payoffs and misdirections and surprising people and sort of pushing the boundary. So to me, the best comedies get a little dark and the best thrillers are a little bit funny. So I’m not exactly sure where I draw the line between the two.
CS: Ironically, the day after I saw “Cop Car” I saw “Vacation” and I was like, “How are these three guys going to make a movie together?” They both have cars driving across the country, I guess, so there’s that in common. Have you started working with those guys yet on “Spider-Man”?
Watts: We’re just starting. I mean, I should be working on it right now and not doing a bunch of “Cop Car” interviews probably. I think I’m supposed to be there. But they’re great. They’re very, very smart, extremely irreverent. I can’t wait to start.
CS: Have you found that you have similar interests or sensibilities or favorite “Spider-Man” story arcs or anything like that?
Watts: I mean, we’re really just getting started, so we’re all learning about each other.
CS: I’ve spoken with Rupert Wyatt and Colin Trevorrow, who both had movies at Sundance and then you don’t hear from them for a couple of years and they come back with some huge blockbuster studio thing. Has that always been your interest, to kind of go in that direction anyway? Is that something that just kind of came along and you said, “I’m going to pitch it and see what happens?”
Watts: I don’t know. They’d just seen “Cop Car” and then asked me to come in for a general meeting and then I kept coming back for more and more meetings with more and more people in the room until I eventually found out that I had gotten the job.
CS: It just sounds too easy. I’ve talked to directors who’ve had to go in with huge presentations, books full of pictures and ideas and all this other stuff.
Watts: Yeah, there’s all of that. You have to be able to, I don’t know, have a vision for it. But there’s also I think just a lot of endurance, keeping up your enthusiasm going in for meeting after meeting. (Laughs)
CS: Are you generally a comic book fan or Spider-Man fan yourself?
Watts: Yeah, I loved “Spider-Man.” I mean, I had this “Spider-Man,” it wasn’t a coloring book, it was like a learn to draw “Spider-Man” and learn to draw comics book. Yeah, there were some panels that were like, blank panels for you to fill in the rest of the story, right? Then, there’s some that were just pencils for to you ink and then there were some that were already inked for you to color, to decide, you know, do you want to be the penciler or the inker or the colorist or the writer, basically. I was obsessed with this book. I would bring it to school every day until I had slowly filled up and colored every panel. Then after that, it was the Todd McFarlane era of “Spider-Man,” which was so cool. That’s when I was really, really into comics. But now it’s just been really great to hang out in the office and read comics all day and catching up on everything that I’ve missed.
CS: How are you dealing with the fact that there have been other “Spider-Man” movies? I assume you must’ve seen some of them and it’s hard to un-see them once you see movies, they’re kind of in your mind.
Watts: It’s true, but I mean, it’s been around for forever, so there’s no idea that hasn’t been explored in some capacity in the comics at some point, so I like seeing everything and letting that inform it.
CS: Definitely. People forget that the comics have been around for so long that each writer who comes in, it’s the same thing. They’re the director, in some sense, for each “Spider-Man” run.
Watts: Yeah, I mean, we’re just getting started and so it remains to be seen.
CS: Do you have any idea when they want to start filming or anything like that? Do you have deadlines?
Watts: I think probably in about a year or something like that.
CS: So you have a year to work on it? Okay, that’s pretty good. Sometimes you have a deadline and a release date.
Watts: Yeah, I’m not sure if they have announced dates or anything like that.
CS: Getting back to “Cop Car,” I wanted to ask about this whole recurring dream thing. Since you made the movie, have you had any catharsis? Do you still have these dreams?
Watts: I haven’t had it anymore.
Watts: Yeah, I think I’ve been cured.
CS: Do you have other dreams that you want to try working out? I know you’re working on “Spider-Man” now, but you must have other ideas or things you’ve worked on with Chris to do afterwards?
Watts: Oh yeah. I have a long, long list, and I’ve been writing down my dreams since I was 16, so I don’t know if any of them are good ideas for movies, but I can always dig back into that vault if I need to.
CS: Is Chris going to work on “Spider-Man” with you as well?
Watts: I don’t think so, but it still remains to be seen.
CS: But down the road, you guys will probably keep working together.
Watts: Oh yeah, I mean, we’ve always written together, so we have a lot of things that we still want to make.
Cop Car opens in select cities starting Friday, August 7 and on VOD starting Friday, August 14.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)