Considering Jon Watts is about to launch Marvel and Sony’s much publicized reboot of the “Spider-Man” film franchise, one wouldn’t necessarily expect to hear him say, “It’s the first time I’ve ever done one,” when asked about his “Cop Car” press day. That’s right, the cinematic future of Spider-Man rests in the hands of a 34-year-old filmmaker from Colorado who, up until early August, had never sat down for a full official press day.
It may sound alarming to fans of the comic book, and moviegoers unhappy with Hollywood’s new tendency to pluck indie directors for tentpoles certainly have their next target, but the more one talks with Watts, the more he surprises and inspires assured confidence. Make no mistake, Watts only has two features to his name — the 2014 3D horror film “Clown” and this weekend’s “Cop Car” — but the way in which he has managed to get these films off the ground with an enviable DIY attitude proves he knows how to face the odds and beat them.
Calling in from Los Angeles, Watts spoke with Indiewire about his quick rise to the big leagues and the indie thriller that started it all. “Cop Car” stars James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford as two children who find the titular motor vehicle in a secluded glade. When they take it out for a joy ride, a cat-and-mouse game begins with the cop (Kevin Bacon) to which it belongs. Such a simple story may not inspire much to get excited about, but Watts’ reliance on visual storytelling over dialogue and exposition gives nearly ever scene a foreboding atmospheric tension. Say what you will about “Cop Car,” but the promising vision on display can’t be denied. No wonder it became a Sundance favorite after its premiere and earned Watts a spot on Marvel and Sony’s radar.
Read below for Watts’ full interview with Indiewire.
Congratulations on “Cop Car.” We’ve been fans since Sundance, and it obviously has some pretty big admirers in high places. How have you been processing the entire post-Sundance journey?
Well, thank you, first of all. It’s all been equal parts great and just surreal. We were in a very fortunate situation when we went to Sundance. We made the movie so cheaply that we had already broken even with just our foreign sales. We made the movie for $800,000, so Sundance was just fun for us. There wasn’t that pressure of like, “Oh, my god, if we don’t sell it for enough money or sell it at all everyone is going to be mad at us.” So it was great in that regard, but it was nervewracking too because it was the first time I had ever shown it in front of a crowd. I think playing it at midnight was the right move. It was a great way to premiere. From that point on, everything has been sort of surreal as you can probably imagine.
Your career growth over the past five years is staggering. You’ve gone from shorts and working with The Onion News Network to two small budget features and now a massive studio tentpole. Looking back, how were you able to so successfully maneuver the industry?
Honestly, you just have to make it. You have to make things and keep making things. “Cop Car” was made with all of my friends. I wrote it with my best friend. I’m really close with Cody Ryder and Alicia Van Couvering, who produced it. I’m really tight with both of the DPs. You get really scrappy when you’re making things for zero dollars, and you just have to keep thinking like that. It’s not like, “Oh, we now have a little bit more money, let’s do things differently.” If you just keep boiling it down to the simplest possible way to make it, I think that always ends up being the best. We were able to talk all of the mistakes we made on various projects and music videos and learn from them along the way. I really felt we got to do “Cop Car” the way we wanted to. There was no one there to tell us this was the right way or wrong way to do it. I’m really happy with the way it came out — not just the movie, but with the experience.
Do you remember what some of those key early mistakes were?
A lot of it is knowing what you actually need and knowing the people involved. When you’re staring out there’s a lot of learning like, “Well this is the way a film is made. This is the way budget is made. This is why we shoot in these certain places for these certain reasons. This is why we bring in a crew from Los Angeles.” There’s a lot of things that people take as a given, which normally aren’t on your first go around. You think you know it, but you don’t. You got to remain open.
I sent the script to Cody and Alicia, and they put together this modest budget, and Alicia found someone who would pay for one half and Cody found someone who would pay for the other half. Alicia was able to set up the foreign sales based on it being a genre film and the script, since that type of fare travels so well. That was really our saving grace. She also pitched that we’d able to get a slightly recognizable name in the lead role and not a complete unknown. With that in mind it was just like, “Alright, let’s pick our start date.” You just decide you’re going to do it. When you tell people you’re making it, people start getting involved.
So casting a “slightly recognizable name” ended with getting a huge star like Kevin Bacon. That’s pretty incredible.
That was very fortunate. My fiancé is a manager and she works at the same company as Kevin’s manager. She liked the script and she was like, “Why don’t you get Kevin Bacon to be in it?” And I never thought we’d even be able to approach someone like that. He’s a huge movie star! [Laughs] But she told me that he had a window after “The Following” and before he goes on a Bacon Brothers tour, so David read it and then Kevin read it and he liked it. He liked the idea of it being a visual performance, and he did have this tiny window, so we moved the shoot date up two months so that we could have him.
You watch a film like “Cop Car” and you can tell that you are a fan of a very particular type of genre atmosphere. Where does your appreciation for this type of filmmaking come from?
“Cop Car” in particular was based on a recurring dream I had when I was 10 years old. Me and my friend were in this car and we knew we’d get in trouble but that no one would stop us, so we just kept going faster and faster. So it kind of came from this very dreamy place and that image of two kids driving a police car through a field. Sort of like ‘Badlands,’ which I think is one of my favorite movies.
I try not to be too conscious about what the references are so that you can’t call them out, or at least so that they wont steer me in a particular way. In terms of the script and the storytelling, it was like “Le Samourai,” like a Jean-Pierre Melville film, where you don’t know anything. You don’t know who the characters are or what any of their backgrounds are, you just start and go forward and none of that matters. It doesn’t matter who they are, it matters what they do and you just watch them do it. I watched Sergeio Leone again — “The Good The Bad and The Ugly” and all that stuff — just to look at the wide open spaces and building tension in those sorts of ways. I love the tough kids movies too, like “Rivers Edge” and “Over the Edge” — that one is in Colorado, shot in Denver, so I love how it looks because it looks like my hometown. There’s a lot of influence from that.
It’s almost a silent film in how quiet it is. I’m wondering how the script took shape and what the final draft even looked like.
Yeah that’s true. It’s literally the simplest script you could write. When you’re writing something to direct, you just write exactly what you’re going to do. You don’t have to write it in a way for other people to understand or interpret. I was also writing with my best friend, so we’re of one mind. You just write exactly what you’re going to do. I guess that came across when people were reading it. You read it and you can see it. I like the idea of being as visual as possible at any opportunity.
What scene was the most fulfilling to visualize?
My favorite moment to shoot was the opening tracking shot. I always had that in my head. It’s such a little thing, but the camera actually passes through the fence. It’s tracking along with them as they say their cuss words — and that’s something I’ve actually done, I actually have had that conversation — and they get to the fence and they stop, but the camera keeps going. It’s a trick. You have to rig the fence up in this crazy way so that the camera and the track can squeeze through without looking like the fence is broken, because it’s a real fence that’s 100 miles long. The camera than looks back and watches them through the fence and as they climb through and walk off into the distance. It’s a long, slow tracking shot. We did it late in the schedule but I was very, very happy when we got that.
Working with such young actors also must have its challenges, not just as a young filmmaker but also on a film with such a foreboding, violent tone.
Luckily these kids were just great actors. They had an innate seriousness about them, which I thought was important because they’re making such silly decisions. Their actions are what a 10-year-old thinks is the right thing to do, and so it worked out perfectly that they took that so seriously. But it’s never actually intense or scary for them on set. It’s shot in such a methodical way that a lot of the tension and drama comes from the way it’s all put together. Honestly, for them, the most intense thing more than anything else was just saying all the curse words.
So now you’re about to reboot the “Spider-Man” franchise. Considering this career move in context with “Clown” and “Cop Car,” you strike me as a filmmaker who probably won’t ever make the same film twice.
[Laughs] That’s probably true.
What were you looking to do after “Cop Car” and how did “Spider-Man” end up fitting the bill?
I wasn’t really looking to do anything in particular as my next movie, or at least I wasn’t conscious about what I wanted to do next. Me and [screenwriter Christopher] Ford have this long list of movies we want to make and scripts we’re working on, so it’s just about being open minded about what you can make next and what people are responding to and, honestly, what people will give you money to make. You can really want to do something and no one else does, and it’s just heartbreaking and you can’t do it, unless it costs what you have in your bank account or whatever.
I initially went in to meet with Marvel just as a general meeting, and then I kept coming back. I’ve always wanted to do a coming-of-age movie. That’s something I was already working on on my own, so that seemed to fit the bill. That’s fundamentally what we’re making with this “Spider-Man,” so that’s exciting. It helped because it was all fresh in my heads — the things I wanted to do with a coming-of-age movie. And like I said, it’s not like that because we now have more money we’re going to do things differently. The same mentality and drive that it took to make “Cop Car” applies to “Spider-Man.”
Any hard truths you learned while making “Cop Car” that you’re taking with you into the studio world?
It’s funny because “Cop Car” was one of those dream experiences where everything went right. I’m really proud of how we put this movie together and of my producers and the whole team. It was great. It was hard, hard work — we were out in the middle of nowhere and didn’t have a ton of money — but we really put together a movie the way we wanted to do it. All the hard truths were kind of learned prior to this, which made production a really clean experience. I’m really proud of that.
Are you nervous that teaming up with Marvel and Sony means you won’t necessarily be able to do everything you want to do this time? It’s hard to ignore the directors who have spoken out against the Marvel machine and how it has interfered with their personal creative process — Joss Whedon, Edgar Wright, Alan Taylor.
Right, absoultely. But there’s not even a script yet, you know? There is so much discussion going on in the media about “Spider-Man” but we’re literally just starting to work on it right now [laughs]. What’s great so far is that it’s a very collaborative process. Everyone is working together on this. As long as everyone is working together towards the same goal than that works for me. I’ve always been a very collaborative person, and I think “Cop Car” and all the people I worked with who made it possible is a good example of that.
“Cop Car” hits select theaters this weekend and VOD platforms on August 14.
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