While “Cop Car” was unveiled to strong reviews at Sundance 2015, by the time I viewed it I was seeing it through the prism of a Marvel executive checking out the chops of a would-be director for “Spider-Man.” And you can see how they would think that Jon Watts has the right stuff–he clearly knows how to write (with partner Chris Ford) and shoot, build laughs, characters and tension. And there are several superb set pieces worthy of a serious student of Steven Spielberg, Sergio Leone and William Friedkin.
In “Cop Car” two ten-year-old two boys in Colorado come across an abandoned cop car and take it on a lark. They embark on an adventure. They don’t think about consequences. Watts reveals strategic bits of info, like a beer bottle placed on the hood of the car, measures out details we need to know, like a cache of guns in the back seat, and the character of the person who owns the car. He is a very bad guy.
The film is now in theaters and on VOD.
Anne Thompson: Did you think “Cop Car” was a Sundance movie?
Jon Watts: It was definitely a genre when I was going up. You came to associate it hopefully with seeing something you hadn’t seen before.
It’s based on a dream?
It really is a dream come true. I had a recurring stress dream since I was a kid 10 years old. My friend Travis is driving and I’m afraid we’re going to get in trouble. We keep passing people I recognize and no one is doing anything. Travis keeps driving faster. I’ve had that dream a long time.
Did you take it to a therapist?
No! I thought maybe I could make a movie out of that. That was my therapy. Maybe a police car would be more compelling. Chris Ford asked “Whose car is it?”
“There we go, it’s a movie!”
How long did it take to write?
It took about a week, which is crazy. I’ve never written anything that easily ever, and never will again. It emerged fully formed, it had been brewing for a long time.
Did you want to be a director in high school?
No. I only realized I could potentially make movies after seeing “Ed Wood.” Someone who gets their friends to come over: “That’s great! Just stand over there! That’s fine!” How enthusiastic he was!
I said, “Oh it’s not this impossible task.”
I started making films with my friends and my brother-in-law’s video camera on weekends in high school. I was going to be a chemical engineer, I was a science nerd, that was the plan. I secretly applied to USC and NYU and got a scholarship to go to NYU based on a dumb animated short I made. It was a huge shock to me and my family.
You shot music videos after you graduated?
Yes, and a lot of commercials, some pilots for TV shows. I was trying to do and learn everything, try some new stuff. A lot of comedy. I love comedy. My friends and I stuck together and made a little production company in Brooklyn to produce stuff. You make a lot of funny dumb stuff. We did this for a long time and it was blast.
This is your second feature. How did you make your first?
The first one was the direct result of goofy videos I was making. “Clown” started as a fake trailer for a nonexistent movie. Chris Ford and I joked around about a man who painfully transforms into a sinister clown, a David Cronenberg nightmare that was really funny. We had a pilot not get picked up. “Let’s make a dumb clown tailer and put it on our Youtube page and fool subscribers into thinking it’s real.”
We took it seriously, made it look professional: “From the master of horror Eli Roth.” We didn’t know him, we thought people would associate it with disturbing stuff. We wanted to push the boundaries, do things we couldn’t afford to shoot for our fake trailer, fool people. The page had hundreds of thousand of views. Who knew Eli Roth has such a big social media presence? He asked, “What is this? I don’t have a new film? I haven’t seen this!”
We had a warning: “Eli’s going to call you.”
“Oh no, I’m in so much trouble!” On the phone: “Please don’t sue us.”
“No, this is cool, do you want to make this into a whole movie, do you have an idea for the feature length version?”
We had worked out what the whole story would be. “I’ll get it set up!”
Within a week we had money set up and got to work writing the script and made it, which is crazy. It’s available everywhere except Canada and the U.S.”
How did you come up with Kevin Bacon?
We never thought he’d make it, we’d never get Kevin Bacon, right? As soon as he was interested, “yes absolutely!” We talked about the character; there’s nothing in the script, even less than what’s in the movie. He went and saw “Clown,” “oh no!” but he loved it, loves horror movies, had cool ideas about the character, brought so much more to it.
People have compared this to absurdly bloody “Blood Simple,” but it also reminds me of the Spielberg and Friedkin movies of the 70s and 80s.
That’s an influence as a person. When I was ten in 1991, the whole world was Amblin Entertainment, when I was a kid I’d walk through those fields; that’s my home town [Fountain, Colorado]. That’s how you’re talking when you’re ten as you head toward the horizon with hope you’ll trip over “Goonies” treasure. These kids are seeking the promise of adventure and finding it and being afraid of what will happen next. I wasn’t as adventurous as they are. We found a tractor once with the key in it, but we didn’t start it. I wrote it to shoot it there, I produced this movie with my closest friends, there’s a bit of tax credit there, you know, why not, that was right thing to do.
The set piece standoff with the windmill is 86 setups?
A lot of “To Live and Die in LA,” “Sorcerer,” drawing out the tension, a lot of Sergio Leone (“The Good the Bad and the Ugly”) with the sound, not being afraid to stretch it and push it and keep it visual. We storyboarded the whole thing meticulously. There’s a lot of spacial awareness necessary, looking in the correct direction, know the stakes and the staging: where the kids are in relation to Kevin.
And the lengthy dangling of a string to break into a car?
What always frustrates me in movies and TV is shows where everyone is such a genius, is Sherlock Holmes or Jason Bourne with these amazing skills and we’re not, no one is. I wanted to watch someone struggle with something over time in a normal movie. I wanted it to be frustrating, so you’re getting to the point where you’re as frustrated as he is. We worked on that more than any other thing.
The kids are so wishing that the bad guys are good guys.
The kids know there are good guys and bad guys: they hope that they are good guys.
Describe your dance with Marvel on “Spider-Man.”
It was a lot of meetings. First a general meeting, they had seen “Cop Car” and liked it, wanted to meet me, and I kept being invited back with more people in the room talking about ideas for the movie. When I found out I got it, I was in back of Taxicab driving to JFK, I had showed “Cop Car” at BAM at Brooklyn. It was so top secret I couldn’t say anything out loud in case the cab driver heard. I couldn’t tell anyone until the official announcement. The taxi driver was going faster and faster, as I was getting more nervous, listening to this news, and I can’t say anything. It was like “Cop Car.” As I was getting the best news I’ll ever get in my life I was going to die in a taxi. I told my parents after it was formally announced. It came out earlier than we were expecting. I didn’t want them to post on Facebook and have me get in trouble.
How does it feel to have a movie already cast before you start?
There’s no script yet, we’re just starting to form the beginning of a few ideas. Tom [Holland] is going to be great, they saw so many people, we’re just starting working, I’m going to collaborate with writers Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daly, we’re all sitting in a room bouncing around ideas. It feels like the way my friends and I have always worked in movies.
Now this movie should make it easier for you to make some of the projects you have in the works, in your trunk.
I have so many things in the trunk. That’s really exciting, to have that as a jumping off point to do some more crazy things.