Jon Watts’ next job is no secret – he’ll be directing the Tom Holland-starring Spider-Man reboot, for Marvel Studios and Sony. They signed him up off the strength of his last film – his second feature, Cop Car.
Cop Car is something of a hybrid between a road comedy and a crime thriller, where Kevin Bacon stars as a crooked cop on the hunt for the two young runaways that have taken a joyride in his eponymous vehicle.
We chatted to Jon Watts on the phone about the film, his directorial debut (the underrated 2014 horror flick, Clown) and the comic book inspirations behind his next project…
So, we’re here to talk about Cop Car – which you wrote and directed. This was my first thought when watching it: how hard is it to get a script through production when the first words in it are "wiener" and "boobs"?
[Laughs] You know what? Those were not the first words. I don’t even remember what it was, initially, in the script. But we had this long list of potential cusses. And then, it’s just over shots of the landscape at the beginning…
So when we recorded it, I just had the kids list every curse word they could think of. [Laughs] And then we ended up with ‘wiener’ and ‘boobs’ – and that’s just perfect, those two words.
You know, you write something like that when you don’t think that anyone will see it. That’s real freedom.
So we meet these cussing kids after they’ve run away from home. Did you put a lot of thought into why they’d left home? Do you have a whole untold backstory there?
Yeah… I have. I have my own backstory, but it also doesn’t matter. So, yeah, I would never want to reveal what it is because it doesn’t matter. For me, I wanted it to be more like a [Jean-Pierre] Melville movie. When you just meet a gangster, and you just go with him. You might not even learn his name. But you see what he needs to do. I like that approach.
And where did the original idea come from? Was it a case of seeing an abandoned cop car somewhere and just going ‘ah, there’s a film in that’…
Um, weirdly it’s based on a recurring dream that I’ve had since I was a kid. And, the movie shot right where I grew up. Like, those are the actual fields. That’s my home town, and it’s all very… that’s what we would do.
When we were kids, we would just go walking. Just walk in a direction, and hope that you were gonna find a crashed alien spaceship or buried pirate’s treasure or something like that. You never did. You’d find like a coyote skeleton, something like that. That was the most exciting thing you’d ever find.
So this dream I had. I’m like… ten. I’m in the passenger seat of my mom’s car, and my friend Travis is also ten, and driving it. And we’re driving around our small town. And we’re passing these people who we know, but they’re not saying anything or stopping us.
We’re not getting in trouble. In that weird dream logic sort of way. And I’m worried, I’m really nervous. But Travis is having a great time. And he’s going faster and faster, driving this car around. And no-one is stopping us, and I’m real panicked, like ‘we’re gonna crash,’ and then I wake up.
And so it’s just this recurring stress dream I’ve had since I was a kid, and I always thought that there was something to it. Just that image of two kids driving a car. And, I was like ‘well, maybe it’s a police car. That would be more dramatic.’
And then I was pitching it to my friend, Chris Ford, and he was like ‘whose cop car is it?’, and we were like ‘ooh! Now we’ve got a story.’ And we just sat down and wrote it.
In other hands, that script could have become a broad comedy. Some people might expect that from Cop Car, but it’s actually more of a thriller isn’t it?
Yeah, it’s sort of a combination of those two things. There’s been two movies already, about two little kids driving a car around. Which I didn’t know about when we came up with this idea.
After we’d written it a friend of mine said ‘oh, that’s just like Josh And Sam – that’s one of them. And, there’s been a couple of comedies that involved a similar premise. But, I don’t know… to me, the tone was always more grounded. You know? Let’s write the dialogue the way kids actually talk. Let’s show what kids would actually do.
And then when you add this element of ‘why’s there a police car in the middle of nowhere?’, as you start to answer those questions, you end up in a lot more thriller sort of territory. I hope it’s funny too – some people laugh!
It’s definitely funny! Kevin Bacon – in particular – is brilliant. At what stage did he get involved? Was that a big deal for you guys?
Oh, it was a huge deal. I mean, I couldn’t believe that he read the script and liked it. Then he called me, and he wanted to talk about it. And, er, he was just really excited to play this character. He said, as soon as he read it he knew exactly what the character would be like. And he just wanted to do it.
And was it quite strange to work with him on set? It’s a fairly unhinged performance, and from a star that you must have been very familiar with…
He is the most professional, precise actor I could imagine. You know, he can do anything. He’s just so, so precise and amazing. Um, and he’s also just a really nice guy. He’s smart, and great to talk to, and has amazing stories.
So, it was really comfortable. It’s a huge relief, when you’re working with someone who can do anything, like that. You can just… the door gets opened up. Like, ‘alright –lets do this big long complicated tracking shot,’ because you know that he can hit all the marks so perfectly, and it wont affect the performance in any way. It can actually enhance it, so… I think he had fun.
The only time was weird was when I would look down at my monitor. I’d be like, ‘oh my god – it’s Kevin Bacon!’, when you see it in a movie frame, then you’re like ‘oh right – that’s movie star Kevin Bacon,’ not that regular guy I’ve been talking to.
Your two child actors – James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford – are strong, too. What was the process like to cast them, was it a big wide call?
Yeah, we did basically a nationwide casting call – getting lots of kids on tape, all over the country. Then I flew to a couple of places to see people in person, and weirdly, in the end, it became… I knew both of them were right for the part, for the movie. Because of the way they carried themselves.
And not necessarily in the audition. They just were those kids. I didn’t know who was gonna play who. So, we just cast them both and flew them out to Colorado, because they had never read together. And I had them read, and then swap parts, and then read again. And then it was pretty obvious who should be who.
What was your approach to guiding them on set? You brought two great performances out of them, which feel very natural…
They were great! They were very prepared, and they had had all their lines memorized and they were ready to go. I mean, I think, when you have two ten-year-olds you just need to create an environment where they feel comfortable and not under too much pressure. Like, it’s okay to mess up. And, you know, you just want to encourage them to be in the moment.
What was particularly great was that the first scene that we shot was the scene when they’re in the back of the police car, and Shea [Whigham] is shouting at them. And Shea is really great with kids, and he’s a great acting teacher. He gave these kids a crash course in acting, and he was saying ‘you’ve got to forget everything else, you’ve got to forget the camera and be really present. You’ve just got to look at me. If you feel scared, just be scared – we’ll see it.’
So he gave them this, like, method acting crash course. He helped coach them, too, because, with a lot of the stuff, we’re far away with the camera, but he’s right in there with the kids. So, that helped them too.
With the shootouts and the car-chases in this, it is a little grander in size than your last film, Clown. Did you have any particular filmmaking inspirations to help you step into that bigger scale?
The biggest thing was probably watching Sergio Leone movies again. Like, watching The Good, The Bad And The Ugly again. A Fistful Of Dollars. Like, the landscapes obviously. But also the idea of drawing out tension and not being afraid to linger on someone’s face while they’re thinking. Or waiting.
Like, I love that. Just a nice reminder of what you can do with a few simple sounds to create the space. That was great. You watch that and then you watch, like, some David Lean movies again. And you’re like ‘yep – huge landscapes. I can make the character tiny.’
You were playing with genre expectations in Clown as well. I was assuming it would be straight-up slasher movie, and it was actually more of a family drama. Do you consciously try and subvert the obvious with your movies?
Some people… I think that was really disappointing to some people. Our idea was always to make, like, a weird psychological drama. Which, to me, is the funniest, driest joke. To make a psychological family drama about a guy turning into a clown [laughs]!
Obviously Clown – as your directorial debut – was a breakthrough film for you. What did that experience teach you in terms of writing and directing?
Well, the story behind Clown is the best. It started out as a prank. If I had done this on purpose I would have been so smart. But it was a complete accident. Um, so Chris Ward and I – the guy I also wrote Cop Car with – we’d also, with our friends, make videos and we’d put them online. This was a couple of years ago.
We’d just make dumb little sketches, or fake movie trailers, fake TV shows. Just playing around in our spare time. Um, we all went to NYU together, so filmmaking is fun for us. Um, so… One weekend. We had always been joking around, with this idea of a Cronenberg body horror, but with a guy who’s turning into a clown. You know, instead of a fly?
Um, and we had worked a lot of it out just joking around. In the way that you do. And one weekend we were just like, ‘let’s go make that. Make a fake trailer.’ And we shot it, and it turned out – the idea was like, to really be realistic about this. To make it seem like a real movie. Um, so we tried to be really serious with the performances. And things like that.
So we shot it, and cutting it together, was like ‘oh, this could really be a real movie – it looks like a real movie.’ Um, and so our cherry on top of it, when we were cutting together this fake trailer, we were like ‘let’s see if we can really fool people. The ten people that watched our videos on YouTube. Let’s see if we can fool them into thinking this is a real movie that’s coming out.’
Our whole plan was – we were gonna credit ourselves as the co-writers, with, like, a big Hollywood writer who we had never met. And then, we said that it was directed by Eli Roth. I had never met Eli, but we were like, ‘not only his he totally awesome – and another NYU guy, so it makes sense in that way. But also, by putting his name on it, people will fill in the blanks in the trailer, and assume that a bunch of really terrible things happen.
And so we put it online, expecting to fool, like, a couple of people. And then, the next day, it immediately had so many views. It was on all these horror blogs, like ‘Eli Roth’s next movie – where did this come from?’, and I was like ‘oh no! This is bad. We’re gonna be in so much trouble.’ Then I got a warning, it was like ‘you’re going to get a call from Eli in an hour.’
So I was just terrified. It was trouble. And he called me, and he was so cool, and I was like ‘please don’t sue us!’, and he was so cool. He was like, ‘this is a cool idea!’, do you guys have the whole movie worked out? And so we scrambled something together, and went to L.A. and pitched it to him, and he was like ‘let’s do this!’ – and he went and found the financing. The whole thing started as a complete prank, and it became a real movie. It’s amazing. You can still find the original trailer online.
Obviously, your next job isn’t exactly a secret. You’ve been signed up by Marvel to work on the new Spider-Man with Tom Holland…
I was wondering, when they brought you in, did you just get involved with the Spidey reboot, or were they showing you where they were with Civil War and laying out all these big plans that they had for Peter Parker?
Er, yeah. They’ve shot Civil War. That stuff’s done. But I’m here in the trenches now, every day, figuring it out.
We’ve heard online that you’re going to bring Peter back to high school, and that we should to expect a John Hughes-y sort of vibe -
Have you been looking at any comics in particular to help shape that? Because, when I heard that, Ultimate Spider-Man was the first thing that sprung to mind…
Oh, I love that. Ultimate is great. I love Ultimate. We have the freedom to pull from anything, but I really like what [Brian Michael] Bendis did. A lot. That felt like… that was Peter Parker back in high school. And, spending as much time with his high school problems as it did with his superhero problems, which I think is really a lot of fun.
There’s also some really funny comics stuff, like, the Archies. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the Spider-Man Loves Mary-Jane series, but they have this really great anime-style illustration, and it’s all just about Peter Parker’s relationships. It’s like the soap opera of Peter Parker in high school. Those are really funny, too.
I’m just sitting around reading comic books all day - it’s a pretty great job.
I’m aware that we’ve run out of time here, but I’ve just got one quick trademark Den Of Geek question – what’s your favorite Jason Statham movie?
Um, I… yeah… I guess I would say… I remember when I saw Lock, Stock I was like ‘what is this?’, it was just so amazing. I always sort of connect him back to that.
That’s a popular choice!
Yeah, I’m trying to think if there’s anything else… I mean, he was so funny in Spy. Like, I wanted more of him when Spy was over. I want to see him and Melissa McCarthy, like, team up! Make it a two-hander. I love him as a funny character, especially.
Jon Watts, thank you very much!
Cop Car is out now on Digital HD and DVD & Blu-Ray.