A lean, sharp, wickedly funny and frequently grim pulp thriller that harkens back to movies like Badlands or Blood Simple, Cop Car also tells an oddly poignant tale of innocence lost. Two young friends, Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harris (Hays Wellford), are escaping their home lives on foot when they stumble upon a seemingly abandoned police car in the woods and decide to take it for a joyride. The only problem? It belongs to the sadistic, corrupt Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon) of Quinlan County, Colorado, who had his car hidden for his own purposes – and wants it back whatever the cost. The catch is the two thieves are just 10 years old, with no real understanding of what they’ve set in motion.
Cop Car is the second feature from director and co-writer Jon Watts, who displays an striking visual style (the movie was filmed in rural Colorado, where he grew up) and an incredible ability to wring tension out of any situation, including one harrowing sequence where the boys play with a cache of weapons they find in the Sheriff’s car. Watts gets terrific performances out of both boys as well as the always reliable Bacon, who makes the Sheriff both monstrous and ridiculous. It’s no wonder that Watts caught the eye of Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures and hired him to direct the next standalone Spider-Man movie, due out in 2017. We asked him about that (of course) when we sat down with Watts and Bacon recently in Los Angeles, but we spoke mainly about the impressive and entertaining Cop Car.
Den Of Geek: I understand this was sparked up by an image in a dream that you had?
Jon Watts: Yeah. I know it sounds so corny. But it’s true. It’s the recurring dream I’ve had since I was like 10 years old. I am in the passenger’s seat of my mom’s car and my friend Travis, who is also 10, is driving. We’re driving around our small town. I’m afraid we’re going to get in trouble. We keep passing people that we know, but no one is stopping us or doing anything or saying anything. Travis going faster and faster in the car and I’m getting more and more afraid that we’re going to crash, and then I wake up. It’s just like a nervous stress dream that I’ve had forever. It always stuck with me as a really cool image of two 10-year-olds driving a car. So I was thinking maybe it’s a police car and maybe there’s a movie in there somewhere.
One day on a break from writing a real project with my friend Chris Ford, I was pitching him this dream idea I had. He was like, “Well, whose police car is it?” I’m like, “Ohhh…There we go. That’s the movie.”
Kevin, what were the possibilities you saw in this when you read the script?
Kevin Bacon: To make a small film that plays like a big film. It feels like in the ‘90s, maybe somebody would have spent $25 million on it or $15…
Watts: They did. It was called Josh and Sam.
Bacon: What’s that?
Watts: It’s about two little kids who steal a car and drive it around. It’s like a really broad, wacky sort of comedy. I think Joe Eszterhas wrote it. [laughs] I didn’t know about it either until after I was describing this movie to someone and they were like, “Oh, have you ever seen Josh and Sam?” I was like, “Oh, no. everyone is going to think we ripped off Josh and Sam.” [laughs]
Bacon: It’s not really an arthouse movie. It’s an audience pleaser. It’s a thriller but also has this kind of heart. I find it moving; a very moving picture about the loss of innocence. And it’s this one violent day changing the lives of these little boys. It’s interesting, because the two kids in the movie — the sense of excitement and wonder about the world the two kids in the script have is not unlike the sense of excitement and wonder that the two kids had when they come onto the set. And actually, in some ways, not even just the kids, but Jon and some of the other people who were in the process of this, this was a really exciting kind of thing.
For me, I love being on a set and it’s fun and feels like my living room. But there’s no sense of wonder. That ship sailed a really long time ago. So I found that kind of personally very infectious. And it’s fun to be around, both from the kids and from him (Watts), and from a lot of people on the crew.
With the sheriff, you walk a fine line between him being truly frightening and also kind of pathetic in a way. Was it hard to find the right balance that you could sort of laugh at him, but also find him very menacing as well?
Bacon: I guess where you find those lines is kind of a mystery. You can kind of take a certain amount of credit for it, but then you also have to say, well, it’s in the direction, it’s in the writing, it’s in the editing. So I don’t know specifically where that comes from. I don’t know that that’s something that we ever really addressed…
Watts: No, because you know it’s going to be different for everyone. All you have to do is say: What is the logic of this scene? Where is the sheriff’s head at, at this moment? It’s like, “Okay, now he has to run as fast as he can to get to this next place.” He knows the nearest place where he could potentially get a car is this trailer park. So he just has to run. And that’s that. And people will choose when to laugh or not.
What influenced the way you shot the film? You use these big wide open spaces in Colorado…
Watts: I grew up there, so I’ve always sort of had those images in my head. The visual style is — Chris Ford and I talk a lot about that movie Gerry, the Gus Van Sant movie of just walking around. We love that. So it’s sort of a 10-year-old version of Gerry. This kid is walking and talking. And then in terms of the style of storytelling, I always talk about Le Samourai and just Melville films where you just don’t explain — you don’t know who anyone is before. You don’t get any backstory. You don’t even ever sometimes learn the characters’ names. You just meet them and then watch what happens. So we talked about that a lot when we were writing it. And then Badlands. I would say Badlands is my favorite movie. And that sort of combination of that magical sort of lyricism within a very hard-boiled story. Those two things colliding was a big influence.
Kevin, was it an interesting exercise to go for your first 10 minutes onscreen without saying a single word?
Bacon: Yeah, great. I love it. When I first started studying acting, I was working with the Strasberg method, just an offshoot of Stanislavski. One of the most important exercises they do is something called “The Private Moment” where you are actually trying to create a moment of privacy alone. It is a very good way into a character, I think, because it’s almost a voyeuristic way to look at someone. They are not relating to the world. They are just being themselves. Yeah. I loved working in that way. And that was actually really well broken down in the script, how you actually did it. When we first meet the character, there’s probably a good three or four pages of just sort of like, “This is what he does.” That’s not shit that wasn’t in the script. It was there. All of those moments of whatever comes out of the trunk, the dragging, the this and that, cutting the thing and opening it and then going back for the shoe. All that stuff was laid out. So it was just a question of just staying true to it.
The boys seem so naturalistic in the way they talk to each other. Did you just channel your own memories?
Watts: A lot of those conversations are conversations I’ve had. The conversation about cuss words being a different language in Russia, I had that conversation. Looking for arrowheads…just really all of it, so much of it. I really remembered being 10 and all the details and what’s important to you at the time. You’re always thinking about leaving fingerprints on things like you’re being a spy. Just dumb stuff that really stuck with me.
Does that sort of give you the way into working on a character like Peter Parker?
Watts: I think you always want to be honest to what the character is like in their situation. Talking about the kids in Cop Car, a lot of the time when someone writes a character or directs kids of that age, the kids either become wise old adults saying lines and things that are surprising to hear a little kid say, or they are just treated as dumb little kids as part of the set dressing to be cute. But I remember being 10 and I remember what I was thinking about and what was important to me and how I thought the world worked. I think that applies to every character. Same thing with high school. It’s like the best coming of age movies are the ones that are honest to what it actually feels like when you are 16 and aren’t trying to look back with any sort of sense of false nostalgia.
Obviously your next project is the elephant in the room…
Watts: There’s nothing specifically to talk about yet.
Do you have a vision in your head of what you want to see, to some degree?
Watts: Yeah. But we don’t have a script yet, so we’ve got to figure that out. [laughs]
Kevin, you’ve been in the superhero movie machine with X-Men: First Class. Any advice for him about getting on that roller coaster?
Bacon: We’ve talked a little bit about it. But as Jon said, when you really come down to it, when you get on the set, there’s still somebody that says, “Rolling.” You know what I mean? There’s still a call sheet. There are certain things about the way that we make films that really haven’t changed since the first time people spoke on camera. It’s a pretty similar sort of process. It’s a longer one, obviously, and probably one where there’s going to be more cooks. But once he’s there on the set with the actors that’s what it’s going to be — making the day and putting the stuff in the can.
Watts: That’s why I love movies, because, really, at the end of the day it just comes down to what’s in that frame. It doesn’t matter how you got there. It doesn’t matter how much money it cost to get you there or how many people were involved. It’s like still just the simplicity of what’s in your aspect ratio.
One of the most harrowing scenes in this film is when the kids are playing with the guns. It evoked a lot of strong feelings in me regarding my own position on guns. In staging that, what did you want to get across to the audience?
Watts: It’s not like it’s a polemic or anything like that. Certainly nothing good happens with guns in the movie. But I mean that’s just a strong image. We were just, again, trying to be honest about what would happen. If two 10 year old kids found those guns, they would play with them. They don’t know. They don’t understand. And that makes for a pretty strong image.
Bacon: And they are also playing with the defibrillator. It’s interesting that people are always mentioning guns. I mean that’s obviously a sign of the times…
Watts: My sister is a nurse and was our on-site medic also. In the scene when the kids are playing with the defibrillator, she could not handle that.
Bacon: She’s in the audience going, “Clear!”
Watts: Yeah. That scared her way more than the guns.
I was squirming during that whole scene, and so were others around me.
Watts: It’s really rough.
Is it tough to play scenes where you have to be frightening to kids?
Bacon: I’ve done a lot of it. It’s probably one of the worst things you could possibly do, pretty much. Yeah, sure. It’s tough. I’m a parent. Other things are tough, too, all the places that you have to take yourself. The way I approach it is to try to make the kids feel comfortable around me. I don’t believe that the best way in is to manipulate them into actually being scared of me, because I think it’s kind of irresponsible, and ultimately probably not worth it in the long run just to get a shot. I’ve seen it done before. But I think that if I say, “Listen, I’m an actor and you’re an actor. I’m a nice guy. I’m not going to hurt you, but I am going to be going for it, just so you know.” I don’t hold back. Let me put it that way. I don’t hold back, but I try to make it clear to them that we’re professional pretenders.
Jon, I understand that the Spider-Man screenwriters were going to Marvel to look at footage of Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War. Have you gotten to see that yet?
Watts: I’m not allowed to say. [laughs]
Cop Car is out now in limited theatrical release and via VOD.