Jon Watts on His Bizarre Journey From The Onion to ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’

The director of the upcoming Spidey reboot opens up about the road to Marvel and his batshit-insane horror movie ‘Clown,’ in theaters and VOD June 17.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

If you’re wondering how a man can make a movie as gore-tastically extreme as Clown—a horror film about a suburban husband and father who mutates into a mythical child-chomping clown monster—and then get hired two years later by Marvel to helm their Spider-Man: Homecoming reboot, well, director Jon Watts has a simple answer.

“I don’t know if they’ve seen Clown,” he chuckles. “I’m a little nervous. They liked Cop Car, so I wasn’t going to say, ‘So, I also made a horror movie where a clown monster eats children.’ I wasn’t just going to bring that up.”

There may have been good reason to hide Clown from bigwigs at Marvel and Sony, who are co-producing the latest web-slinger saga, and who hired Watts on the basis of his superb 2015 thriller Cop Car, starring Kevin Bacon. Yet American audiences have also been denied a chance at seeing the director’s 2014 debut—at least until now. After premiering in Italy, the U.K., Japan, Mexico, and other foreign territories over the past two years, but languishing stateside in a Dimension Films vault, the gory genre effort finally arrives in theaters this Friday.

Asked how he went from creating Clown to incorporating Marvel’s most popular character into the Marvel Cinematic Universe—via a saga headlined by newcomer Tom Holland, Robert Downey Jr. (as Iron Man), Marisa Tomei (Aunt May), and Michael Keaton (rumored to be the villainous Vulture)—Watts expresses astonishment at his ascendant career trajectory. “Yeah, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s like everything—when you look back, you can figure out a bit of continuity to how one thing led to another. But in the moment, I wish I could say that this was all some sort of master plan to lead to directing a big cool studio movie. But it was truly the product of just messing around with my friend [co-screenwriter Christopher Ford]. There was no brilliant plotting involved.”

Watts needs no “Spidey Sense” to know that revealing key details about Homecoming would be hazardous to his health. “I probably can’t say anything. There’s a little sniper dot on me at all times, just in case. They’ll hit me with a tranq dart.”

Even when I try to sneak in a quick, nonchalant query about whether recently signed cast member Donald Glover is playing Miles Morales—a Black Hispanic teen who becomes Spider-Man in recent comics titles, and whom fans want Glover to play (especially ever since he voiced him in an animated series)—Watts doesn’t flinch. “I can’t talk about anything like that!” he responds, before jokingly confessing, “That would have been so amazing, if I’d just completely spilled some secret like that by accident.”

Nonetheless, he does reveal that the film’s diverse casting (bolstered not only by Glover, but also Disney-bred actress Zendaya as Peter Parker’s love interest) is a natural byproduct of the action’s setting. “Peter Parker goes to high school in Queens, and Queens is one of—if not the—most diverse places in the world. So I just wanted it to reflect what that actually looks like.”

Despite the fact that Homecoming will be the sixth standalone Spider-Man film to hit theaters in the past 15 years, Watts has so far felt little pressure about differentiating his version from its predecessors. “It’s been really fun to just look for things that none of the other Spider-Man movies have really explored before, and decide if that’s something we want to work into that,” he remarks. “And really making it a high school movie, and committing to that, and not having that just be the beginning of the movie. The John Hughes sort of tone. When you’re looking at it through that prism, it really opens up the door to a lot of possibilities.”

It helped that the project’s groundwork had already been partially established, thanks to Spider-Man’s thrilling re-introduction in Captain America: Civil War. “It was already a moving train when I got on board, but I came on right as they got Tom [Holland], and so I knew everything that was happening with Civil War. I was there when they were shooting it and sort of lurking in the back, looking over the Russos’ shoulders, and I had ideas about this and that. We were already on the same page, but it was great because I got to sort of meet everyone and see what they were doing with it, and that informed where we eventually took it.”

So far, acclimation to the blockbuster-superhero process has been smooth, and less overwhelming than you might expect. “I never anticipated anything like this would happen, but I’m having a really good time. It’s such an amazing team working with both Marvel and Sony, and I have the support of just the very best technicians in the world. The best people who do this stuff are all supporting me, and I’ve always worked on things very collaboratively, so it’s been great so far. We start shooting really soon, but it’s been a really fun, interesting experience.”

If Watts sounds at ease tackling such an enormous venture, it may be because his entire career has been guided by a take-things-as-they-come attitude. That certainly was the case with Clown, a gruesome nightmare about a realtor (Andy Powers) who discovers a clown suit in one of his property’s basements and dons it for his son’s birthday party, only to find that he can’t take it off—and that it may in fact be more than just your average costume. What follows is a descent into gnarly madness, with Powers’s increasingly freaked-out father transforming into an unholy demon, all while his wife (Laura Allen) and a strange old kook (the inimitable Peter Stormare) try to stop him from indulging his demonic appetites.

It’s not exactly what you’d expect from someone who cut his teeth making comedy films for The Onion News Network. As Watts explains, the idea sprang from brainstorming with writing partner Christopher Ford, as both tried to one-up each other with the most ludicrous story concepts possible for their YouTube channel’s “clip of the week.” “We were trying to think of the movie we would pitch in this fictional Hollywood scenario, when everyone had passed on all of our movies,” he recalls. “It started from that, and then we slowly figured out what the plot of Clown was, over the course of hanging out. We were just trying to figure out the most disturbing, unsettling thing we could ever think of, and trying to outdo ourselves.”

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In an effort to screw with their YouTube subscribers, they created a fake trailer for the non-existent movie, and uploaded it—replete with a title card that claimed it was directed by Hostel and The Green Inferno mastermind Eli Roth. The thing being, Roth had nothing to do with it.

In one of those fairy-tale twists of fate, that last-second gag became the unlikely beginning of Watts’s cinematic career, as Roth not only caught wind of his Clown attribution, but dug the bold stunt. “He loved the premise, and I think he just liked the idea that we did it [i.e., credited him], and didn’t ask permission and just put it up there to see what happened,” remembers Watts. Soon, Roth was on board as a producer and shepherding the film to completion—a fact that was stunning to Watts. “I was like, ‘This is not real.’ I thought now I was being pranked. The whole thing was completely surreal… The whole time, you’re just waiting for the camera crew to come in. ‘You didn’t really think this was happening, did you?’ Even on set, I was like ‘They’re really taking this prank far!’”

“It’s so bizarre,” he continues. “It’s absolutely not what I thought I was going to do at all. I directed it on the weekends when I was shooting The Onion, and then I edited it on an airplane when I was flying to do something else. If this was totally a calculated move, I would be a genius. But it was really just goofing around.”

Roth’s reputation for extreme horror was the key to Watts getting away with his film’s nastiest bits—including a prolonged sequence in which the creature goes on a bloodthirsty rampage at a Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant. “With Eli as our producer, it was par for the course. Like, of course it’s going to go there.”

Suffice it to say, Clown doesn’t pull any punches. Moreover, it brings into clearer focus the thematic thread that connects Watts’ first three features. “All my movies so far involve children in danger. It starts with 7-year-olds in Clown, then 10-year-olds in Cop Car, and now I have 15-year-old Peter Parker. I’m slowly working my way up to actual adults getting into dangerous situations,” he laughs.

Of course, Clown and Spider-Man also share a protagonist who puts on a costume and undergoes a transformation into something more-human-than-human. When pressed on whether this means Holland’s Spider-Man will be going on any children-centric rampages, however, Watts—proving that he’s been well-trained in Marvel secrecy policies—remains coy:

“No spoilers.”