“I still don’t quite believe it,” says Jon Watts, the 34-year-old director who was plucked from the indie world this summer and handed the reins to Sony and Marvel’s upcoming Spider-Man re-reboot. “I’m still waiting for someone to tell me it was all a prank.”
Watts is calling from Los Angeles ahead of the release of his second feature, Cop Car. The taut Sundance thriller tracks two rebellious Colorado boys who happen upon the titular cruiser and take it for a joyride only to be hunted down by the corrupt small-town sheriff it belongs to, played by Kevin Bacon.
Watts is about to take his sophomore flick to Montreal’s Fantasia Fest and to its premiere in his hometown, where he filmed it with a crew of friends, before it hits theaters in August.
It was Cop Car, Watts surmises, that got him the career-making Spider-Man gig after Marvel head Kevin Feige caught the film. “I’m really not sure what I did to get the job, but I’m happy that whatever I did worked,” he laughs.
Born and raised in Colorado and film-schooled at NYU, Watts became the latest neophyte helmer to jump to the big blockbuster leagues following the likes of Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man), Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World), Gareth Edwards (Godzilla), and Josh Trank (Fantastic Four).
His Spidey is set to take Peter Parker back to high school, yet again—only this time, as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Around the time Watts was sealing the biggest deal of his professional career, Sony and Marvel anointed Brit Tom Holland its new Spider-Man. After cameoing in Captain America: Civil War, Holland will star for Watts in a stand-alone already dated for July 28, 2017.
“The thing that everyone keeps saying is that it’s sort of like the John Hughes version of Spider-Man, which I think is a really cool take on it,” says Watts. “He’s in high school, and the questions that that raises I think we haven’t explored as much as we can. In the comics so much of it was about him juggling his high school life and trying to be a superhero. I think there’s a lot to do there.”
Before Spider-Man takes over the next two years of his life, Watts is planning a vacation. The prolific comedy and commercials helmer is also seeing Cop Car off into release, an outcome he couldn’t have predicted when inspiration for the modest, minimalist thriller first struck as a recurring dream he’d had since childhood.
“I’m 10 years old. I’m in the passenger seat of my mom’s car, but my friend Travis is driving. We’re driving around my town and people are passing by us, but they’re not saying anything. I’m getting really nervous and he’s going faster and faster, going out of control—and then I wake up. I’ve had that dream since I was a kid.”
“I haven’t had it since, so maybe the movie cured me,” he added.
Like a classic Amblin coming-of-age tale, Cop Car captures a feeling of restless youth that Watts remembers from his own childhood exploring the same fields and woods as his two 10-year-old leads.
“It’s the middle of nowhere and we lived in the boonies,” he said. “You would just go walk in a direction for hours and look for stuff. Find bottles and break them, stick sticks in snake holes that were probably prairie dog holes. You go looking and hoping for an adventure every day. You don’t necessarily find it, but it’s a lot of fun.”
The film opens on BFFs Travis and Harrison, running away from home with just a Slim Jim to eat between them, daring each other to say the worst swear words they know. “We would go walk in those fields, ‘running away from home’ as you do until it got dark,” says Watts, who named his kid heroes after two cousins he knew in real life. “The conversation of cussing but not saying the f-word totally happened. That’s all very, very real.”
Travis and Harrison’s joyride turns serious after they discover a cache of weapons in the backseat, and worse. Watts ups the ante beyond Spielbergian innocence just by putting semiautomatic rifles in the hands of children, who react as boys on the precipice of teenagedom might: By pointing guns at one another.
“The image is hilarious and shocking, but watching the crowd is so fun because people can’t watch, they actually hide their eyes. It’s such a strong image,” Watts laughs. “But for the kids, definitely saying the cuss words was a lot bigger of a deal. ‘Are you sure we’re allowed to say this?’ They were afraid they’d get in trouble! ‘Am I really allowed to say these words?’”
Consider Cop Car part-Goonies, part-Gus Van Sant. “I love long takes, I love wide epic canvases,” he says. “I love the movie Gerry. This is like our 10-year-old Gerry.”
Kevin Bacon plays his evil sheriff with a piercing physicality, his face alternately flashing through desperation, fear, and rage as he tracks the young thieves across the dusty highways of Colorado.
It was Bacon, who squeezed the Cop Car shoot in between filming seasons of The Following and touring with his band, who insisted on a particularly intimidating cop ’stache.
“That was all him,” said Watts. “He said, ‘I have an idea of what this guy would look like’ and he made a Photoshop of himself with the haircut he wanted and the mustache he wanted. He wanted the sort of Old West mustache that curls over your lip.”
Kevin Bacon and his ’stache might draw most viewers in, but Watts is hoping a little Marvel curiosity leads Spidey fans to it, too. “I do like that people are like, ‘Who is this guy?’ Hopefully it makes people want to go see Cop Car,” he said.
Meanwhile, Spider-Man still has to be scripted by John Francis Daley & Jonathan M. Goldstein. “We’re just getting started,” says Watts, who once watched the Sam Raimi Spidey production lighting up the Brooklyn Bridge from his dorm room. “It remains to be seen how we’re going to do that, but Marvel is a very collaborative place and it’s Marvel and Sony, which is an interesting dynamic.”
Watts can, however, officially debunk one rumor about him: He did not, in fact, land the Spider-Man gig by getting a full Spidey chest tattoo as a symbol of his commitment to the character. “Someone got that on the Wikipedia page, which is pretty impressive,” he marveled. “I was debating whether to say I’ve gotten a tattoo for every movie I’ve made. I have a Kevin Bacon on my back and a Clown on my arm! That would be pretty awesome if that’s how I got the job.”