Two 10-year-old friends set out looking for adventure and maybe a little bit of trouble. They find both in Cop Car, the taut Sundance thriller from director Jon Watts, who combines the spirit of a Spielberg Amblin film with the danger and camaraderie of Stand By Me.
Travis and Harrison (James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford) are just simple, innocent kids, having fun and testing to see how far they can get from home. Their plans are vague, but when they stumble upon an abandoned police car in a secluded pocket of woods, and the keys literally fall into their laps, they decide to take it for a joy ride.
Of course, the car wasn’t abandoned, and when the county sheriff (Kevin Bacon) returns from some unofficial business to find it missing, he becomes extremely desperate to find it. There were weapons in the car, but that’s the least of the dangerous cargo the oblivious boys rode off with.
Cop Car, which opens in theaters Aug. 7 (and on-demand Aug. 14), debuted at Sundance and quickly established Watts, who co-wrote the script with Christopher D. Ford, as a promising filmmaker to watch. At least Sony and Marvel thought so, and they more than impressed by his gifts behind the camera. (In addition to Cop Car, Watts had also directed the Eli Roth-produced horror film Clown.) In June, they hired Watts to reboot their Spider-Man franchise, a huge promotion no doubt encouraged by the success of Colin Treverrow’s graduation from Sundance darling to Jurassic World.
In this exclusive clip from Cop Car, the distraught sheriff finally gets in touch with the contrite boys who stole his car and plots his next move to erase the evidence he let drive away — not knowing exactly what awaits him. Below, Watts talks about making the film, as well as the leap to blockbuster filmmaking and bringing a new Spider-Man to the big screen.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The opening scenes are very evocative, with the two young boys walking through beautiful fields and terrain. Made me wonder where it was, and it turns out to be Colorado, yes?
JON WATTS: Yeah. Right where I grew up. That’s almost my actual backyard.
That conversation about curse words that the boys are having in those opening moments, daring each other into saying words that they’re not supposed to… Was f–k the worst curse word when you were growing up?
Yeah, I actually had that conversation. I was definitely the kid who was the chicken, who didn’t want to say the cuss words. But I remember my friend Chuck was convinced that they weren’t actually cuss words — they were like the language in Russia or something, so that it’s okay to say them. But yeah, definitely, the f-word was always [the worst.] The other ones were bad, but with the f-word, there’s no going back.
Did the boys flinch at saying any of these words?
Yeah, totally. More than anything else. More than any of the violence or the tense situations. Them having to cuss was a very, very big deal. So we went through it with their parents and made sure they were okay with it. They were like, “We’re just playing characters, so it’s okay: We’re not really saying the f-word.” And from there, it was like opening Pandora’s Box.
Tell me about the casting of the two boys, Hays Wellford and James Freedson-Jackson. Why did you choose them and why did you choose them for the specific roles of Harrison and Travis?
That’s funny you ask that because I didn’t choose them specifically for each role. We had a big nationwide casting search, and I really liked James, who was in New Jersey, and I really like Hays, who was in Virginia, I think. Both of them just seemed serious; they seemed like they could take these situations seriously. They never seemed like they were acting. They were just being themselves. I cast both of them without knowing who would be who, and without ever seeing them together. We flew them out to Colorado and I had them read both roles, and then it became totally obvious who should be who.
Kevin Bacon is one of those underrated actors, I think. He’s already had several chapters to his career, and there was part of this performance that made me think, “Oh my God, Kevin Bacon is going to be getting the Keith Carradine roles for the next 30 years.” He’s squirrelly and so unsettling.
He’s so lean and sinewy and great. Such a precision instrument, that guy. He can do anything. I never thought we could get someone like him. I didn’t even think we were going to get to make a movie. But he read it and he really liked it. He called me and had some questions, and we talked through it, and then he wanted to see Clown. He wanted to see if I was going to embarrass him. [Laughs.] And he loves horror movies. I mean, he was in Friday the 13th. He loved it, and said, “I have this little window after my show [The Following] finishes and before I go on my Bacon Brothers music tour. Can you guys squeeze me in?” So we just scrambled it to get it all together.
There’s a scene in the film that I love exists: the scene where Bacon’s cop is breaking in to the semi-abandoned car with the string noose.
You like that?
Yes, because in 99 percent of the movies [Watts laughs], he doesn’t have to earn that break-in into the car. He just smashes the glass or we cut to see him driving away. But you made him earn it. Was that an easy scene to keep?
I always knew that it had to be longer than it was supposed to be, and really, really frustrating. But that’s a tricky thing, because it’s frustrating to watch as the audience. We cut that so many times: a little bit longer, a little bit shorter. Just back and forth, back and forth. Because it had to be just right, so you were frustrated but not bored, or that it didn’t seem like a mistake. Some people have seen the movie and they’re still like, “It needs a little bit of tightening up in the middle,” but it was always totally intentional. Because it’s so true: in movies, everyone is such a genius. Everyone is so good at everything that there’s no stakes. But I was like, “I think that would really take forever. That is so hard.” And I wanted to show that.
Sundance used to be a place where the boutique distributors went to find the next art-house hit and Oscar underdog. In recent years, Sundance has become the place where the studios go to find the next fresh filmmaker to take on a larger project, like Colin Trevorrow, with Jurassic World, and yourself, with Spider-Man. When you look back, how did this happen?
I’m not really sure what happened. I had never been to Sundance before. I was nervous because that was the first time we were showing the movie to an actual crowd. So I was dealing with that. I mean, Sundance is like a genre. At least it was to me growing up and in film school: it’s like a Sundance kind of a movie. But [Marvel] got to see Cop Car and they really liked it. But yeah, this trend is interesting. Now, I’ve got to make a slightly more expensive version. It’s an opportunity to just have a much bigger canvas instead of just scrapping together any story you can.
When you agree to sign on to a big franchise out of Sundance, how much thought goes into the compromise of, “Okay, I’ve always wanted to make this kind of movie, but at the same time, that means I’m not going to be able to make the two or three films that might be a little more personal.” Is there much consideration about those compromises, or am I being too philosophical about it?
I think that’s a little philosophical. I mean, I still have so many movies that I want to make, and [Spider-Man] just gets to become one of them. That’s how I think of it. I still have a lot of ideas I want to make, in addition to this, and I don’t think it’s a one-way path in that sense.
I love the casting of Tom Holland, someone I interviewed for The Impossible…
He’s so good in that.
…and when he was making Locke. I just really like the idea of him as Spider-Man and the direction you seem to be steering with him as your hero. What does he bring to the role that we haven’t seen before?
He can be a real high school student. That’s why people love Spider-Man. He’s the most grounded, relatable of superheroes. And Tom can really do that. He captures that. And he can do a standing back-flip. He’s perfect.
We’ll meet Tom’s Spidey before your film [in Captain America: Civil War]. Do you have to work in collaboration with other filmmakers on that, or do you just work independently on your standalone?
I mean, it’s a big universe, so everyone sort of works with each other to make sure that there’s continuity and that it all fits together. It’s really exciting actually. We’re just getting started, working on the script and all that, but it’s going to be a great process.