This past year has anointed Jon Watts as one of the most fortunate men in movies, though he’s very aware of the day his luck almost ran out. The 34-year-old director made a Sundance splash back in January with his clever little thriller Cop Car, which earned him a series of meetings with Marvel to direct the studio’s upcoming Spider-Man reboot. The moment he found out he’d actually gotten the gig should have been one of the happiest of his life … and yet the joyful scream he wanted to unleash almost became something very different.
“We had just showed Cop Car at BAM,” Watts told Vulture, “and I was in a taxi heading to JFK when Marvel called. They said, ‘Make sure no one knows you got it, because it’s a secret until we announce.’ So I’m just listening as everyone calls me and gives me the great news, and I can’t say anything in response,” he laughed, “because I don’t want the taxi driver to hear and leak it.” The coveted job was so high-profile — and the short list of directors pursuing it was parsed so thoroughly every day on Deadline.com and other superhero new sites — that Watts couldn’t say a thing, lest his driver turn out to be a fanboy informant.
Things would get even more fraught than that as the calls kept rolling in; as the phone continued to ring, the cab driver began to floor it, amping up their speed to a dangerous degree. “He’s just driving faster and faster,” Watts blanched, “weaving through traffic as more and more people are calling me to say congratulations.” As they blew past the legal speed limit, Watts found himself struck mute in the backseat, unable to react to either the triumphant phone calls or his cab driver’s aggressive, flirting-with-death traffic gambits. He laughed: “I was like, Oh, I’m gonna die. This is it. I’m getting this amazing news, and then I’m immediately going to be killed in a car accident. It’s kind of poetic.”
Especially because that fearful sensation of being trapped in an out-of-control car — the notion that you’re about to crash, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it — is part of a recurring dream Watts had as a child, a nightmare he excavated and expanded on for the thrilling Cop Car. In the film, which Watts shot in his Colorado hometown on a shoestring budget, two young boys find an empty police car in the middle of nowhere and make the impulsive decision to go joyriding. What they don’t realize is that the car belongs to a dirty cop (Kevin Bacon), and that he’ll stop at nothing to track it down before the kids might accidentally reveal his criminal misdeeds.
A chase ensues for the two 10-year-olds, who begin the film locked in a battle that has much lower stakes: When we meet them, one is trying to pressure the other to say R-rated curse words. It’s that ingenious balance of only-important-to-a-kid concerns with real, life-or-death danger that gives Cop Car its frisson, and it helps that Watts (who co-wrote the script) has such a knack for writing kids as they actually are, not as some adult perceived them to be. “A lot of time in children’s films, the go-to thing is to write the kid like he’s 30 years old, like that’ll be just hilarious,” said Bacon.
“Or,” said Watts, “there’s the forced nostalgia: ‘Isn’t everything so wonderful when you’re 10? Isn’t the world a magical place?’”
“But Jon has a way of just really writing like a 10-year-old,” said Bacon.
Laughed Watts, “It’s a gift.”
And maybe it’s that exact talent that earned him the Spider-Man gig, since that Marvel reboot will also seek to balance high-stakes crime-fighting with more relatable teenage conflicts. Intended to launch a Harry Potter–like franchise that will follow Peter Parker through each year of high school, and set to star 19-year-old Tom Holland — who’s nearly a decade younger than the last man to don Spidey’s spandex suit — the film presents Watts with a protagonist who will face supervillains and teenage bullies both.
Other reports have indicated that the rebooted Spider-Man (dated for summer 2017) is shooting for a warm, John Hughes vibe; to judge by Watts and his own inclinations, though, there may be a little Todd Solondz in there, too. “Welcome to the Dollhouse is one of my favorites,” he said, and Cop Car serves almost as an homage in the way it depicts young children casually and cruelly taunting each other. Watts stopped short when I pointed out the comparison. “That just reminded me of something I haven’t thought of in a long time,” he said, “which is that in fifth grade, I remember this girl coming over to my desk and being like, ‘Are you a virgin?’ I was like, ‘What does that mean?’ and she said, ‘Are you a virgin or not? Say it!’” He laughed, shuddering. If a guy could survive something that — as well as a cab ride that almost ended the best day of his life just as it was getting started — then what’s the harm in a little high-stakes web-slinging?