by Pam Grady
Cop Car, Jon Watts’ spare, creepy thriller, began life as a recurring nightmare of the filmmaker’s. In it, he’s 10 years old, and his friend Travis is driving Watts’s mother’s car. Little Jon is riding shotgun, and he’s freaking out at this grand misadventure. They are driving all around their hometown, Fountain, CO, and adults see them, but no one says anything or tries to stop them. Travis drives faster and faster. Jon gets more and more freaked out. Then he wakes. It’s a dream Watts has had since childhood. One day the writer/director had an epiphany that he pitched to his longtime collaborator, screenwriter Christopher D. Ford (Robot & Frank).
“What if it was a cop car? That would be intense,” Watts recalls in a conversation at the Sundance Film Festival, where Cop Car premiered in the fest’s Park City at Midnight section.
Watts and Ford up the ante from Watts’s original dream. The boys, Harrison (Hays Wellford) and Travis (James Freedson-Jackson), are running away from home on a summer’s day. With a single piece of beef jerky between them, their rebellious excursion is bound to be short-lived—until they spy the police car parked in the field. There is no cop in sight, but there are keys. For the kids, the car seems like a gift from the gods of summer. But what’s meant to be an afternoon’s joyride becomes something far more sinister when Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon) comes back to find his ride—and the important thing he left in the trunk—gone, and takes off after the pint-sized thieves.
“When we were writing it, we didn’t even think people would respond at all to the script, so when someone suggested sending it to Kevin Bacon, we were like, ‘No way! He’s a huge movie star,’” says Watts.
“He read it and he liked it and was really excited about it and called me and had all these ideas. The mustache was his idea. He sent me a Photoshop mockup of what he wanted to look like with the mustache. I don’t know if he made it himself or what, but it was amazing. He took a screen shot of himself from another movie and composited on this awesome mustache. He gave me a couple of options. He had this little window between finishing shooting The Following and a Bacon Brothers tour. He was like, ‘Alright, are we going to do it? Let’s do it.’”
That Wellford and Freedson-Jackson are as good as they are at portraying smart kids in peril is essential to Cop Car’s success as a thriller. Bacon is key to making the film—one likely to inspire nightmares in parents—as scary and disquieting as it is. He’s like a psychotic Energizer bunny in his all-out pursuit of his car, and his rage doesn’t soften when he discovers that children are his quarry.
“When they had scenes with Kevin, you don’t have to do anything,” Watts says. “He’s just super-intense. It’s like staring a raptor in the eyes.”
Watts remembers his own terror on the first day of his shoot. His first feature, Clown, starred Eli Roth and Peter Stormare. Bacon is in a different league, a star for over 30 years who made his own screen debut in what would become a classic, National Lampoon’s Animal House. The first day Bacon arrived at Watts’ Fountain, CO location, the director remembers his nervous joke, asking the actor if this was his first student film—the crew that day consisted only of director, cameraman, and sound recorder, not exactly the Hollywood standard.
“I would look down at my monitor and freak out a little bit, because I would realize that I’m shooting a movie with Kevin Bacon in it,” Watts says. “You look down and think, ‘Oh, am I watching a movie about Kevin Bacon? No, I’m making one.’”
Watts shot Cop Car five minutes from his parents’ house. His sisters and his brothers-in-law all had roles in the crew. He would have shot on his own childhood stomping grounds if those fields hadn’t since been covered by suburban homes, but his aim was to recreate a day from his own childhood, only one in an alternate reality where violence pierces a lazy afternoon.
“When my friends would come over, we would climb over the fence, try not to get rust poisoning and just go walk as far as we could in one direction, just towards nothing,” Watts remembers. “We’d walk as far as we could until we got a little freaked out and turn around and come back. That’s what we did and it was so fun.”
Watts moves into the big time with his next project, the still-untitled Spiderman reboot due in theaters two years from now. But in January at Sundance with his intimate little chiller, he was proud of what he was able to accomplish with a small budget and a tiny crew. Big scares sometimes come in modest packages.
“It’s great to be able to work on something that’s simple enough that you can have total control over every element,” he says. “It’s not like there’s a million things coming at you. We could really be completely deliberate about every choice, from the total design of the police car right down to the license plates, the shots, everything. It was great.”
Pam Grady is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Box Office, Keyframe, and other publications. She is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.