Interview with Jon Watts

Me: Kids and violence — your film presumably combines the two. What are the challenges involved in making a dark tale with underage kids, and how did you deal with them?

Watts: The kids were having a blast the whole time, so the biggest challenge was trying to get an honest and consistent performance. ​The finished film is hopefully very intense, but most of the time the actual shooting was silly in the way that technical shoots can often be – the kids are staring at a tennis ball, a PA is rocking the car, I’m trapped in the backseat with a monitor. The cussing was a much bigger issue. Saying the f-word when you’re ten is a really big deal!

Me: Your film is described as a “minimalist thriller.” Could you discuss what makes it so, and how you used the resources and tools you had to make a gripping movie?

Watts: ​To me it was about focusing on the logic and mechanics of the situation and letting that drive the style of the film. Two kids steal a sheriff’s cruiser, the sheriff wants it back but is stranded out in the middle of nowhere. How is he going to get it back? ​To him that’s all that matters, so that’s all that matters to the film. There’s no time for anything else. It’s like a Melville film.

Me: How did you find the child actors, and what specific qualities were you looking for?

Watts: ​We had a great casting director and looked at kids from all over the U.S. ​I was looking for a combination of toughness, thoughtfulness and naturalism. You had to feel like these kids were truly thinking their way through the situations — albeit with a 10-year-old’s logic. We actually didn’t cast James and Hayes for the specific roles, I just liked the two of them the most. So we cast them, flew them out to Colorado, did some rehearsals, and I assigned the roles two days before we started shooting.

We also shot in my hometown, five minutes from where I grew up, so there was a really specific look I had in mind. James had a much cooler haircut when he landed so we had to shave his head, give him the military cut.

Me: What’s your favorite adult movie about kids?

Watts: Empire of the Sun. No one is better than Spielberg when it comes to capturing the feeling about what it’s like being a kid — the fear, the excitement, the wonder. So many other directors just project adult ideas and personality back onto kids, but with Spielberg it feels true.

Me: How has your continued commercial and short form work informed your feature film directing?

Watts: There is zero influence. Deep character work with guys like Kevin and Shea, long complicated masters – you don’t get to do that on a commercial. But one great skill you do pick up is how to prep. Every detail — from casting to wardrobe to props — has to be approved by a crazy corporate hierarchy weeks before you shoot. So I’m very organized. I did a previz for the whole movie.

Me: It’s recently been reported that you’re on the short list to direct the upcoming Spider-Man reboot. Is that true?

Watts: Fingers crossed.

Me: I can’t help but notice the tattoo sticking out of your shirt there… is that the red and blue of Spider-Man?

Watts: Yeah, you got you me. Here, let me unbutton the top two buttons here. That’s Spider-Man himself.

Me: How long have you had that? It looks kinda sore. It’s it pretty new?

Watts: Yeah I really wanted to make myself stand out in the field, trying to vie for the job as helmer of the next Spider-Man movie. And at the same time I’d been looking for something, an idea for a tattoo to be a cover-over of something I’d gotten when I was a lot younger. It just seemed like the perfect time to do something bold. So yeah, I got a Spider-Man tattoo on my chest. Spider-Man is awesome.

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