Jon Watts was in the back of a taxi speeding toward New York's John F. Kennedy Airport in late June when he got a phone call that changed everything: Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios were hiring him to direct the next film in the "Spider-Man" franchise.
Watts was asked not to tell anyone until the official announcement the next day. So all he could do was sit there, stunned and alone, as the cab hurtled along at frightening speed. "This would be a great ending to a movie," he thought. "I get this incredible news and then I die."
Four weeks later, Watts sits outside a Coffee Bean on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, a copy of the autobiography of '70s punk rocker Richard Hell on the table in front of him. Tall and lanky, Watts has an outwardly low-key, unflappable demeanor befitting someone who grew up in a quiet town in rural Colorado. Still, he still can't quite wrap his brain around the fact that —at age 34, with just two low-budget features to his name, including the thriller "Cop Car," which opens this weekend in limited release — he has landed one of the most coveted directing gigs in Hollywood.
"Every once in a while I'll remember again and I'll just smile," he says. "It's been a whirlwind."
On the face of it, "Cop Car" seems an unlikely springboard to a big-budget comic-book movie. Made for just $800,000 and based on a recurring anxiety dream Watts has had since childhood, the minimalist neo-noir recounts the story of two young boys who find an abandoned police cruiser in the woods and take it for a joy ride that turns harrowing when a corrupt small-town sheriff (Kevin Bacon) comes looking for the car. More concerned with slow-boiling tension than full-on action, with sparse dialogue for long stretches, the movie's biggest set piece is a shootout between two people on a lonely stretch of highway.
But after premiering at this year's Sundance Film Festival, "Cop Car" landed on the radar of executives at Marvel and Sony, who were planning to reboot the "Spider-Man" series after five previous films that have grossed nearly $4 billion worldwide. Greatly impressed with what Watts had accomplished on a shoestring budget, they called him in for a meeting.
In recent years, studios have been increasingly looking to relatively untested directors like Watts to helm major tentpole movies. Gareth Edwards jumped from the little-seen "Monsters" to the big-budget "Godzilla." James Gunn went from offbeat, small-scale genre films like "Slither" and "Super" to last summer's smash space opera, "Guardians of the Galaxy." Colin Trevorrow made the leap from the quirky indie "Safety Not Guaranteed" to the box-office behemoth "Jurassic World."
That these directors have been almost exclusively men has drawn fire from many who'd like to see female filmmakers better represented in the tentpole realm; according to a recent Times analysis, women directed only 4.6% of major studio movies last year.
Watts knew he wasn't the only director being considered for "Spider-Man" and on paper he was a long shot. But he kept being called back for more meetings. "It was a long process over a couple of months," he says. "But I just kept acting like we were making the movie together, not like I was trying to win the job."
Marvel has been a particularly strong proponent of looking outside the box for directors; recently, the studio hired Peyton Reed, best known for making comedies, to helm "Ant-Man" and approached "Selma" director Ava DuVernay to direct "Black Panther." (She ultimately passed, saying, "We had different ideas about what the story would be.")
"Nobody has made a giant movie until they've made a giant movie," Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, a key player in the decision to hire Watts, told The Times in late May, pointing out that Sam Raimi hadn't directed any big-budget films before 2002's "Spider-Man." "What we want from our directors is not necessarily leadership that can command an army. We want vision that can tell a story and can direct that army into unique places in unique ways."
That said, when the news hit that Watts had been hired to take on "Spider-Man," it was met with a resounding "Who?"
One person who wasn't shocked was Bacon, who'd been drawn to "Cop Car" by the self-assurance of its taut script, co-written by Watts and his longtime writing partner Christopher D. Ford. "Jon is very confident without being cocky," the actor says. "My first day of work, he said, 'Welcome to your first student film.' But he's very clear about what he wants, and he has an encyclopedic knowledge of movies and a great enthusiasm about the process."
Watts is well aware of how improbable his path has been. Raised with his three siblings by a doctor father and a homemaker mother in Fountain, Colo. — where "Cop Car" was filmed — he initially planned to become a chemical engineer. But after falling in love of with the work of directors such as Steven Spielberg, the Coen brothers and Terrence Malick ("I think 'Badlands' is my favorite movie because it reminded me of where I was from"), he decided instead to study film at New York University.
Watts wasn't necessarily a wunderkind. "Among our group, we were like, 'Oh, man, this Jon guy — I don't know if it's going to work out,'" Ford, who met Watts at NYU, says with a laugh. "He would do things like load the Bolex camera wrong and all the film would come out black."
But what he may have lacked early on in technical expertise, Ford says, he more than made up for in inspiration and gusto, a quality he's maintained throughout his career: "He's like, 'Let's do this! I can do it! Let's go!'"
After graduating, Watts directed music videos and commercials and honed his comedy chops making satirical short films for IFC's "Onion News Network." In 2010, Watts and Ford uploaded a fake trailer for a non-existent horror film called "Clown," about a man whose clown makeup becomes permanently affixed to his face, to see if they could fool the handful of people who subscribed to their YouTube channel.
The trailer caught the attention of horror director Eli Roth, whom Watts and Ford had jokingly named as the film's producer. "Eli called me and I was like, 'Please don't sue us,'" Watts says. "He was like, 'No, it's cool. Do you guys actually want to make this?'"
Dimension Films acquired the distribution rights to the modestly budgeted film, but it hasn't been released domestically. Watts isn't quite clear on why not. "It's all a black box to me," he says. "It's been released in a bunch of foreign countries. It was like the No.2 two movie in Italy behind 'Interstellar' or something."
At least he can rest assured that "Spider-Man" won't fall between the cracks. With the film not due in theaters until July 2017, Watts isn't sure how much he's allowed to say about it at this point. "There's a sniper right there," he says, pointing over his shoulder at a nearby building. "There's a little red dot on me at all times."
Watts does confirm that, with 19-year-old British actor Tom Holland in the role of the web-slinger, the reboot will take a John Hughes-ian coming-of-age approach to the story. "All the things that every teenager does in high school, Peter Parker is experiencing too; they're just really heightened," he says.
But as for whom the villain might be or how Spider-Man might fit into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, Watts insists he doesn't have any answers yet: "It's not like I've read the giant document I assume Kevin keeps locked in a safe somewhere."
Watts is still adjusting to the attention he's suddenly getting. "It's really exciting to get all this additional press for 'Cop Car,'" he says. "I just don't want it to overshadow it." (Asked if he has treated himself to anything since getting his biggest-ever gig, he says, "I bought a bunch of bound Spider-Man collections, but that's not what it's about.")
That said, as a storyteller, he recognizes that his own recent history is quite a yarn — a leap into the superhero realm no less unlikely, in its own way, than a radioactive spider bite.
"Everything has happened in the most unusual way," he says. "The prank becomes the first movie. The movie I made with my friends in my hometown based on a dream becomes a stepping stone to 'Spider-Man.' I wish I could say this was an amazing, calculated path but …" He trails off, shaking his head. "It's so weird."