I Smell (Kevin) Bacon

Two kids take the titular Cop Car on a joyride in this lean thriller

Hays Wellford (l) and James Freedson-Jackson in Cop Car (Courtesy of Focus World)

In Cop Car, a minimalist and often playful thriller directed and co-written by Jon Watts, two 10-year-old boys come across an abandoned police car in the woods and decide to take it for a spin. As it turns out, the car belongs to a lawless sheriff, and what starts as an aimless joyride quickly turns into a dangerous game of chase.

This stressful premise is based on Watts' own recurring childhood dream about himself and a friend speeding through his hometown of Fountain, Colo., in an illicitly borrowed car, uncertain of what fate awaits them. "There's something provocative about the image of that feeling," he says.

Cop Car's breakneck script-to-screen process mirrors the exhilaration of this dream – only a year passed from the time Watts and Christopher D. Ford started writing the screenplay to when it premiered at Sundance, and the time spent filming in his hometown was an ideal, supportive experience. He says "everyone should have that feeling" of being surrounded by friends and family while working on a project.

With Cop Car, as well as a résumé that includes several Onion News Network episodes and the horror movie Clown, Watts has shown a willingness to tackle suspense, action, and comedy, and enjoys the potential for tension these genres share. "There's a fine line between scary and funny," he says. "I want to mix those things up."

One person impressed by this storytelling balancing act is Kevin Bacon, who plays the menacing Sheriff Kretzer and also served as one of the film's executive producers. Bacon was a fan of Clown and signed on for Cop Car due to the style of Watts' script, which he found "sparse in a great way."

Only a handful of characters appear onscreen and little is revealed about any of them in terms of backstory or motivation. This gave Bacon the chance to "create a character between the lines," something he enjoys doing.

The mystery and twisted determination of the sheriff (all we know for sure is that he really wants his car back) helps to keep the momentum going, but it's James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford, the young actors at the center of the film, who provide the story's true heart.

Watts knew that much relied on casting the characters of Travis and Harrison, and he took the time to choose the right actors for the job. Watts is happy with their efforts, especially because "when you're 10, it's really hard to pay attention." In turn, Bacon praises Watts' ability to work well with the boys. "His ability to get them where they needed to go was uncanny," he says.

The biggest challenge Watts encountered with the two boys came in coaching them to confidently say the swear words in the script. "They were so shy about it," he laughs. (When asked if he would have had the same hesitation at age 10, Bacon scoffed. "Hell no ... I was raised in Philly.")

Watts ultimately helped Freedson-Jackson and Wellford overcome their hesitation, and overall the two are convincing in their roles as sweet troublemakers catching their first glimpse of the dangers of adulthood.

The ability to find humor in various genres and to draw solid performances from all kinds of actors will certainly come in handy for Watts' next major project – Marvel's upcoming Spider-Man reboot. When asked about his noteworthy career trajectory thus far, Watts sounds level-headed. "The canvas may be a lot bigger, but what's important is to try to make a good movie and tell a story people will be interested in."

Cop Car opens in Austin August 7. Kevin Bacon will be doing a Skype Q&A at the 7pm screening on Sat., Aug. 8, at the Alamo South Lamar. See Film Listings for showtimes and review.

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Cop Car, Jon Watts, Kevin Bacon, Clown, Spider-Man

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