- Sundance Institute
- Jonathan Watson directed the Sundance movie, “Arizona.”
- It marks his directorial debut after over two decades being an assistant director for movies and TV.
- A big reason he got to make the movie was because Danny McBride passed on “Arizona,” which was going to be his debut as a director.
For over two decades, Jonathan Watson has worked as an assistant director on some of the biggest movies to come out of Hollywood. On “Bad Boys,” “The Truman Show,” “21 Jump Street,” “The Disaster Artist,” and many more, he was the man responsible for not just managing the sets, but also assisting in the vision of high-profile directors.
But with the extremely dark comedy, “Arizona,” which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last week, Watson has finally made it to the director’s chair, and a big assist by Danny McBride made it happen.
Screenwriter Luke Del Tredici wrote the project as a vehicle for McBride. The story is set in Arizona during the midst of the housing crisis, and follows a single mother named Cassie who is tormented by a character called Sonny after she witnesses him commit a murder. This leads to a violent cat-and-mouse chase as Cassie tries to flee from Sonny in their neighborhood that is pretty much abandoned due to the housing crash.
Two year ago, McBride considered taking on “Arizona” as his directorial debut, and cast Seth Rogen in the role of Sonny. But after disagreements with the financier on who should play the lead actress, and Rogen admitting that McBride was more suited for the role of Sonny, McBride decided to pass the directing baton to his friend Watson. This gave the veteran AD his long-awaited opportunity to direct.
Baptism into the industry working on movies like “Bad Boys” and “The Truman Show”
Watson began working as an assistant director at 24, and in just a few years found himself on the biggest movie sets Hollywood had to offer.
He was a 2nd AD on “Bad Boys,” Michael Bay’s box-office smash debut, and looking back on it now he calls the experience a “baptism under fire.”
“Those movies are as tough as they get because if you run that set and you set something wrong people die – literally,” Watson told Business Insider.
He recalls setting up a shot on the movie where an actor driving a vehicle had to race past a row of cameras. But Watson got worried when he saw a group of guys rigging explosions nearby the shot. He told the guys to move. When the scene was shot, the actor mistakenly hit the gas instead of the brake and crashed. Everyone was fine, Watson said, but where the crash occurred was right were the guys had been setting up.
“I realized, don’t think that somebody else is going to ask those questions,” Watson said. “Trust your gut.”
A few years later, he took over the 1st AD role on director Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show,” and once again found that anticipating all scenarios is a requirement of the job. This was especially true when scenes needed 300 extras, and had specific places everyone needed to hit to display the made-for-television world Jim Carrey’s Truman Burbank character was unwittingly living in.
Then there was anticipating the mind of Carrey.
“It was intimidating,” Watson said of working with the actor. “When he would go there would be this explosion of energy, you just had to have everything ready. In one scene I realized I had to have stunt men in the shot, not extras. It was a scene that has some physicality in it, and I thought they can’t just be extras because he’s going to go at them full tilt like a linebacker.”
More 1st AD jobs would come – “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “Reign of Fire,” “Bruce Almighty” – and in many of those instances, he was also directing second unit. But he had to keep any aspirations of directing his own movies to himself. He learned the reality of being a good assistant director is to be ready whenever your director calls on you.
“When you get hooked up with a team, you don’t say no,” Watson said. “I know guys who work for Steven Spielberg, when he’s ready for prep, the people he needs, whatever movie they’re on, they are off to go work with Spielberg. That’s how it is with a lot of big directors. And once you say ‘no’ to them you’re off the train forever.”
Watson was getting steady work with a couple of directors, and it was pretty clear: “Most directors don’t want to hear the first AD talking about how he wants to direct,” Watson said.
Finally getting into the director’s chair
Watson did almost direct movies a few times. In one instance, a script he wrote made the rounds but ended up in development hell. Another time he was all set to direct a project, with the full blessing of the big-name director he had worked with for numerous projects. However, when that big-name director’s (who Watson declined to name) latest movie bombed at the box office, Watson’s hopes to do the movie suddenly vanished.
“I would just put my hopes aside and go back to the day job,” Watson said.
Watson found his way to working with McBride, and his pals Jody Hill and David Gordon Green, at their Roughhouse Pictures shingle by first working with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg on “The Green Hornet.”
- Ernesto Distefano/Getty
Sony’s 2011 movie about the beloved masked crime fighter, which starred Rogen in the lead (he also cowrote the script with Goldberg), was a box-office bomb. It was one of those instances, Watson said, that he was called at the last second to be the 1st AD. Sony didn’t like director Michel Gondry’s longtime AD and replaced him with Watson.
“It was a crazy shoot,” Watson said, but Rogen and Goldberg liked Watson and had him come and be 1st AD on their directorial debut, “This Is the End,” which McBride starred in. McBride and Hill then nabbed Watson to be 1st AD on the second season of “Eastbound & Down.”
“There’s a lot of joy in getting a big movie completed,” Watson said. “And working with Danny and Jody you get a similar joy because they create a real bond with everyone working with them because they want to make great movies.”
But working with Watson on season 2 of “Eastbound,” followed by “Vice Principals,” in which Watson was a producer and shot second unit, McBride could tell Watson wanted more.
“I remember Danny asked me, ‘You want to direct, right?'” Watson recalled. “And in the past I would play it off but in reality, at that point, I was slowly thinking about it more and more. So I said I did and he handed me the script to ‘Arizona.'”
“Helping anybody who has talent get an opportunity to execute is rewarding,” McBride told Business Insider in an email about passing the project to Watson. “Helping a friend and a good person who has seen and done as much as he has in the industry is a no brainer.”
With McBride playing the Sonny role, Rosemarie DeWitt as Cassie, and a supporting cast made up of Kaitlin Olson, Luke Wilson, and David Alan Grier, “Arizona” is certainly an attractive title for buyers at Sundance. And now with the first one out of the way, Watson thinks he’s ready to quit his day job and stay put in the director’s chair.
“There’s something with Seth and Evan I might direct, Danny has a script, I don’t fully know yet, but I think the new dawn is here,” Watson said.