Exclusive End of Watch Featurette and David Ayer Interview
Open Road Films
September 17, 2012
There are few people as respected both in Hollywood and in South Central Los Angeles as filmmaker David Ayer, mainly due to his previous work writing Training Day and directing Street Kings.
He's back on the streets of South Central with End of Watch, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as Officers Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, two beat policemen who have been filming their rounds for a film project. Constantly clowning around, the two soon find themselves in over their heads when they uncover a crime scene with connections to the Mexican cartel.
Open Road Films brought Ayer's latest to the 37th Toronto International Film Festival, and that's where ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with the filmmaker for an extended interview on the movie as well as talking about his upcoming movie Ten (also known as "Breacher"), starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sam Worthington.
Before we get to that, Open Road gave ComingSoon.net an exclusive behind-the-scenes featurette on the making of End of Watch which talks about how they made sure that it was more realistic than most of the police movies we see. You can watch in the video player below!
(Incidentally, this interview was done after the video interviews we'll be sharing later this week.)
ComingSoon.net: When we spoke yesterday—and I talked to both Jake and Michael since then—you said you spent five months with them trying to build the chemistry. That seems like quite a large investment of time for any actor.
David Ayer: It's unheard of. It's really unheard of. I mean, when I got them together initially, they're professional actors. They're both talented, professional individuals, and that's how they're coming at the job, you know? It's like, okay, we're actors. We got the job. We're going to do this. And I'm like, "No, no, no, no, guys. You gotta be real friends. I need you guys to develop a friendship." It wasn't just this sort of run, jump, fight, shoot gun martial arts fight training piece, it was also spend time together. Go and have a beer. Hang out. Get to know each other. Learn each other's personal histories. Tell each other some secrets. It was through that process and through the training and being forced to work together and become a team. One of the toughest things any cop can do or any soldier can do is shoot, move and communicate simultaneously. It was through that process of learning how to shoot, move and talk that something happened, and I think it was just a trust factor that transcended the immediacy of the job and the work. It was like a switch went off and they were like, thick as thieves after that. I mean, it was really amazing to watch, you know, a real friendship grow before my eyes. It carries onto this day.
CS: You've written other police movies and directed "Street Kings," which you didn't write, were they any worries or risks about doing another police movie?
Ayer: Yes, are you kidding me? I tried to hang up the LAPD jersey, and then I just sorta got sucked back into it. I tried to mount up some other movies, and I just wasn't having any success getting back on set. Friends suggested I do the cop thing again and write the ultimate cop movie and do like found footage, which seemed insane. Then, a friend of mine who's a cop who brought cameras to work and videoed a lot of sh*t at work showed me some of these videos and they're mind blowing, you know, a spectrum from hilarious to horrific. There's something so immediate and so real about it because I've never seen footage shot by the cops themselves at work. It's always somebody else shooting the cops.
CS: Or you might see footage from the camera mounted on the front of their car.
Ayer: Exactly. I realized that that was a terrific tool to tell a story with, so it's like, okay, if I'm doing that, now I need to create this dialogue, this script, this world that's seamlessly realistic. So now these characters need to talk like real people. They can't talk like movie characters. It can't be movie dialogue. I probably can't structure it like a normal movie with the guys finding clues, solving crimes and arresting the uber-villain and saving the world. That's not policing, you know? I decided to make the movie a study in friendship. It's really about two best friends who happen to wear badges. Then, it became about working with Jake and Mike, folding them into my vision. Eventually on set, handing them cameras and letting them start to express the world through their eyes as they saw it. I mean, it's a strange process, but what evolved is, I feel, incredibly unique, you know? I didn't want to get sucked into the whole found footage gimmick thing. I mean, I think there's a lot of negativity around that.
CS: Yeah, I don't really see it as found footage. I think it starts out like it's obviously from the camera's perspective, but I don't feel like it's like that.
Ayer: No, I don't think it falls in the found footage genre, but people are definitely trying to label it as such. My whole attitude is… you know, like I said, people ask the question, "Who's holding the camera?" Who cares? It's like, if I have to attack the problem I'm not going to use a hammer every time. If I gotta use a screwdriver, I'm going to use a screwdriver, so no tool was off the table to tell this story.
CS: As far as the writing, knowing that you're going to use handheld cameras and such, was that something you had to bear in mind?
Ayer: Exactly. Oh no, it changes everything because… well, everything they say is scripted. There's a couple of scenes where it's a little bit of ad-libbing, but everything's scripted. All the action is scripted. Everything's scripted. It feels crazy naturalistic, but at the end of the day, it follows the blueprint. It follows the screenplay, but in writing that script, I had to create this illusion of spontaneity and this illusion of reality unfolding before our very eyes. To that end, I wrote the dialogue as people talk, not movie dialogue. I structured the scenes so that they don't have normal beginning, middle, end kind of shapes to them and a little bit more sort of loose and meandering structure. It's also more episodic, because if you look at things that people have shot and put together, all those three factors, the normal speech, unstructured scenes and the episodic nature all contribute to this illusion of reality.
CS: When you're on set, do you still have to block stuff? How much of it is actually being filmed by either Jake or Michael?
Ayer: Yeah, I mean, typically in any given scene, especially sort of an action situation or arriving on a call, there'd always be a version of the scene where they'd be wearing the cameras. As we got into it, there's a point where I gave them all monitors so they could watch the monitors and give you little better shots, which is my concession of them and I guess the movie because I was like, a purest and, no, they're going to get what they get. It'll be great. But, it was fascinating because you learn that there's rules on filmmaking, there's rules on editing and there's rules on how movies are supposed to work. Through this process and through the work of my brilliant editor, Dody Dorn, I mean, we discovered that there kind of are no rules and you can juxtapose image and mood and energy in really nontraditional ways. You know, but there are scenes in the movie that Jake shot entirely.
CS: Did he get a camera credit or is there union stuff you gotta deal with?
Ayer: Well, the big joke is like, "Hey, two more days and we'll get you in a union," but mean, it's funny because I don't know what the rules are. I mean, I hope I didn't break them, and I apologize if I did. (Laughs) But, it's sort of a brave new world in that regard.
CS: I spoke with Sissy Spacek about the movies she did in the ‘70s, and all the actors were carrying stuff around and doing stuff to help since they didn't have as big a crew.
Ayer: Yeah, exactly, and I think that was a little bit of the spirit of this was. I grew up on the ‘70s movies. I mean, for me, when I first saw "Taxi Driver," I thought that it was a f*cking revelation, you know? I didn't know you could make a movie like that, and that energy and that freedom and that spirit of discovery. I think part of the problem with a lot of movies today is they want you to have a completely articulated, fully filled out plan going in. You gotta have a plan, you gotta prepare, but it's also, sometimes it's okay to not have an answer and to discover it and to go on this sort of journey knowing that there's going to be branches to explore. That's what it was with this. I ended up chasing these guys. They really led the way and I followed them in a lot of ways.
CS: It's really amazing when you think back about those great movies that were made with such small crews, but now, for movies you need to have a crew of hundreds.
Ayer: Yeah, huge crews now. I try to keep it as limited and moderate as possible, but at the end of the day, there's things you gotta have, and then that means everything fills out and it fills out fast. You know, if you went to our set and saw all the trucks we had and all the crap we had, it would be indistinguishable from anybody else's movie set, you know?
CS: But even with TV shows. I live in New York, and when TV shows are shooting, they'll have a dozen trucks. The whole thing has gotten so big. I also wondered whether America Ferrara and Cody Horn had to go through training for their smaller roles in this.
Ayer: They did go through some training. The LAPD was incredibly gracious to us and they were able to attend a little bit of Academy training and get a sense of what the recruits go through. There's an organization called The Pink Revolver Society of Female LAPD officers and you want to confirm the name. They hooked up with them and some real cool female officers, spent time with them and talked to them and talked about what it means to be a female officer and how to get your respect on the street and how to deal with people. So, they came into it with a solid handle on these characters. I mean, they're fantastic characters. There's so much. This movie is like a f*cking chicken dinner man. There's so much going on.
CS: Was there a lot more of them as far as those characters? Because you wrote the script, you can shoot what you wrote, do you have a lot of extra stuff that doesn't make it in?
Ayer: I mean, what I shot with them is pretty much in the movie. The movie, ultimately it's weird because it came full circle and I did a version that was much more sort of esoteric and I ended up coming back to the script and cutting the script.
CS: I have to imagine that at this point, you've done so many movies with the LAPD, and you must know some of the guys on the streets now that you can walk down the street and literally everyone on either side of the fight against crime knows you.
Ayer: It can be very strange sometimes because I definitely know people in both worlds. At the end of the day, it's like a small world and everybody kind of knows everybody. As they say, because of "Training Day" and the other stuff I've done, I've got the "ghetto pass," but I also get approached by cops. I get approached by gang members, like both, "Hey man," you know? They want me to tell their story. They feel like I'm somebody that can understand them and their voice.
CS: The movies you've done have all embraced and captured both sides, which is very rare.
CS: It's also interesting that you went from "Harsh Times," which you wrote and directed to "Street Kings," which you just directed. You're kind of going back and forth between writing scripts and directing other's. I've spoken to a number of writer-directors who only want to direct stuff they write, but they also realize how long it takes to write a good script. You've been bouncing back and forth and you're just directing the next one?
Ayer: I'm directing someone else's script, exactly. I'm comfortable with that and I'll do rewrite work on stuff. So, I'll sort of tune it for me as a director, but I'm very comfortable. Believe me, I would love to be handed a turnkey script that I love and want to direct and feel passionate about to save myself having the chair time, as I call it. Writing's no fun. That's why I want to direct. That's why I've chosen to undergo the slings and arrows of the world in order to call cut and action on set. I mean, I think there's no better feeling.
CS: Is it still called "Breacher"?
Ayer: It's "Ten." The title is "Ten."
CS: And you have Schwarzenegger and Sam Worthington who are two generations of these action stars in that one. Have you started to work with them yet?
Ayer: Yup, exactly, exactly. I'm five weeks out from production, so yeah, I'm prepping that movie while I'm here selling this. It's tough.
CS: It's nice having another movie lined up, though, so you don't have to wait to see how well this movie does.
Ayer: Exactly. My director friends are like, "Just keep going. Don't pause. Don't stop. Get the next thing. Go." So, it's like, I'll be honest, it's like crazy intimidating to work with Arnold because I loved his movies as a kid. When I saw "Predator," I wanted to get a flattop, you know? And "Terminator," I mean, my God.
CS: Did you ever meet Arnold when he was the governor when you were shooting one of your movies?
Ayer: No, no, I mean, I ran into him on set before he was governor, but it's amazing because he's such an accomplished man, and I want to help him achieve a new accomplishment, and that's being recognized as a real actor. So, it's a wonderful challenge, it's a wonderful challenge. I couldn't be more excited working with him. I like him personally. He's a great guy.
CS: I haven't met him personally yet.
Ayer: He's a good dude.
CS: What's the general premise of that movie?
Ayer: Well, Arnold plays the leader of an elite DEA tactical team and they do stupid stuff and it's set in Atlanta. We're shooting in Atlanta and it's set in Atlanta. It's about Georgia federal law enforcement and the rest you'll find out.
CS: What interested you about directing someone else's script again?
Ayer: There's a scene in "End of Watch" where they roll up on this immigrant smuggling house, and outside these federal agents arrive. You know, one of the federal agents is like, this buddy of mine, Kevin. He's a great guy and former military operator. Everybody comments. They're like, "Wow, who is that guy? He's so real. He's so real." I'm like, "Well, yeah, that's because he's a real guy." That sort of, that style and feeling and vibe, I'm like, "Man, I want to make a movie about that guy and the people he works with." So, that's what this movie is. It's a movie about those guys, the guys that, phew, swoop from nowhere. (Laughs)
End of Watch opens nationwide on Friday, September 21. Look for more with Ayer and his two stars, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña, later this week.