At a private screening of Fox Searchlight’s Street Kings, star Keanu Reeves told the attendees that after he saw David Ayer’s high velocity crime drama Harsh Times, he knew he wanted Ayer to direct his new thriller. Based on a James Ellroy screenplay, the film co-stars Forest Whitaker, Hugh Laurie, Chris Evans, Naomie Harris, Jay Mohr, John Corbett, Cedric the Entertainer, Amaury Nolasco, Terry Crews, Common and The Game.
“You’re baby is being born. It’s coming out,” Reeves excitedly said to Ayer as he introduced the film.
“I just want to thank Keanu because he hired me. He came attached to this project. He took a gamble on me,” the director told us.
Ayer proudly talked about the finished project and how he’s pleased with studio for letting him make the film the way he wanted.
“It’s not the kind of movie we’re cranking out too many of these days. It has a viewpoint and it’s a filmmaker’s movie… A couple of times I’vebeen asked if the Director’s Cut will come out on DVD and my answer is no. This is my cut and I stand behind every frame. I was given the opportunity to have a strong voice here.”
“It’s a hard one to sum up. This film asks a lot of questions and in the cop genre, these kinds of films tend to kind of give you answers and wrap things up,” Reeves said. “They’re obviously morally and ethically kind of confused characters, but this one really kind of leaves it open so I hope you enjoy it.”
After the screening, ComingSoon.net talked to Ayer about his newest project.
ComingSoon.net: What are the changes between the version Keanu Reeves brought to you and the version we just saw?: David Ayer: Well, the script has taken quite a revolution. Obviously it was originally a James Ellroy script which took place in 1996 around the time of the O.J. [Simpson] verdicts. It sort of focused on Tom Ludlow as a Mark Fuhrman-esk kind of character. Over the evolution, as it passed through various writers, the version Keanu showed up attached to everyone agreed was a blueprint for the film. This version, there’s not a lot different. The Biggs office confrontation scene was a new addition. The girlfriend was a reporter and she became a nurse in this case. There were some adjustments, but basically the form of the movie was there.
CS: Did you see Keanu’s character as a bad cop or someone who did bad things because that’s what he had to do in order to get the job done? Ayer: The whole concept of good cop/bad cop really depends on how you see it. To Internal Affairs or a senior police administrator, a bad cop is anyone who doesn’t follow the regulations. To his brother officers, a hard-charging, possibly violent cop who gets the job done no matter what is seen as a asset. It’s seen as a positive. So it’s really sort of the management street cop divide in LAPD. It really depends what side of that you’re on. Policing requires a certain flexibility because you’re given obviously laws and books and regulations that you have to follow, but you’re dealing with real people in real situations so there’s always room for interpretation.
CS: You’ve come back to criminals and Los Angeles a number of times now. What keeps bringing you back to the street level of crime theme? Ayer: It was exciting to do this particular project. One thing you have to realize is that when you’re in a career in Hollywood it’s not like you’re walking into Hometown Buffet and you pick from a variety of projects lying out before you. When this project came along, I really wanted to get back on set. I had a great experience directing “Harsh Times” and a brutal distribution experience, but that aside. Here comes Keanu Reeves with a script that’s pretty close to camera ready in an arena I’m really familiar with. You’ve got to keep in mind this is my first studio movie as a director so I’m not going to get hired to do a romantic comedy [and] I’m not going to get hired to do a summer tentpole. That’s just the reality of the business. So here’s a wonderful opportunity in a city I know, in a world I know with characters I know and it afforded me the opportunity as a director to not have to focus on the world, but to focus on developing performance.
CS: What about the city itself. You keep coming back to L.A. instead of Chicago or New York. Ayer: Well I’m from Los Angeles so it’s where I grew up. I grew up just south of downtown. I know these neighborhoods. My wife is from here. I went to high school here. I know these streets. I know L.A. east of La Brea. This part of town I’m kind of uncomfortable in. Let’s say a director is from New York and decides to focus on New York and sets that as his backdrop, [that’s] perfectly acceptable. But when you do that in L.A., there’s a little conceit there. It’s like, “Hey what’s with L.A.?” It’s a city I know and love.
CS: Has James Ellroy seen the film? Ayer: Yes, Mr. Ellroy has seen the film and he’s really happy with it. Obviously it diverted significantly from his original vision. The basic plot is his which is a broken down detective in a specialized unit discovers that his boss is the center of evil of the universe which is a pretty standard James Ellroy plot.
CS: How difficult was it getting a former police chief to do a cameo considering the film is about rogue cops? Ayer: As far as getting Chief Gates in the film, I have to credit that to Mary Vernieu who cast the movie up [and] who is a brilliant casting person. She’s like,” Oh yes Bill Gates.” We googled him and found out that he had a talent rep. We contacted him and sent him the script. There was a long period of silence then he showed up on set one day. I asked him, “Why did you decide to do the film?” and he said he read the script, thought about it and realized that at the core of the story was redemption and he can understand that.
CS: Speaking of casting, Terry Crews had a small part in “Harsh Times” and has a bigger role in this film. Was that your decision? Ayer: Absolutely. Terry is obviously a big guy. He’s a physically imposing. He’s in incredible shape. He’s a former NFL player, but there’s a real likeability to him. There’s a warmth to his soul, warmth to his character. The role of Terrance Washington is axial obviously because the entire plot hinges around his death so that character had to leave a shadow throughout the entirety of the film. If he were less sort of charismatic or maybe a more abrasive person, it would be hard to understand emotionally why Ludlow feels compelled to solve his death. The other thing is that it’s a little bit of casting against his type because Terry has played really likable and comedic roles so the last thing you expect is for him to get sprayed by a couple of machine guns.
CS: Was there any thought to having his character be a little more morally grey? Ayer: It’s an interesting character because he kills people. He’s basically conducting extra judicial executions. He’s out there dumping people and not giving them the opportunity to a trial.
CS: How willing is the LAPD willing to work with you on your projects in this post Rampart era? Ayer: Well first of all, you’ve got to realize that everyone loves a good cop movie especially cops and there is the official department one which is you’re supposed to approach public affairs and get whatever resources and affairs you need. Everything we need is basically off the shelf. We did use the actual LAPD Emerald Society Honor Guard in the funeral sequence. I had some really high caliber technical advisers who are former LAPD officers and I was able to get a lot of sort of inside support. I think everyone is sort of able to separate out that this is a movie and it’s a work of fiction.
CS: So how intense was this for you for your first studio film that you direct? Ayer: Well no matter how much you plan, you can’t plan for every circumstance. We had some incredibly long days and time really became the enemy. And you know, my previous film was a twenty-one day shoot and somehow we managed to do it all. So to me, the longer schedule seemed luxurious, I’m like, “I can do that.” Well, I didn’t know what I was in for. I had a lot of stunts, fighting, all sorts of stuff which really slows you down. There were some ridiculously long days. The funeral we did, we shot that location out, the funeral and two walk and talk scenes, one ended up in the movie one didn’t. And then the company moved to downtown LA and shot two more interior scenes. And that was about a twenty hour day our second longest day. You just sort of have to power through under those circumstances and you have to be flexible. There are certain situations where, at 3 a.m. I’m told, “Hey, you get a helicopter the next day,” I had no idea. So the next thing I know, ten hours later I’m in a helicopter shooting over downtown L.A. But, I mean, how did I feel? I was terrified. I was absolutely terrified. But then you show up on set and everyone’s looking at you for guidance. You’re the leader, you have the vision, you can’t show it. And once you get sort of into the stream of the decision making and the work, the butterflies go away. You know, is it fear or anticipation? It’s just how you interpret the feeling.
CS: You have a lot of experience as a writer, and now working as a director. Were there a lot of times when working with the script where you thought, “Oh, I would’ve written that differently. I wish I could have changed that.”? Ayer: Well when I came on board, Jamie Moss had been attached and he was working with Keanu Reeves. And I was able to work with him to really sort of, get the script into shape. And then when it came time to fine-tuning the dialogue for the individual actors, I just kind of went for it. There were days I’d show up on set, I’d write, shoot, go to lunch, write, rap, write a little more, get the pages over to the studio to get approval for tomorrows shoot. So it was double duty and it was pretty intense.
CS: Did you specifically intend to have it all be in the really seedy parts of Los Angeles that you never see on a travel brochure, or was that just a byproduct of the script itself? Ayer: It’s interesting, I think I sort of moved the script more into these seedy neighborhoods. These are the areas I grew up in and so I sort of see it with a different eye. These are areas that I’m comfortable in. And if you notice, the look of the film is not a desaturated, bleached out look. It’s a very rich, thick, saturated negative, very high contrast, but very detail colored saturation. So when I think of these neighborhoods, that’s what I think, I think of bright clothes, I think of families, I think of little kids, I think of the brightly painted store fronts, and the green palm trees. And that’s the L.A. I wanted to reflect in this film. The skies are very blue and the palms are very green. But it’s been one end of the actual neighborhoods, one of these practical neighborhoods that has absolutely no problems. We were utterly welcome. We were an open set. You know, we’re down shooting on Vernon for a week, and at night, and had no problems ever. You know, people are walking through, little kids are playing with the equipment. You know, people treat you the way you treat them.
CS: How much attention do you pay to the realism of the procedural aspects versus the action and the thrills and stuff like that? How do you balance that? Ayer: Well it is sort of a dance. What you have to realize in this case is, these guys are conducting an impromptu, sort of, off-the-books investigation. They’re solving a crime they are not supposed to be solving. But a lot of the specific detail is absolutely accurate. You know, the little ballistics envelopes, we got those from the coroners office. So it was shot in the coroner’s office for that morgue scene. We did detailed, photographic studies of robbery/homicide in LAPD. We got from somewhere, copies of their actual documents and copied them and used those in the film. And plus, with our consultants and advisors, we went to great lengths to sort of, portray the reality of policing and the mechanics of it as accurately as possible. Because my whole thing is, I don’t want a cop watching this movie rolling his eyes.
CS: What was your favorites scene and why? Ayer: I’d have to say probably the funeral scene. We had three hundred and fifty extras that day, and it had a scale to it that I hadn’t dealt with as a director before. But there was something about having Chief Gates there, and the flag, the coffin, the bagpipes. In my mind, it cements a gravity for police work. It really gave me an empathy and a sympathy for the dangers they undertake. And it also really helped the actors. After that day the actors were really more, I think, conscious about the world that they were inhabiting.
CS: How was Hugh Laurie cast in the film? It seemed to be an unusual casting choice. Ayer: Absolutely. Biggs is the classic sort of secret policeman. He’s sort of the bureaucrat who works in the shadows and pulls the strings. And first of all, I’m like, “You gotta shave” [Laughing].By his nature and his familiarity as “House,” brings a certain levity to the film. And so with Keanu, we get it with Cedric [the Entertainer], we get it with Terry Crews. You cast people who bring that. They can bring that, I don’t want to say fun, but they help sort of lighten up the palette a little bit. It was really interesting working with Hugh because obviously he has a thick British accent, and he likened acting with an accent, an American accent to playing tennis with a fish [Laughing]. He has to focus more than the other actors on the stage. But Hugh is a very gracious guy. He gave us a lot of time and worked with our consultants, asked a lot of good questions and did a lot of rehearsal. A lot of rehearsal went in here, it may not seem like it, it might seem like it’s ad-libbed or sort of on the cuff, but it’s all scripted and all very detailed and executed.
CS: It seems like you could possibly bring some of these characters back. Has there been any talk, anyone coming at you like the studio and mentioned a sequel? Ayer: You’re not the first person to bring that up. I’ve heard it from the studio side. I think a prequel is actually pretty interesting, which is, what got these people into this situation. It may sound corny but 99.9% of people get into law enforcement because they want to help people. And so you take that, bright eyed-bushy tailed rookie, and how does he become the Tom Ludlow.
CS: What was the most difficult scene to shoot for you? Ayer: The Fremont and Cooks shootout. That was a stage and we had the fish tank, we had the shark rotting [Laughing], we had scuibs going off everywhere. Multiple cameras, multiple angles and you know, it was storyboarded and pointed out, yet once you’re going, once the train is moving… as a director, you’re holding this giant jigsaw puzzle in your head. And just the meticulousness. It took about a week to shoot all that. The shootout is just drudgery, as you’re going through it. And I’m seeing the dailies, I look on the monitor and I’m seeing playback. It’s like I knew I had something special there. I was able to capture a tension and I knew it would cut together well. But getting it in the can was tough. We’re shooting in the wide open, which means there’s no depth of focus, so if an actor misses his mark, or anything like that. So its trusting the camera operator, focus puller, actor, F/X guy and everybody has to basically hit their mark and make it work all at the same time, otherwise you blow the shot.
CS: That shark was genius. Was that your idea or was it in the script? Ayer: No, it was a set design idea. You know, these guys, they’re substance abusers [Laughing] and they owe money, and they’re probably impulse buyers [Laughing].
CS: What would you most like us to ask you about this film? [Laughing] Ayer: I don’t know if I could top these questions [Laughing]. You know, about Keanu… I think the gem in all of this, and the surprise in all of this is really his performance and I hope you guys can recognize that. That he really, as an actor, went into some courageous places. You know, he could have easily played it safe. He made some really strong choices and we haven’t seen him as a guy like this before.