Spending most of the 2000s being Hollywood’s go-to screenwriter for gritty cop dramas including Training Day, Dark Blue and S.W.A.T., David Ayer hasn’t had the same success in his directing efforts. With his two previous films Harsh Times and Street Kings turning out to be duds, Ayer was at a crossroads in his career when he decided to sit down and write his latest, End of Watch.
In six days he fleshed out a powerful script that looks inside the lives of two LAPD officers as they patrol the gang-riddled streets of South Central, but telling it in an unconventional manner that eliminates many of the cop-movie clichés that water down the genre.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña play the two gung-ho cops, Brian and Mike, who when we meet them in the opening of the film are on a high-speed pursuit, weaving through side streets as we watch the chase through their onboard dashcam. The action (and POV shooting style) doesn’t end there. As the story progresses and the two delve deeper into the workings of a Mexican cartel, we follow the action through the cameras Brian has them wearing for a film class he’s taking (we also watch footage shot by gang members). Ayer’s hybrid found-footage style brings us closer to not only the calls Brian and Mike go on, but their own bond as partners.
Movies.com chatted with Ayer on how he got Gyllenhaal and Peña to become best friends, what cops think about the movie and how he’s reinventing Arnold Schwarzenegger for his next movie.
Movies.com: Why the found-footage style?
David Ayer: There’s a friend of mine who’s a cop and he and some people that he works with from another agency -- they’re not LAPD -- showed me some videos. It’s common now for law enforcement to have video cameras on their uniforms these days, just to record their contacts, and they showed me some of the material and it was riveting. I saw kind of a highlight reel from fights to chases to shootings, it was unbelievable, it was like nothing I’d ever seen. We’ve had Cops for 25 years on TV but that’s somebody filming the police as opposed to the cops filming themselves and that’s what I was seeing and it just seemed like a really fantastic tool to get inside a story.
Movies.com: But with found footage you can paint yourself in a corner creatively if you really are hardcore and go by the rules—
Movies.com: So is that why you strayed from it a bit?
Ayer: Well, I’ve always been a really independently minded person and I’ve never been a fan of rules in filmmaking. I didn’t want to limit myself to that technique, it seemed like there were areas of the film where I would want to shoot more conventionally and so ultimately it’s kind of a hybrid of the found footage. But now I’m getting beaten up by both sides of it. I’m being beat up by the film purists who are like, “Well, you deviated from found footage,” and the more traditional commentators are beating me up for using found footage at all, so I managed to piss off both sides thoroughly.
Movies.com: Did you go back and study any found-footage movies?
Ayer: No, I know what they are conceptually. Typically that’s the look of the movie and someone is always holding the camera and it seemed so limiting. Maybe I just didn’t have the patience to sit there to figure out how to put a camera in every scene, and then it just limits you on angles and coverage and the last thing I wanted to do was limit myself and limit Jake and Mike and force them to play the camera all the time.
Movies.com: So there’s that element of the movie, but the bigger one I feel is the relationship between Jake and Michael’s characters—
Ayer: It is the movie.
Movies.com: Was there anything that you had them do to build their relationship?
Ayer: I mean, that was my biggest need as a director for them to click. I always saw the movie as a study of a friendship, as a study of two guys who are best friends. And in a way being a cop is ancillary to that and weirdly by putting the emphasis on police training and exposure to law enforcement it helped create a real friendship. They both showed up and they’re professionals and know the job and that’s how they came at it. I was like, “Guys, no, no, no, you really have to be best friends to pull this off.” But how do you order somebody to be that? It’s a little bit of the corporate retreat exercise where you close your eyes and fall backwards into someone’s arms. They’re shooting guns, they’re in the ghetto, it’s three a.m., it’s like these experiences force them to become a team and then through the teamwork they found this incredible respect for each other.
Movies.com: Have you shown the film to any cops yet?
Ayer: Yeah, I’ve shown it to a lot of cops.
Movies.com: What’s the reaction been?
Ayer: They all say the same thing. It’s different agencies, different parts of the country and it’s, “Finally somebody got it right.”
Movies.com: You’ve become the go-to guy for the cop-movie genre, but your last two directing efforts didn’t find an audience. Was there a time before End of Watch that you tried to make something different?
Ayer: I tried. Been there, done that. It’s a miracle any movie gets made and I don’t think people understand what a monumental achievement making anything is and getting anything to the screen in today’s world. I tried to do science fiction, I tried doing some straight action genre stuff and I just wasn’t able to convert anything from development to production. [The cop genre] is an arena where I’m trusted to deliver and I had a fantastic script so I’m like okay this gets me to set, I want to be on set, I want to direct. So I don’t think people should judge the movie on my history, I think they should judge the movie on the movie.
Movies.com: What was the biggest cop movie cliché you tried hardest to steer clear of?
Ayer: The very structure of what a cop movie is itself, which is the idea of there’s an inciting incident that is a crime and then our hero solves the crime and at the end puts the handcuffs on the bad guy and saves the world. So it’s the very essence of a cop movie itself that I threw away.
Movies.com: It’s very episodic. Are all of the calls Brian and Mike take based on real events that your cop friends told you about?
Ayer: Yeah. But I cut out all the boring sh*t. The old woman who lost her keys or the drunk asleep in his front yard, I only have so much real estate in a movie, focus on the cool stuff.
Movies.com: So for your upcoming film, Ten, you’ve said in interviews that you’re reinventing Arnold Schwarzenegger. Please elaborate.
Ayer: He’ll look different, he’ll feel different, he’s going to move different and he’s going to be different.
Movies.com: He’s physically going to look different?
Ayer: We’re going to mix it up. He’s willing to let me pull him into my world, my filmmaking world and I’ll be f**king honest, it’s really exciting how he’s progressing, the activity he’s doing. I think people are going to be surprised.
Movies.com: Are you still doing the Commando remake?
Movies.com: How about the Scarface remake?
Ayer: I’m not working on it, but I did a draft for Universal and I hope it gets there.
Movies.com: One would think it must be a gargantuan task to develop a story that doesn’t feel like a rip-off of the De Palma version.
Ayer: Exactly. The game plan for both Scarface and Commando was a reboot to do something really different and exciting. But I mean, it was fun, but no matter what you do there’s going to be haters so with Scarface I just wrote a story that I thought was exciting. I just trusted myself to create something really interesting and different. There’s no way to touch something like that and put your hands on something so revered and historical as that.