As a resident of South Central Los Angeles in his youth and a submariner for the US Navy in his adulthood, David Ayer writes about what he knows. He came to respect the policemen who once patrolled the streets and chased him down blind alleys and some of them are now his friends. He famously brought this real-life experience to his screenplays for Training Day and S.W.A.T. and to his directing efforts, Harsh Times and Street Kings.
I got my ass kicked by the LAPD when I was a kid
Now with the gritty and highly kinetic End of Watch he has Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as buddy cops on the beat. We follow Gyllenhaal's character filming with a shaky camera as they chase after crooks and as the cops themselves come up worse for wear. It gets a bit repetitive, though, and at times you feel you've seen it all before on television in one of those reality shows without movie stars, or on television's excellent Southland, which boasts a similar formula with former heartthrobs Shaun Hatosy and The O.C.'s Ben McKenzie displaying their range—and with the addition of some feisty women, Regina King and Lucy Liu on the force. (Interestingly, Southland is written by women. Now shooting its fifth season, it was created by Ann Biderman and mostly penned by writer Sara Gran, who is also collaborating with Guillermo del Toro (as director and executive producer) on a HBO series based on Corinne May Botz's Nutshell Studies, about a 1950s small-town housewife who becomes obsessed with solving brutal crimes.)
In End of Watch, Gyllenhaal, with his long eyelashes and baby blues, has shaved his head to look more like a brute. When the imposing, tall and bald 44-year-old Ayer walks into the room, he seems far more like the real deal. We are meeting not long before the film's US release when the $7 million production made $38 million at the box office. Whether this very American story will do as well here is another thing. Still, blokes will go to see it and given its budget that's all the film needs to be a success.
As one might imagine, Ayer speaks mostly about his relationship with the police during his press rounds. “I did a lot of running from them. I got my ass kicked by the LAPD when I was a kid,” he admits. “I'm drawn to the fact that people work the streets of law enforcement and see the human condition in all its glory, good, bad and indifferent. A sort of life wisdom develops from coming in constant contact with tragedy and that's something that I feed upon as a writer. A really close friend of mine, Jaime FitzSimons, is a technical advisor on the film [he also plays Captain Reese] and he was 14 years in the LAPD and is still in law enforcement now [as a captain with the Summit County Sheriff's Office]. He was eight years working with gangs and a lot of these stories on the screen are things that he experienced with his partner.”
The shooting style came from a video that a policeman had given him. “He and his friends had shot it at work. They would take video cameras to work and they would wear the same cameras you see in the movie. It was absolutely riveting because this wasn't like a video crew following cops around. This was material that the cops had shot themselves and it was like the ultimate highlight reel. It ranged from hilarity to just utterly heinous and it just seemed like a fantastic way to take people inside a cop car and inside that world.”
Ayer's motivations, though, are most revealing when he talks about himself. Troubled in his youth, he moved to Los Angeles as a teenager to live with his cousin after being kicked out of his Maryland home. As the police watched out for him he became attracted to the male bonding in the buddy cop relationship.
“Maybe it's as simple as I grew up without a father,” he admits, “but men typically only reveal their inner lives to their best friends or to people they are really close to. We have a hard time opening up to the women in our lives and it's a great way to explore a character's soul by putting him in a car with someone he is close to and just letting the discussion roll.”
In many ways, Ayer still calls South Central home.
“I like to shoot in these neighbourhoods because there's so much life there. It's such a rich environment and I think usually it's depicted in a very one-sided kind of way. I am from LA and I'm raising my kids there. I take my kids down to the hood all the time. My wife grew up in the hood too. We are now living in Los Feliz, but we have family there and we are there on weekends with the parties and all that stuff. It's very comfortable and maybe it doesn't feel that way to everyone, but it's never felt dangerous to me. Anywhere in the city has never felt dangerous to me. You get older, you make more friends, you make more contacts and you meet people who run the city and you realise they are just like me. They love the city too, they are from the city and they believe in it. I've watched it transform and I feel like how LA is becoming…” he hesitates. “It has always been the city of the future and has always been cutting edge and I think it's going to continue being that.”
So why didn't he pursue a career as a policeman himself? “I actually tested for the LAPD after I got out of the navy. [He was “a sonar man on a nuclear submarine”.] I passed the test; I just never carried through the process.”
Why? “I didn't think I wanted to be a street cop. Maybe something in me knew I would end up being a writer.”