David Ayer Tells Why He Returned To The Cop Drama With End Of Watch

David Ayer, End of Watch

Just the words South Central will conjure up an image of mean streets and gangs, even by people who don't live in Los Angeles. The neighborhood is infamous for its hardened criminals and its gang-banger imagery has permeated the popular culture everywhere. Director David Ayer returns to the neighborhood he knows well in his latest film End of Watch, starring Jake Gyllenhaal (who is also an executive producer) and Michael Peña who give gripping performances as LAPD cops Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala tackling a better armed group of very tough group - both guys and gals. Ayer grew up in the neighborhood and knows the people he's brought to the big screen well. South Central was the setting for his first directorial feature, Harsh Times back in 2005. And LAPD cops were at the heart of his 2008 pic Street Kings. Ayer told ML that he initially wanted to move away from the cop-crime scenario after working on those films, but headed back to the genre even as he was trying to talk himself out of it.

In the feature that opens wide Friday, Gyllenhaal and Peña play LAPD officers Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala. The action plays out on screen through the P.O.V. of hand-held cameras implanted on police officers with more footage "shown" by gang members, surveillance cameras, dish cams and citizen-caught images in the line of fire. While there are moments peppered throughout the feature showing moments of levity between the their characters that prompted outbursts of laughter during the film's premiere in Toronto, the scenes quickly turn to present a mosaic of dark violent streets, human trafficking, gang confrontation and a barrage of shoot-outs. Just try and fall asleep in this movie - aint gonna happen...

David Ayer chatted with ML the day after the premiere of End of Watch in Toronto the other week and gave shared why he decided to return to the cop story, they unique visual style he's going for in the pic, and just how real all the seemingly outrageous dramas the two officers face in the film are...

[Related: Jake Gyllenhaal's Life-Changing End Of Watch Prep: 'Someone Was Murdered In Front Of Me' and End Of Watch Star Michael Peña Sees Racial Barriers Coming Down In Hollywood]

I heard you wrote the script for End of Watch in six days, how did that play out?
Yes, I did. It just kind of exploded out of me. It was six days by way of twenty years, you know what I mean? It's a world I've spent a lot of time in. I grew up in South Central L.A. I have a lot of friends in law enforcement, so a lot of things that happen in the script happened to a close friend of mine. I have been writing down stories he told me. So the challenge of writing this story lead me to do this pseudo-documentary style that makes it really natural and not just using the usual story landmarks that you might intuitively feel.

Were there certain documentaries that informed some of your style choices for End of Watch?
This one friend of mine takes cameras to work and guess what - he films things just like we all do with our phones etc anywhere. It can be riveting and it seemed like a fantastic device to tell a story, but at the same time, the "found footage" aspect can become a bit tedious if it's not from a place of total reality. It can become like a gimmick and the allusion alters. So we brought in conventional coverage to augment that and the movie is a hybrid.

There was a point where you went away from telling the Cop Stories, what made you do that and what brought you back?
I really want to direct. Whenever you want to start over in Hollywood, you have to start from the bottom. I did Street Kings and it was for a studio which is a different process as a director. I tried mounting up some projects afterward including a science fiction movie and nothing was working out. The surest way I could get back on set was to do another cop movie. A friend of mine in the studios said I should do a found-footage cop [story] but I thought that I should not do that. But as I was talking myself out of it, I talked myself into it.

But you didn't want to do it from the "corrupt cop" viewpoint?
No, the corrupt cop story is so freaking played out. I mean, it's so 2003. The real challenge becomes, if you don't have that dramatic engine of the corruption, what is the dramatic engine? What is the story? I made this movie about the friendship and the journey these guys are going through. The bad guy stuff is sort of an appendage to that story. They're not investigators solving crimes, they're just guys doing their jobs who end up way over their heads and that's how it is for real cops. There's a whole world they're not privy too, yet they keep running into it, they keep sighting the shark fin in the water.

That's the one thing that struck me - that great rapport between Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña's characters. There's of course all this fantastic crazy tough shit going on in this film with the shoot-outs and grim discoveries that make for great viewing, but there's also these hilarious moments of banter between their characters that really draw you into their lives.
To write the way people talk and not just make movie dialog and to get them to pull off a breezy, natural style together and live in the history of that friendship was the real challenge as a director. It's ironic because what appears so easy is insanely difficult as a filmmaker and insanely difficult as an actor. And it took the three of us a long time in the trenches to get them to the point to pull it off. My favorite scenes in the movie are the two guys in the car talking.

Did you have a regimen in mind for Jake and Michael off the bat in order to get them to be believable cops in the lead-up to the actual shoot?
A good friend of mine does martial arts training and what that does is get the mindset down of hitting people and being hit. Often it can be hard to override the instinct of not hitting someone. You have to overcome that. You have to have that ability and understanding of violence to become a cop and it starts to change everything including your body language. And there was firearms training. They were taught by a 35 year-veteran LAPD-SWAT officer who gave them training in LAPD by the numbers shooting style.

We went to the same LAPD outlets to get their equipment and uniforms because I wanted everything to be incredibly accurate. And they went on an incredible number of ride-alongs with officers and I wanted them to go with a number of different agencies so they can see just how different the LAPD itself is. I think they were shocked by the cultural differences between those departments. I had an idea of a program in mind, but obviously logistics and demands evolved. I think at first they were cursing me, but once they realized they had the real skills, they appreciated it and it just made it all the more real on set.

I think audiences everywhere and even in L.A. may be surprised that the Mexican drug cartels have such direct operations in the U.S. as this movie suggests. Obviously everyone knows they're involved with drug trafficking across the border, but I think people don't know there's such a direct connection to day-today operations on the U.S. side of the border.
Yeah, they control the wholesale of drugs in the United States and human trafficking. Nothing moves across that border without their permission. They'll give illegal immigrants drugs and will say, 'you're now a drug mule.' It's a busy organization and they're incredibly efficient - drugs, human trafficking, weapons. Everything that's happening in the movie is happening now. Friends of mine in the department pull over cartel runners all the time and do multi-kilo seizures. I know someone working in narcotics just last week who took a huge haul of cartel drugs off the street. They're here, they're operating...I feel like people have no idea that there's such a huge presence of the cartels not only in Southern California, but throughout the United States, even in the northern part of the country.

How were you able to get under the skin in portraying the gang members in the movie? It's a distinct subculture and it would be very easy to mis-represent that...
People not from L.A. and are not familiar with the gangsters there will look at something like this and think they're almost cartoonish, you know? But that's how they role. This is bang on. [End of Watch gangster] Lala, played by Yahira Garcia, is unbelievable in the movie. She's a rapper and was brought up in that neighborhood and her brothers are caught up in the life. And she's seen some tragic things. And "Demon" played by Richard Cabral is from a multi-generational gang family and just recently got out of it and now working in film. The only one who wasn't a former gang-banger was Maurice Compte who plays "Big Evil." He's incredibly soft-spoken, incredibly smart and such a nice guy and somehow he pulled off this alter-ego "Big Evil" persona out.