When I last sat with David Ayer, writer of the Academy Award winning film, “Training Day” starring Denzel Washington and directed by Antoine Fuqua (Brooklyn’s Finest, Shooter) ), it was for the slick and shrilling cop drama, “Street Kings” in which Ayer directed another Oscar winner, Forest Whitaker.
Ayer, the Illinois born, Chicago infused, South Central LA bred writer/director/producer has built an impressive career unpacking the nearly 360 degree perspective of cop life given the arsenal of films to his credit, among them: Dark Blue, S.W.A.T., Harsh Times, The Fast and The Furious.
Today, the 43-year-old says life offers another layer, now a husband and father yet there may still be another law enforcement scenario under his belt. Currently, Ayer’s END OF WATCH, starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Love and Other Drugs, Source Code, Brokeback Mountain) and Michael Peňa (Crash, World Trade Center, Tower Heist) gives a sobering view of life behind the badge. Costars include America Ferrera (Travelling Pants franchise, TV’s Ugly Betty), Natalie Martinez (Death Race) and Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air).
Partners, Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Peňa) face the unpredictable streets of LA’s South Central — still defined by dominant gangs and excessive drugs– beat cops and friends whose goal is to reach the end of watch, alive. The young men see it all. Despite the grind of duty, they find a semblance of solace in the time spent and conversations had, mostly in the squad car in between feats of heroism and bouts of hell.
Zavala holds family close to vest, his number one priority while Taylor is still searching for love’s satisfying embrace.
Their story is told through the lens of Taylor’s video cam that serves as a third character: sometimes shaky, sometimes reliable but always on, allowing the viewer to see what is most often legend in the tales we hear abbreviated on the evening news.
These guys “man up” everyday and take us along for the ride, whether we are ready for it or not and to that end, END OF WATCH is certainly worth seeing.
During conversations in Los Angeles prior to the red carpet premiere, I spoke with Ayer, Gyllenhaal and Peňa–
Sandra Varner (Talk2SV): Gentlemen, this was quite an experience. What are your thoughts on the other side of making this film?
Gyllenhaal: We spent five months on the streets with LAPD and the Sheriff’s Department riding through Los Angeles and Inglewood, usually two or three nights a week, typically from 4:00 PM until 4:00 AM. We also did tactical training with live ammunition with Rick Lopez who trains all the SWAT teams and is SWAT himself; we did fight training and sparring…
Peňa: We just got beat up, or shall I say, I got beat up (laughter). Jake’s a good fighter. So after all that and our relationships with the police officers we met along with everyone in the community, given thosee five months of being around, seeing what happens –not only the violence but also the boredom in a police officer’s job– we saw how relationships are made. Good and bad. Personally, the experience changed my life not only as an actor but also as a person; it was a once in a lifetime experience.
Talk2SV: Yes, I understand you saw real police work being done…
Gyllenhaal: During one particular ride along, the officers received a call that there was some sort of shooting. We respond to the call unaware that another squad had responded. When we arrived at the scene, we witnessed a chase scene of a stolen vehicle. At the end of the chase, cars were surrounded by cops at the end of a railroad track and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Am I in a Denzel Washington movie?’
Talk2SV: You actually witnessed a murder as I understand it.
Gyllenhaal: Yeah…the very first ride along I went on, someone was murdered and consequently, on a number of different ridealongs after that too. [We saw] domestic violence, stolen vehicles…
Peňa: We saw somebody shot in the face, in the arms …
Gyllenhaal: They survived though.
Talk2SV: This film now posits you in the pantheon of buddy cop films. Are there any such films that you’d liken END OF WATCH to?
Gyllenhaal: You know, strangely, there were moments in that car that remind me of Lethal Weapon, the sense of humor between both guys.
Peňa: For me, I think of a couple of things. This film reminds me of the Sydney Lumet films, just in general. We rehearsed a lot. Serpico is one of my favorite movies and that’s another thing that really helped our chemistry. Jake has such a love for film and so do I. I guess it’s not really cool to say you love movies and film as actors but I do and I know he does as well. We like the same kind of stuff. There were times when Jake would open my eyes to a lot of really interesting things. So to answer your question, I think Serpico and maybe Dog Day Afternoon because of the relationships.
Talk2SV: The video camera is central to the telling of this story. As actors, you live your lives before the time camera, as it were, so people like me can get to observe you through your work. How do you personally use video cameras in your own lives?
Peňa: Personally, I use my phone all the time. I’m videotaping things all the time, my family, myself, my friends; taking pictures. I mean, it has become a part of life. I love to capture things. I think the difference between having made this movie and say, for instance, five years ago to now is the fact that we film everything all the time. There was a time during filmmaking, where I said to Dave (Ayer), ‘Do you have to justify it narratively speaking that big gangsters would be videotaping themselves doing highly illegal things?’ His response to me was, “Maybe not five years ago but today, everybody is videotaping everything.” It’s almost as if the video camera is the third character in our lives.
Gyllenhaal: I remember there was this one interesting exercise that we were all doing; we all had our phones, iPhones, Blackberries, whatever and we were getting tazed. I was thinking, don’t record that stuff but we got tazed for this movie; we were giving it our all. I found out that there is no cool way to look while being tazed, you can’t look cool.
TALK2SV: How does it feel to be tazed?
Gyllenhaal: It feels like a thousand volts of electricity going through your body in a very short period of time.
Peňa: Yeah, it perhaps feels like an execution.
Gyllenhaal: Very painful.
Peňa: Your muscles are like convulsing, it’s crazy.
Gyllenhaal: You have no motor control.
Talk2SV: Dave (Ayer), it’s not your first time at this dance; you have quite an arsenal of cop stories. Who are you in this scenario and what prepared you to tell these stories?
Ayer: I’m just me. I grew up in South Central LA. I mean, I used to run from the cops. I got beat black and blue when I was a teenager by LAPD. I’ve seen it all, but I’ve watched the department change. Now, you have a department that’s diverse: by gender and ethnicity. A department that reflects the people it polices whereas it didn’t before. They’ve incorporated community policing so I feel like the ‘old school’ LAPD is gone and it’s a different department. Also, I’m married now with four kids. As a father, I’m more in love with my life than I was in the past so I wanted to bring my life into my work. That’s why the family piece in this story was important to show because at the end of the day, these are guys who have the symbols of authority but they are just normal people behind all of that.
There will be much more from the guys about END OF WATCH on opening day, Friday, September 21. Stay tuned to www.Talk2SV.com.