A Story From the Streets
Screenwriter David Ayer’s new film, “Training Day,” deals with a corrupt Los Angeles Police Department narcotics officer (Denzel Washington) who works the gang-infested, treacherous terrain of the Rampart Division. On “Training Day,” he’s teaching the secrets of survival--and a lot more--to a young officer (Ethan Hawke). A Los Angeles native, Ayer based his script in part on his experiences growing up here. Here’s how Ayer, 29, came to write “Training Day.” The Warner Bros. film opens Sept. 21.
Screenwriting found me a decade ago when Wesley Strick, an established screenwriter who was the owner of a house where I was working construction, talked me into writing a script about my experiences in the Navy. It was a tough road he placed my feet on. I banged out more scripts, met producers, never made a sale. I was writing what I thought they wanted. The frustration built. So I decided to write one for me, something so harsh, something so real that no studio would ever touch it.
I spent my high school years in South-Central, not far from the Rampart area, in a gang neighborhood. I learned the culture of the streets, the rules, the rhythms--and I joined the military to get out. Years later, I once again found myself on the periphery of Rampart, in a gang-riddled neighborhood near downtown. I was surviving on handouts from a producer for whom I wrote a script under the table. It was an aimless time. I spent endless days cruising the ‘hoods between downtown and Watts, searching for stories, searching for the soul of the ‘hoods. My point of departure was a short story I wrote about a Rampart narcotics officer cruising Pico-Union in the Rampart area in a old Monte Carlo. This was the proto-Alonzo, Denzel Washington’s character. I wanted to write a script that took place in one day, a day that would utterly transform the lives of two cops. I took a lot of inspiration from the old police-movie corruption standards: “Serpico,” “Q&A;,” “Prince of the City.” Problem was, they all were solidly East Coast and didn’t touch L.A.'s culture. It was time to do it our way.
I’d talk to the homies and hear stories about the ruthless extra-legal tactics the LAPD would use to take them off the streets. I became fascinated by the sophisticated cat-and-mouse games the cops and gangsters would play, and discovered there is a corporate knowledge, spoken but never written, shared by the players on both sides of the law.
It made me wonder, can a cop chase monsters without becoming a monster? Of course. The vast majority of sworn personnel in the field are dedicated people of integrity with a genuine desire to do the right thing, but they don’t make for interesting movies. It’s the one-percenters who fascinate us.
Normally, I let a detailed outline guide me, but for “Training Day,” I let life and instinct guide me, writing by the heart, not the numbers. Somehow I finished a draft and registered it with the Writers Guild of America--that was in December 1995. Time to show it around. The reactions were amazingly polarized: love or loathing, nothing in between.
I knew I had something; indifference is the writer’s enemy. Problem was, people were not ready for it. One producer told me, “Good script, Dave. Problem is, you obviously know nothing about law enforcement.” Don’t forget, this was three years before Rampart CRASH Officer Rafael Perez’s arrest for swiping cocaine from an LAPD evidence locker.
The script made it around town and generated good buzz. Literary agent Todd Feldman signed me based on the strength of the writing. It became my calling card and helped me land writing assignments. “Training Day” found its way to Bobby Newmeyer, whom I think of as the hardest working producer in Hollywood. He agreed to try to get it made. It took years to come together. Various combinations of directors and actors were presented to the powers that be. But it never took wing.
Only when Perez got busted did the project gain momentum--it was now topical. Warner Bros. bought the script for Denzel Washington. The director search began in earnest. The right match was crucial. The studio soon found its man: Antoine Fuqua. He came by my house on a hot Saturday afternoon when my buddies and I were having some cold ones on my balcony.
What impressed me most about Antoine was his sense of profound mission to direct “Training Day.” It was something beyond enthusiasm, something much more profound, as if his life had brought him to a crossroads you’ve waited years to reach. My nightmare was that a Hollywood director, instead of letting the streets speak for themselves, would dilute reality and impose a more suburban patina on the ‘hood. Antoine, I sensed, would not allow that. He understands the streets--it’s more than vision, it’s a vibe, a mind-set. The streets are a mental game, and Antoine understood the nuances well. When he left that afternoon, my buddies and I were high-fiving. My baby was in good hands.
For me, the most rewarding aspect of screenwriting is working with actors. The actors are the real end users of the work product I generate. In a sense, they do the final rewrite of the characters I create.
It was fascinating working with Denzel and Ethan as they made the characters their own, adding levels and dimension. Our law enforcement consultant was Mike Patterson, a former L.A. sheriff’s deputy who spent 10 years patrolling Firestone Park, one of the meanest beats in the country. He provided a reality check for the actors and Antoine.
Antoine wanted to shoot in the authentic locations called for in the script. That entailed visiting neighborhoods such as an area known as “the Jungle” near Crenshaw and Exposition, and Imperial Gardens in Watts. Antoine and I went to these areas and negotiated with the residents, who were leery of having a major theatrical production invade their community. Antoine’s friend “Bone” was an invaluable asset in securing these locations. A former Athens Park Blood, Bone has transformed himself into a community activist and something of a historian of L.A. gangbanging.
We tried to get a high level of authenticity for this production; wherever possible, residents of the neighborhoods were utilized as extras. It was Bone’s hard work and consensus building with community leaders that enabled us to film some of L.A.'s toughest neighborhoods with no problems. Many people said it couldn’t be done. Well, it was.
My mentor, Wes Strick, once told me that a good story will eventually be told. His words were heartening through the years it took for “Training Day” to reach the screen. When I was writing it, I had never heard of Perez. But I had heard of his ilk, cops who didn’t play by the rules. Until the recent Rampart scandal, most folks who live north of the 10 Freeway didn’t believe cops did that kind of stuff.
The cops are hunting a sophisticated quarry. L.A. gangs have had generations to evolve, to hone their craft. Try proving a case in court when the witnesses refuse to identify a murderer they saw plain as day because they don’t want to get whacked by his homies. It gets frustrating. You know the guy’s dealing but can’t catch him holding, try as you may, week after week. It could become awfully tempting to sprinkle some rocks in his pocket and turn on the salesmanship on the stand--cleaning the streets, one crooked case at a time.
The LAPD’s elite anti-gang unit, CRASH, was disbanded in the wake of Rampart. Seems like the cure is killing the patient--gang murders have gone way up in the past year. CRASH officers kept their noses in the gangsters’ business 24/7. At least CRASH kept the madness down to a dull roar.
It is interesting that Perez’s crimes extend well beyond planting a gun or dope to make a case. He was a foot soldier in the war on drugs and appeared to be one of its best--not unlike Alonzo in “Training Day"--a well-respected, popular officer with an exemplary record and a reputation as a charismatic and persuasive witness in court. He switched sides and became the enemy he had sworn an oath to stop; the money from narcotics sales was just too easy and tempting to resist. Note that Perez rolled over on fellow CRASH cops and has avoided providing any insight into what is a very interesting nexus between the group of LAPD officers he kicked it with off-duty and the L.A. underworld.
I’m sure there are other officers like him out there as long as selling drugs remains astoundingly lucrative and as long as anti-drug laws place astounding power in the hands of law enforcement. Zero tolerance has stripped our judicial system of its compassion and humanity. Current public policy places the retail sale of cocaine squarely in the hands of street gangs. The world that’s depicted in “Training Day” is one that’s filled with violence and is ripe for corruption. In this world, the youth culture values toughness above education. A terrible school system and the lack of a reading culture at home leave many kids with no choice but to enter the gang journeyman/apprentice system as a way of transcending the conditions of their neighborhoods. We can create solutions, but can we muster the will to make them work? *