The streets of South-Central Los Angeles that serve as the backdrop for the new police drama "End of Watch" are familiar turf for writer-director David Ayer. He grew up in the neighborhood, and over the last decade the 43-year-old filmmaker has specialized in telling gritty Southland cop tales.
"I'm comfortable there," Ayer said in a recent interview at his house in the hills above Los Feliz, talking about his childhood home in a very different part of the city. "It's like my living room."
FOR THE RECORD:
"End of Watch": An article about director David Ayer in the Sept. 20 Calendar section said that his new movie "End of Watch" was a $15-million production. However, Open Road Films, which is releasing "End of Watch" in the U.S. and Canada, says the actual cost of the film was $7.5 million.
Dressed in a crisp, loose-fitting white T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, with a neatly trimmed goatee and a grown-out buzz cut, Ayer looked and sounded like he could have stepped out of one of his own movies. His greeting to a reporter: "What's up, big dog?"
As the writer of "Training Day" and "Dark Blue," a co-writer on "The Fast and the Furious," and the director of "Street Kings," Ayer has made a name for himself portraying morally ambivalent officers who skirt and sometimes stomp on the rules — cops for whom the ends justify the means, even if the means aren't always legal.
What sets "End of Watch" apart from Ayer's previous work, and from a long line of genre siblings including "L.A. Confidential," "To Live and Die in L.A." and last year's "Rampart," is its focus on two honest, ordinary police officers.
The $15-million film, which opens Friday, stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as officers Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, two ambitious young cops whose most striking attributes are their dedication to their job — "protecting the prey from the predators, the good from the bad," as Taylor says — and their loyalty to each other.
Ayer admitted he worries about being typecast — his friends call him "the cop whisperer" — but it's clear that "End of Watch" is a passion project and a film that draws heavily on his life experiences.
Like Zavala, Ayer grew up in a rough neighborhood and is now a husband and father. Born in Champaign, Ill., Ayer settled in South-Central as a young teenager and saw his share of "really bad things" on the streets. After dropping out of several schools, including Manual Arts High School, he joined the Navy at 18 and spent two years as a sonar man aboard a nuclear submarine.
Taylor also has a military background, having served in the Marines, and he shares his creator's angst side. Ayer said he identifies with Taylor as a "wrestling-with-the-world kind of guy."
"Training Day" in 2001 established Ayer as a potential powerhouse in Hollywood. The film took in $76 million at the domestic box office and Denzel Washington won an Oscar for lead actor for his role as a dirty cop in the film. His follow-up films continued his exploration of the tense, often brutal world of police officers dealing with the realities of the street.
On a joint phone call with Peña, Gyllenhaal called "End of Watch" Ayer's most personal film. "There's more of Dave in this movie than any movie in the past."
For Ayer, it was a logical progression.
"The police corruption scandal movie has been done so many ways," he said. "You're never going to get ahead of the audience. They're not surprised by it anymore."
With "End of Watch," Ayer said he wanted to strip away genre conventions and take an authentic snapshot of what it's like to be a cop in Los Angeles today.
"The LAPD is a different organization," he said. "It's not the department of the '80s, it's not the department of the '90s. It's a department that reflects the neighborhood it polices now. That wasn't always the case.... The department has evolved, so let's have our movies evolve to reflect that."
At its core, "End of Watch" is about the camaraderie Taylor and Zavala share as they patrol the gang-riddled Newton Division just south of downtown Los Angeles, searching, as Taylor says, for "dope, money and guns."
"I wanted to explore that partnership," Ayer said, "that incredible bond partners have."
Taylor and Zavala's bond is revealed in equal measure by the easygoing, wisecracking banter that fills their downtime and the seamless coordination they display in life-and-death situations. Pulling off both required extensive preparation.
Gyllenhaal and Peña underwent five months of rigorous police training for the film, with a regimen that included regular ride-along with the Sheriff's Department and LAPD as well as instruction on police tactics, weapons and hand-to-hand combat.
The process was so intense, Peña said, that he had trouble readjusting to civilian life after shooting wrapped. "I really felt like a cop, and I couldn't shake it off," he said.
"I was watching people's hands for three months after," Gyllenhaal added. "It took a long time."
Although the two actors share a familiar chemistry on-screen, getting to that point took work. When they weren't training, they would run lines over and over in Ayer's office or simply hang out to try to build a rapport.
"To be honest, I don't think we got along expertly in the beginning," Peña said. "We had some rough patches."
Eventually, Ayer said, they clicked. "I think it was the acting work that bonded them, and then all the training and going through this common experience," he said. "And then after a while it was like, 'Oh God, guys, shut up!' "
Underscoring the film's snapshot aesthetic, Ayer shot "End of Watch" largely on the streets, in a pseudo-documentary style. Much of the action was captured by Gyllenhaal on a hand-held digital video camera, as his character is working on a documentary for a school project. Other scenes unfold before clip-on cameras mounted on the officers' vests, dashboard cameras and cellphones.
The run-and-gun approach combined with the actors' training allowed Ayer to shoot quickly, without extensive choreography. "I just send them in and the cameras follow," he said. "It's not this big rehearsal-fast."
If the shoot was a sort of controlled chaos, Ayer was in his element.
"I think Dave is dealing with dichotomies all the time," Gyllenhaal said. "He's dealing with the dichotomy on the street with the fact that he's friends with gangsters and he's friends with police officers. He's madly in love — and I don't misuse the word 'madly' — with both sides of the line."
While considering his future, which includes script work on a new "Scarface" movie and directing the upcoming Arnold Schwarzenegger action film "Ten," Ayer spoke of another dichotomy.
"I would be perfectly happy to make cop movies for the rest of my career on one level," he said. "But on the other level, there's a lot more I want to do."