The Toronto International Film Festival can be a whirlwind of interviews, but End of Watch writer/director David Ayer made an instant connection with us. When he heard I was interviewing him for CraveOnline, he revealed that his street nickname was Crave, for Crazy Dave. So we have that between us. Ayer used his clout in the cop movie genre to tell a different sort of cop story. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena star as partners who film their daily patrol with camcorders and button cams. The film premiered at Toronto where we got to speak with Ayer in person.
CraveOnline: You used a local L.A. legend for the newscaster, Serene Branson.
David Ayer: Serene, yeah. She’s awesome.
Had you known her before her famous incident with her migraine at the Grammys?
Oh, right, I totally forgot that was her. I totally didn’t make the connection. No, I wanted that LA feel and I’m all about the local flavor and she’s iconic. She’s doing the news, so I thought it would be great to get her into the movie.
Did you have a set of rules for the camera angles?
No rules. That’s I think part of the problem of contemporary filmmaking is that there’s these unwritten rulebooks. My philosophy is why would I limit myself as a filmmaker? If there’s all these tools available, why would I say, “Okay, it’s a single camera. It’s Blair Witch.” I don’t want to make Blair Witch in the hood. A friend of mine who’s a cop, these guys actually videotape themselves. They bring cameras to work and stuff. He showed me basically some highlight reels that were absolutely fantastic. I’m like, “Man, this stuff’s brilliant. This’d be a great way to shoot a movie.” As I got into preproduction, I realized why limit myself? Why tie one arm behind my back going into a fight because oh, it’s found footage, who’s holding the camera? Well, after a while it’s like who cares? I’m going to use whatever technique I can to tell this story. I’ll use the point of view cameras and the pseudo-documentary style to pull you into the movie, but once the movie evolves, it becomes a little more conventionally shot.
So who is shooting Jake and Anna in bed together?
So there are some objective cameras?
Absolutely. Again, in my mind there’s no rules. If you’re into the movie, there are going to be movie geeks that are going to ding me for it. That’s fine. The movie’s for everybody.
Did the recent found footage movement in movies make End of Watch an easier sell to the studio?
I think it made it a harder sell because I think it’s seen as a gimmick. It seems to work for certain kind of genres, especially horror and things like that. Then to go and say, “I want to do a law enforcement movie using at least a partial found footage style” was actually a difficult sell. It was hard to communicate what this movie could be because it’s so easy to pigeonhole. It makes it feel like it could be a small movie but the movie is so much bigger than the circumstances of the photography because it’s about these characters and these relationships and this incredible friendship Jake and Mike have.
On television, cop shows deal with the daily drama policemen face but in movies it’s always the one case.
Why do you think movies haven’t gotten this before?
Well, I think it’s the difference between short form and long form entertainment. The traditional way to tell that story is exactly that. Who’s the villain? You’ve got to have a great villain and you’ve got to have this amazing caper, and the cops have to be Sherlock Holmes and solve this caper. That’s the oldest formula in the book, so the second you start down that road, the audience can write the ending for you because they’ve seen it so many times. I wanted to do something that was more naturalistic and broke both photography and storytelling rules a little bit to take us more inside this world as a study of characters, a study of people and less about just solving capers.
Have you been forced to make that other kind of movie before?
Maybe. That’s all I’ll say. [Laughs]
It does seem there’s more drama in a daily disturbance call.
Yeah, that’s what I really try to show. You’ve got two guys in a radio car. They get a radio call and in south L.A. anything can be behind that door, anything. Oftentimes anything is. They can walk up to the door and get shot at with an AK right out the gate. That’s happened so it’s this preparedness to deal with anything and to fight through no matter what the circumstances and fight for each other that makes these characters kind of noble. It’s going on every day on our behalf.
Are you a fan of the TV series “Southland?”
I’ve never seen it. I was actually afraid to watch it because I didn’t want to inadvertently suck any elements from that in End of Watch.
Were there other cop shows over the years you liked?
It’s funny, I watch nonfiction TV. I’m a History Channel guy.
This is obviously a tough movie and not to spoil it, but could it have ended even worse for the characters?
Yes, it could. I had a different ending initially which was even more scorched earth. Sort of going through the process and going through the research, I came up with the ending I have. Filmmaking is a journey and I have final cut on this. This is a hard R movie and I had final cut. It’s unbelievably rare in Hollywood these days for that to happen. As a filmmaker, to be able to have a viewpoint and make choices and to do them because you fully believe in them, it’s not an everyday thing. So I made choices. Under different circumstances, I’m sure people could’ve made choices for me.
What is next for you?
I’m working on an Arnold Schwarzenegger/Sam Worthington movie called Ten in which Arnold plays the boss of an elite DEA tactical team. I’ll be shooting that in Atlanta, GA October 15. Then I got a WWII movie in the pipeline.
Does the DEA movie fall in line with your experience with the police force?
It’s pretty different. Different city, different organization, federal law enforcement. These are all undercover guys so it’s going to be Arnold as we’ve never seen him before.
Does making an Arnold movie now mean something a lot different than it did 10 year ago?
I think it does because he’s in a different place in his life, but there’s something very interesting about him. He has this incredible presence as a person and I want to bring some of that to the screen and have him be this real, grounded, amazing character. And I’ve surrounded him with some fantastic actors to that end.
Have Sam and Arnold met and did they discuss The Terminator?
You know what, I’ve got to say poor Arnold because everybody throws the jokes at him. He’s a great guy. He’s a really nice guy and he’s incredibly giving as an actor and he’s a hard worker. They met and I wasn’t tracking them the whole time so I don't know if the jokes got deployed but they will eventually if they haven’t.
Ten sounds like a serious movie but can he say “I’ll be back” in it?
Oh, I don’t think he’ll be saying that. It’s like End of Watch. End of Watch is not what you expect. It’s like oh, two cops in south central, David Ayer movie, we know that movie. No, you don’t. It’s totally out of the box I think in a lot of ways. The same thing with the movie I’m doing with Arnold. There’s going to be a lot of expectations going into it and I plan it as being very genre breaking. I think it’s going to change how Arnold is perceived as an actor.
That seems to be the mandate. The Last Stand also promises Arnold as we’ve never seen him but it’s hard to say until we see it.
Is it easier to surprise people because they expect so much, or is it harder because they know so much?
I think it’s harder to surprise people period because everyone’s so plugged in and you have the social media and people are so savvy on film. That used to be just a much more mysterious world on filmmaking and people just consume the film. Now I think people are so involved with behind the scenes and they understand how script works and shooting works, that you have this fantastically aware audience out there.
Are you writing that movie?
I’ve done some writing work on the script. It’s not my original script but it’s a fantastic story that I was really drawn to.
What’s the WWII movie?
It’s about a tank crew witnessing the fall of Nazi Germany in March 1945. So that’s heavy duty.
What is it like to be in the position where you’ve made a few movies and you’re able to now helm a DEA task force movie and a WWII tank movie?
It’s great. It’s exactly where I wanted to be. Look, I think I have a fantasy job. I love the industry and I’m a high school dropout. It’s sort of a miracle that I’m here and it’s really an only in America, only in Hollywood story I think that I’ve been accepted by this community and they let me make really, really cool movies.
Do those movies have potentially even more big action than End of Watch?
Oh yes. Oh yeah. More action coming up.
How much of that do you get to shoot yourself, and what do you need to leave to a second unit crew?
Ooh, yeah, I’m the guy that I get really uncomfortable with second unit work. You have to do it sometimes because there’s just so much work to get done, you’ve got to lean on them. But I try and supervise everything as much as possible. Even when I do second unit, splinter unit stuff. You design the work, you design the schedule to keep yourself involved. Maybe I’m a control freak, I don't know.