Watching with David Ayer, director and writer of 'End of Watch'
Making movies that honor the men on the beat
David Ayer is something of a specialist when it comes to cop movies. And by that, I mean the day to day lives of cops on the beat, the kind of stories that tend to get overlooked in favor or big action movies or corruption thrillers.
"End of Watch," which adopts a found-footage aesthetic by way of "Cops," looks at the lives of two patrol officers and best friends: ambitious ex-Marine Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and married career man Mike Zavala (Michael Peña). Ostensibly we're seeing video shot for Brian's college course but that's just a way to justify bringing his portable video camera and pinhole vest cams along his tour of duty. The film is really about their byplay, their job, and the everyday dangers and the extraordinary threats of life on the beat in Los Angeles.
I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Ayer in advance of the film's release on Blu-ray and DVD. Along with questions about the use of video technology both on the job and in the film, he talked about the real-life inspirations for the stories, Jake Gyllenhaal's commitment to the part and the film, and, of course, what he's been watching.
"End of Watch" arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, January 22, with commentary by director/writer David Ayer and five brief, promo-style featurettes that run under three minutes apiece. It will also be available On Demand.
What are you watching?
An old World War II movie called "Attack."
Was this simply for pleasure or are you working on a new project?
I'm working on a new project. It's a World War II movie, with tanks involved.
You have become quite the urban cop movie specialist. Off the top of your head, besides your own movies, what do think are the best movies about cops on the beat?
On the beat. Interesting. Well, for me, one of my favorite cop movies is "Q&A," the Sidney Lumet film with Nick Nolte. I like the old school stuff, like "Prince of the City," more character-based works that don't necessarily fetishize law enforcement but honor the people doing this stuff.
Do you find inspiration in those seventies cop films, those rougher dramas with more focus on character, the character of the community as well as the individuals themselves.
Yes, exactly. Showing the world and having the world become a character and this ecology of police and the people that they police is always fascinating.
Much of "End of Watch" is seen from the perspective of personal video cameras and dashboard cams and vest cams and other surveillance cameras, but even the shots not specifically sourced from a surveillance camera have that documentary feeling like "Cops," with a camera crew rolling with the characters. Why that first-person approach?
There's two things. One is that I wanted it to feel very realistic and use the language of YouTube and use the language of the cell phone. Video cameras are everywhere, cops video themselves, bad guys video themselves, it's germane to our world now. The other thing it does is it enables the characters to almost talk directly to the audience and involve the audience directly in their relationship. If I had taken out that device, I don't think I would have been able to create the illusion of reality I was going for.
How much of the shooting technology – the dashboard cams, the pinhole vest cameras – comes out of the technology used in the PD itself?
Some departments require officers to use wearable video cameras. There are HD cameras the guys wear. The cameras that our guys are using in the movie came from a law enforcement supply shop and the dash cam is pretty much universal equipment now.
How do you have to adapt the existing technology it for feature film?
The was the rough thing. We had to create camera systems that these guys could wear that were theatrical quality, so we ended up building these chest harnesses and miniaturizing what's called an SI-2K camera down to the size of a pack of cigarettes. I's a full theatrical resolution camera and we were able to put it anywhere we wanted. It was a lot of fun just trying to figure out where we could put these cameras.
How heavy is something like that and how much does it restrict their movement?
I think the weight is maybe 20 pounds or so, but it was designed in such a way that they could run and fight and jump and pretty much to anything. It enabled us to get some fantastic shots.
How did you want to differentiate your approach from the "found footage" horror films that are prevalent? You are using actual technology used in the police department and using it to put us on the street with them, but how do you keep that fresh in a dramatic sense?
I broke the rules and used a combination of both found footage-style photography and traditional photography and created a blend. I just didn't concern myself with the question of who's holding the camera. I didn't want to take any tool off the table. With the strictly found footage idea, you're really trying to justify all these camera positions and you end up limiting yourself and I just wanted to tell a story with everything that was available.
So when you are using the more traditional handheld photography, what are you telling your cameraman to match that found footage aesthetic?
You want the standard coverage to have the energy and style of the actual worn cameras or when an actor is holding a video camera, you want to match it so it flows and doesn't feel like the images are stuttering. So a lot of the time we shot in a found footage style, and there are entire scenes that were shot by Jake with a handheld camera. The big joke on the film was, "A few more days of this and you'll be in the union."
In the disc featurette "Honors," you tell us that Jake Gyllenhaal worked for five months on the film.
And that was just five months of training prior to photography. We shot this movie out in a couple of months. It was a real quick shoot. All the time and energy went into the prep phase and Jake and Michael (Peña) underwent a vast amount of training, and most of it from police officers so they could learn how to portray police officers and have all the details at their command so that on the day on set, all their energy went into creating these amazing performances and not worrying about tactics and language and slang and equipment. He was unbelievably dedicated.
That's quite a commitment to a film like this, which is not a big budget studio film.
Yes, exactly, it's unusual. A lot of time you just get the actor a couple of weeks out and you do some rehearsal and then go. I was really fortunate that both Jake and Michael were absolutely giving and just so committed to it and that's what comes across. The time they spent together creates this amazing chemistry where you believe these guys are best friends. That's what I really wanted. My friends who are cops, I don't think of them as cops, I think of them as my friends and that's how I wanted the audience to see these characters, to forget that they are cops and just see a couple bros who have a great friendship and really enjoy each other.