Interview: End of Watch Star Michael Peña and Writer-Director David Ayers

As a screen writer, David Ayer made a name for himself in the early ’00s with high-octane, macho guy action scripts for Training Day, S.W.A.T., and The Fast & the Furious.

Almost all of Ayer’s films (including 2005′s Harsh Times, which he wrote and directed, and 2008′s Street Kings which he directed) take place on the streets of Los Angeles (Ayer grew up in South Central) and deal with the tough choices–and consequences–both cops and criminals make daily.

Ayer’s latest film as writer and director, End of Watch is no exception. Shot entirely on hand-held digital cameras, the film captures both the jarring and mesmerizing intensity of cops on patrol in South Central and the comradeship and brotherhood of police officers. The later is thanks to Ayer’s naturalistic script (full of both ball busting and back watching) and terrific performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña (World Trade Center, Observe and Report) as long-time partners Taylor and Zavala.

The R-rated End of Watch gets plenty of good-natured mileage out of the seemingly mismatched pair, but it also continually throws them into high-stress situations that keep the film crackling even when it wades into some familiar “thin blue line” territory. But rather than play out the usual tales of LAPD corruption and compromised cops, Ayers is out to show both the humanity (including the day-in-day-out boredom) and the bravery of the job, as Taylor and Zavala are slowly drawn into a dangerous showdown with a shadowing Mexican drug cartel and the Hispanic street gangs it employs.

I and another writer sat down with David Ayers and Michael Peña in Chicago a few weeks ago to talk about both the cinematic technicalities and emotional intensity of shooting End of Watch.

End of Watch opens in theaters everywhere today.

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Michael, you and Jake did a lot of training for this, and it shows. Your characters’ behavior and relationship, how they carry themselves as cops and friends, feel very realistic.

Michael Peña: Jake and I were in weapons training, going out through South Central, spending every day for four months together. It’s one thing to be friends, and it’s another thing to try to portray brothers. Where you can say whatever you want to say and be honest. We actually carried that into the filming, where sometimes David would get frustrated with us on set and say, “Enough, you two, stop this shit right now!” It became that kind of a relationship.

So David, the film’s day room scenes with the sergeant riding herd on the wise-cracking officers, that was you on the set trying to deal with those two?

David Ayer: That’s what it felt like. At first Mike and Jake weren’t getting along and didn’t want to be around each other, and I thought it was going to be a disaster because the film is all about this friendship, these best friends. I was back tracking, thinking, “Okay, that ain’t gonna happen, what’s Plan B?” And lo and behold, over all this training they undertook, something clicked.

But if Mike and Jake had clicked from Day One, you might not have gotten the same on-screen dynamic from them.

Peña: When Jake busts peoples’ balls sometimes you can’t tell whether he’s doing it. But eventually I learned to go with it, and our sense of humor started to get similar. But also it was a matter of acting, too–back-and-forth, back-and-forth. Sometimes it was an improv of two words that really helped the scene and made it breathe. We rehearsed it like it was a play. We knew the entire script a month before shooting, and then we would just drill and drill and drill to try and get deeper: “What does this mean, what does this mean, what does this mean?”

Ayer: Friendship comes from respect, and on an acting level they’re both really talented actors and gifted, and that’s where they developed the respect for each other. You watch them huck fireballs back and forth, and after a while they stood back and said to each other, “Damn, you’re pretty good.”

David, how many hours of footage did you shoot? Did you design out the camera work for each scene in advance or just shoot and sort it out later?

Ayer: In traditional photography you’ll go in with a shot list, and it’s a cookbook, it’s a formula, and I didn’t shoot this movie that way. I just knew the kinds of cameras I’d use on the day and styles of coverage.

We’d do hand-held, and Jake and Mike would wear special vests with the cameras in them, and then Jake would have a camera in his hand, so we’d get these images I’ve never seen before. The immediacy sucks you in–it has that effect that you’re in the world. And with that many cameras running all in the digital space, I’d never call “cut.” We’d just keep running the scene again and again and again.

Peña: It was awesome—thanks for that.

Ayer: It’s a very freeing technique, but you come back to editing with this massive take of material.  It was the digital equivalent of a million and a half feet of film. An unbelievable amount of footage to go through and then cut all that down to an hour and 40 minutes when you have days of coverage was not an easy task.

At first the film seems like it’s going to be another “found-footage” film, but you used it as a stylistic choice, not a gimmick.

Ayer: In my mind, found-footage is great for specific kinds of genre movies, like Blair Witch, Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity. But I didn’t want to take any tool off the table by limiting myself to the “rules” of found footage. The film geeks may ask, “Who’s holding the camera in that shot?” Who cares? If you’re halfway through the movie and you’re still wondering who’s holding the camera, I’ve lost you. Walk out and get your money back.

Michael, is digital shooting is more freeing for the actor?

Peña: You were always on camera. Sometimes there are scenes that make me nervous, and you say to the director, “Just give me two takes in a row.” In other movies, between those takes they might be like, “Here, let me just fix this one little light,” and you lose momentum. I wanted to fool people as to whether I actually acting, doing the dialogue. That’s when I do my best work. Not every piece lends itself to that.

David, as a screenwriter, how did you balance the strive for authenticity with the narrative needs of a film?

Ayer: It’s interesting, because different things seem inauthentic to different people. As far as authenticity, the things that they encounter in the movie are real, they’re happening on the streets of L.A. every day.

In terms of narrative, you have to have a three-act structure, a beginning, middle and end. You gotta set stuff up and create a situation. It’s really a very traditional, orthodox script—it’s just the wires are hidden. In the traditional movie-making business there’s money on the table, and you’re trying to grab the whole pot, and I’m comfortable with letting a lot slip through my fingers just for the sake of having a viewpoint.

What I didn’t do was create was this big cartel-centric sort of monster villain. In the film there are these shadows out there, this machinery that’s much bigger than our actors, but I felt that personalizing and showing too much of the cartel story on screen would take away from Jake and Mike in the car. Once you put a face on evil, then you can define it and you know where it is. But by keeping a little bit masked and pulling back, I felt I could make it work.

Peña: If you read just the scenes in the car, it works so much like a play. You could do that whole section with just our characters in the car. The other stuff, all the action on the streets, is awesome, but you could have a whole story, a whole movie just in the car.

Ayer: I would have done that, but I had to have some action to be able to sell the movie.

Peña: The dialogue was so awesome that you really wanted to get it right. A lot of stuff was word for word. I usually don’t memorize lines word for word, as long as I get the gist of it. But here this guy was writing specific sentences, like a Mamet, Glengarry Glen Ross kind of thing. He’d let us change things a little bit, but if we changed too much, he’d be like “No, dude, that’s setting up something on page 90.” It was just a big spider web.

I was tired as shit every night when I got home from this shoot, but I’d be like, “Okay, that was good.” There were scenes Jake and I rehearsed a hundred times, but we were working for a common cause, but finally pulling it off, you get this high of accomplishment, like in sports. And sometimes when scenes end up on the cutting room floor, you think, “Shit, I could have done something about it, I could have made it better. I failed that scene.” They’re like fallen comrades, those lost scenes.

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