Writer/Director David Ayer Interview STREET KINGS

     April 9, 2008

Opening this Friday is the new David Ayer film “Street Kings.” If David’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he previously wrote and directed “Harsh Times,” and he also wrote “Training Day.”

While some filmmakers love to switch genres after every movie, David has once again made a film that deals with the LAPD. Here’s the synopsis:

Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) is a veteran LAPD cop who finds life difficult to navigate after the death of his wife. When evidence implicates him in the execution of his former partner, Detective Terrance Washington (Terry Crews), Ludlow sets out on a quest to find the real murderers responsible and bring them to justice. With the help of a young Robbery Homicide Detective (Chris Evans), the two team up to tackle the diverse communities of Los Angeles. Forest Whitaker plays Captain Wander, Ludlow’s supervisor, whose duties include keeping him within the confines of the law and out of the clutches of Internal Affairs Captain Biggs (Hugh Laurie).

To help promote the film, I recently participated in roundtable interviews with most of the cast. I’ve already posted the Chris Evans, Cedric the Entertainer, Common and Forest Whitakerinterviews. Up now is David’s.

During our time we tried to find out why he always writes about Police Officers and what he has coming up next. If you like David’s work…you’ll definitely like hearing what he has to say.

As always, you can either read the transcript below or listen to the audio of the interview as an MP3 by clicking here. Finally, here’s a link to the movie clips we posted for “Street Kings.” Again, “Street Kings” opens this Friday at theaters everywhere.

Question: What is about police officers that you’re so hungry to write about them?

Ayer: What is it? They have guns and authority and they get into interesting situations so there’s an inherent drama hard wired into law enforcement. You read the newspapers, the police stories, what happens to the cops. I also think that everyone appreciates a good detective yarn, a good detective story, a good mystery story, but it’s also an arena that I’m familiar with and that I know very well. So I’m comfortable with it. I’m a developing directing here and I figured that it would make sense to tackle a story that takes place in a world that I’m comfortable with so that I could really focus on my actors and character and performance.

Question: Chris Evans said that you’d taken acting classes before this movie which is surprising to me because the performances in ‘Harsh Times’ were so good. Was there something that you felt like, ‘If I’d only known –’, something like that?

Ayer: I’m not in the class running scenes. I’m going there to be around actors and absorb their culture. It’s different because it’s that sort of their private world and so to go in there and see how they workshop stuff and understand how they think, what they’re concerned about and how they build a performance just gives me more tools on the set to help shape a performance. It also gives me their language so that I can talk to the actors using their language. That way they can understand what I want better. I’ll always go and do that sort of thing. It’s all about acting and I think there are directors out there that maybe don’t understand the actor’s process, understand what they go through or utilize them to the fullest. I find that if you really push people and you really challenge people and you cast actors, people who want to act and have that fire in them, and again, you’re able to talk their language you can really help build a real character. That’s always my goal, having believable, three dimensional characters that don’t know they’re in a movie.

Question: Chris said that you helped you develop a back story for him that doesn’t appear in the movie. Cedric said that you let him incorporate some elements of one of his relatives into his character. As a writer, putting the story on paper first where do you develop the flexibility to allow everyone else to throw something into the pie?

Ayer: I think there are writers out there that can be really protective and dogmatic about their writing. For me it’s a means to an end. It’s the lumber that you build the house out of. I always think in terms of motivation, character history, life history. When you have any good character are they a freaking Air sign or a Fire sign? Are they lactose intolerant? How did they grow up? What we’re their grades in school? Do they have any college? We’re they married before? Did their parents fight or did they get along? All of those things will shape how someone sees the world so if you can give an actor that sort of information or find things in their life that reflect the back story of the character they’re playing that gives them an incredible advantage as far as playing a character on set because all of a sudden it becomes a real person they’re being. They’re not just acting. They’re being at that point. I open the process as much as possible. I try to be really collaborative with the actors and give them the fuel that they need, the information that they need and then also involve them in the writing process so they can have a sort of ownership of the dialogue that they’re saying.

Question: Are there other interesting examples other than what Chris and Cedric told us? Did Keanu [Reeves] have a whole story that we don’t see in the movie?

Ayer: I mean, he plays a guy who’s grieving over the loss of his wife and that’s a character shading that carries through. It is in text. It is in the story. We always talked about the fact that at one point he was a very idealistic person, a very idealistic cop. We had a whole biography for this guy, that his dad worked at the Camero plant in Van Nuys and got laid off in the ’80’s, and he was kind of a sports guy and wrestled in high school and then got out and had a really sort of cheesy string of jobs and then the LAPD was hiring. He sort of got into that and suddenly became somebody and found that he had an aptitude and identity and people liked him and he was valued. Then he sort of went off the rails from there as he’s manipulated. No one ever starts out as a bad guy.

Question: I was going to ask you that. It’s very easy especially in L.A. to be a dirty cop because it’s so ugly. How did you get to the underbelly because it’s ugly out there and could turn a saint towards evil?

Ayer: Yeah, that’s the thing, I’m always fascinated by corruption, what it does to people. In the universe of my movies, my films and my scripts, corruption is a part of life that I take for granted. So the question is how it affects the individual, how does it affect different people. Some people just go wrong. They just go hardcore wrong and they don’t care. Some people justify it. ‘I’m doing this because it’s for the greater good and it’s how things need to get done.’ So that’s something that I’ve always really liked to explore.

Question: Tom and his wife, that was a storyline we didn’t get to see, but was mentioned from time to time. Was that intentional or were there scenes that showed the wife that got cut out?

Ayer: No. We never shot any flashbacks or anything like that. There will be some deleted scenes on the DVD and I think that one of them will have another mention of the wife earlier on, but again it’s sort of her shadow that’s something Keanu had to bring to set. It’s part of that character’s journey where this person that he was close to and loved betrayed him and that’s sort of primes him to be receptive to the idea that maybe there’s more betrayal around him.

Question: Do you see this movie as a part of a trilogy at all, or do you see yourself staying in this genre for a while?

Ayer: Oh, jeez. Really, it’s my goal to open it up. I really want to do something else. You never sit down and plan a career because you take it as it comes and I had a wonderful opportunity to here in an arena that I know, like I said. As a growing, developing, learning director it’s my comfort zone. Now that I know a little bit more about directing and working with actors I want to do a military movie, a science fiction movie, a thriller. The next project will not be law enforcement.

Question: Do you have an extensive background in law enforcement?

Ayer: I just got my ass beat by cops when I was a kid [laughs]. I live near downtown and so I saw a side of it that a lot of people didn’t see. So that kind of opens your eyes to the fact that it’s not Disney Land. Also, a lot of my friends are cops which is fun and they’re really honest with me and just over the years you accumulate knowledge and I’ve talked to people on both sides of the line. I’ve talked to the homies and I’ve talked to the cops. It’s fascinating to me. It’s just highly interesting because I think that people have a perception about law enforcement, how clean it is and when you’re out in the trenches there’s a lot of gray areas.

Question: I really liked the community service department.

Ayer: The complaints.

Question: That as interesting and true. What part of L.A. did you grow up in?

Ayer: West Adams. South.

Question: What was it like shooting on location in some of those areas with the homies?

Ayer: We had no problems. We go on the scouts and we talk to people. My location manager, Earl West, was the location guy on training day and he knows everyone. He knows the neighborhoods and is just a really nice guy and people respect him. He’s really good at talking to people. We’re up in people’s living rooms and stuff.

Question: If you mentioned Keanu Reeves would people just let you in?

Ayer: Well, it’s like we were talking to this guy and he knew I wrote ‘Training Day’ and did ‘Harsh Times’ and was like, ‘Okay, this guy gets it.’ In those neighborhoods your front yard is your living room. The street out front is like in your house, your living room. So if you go in with that attitude that we’re shooting in someone’s home then you get that cooperation and you respect them. We didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t have security guards to keep people away. So we had neighborhood kids running through and people from the neighborhood coming through. I had absolutely no problems though because they’re people and you get what you give. If you treat people nice they’re going to treat you nice. We had no problems.

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Question: Is L.A. a place that you’ll continually want to write about?

David Ayer: Yeah. I mean, look, there’s directors that focus on New York in every movie and I guess that’s a more accepted thing, right, because I guess it’s the cultural center of the universe and L.A. is what it is. But I mean, I know L.A. and I grew up here. I know the streets. I know the angles. I know how to film it. I love this city. I’m not comfortable anywhere else. So I think I’ll definitely revisit L.A. in the future.

Question: Were you conscious of trying to avoid locations that were either in ‘Training Day’, ‘Harsh Times’ or ‘Collateral’?

Ayer: Not really. It’s a big city. I don’t think that we covered any of the same ground. A lot of the stuff looks the same. Once you get south of the I10 it’s pretty much the same. East L.A. is East L.A. South L.A. is South L.A. and downtown is downtown. I tried to go into different areas and I was going for specific looks. I was very specific about scouting. We did a lot of scouting and locked down a lot of good locations, and I shot in The Valley for the first time too.

Question: What’s this ‘Wild Bunch’ remake? Are you involved with that?

Ayer: That was something that I was developing over at Warner Brothers and it’s still in development.

Question: Why not keep it that way?

Ayer: It has nothing to do with the original. I’ll put it that way.

Question: Is it a western?

Ayer: No. Modern day drug cartel in Mexico. It’s not a remake.

Question: Can you talk about working with Keanu?

Ayer: I loved it. I mean, he has an astounding work ethic. It’s interesting because you hangout with a guy like that and you see why he’s a star. He knows his angles. He knows the camera. He’s very camera conscious. On set he transforms and he really becomes the character. He said something interesting to me which was interesting. He said that this was the hardest movie he’d ever worked on – physically, mentally, all aspects of it. We were doing some twenty one hour days and he’s in every scene. There was one day that we had him come in a half day late because he wasn’t in the shots, but that was it. Other than that he was in everything. He did his own stunts. I know that he had some injuries and he was working around that because I put him through some really rigorous training. I had him doing martial arts and sparring, like fighting for real and he was taking headshots and I was like, ‘Oh, no. That doesn’t look good.’ We’re like two weeks out and he’s taking a headshot. I’m like, ‘Don’t tell the insurance people.’ We had him on the range shooting and had him working with SWAT dogs to learn the tactical mindset. Then there was a lot of rehearsal. I brought everyone in to rehearse against him because I’m a big believer in rehearsal. That way you have a plan so that when you get to set you can throw it out the window and do something else which I do a lot as a director. I’ll be like, ‘You remember that thing we talked about, forget it. Do this.’

Question: Is it hard to get name actors to do rehearsals?

Ayer: Not in this case. Everyone was really giving with their time. Everyone was really generous. I think they understood that it was for the good of them.

Question: Cedric mentioned that you had a scene where they had redo a shoot about fifteen hundred times or so?

Ayer: [laughs] That sounds about right.

Question: Did that make the final cut?

Ayer: Yeah.

Question: It did?

Ayer: Yeah, they’re walking up the stairs. They’re going up the stares. I think we shot this way, that way, that way, this, this and this. We covered the hell out of it. We fire hosed those stairs, but I get really meticulous. I get really specific and I won’t quit until I got it. I think that we did an insert of a gun that was probably twenty takes.

Question: How do you know when you got it?

Ayer: You know. You just feel it. It’s in your gut. Sometimes it’s like, ‘Okay, the sun is coming up. We’ve got two seconds. We’re going to lose our dark –’ or ‘The sun is going down and we’re going to lose our day.’ So it’s always a balancing act and I had a great crew that worked under pressure well and the actors really stepped up under pressure. I was really blessed on this. When DVD’s come out and they do like the director’s final cut, this is my final cut. The movie is my final cut. That’s the movie that I stand by.

Question: Can you talk about your sensibility compared to James Elroy and did you guys talk at all?

Ayer: Yeah, I showed him the movie and he was really happy with it. His original script was set against the background of the O.J. verdict. It really focused on the sort of racism, old school LAPD. Obviously in this incarnation it’s very present day and it could’ve taken place this morning, this movie, and in the execution there’s a misdirect where you think this guy is going to be a really racist character and it’s just a setup that turns out to be a tool he’s using to get what he wants and it’s not really who he is. So the Elroy side of things definitely focuses on a certain kind of officer, certainly the old breed, guys that you don’t see too much of these days. They’ve been working to slowly get them out of the department, a lot of the guys retiring were like that. So I tried to bring in a more modern and corporate LAPD where you get that feel. A friend of mine who’s cop out here and has been for fourteen years, he’s a detective and he tells me that it’s like working for IBM or something. There’s aspects of the job that’s just like any office anywhere and that’s what I tried to capture differently than what I’ve done before or from some of the Elroy stuff that I’ve seen.

Question: You’ve written some scripts for other people that are done and ready to go. Are you thinking about tackling some of those yourself?

Ayer: I’ll be honest with you, I have no idea what I’m going to do next. I want to do a military movie or science fiction or something else outside of this genre, but as far as a specific direction or project I’m just really committed to this film and getting it released. Then ask me that again on April 12th.

Question: As a director are shooting at all in digital, are you planning on it and what about three-d?

Ayer: I haven’t seen a digital camera out there and don’t believe there is one that can replicate film space. You have a lot more latitude in film. You have a lot more definition with the blacks and film doesn’t clip like digital does which means that if there’s a really bright light there’ll be no signal. A film has shoulders which means there’s more sensitivity. There’s more latitude. It’s analog. Think of it that way. So I absolutely believe in a digital post process. We did a DI on this. We scanned the negative and worked in the digital realm and then shot back out to film, but I’ll always shoot on film. I think you can’t beat film photography. One day they will have a chip, a CCD, that can absolutely replicate film, but I don’t want to use it.

Question: Can you talk about staging that chase scene through the neighborhood?

Ayer: Ooh, boy. That was a tough one. We had two nights to shoot that and that’s a lot of setups and a lot of action going on. We were running through people’s houses and we’re doing that at like four in the morning and we had dogs going off. It was a lot of fun though, a lot of fun. To Chris’ credit, the guy is leaping all of this stuff on his own accord and then my buddy Noel who was playing Quicks, he’s a smoker and his kind of like hacking. Poor guy. I put him through hell and I do every movie, but I really enjoyed that sequence and it came out really well. Films are made in editing. I’ll say that.

Question: It’s okay to stop a few times then?

Ayer: Yeah, and I mean, my God, he runs out of that house of the Mexican family and there’s a gate and he goes straight into this gate. He thought it was going to open. It’s like in that neighborhood everything is locked and welded and stuff and he hits the gate with his hand and just dropped. I was like, ‘Oh, no. We’re done.’ The medic gave him some aspirin and I yelled at him and we were good to go [laughs].

Question: Did you remember to take the spokes out of the barbed wire?

Ayer: That was plastic. We couldn’t throw him into real barbed wire. That stuff will kill you, but he would’ve done it though. He’s dynamite.

Question: The Korean kid, when he blurts out that line and talks about drive Jew – was that in the original script and how do you drive Jew?

Ayer: That was in the original script. That was always there. Yeah, I don’t know. Everyone took a hit in this.

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