What self-respecting director would enlist – nay, entrust – his actors to film their own scenes? Such an idea calls up memories of the nausea-inducing Blair Witch Project. But in seeking a bit of a technological shakeup, David Ayer, writer and director of police drama End of Watch in theaters Sept. 21, strapped cameras to his two main stars and let them guide the story, about the Los Angeles Police Department, through their own eyes and movements as they patrol a particularly seedy section of the City of Angels.
Ayer, a veteran of cop-buddy films, has walked this beat before—he’s best-known for writing 2001’s Training Day starring Denzel Washington, also highlighting the inner workings of the LAPD. His goal was to add a modicum of authenticity and drama to the standard police-chasing-the-bad-guys flick. Which means, Ayer says, that by letting the actors film their own scenes as well as using actual cruiser-camera footage, acclaimed actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena became his “visual collaborators.”
For this week’s print edition, TIME’s Belinda Luscombe watched the “found footage”-style movie with a group of steely LAPD veterans, who sounded off about the film’s accurate depiction of patrolling the streets. And writer-director David Ayer debriefed TIME about how he made End of Watch authentic.
TIME: What’s your fascination with the LAPD?
David Ayer: I grew up in South L.A. and I used to run from the cops during what I call the paleo-LAPD days. Now it’s a much different department than I saw growing up, but it’s always been a cutting-edge organization. It’s always been groundbreaking as far as law enforcement technology: the first air unit, first SWAT team, first guys to do radio dispatch cars, crime labs.
But it’s always been an understaffed agency that patrols a very large, very diverse area. Historically they started off recruiting former Marines, white guys, who had to be a certain height and a certain weight and well, a very similar appearance. And I’ve watched this organization evolve and seeing that evolution has been fascinating. Now it’s a department that reflects the people it polices, so you have this incredible sort of gender and ethnic diversity in its ranks that you didn’t have before. And as a filmmaker, they’ve got the coolest uniforms and they’ve got the coolest cars.
All of your films have portrayed very different sides of police officers. Training Day dealt with a rogue cop; whereas this one underscores the tension and emotion of the patrolling with a partner. Is it important to see so many different angles?
I wanted to take people on the inside. Behind that badge, it’s really a secret society, in the sense that outsiders never understand what it’s like inside that community.
It’s a closed-off culture because a lot of people are wary about cops, yet in dealing with them and knowing them as friends, they’re some of the coolest people I know. I’m comfortable with cops, they’re like children and dogs – they know who likes them. And they just have this amazing life wisdom that comes from what they see on the streets, and as a writer and as a storyteller, those are the kinds of people I’m attracted to. It’s two friends living their lives and getting married and having kids. Ironically, the movie actually tested better with older women than it did with young guys.
But surely that’s not the dominant tone of the movie. What makes this movie particularly gritty?
The streets are the streets. You’ve got bad guys roaming around, you’ve got [Hell’s Angels], you’ve got gangs, you’ve got drugs, all those problems are very real and I think that’s where it comes from. When soldiers deploy, they go into harm’s way for months at a time, but then they can come home and be safe and decompress. A cop will do that every day – go into harm’s way and come home, go into harm’s way and come home. And there’s sort of nobility in the guy that can pick himself up and hit the streets again.
How does that impact them mentally, in your view?
Well that’s the cliché of the bitter cop with the empty fridge with just vodka in it, and it’s true, those guys exist. But my experience has been with the people that come home to a wife or a husband, who have to be fathers and mothers to their children, and they’re able to leave the streets on the streets.
What do other filmmakers do wrong in portraying cops?
They fetishize the equipment and the cars and the badges and the situations, and they never get to the heart behind the badges. When you watch this movie you forget that they’re cops.
Were you thinking about actual cops’ reactions as you were making it?
I was, but more in the sense that I really wanted to get it right, I wanted to get all the details right. I wanted it to be as seamless as possible and not have anyone call B.S. on me, because if you’re a professional cop, that’s your world. So a really good friend of mine, Jaime Fitzsimons, who spent 14 years on the job with the LAPD, was on set and helped prepare the actors and trained with the actors for five months. Nine times out of ten, I’d defer to him and say “Alright, you’re right, I want to get that right.” And on the tenth occasion, I’d say “Nah dude, I gotta do the director stuff here. We’re going to go Hollywood on this one.”
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What’s your favorite anecdote spliced in by a consultant that you never would have known otherwise?
An active LAPD at Newton [in South Central L.A.] helped me get a lot of those details right. There’s a scene where the guys go in the back of a liquor store and they open up their vests in the cooler, to let the cool air get inside their vests. He was the guy that told me about that — the first thing he and his partner would do was hit this one liquor store, buy some drinks and stand by the freezer and cool off.
You were quoted at Comic-Con saying, “In Hollywood we’ve lost our way. Technology has overwhelmed the heart. I wanted to bring filmmaking brought back to the heart. True characters, with defined relationships, which made the industry for 80 years.” How does End of Watch back up your statement?
Cops routinely use cameras to protect themselves, but we rarely get a first-person view. This was the first footage I’ve seen that was cops filming themselves – for themselves. And there was something so raw and honest. When Jake and Mike were given these cameras, they’re not only my actors, they’re my visual collaborators. Now they’re freakin’ shooting it. It’s not just guys in the camera department anymore. Jake had to figure out how to see the world through his own character’s eyes. And there’s just something really different and exciting about that.
That must have made for a slightly tricky editing process.
Editing was a nightmare. I basically walked into the editing room and just threw this tangled Gordian knot of excessive coverage at my editor. We shot an incredible amount of footage.
What do you hope the reception will be to this film?
At the end of the day, the reason I made End of Watch is because of the trend where you see our servicemen and women in uniform at the airport and you go up and shake their hand and say “Hey, thank you for your service.” Maybe now somebody will start doing that to the police officers who go into harm’s way on our behalf.