Capone watches his six while talking with END OF WATCH actor Michael Peña and writer-director David Ayer!!!
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
For years, David Ayer has written and directed film about law enforcement, but usually it was about corrupt cops living the high life and the good cop that sets out to shut them down. Although he started out his Hollywood career writing screenplays for films such as U-571 (Ayer is a former Navy man himself) and the original THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, his focus on police began with writing TRAINING DAY with Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke, followed by DARK BLUE (starring Kurt Russell), and S.W.A.T. (with Colin Ferrell and Samuel L. Jackson).
But it was with the little seen HARSH TIMES (one of the finest Christian Bale movies you've probably never seen, and bravo if you have) that Ayer began directing his scripts. Although his follow-up as a directed was the James Ellroy-co-written STREET KINGS (with Keanu Reeves and Chris Evans), it wasn't long before Ayer began to see that the most interesting part of a police officer's work was the day to day and the life off the job, and so he wrote one of the most authentic police tales I've ever seen: END OF WATCH, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña.
The title comes from what an officer writes in his daily log at the end of every shift to indicate he made to back safely. It's a transition from the job to home life, and it's the place where this movie thrives in showing us both the harsh realities on the street and the family and personal lives of these two cops. Ironically, "End of Watch" is also something that is written on many a squad house plaque honoring fallen officers who died on duty.
Gyllenhaal, Peña, and other actors playing police in END OF WATCH were put through a vigorous five-month program that was like a condensed police academy, where they received weapons training, tactical run throughs, and ride-alongs where they were shown some of the roughest areas of Los Angeles and saw a great deal of harrowing things (Gyllenhaal even saw someone die in front of him). All of this preparation lends such an authenticity to END OF WATCH that it makes the film impossible to shake.
I spoke with Ayer and Peña when they were in Chicago just before they took the film to the Toronto Film Festival recently. The evening before the interview, we did a post-screening Q&A with an audience made up largely of Chicago police officers and their spouses, all of whom were clearly moved by the film. Please enjoy my talk with David Ayer and Michael Peña…
Capone: I don’t think too many of the actual law enforcement that were in the crowd asked questions, but did people come up to you afterwards to talk?
David Ayer: Yeah, the cops came up afterwards and were like “Dude, take a picture with us” and “That was awesome.”
Capone: I was curious about their feedback.
DA: They thought it was legit.
Capone: And that’s ultimately your goal, right?
DA: Exactly, a little bit of artificial reality.
Capone: You talked last night about the five months of training you did even before you started shooting the film. But how did you train for the other half of this movie--playing a married cop who’s getting ready for a baby? Was that just as tough?
Michael Peña: He was demanding--and notice I’m not saying “asking”--he was demanding the same kind of preparation with my wife [played by Natalie Martinez], because what would happen is invariably we would just go on set, there would be a little bit of flirty husband-and-wife stuff, things that would happen. And I remember talking to David, and he was like “Yeah, I don’t want that. I want her to be your best friend, your soul mate, but without playing that. These are two people that are there that have history.” He’s like “That’s way different. You can’t act history. So just hang out,” and we did.
We hung out at least two times a week. We went on like mini dates all of the time, dude. Seriously. [laughs] It was weird, because she was going out with this dude at the time, and he’d come pick her up at one o’clock in the morning, and I’m like “See ya,” after having a long dinner. I’m sure he was like, “What the fuck is going on here?” But that’s the kind of thing I think that separates this movie from a lot of other movies, because there’s not too many times where you're afforded the time, but here we did the exact opposite. Instead of shooting for four months, we rehearsed for four months and then shot for a month.
Capone: So you wanted him to have a whole second life like on and off the job before you even got started rolling with the cameras?
MP: I think it was one life.
DA: Exactly. That’s the thing. I told both of these guys, “Whatever your normal life and routine is, it’s going to be severely impacted by this program. You guys need to change how you live your life. Your world needs to change a little bit, and from that transformation will come a transformation in performance.”
Capone: Both the actors and the people who might be financing this film, did they react differently to this screenplay than they did some of your more “bad-cop/good-cop” stories that you’ve done before?
DA: Yeah. You’d have a hard time getting TRAINING DAY made today just because at the time it was fresh, and that’s all kind of played out now. It’s expected that I will write a good cop script, you know. I know the world, it’s in my DNA, I know how cops think, and I understand the streets. The trouble with this one is in communicating through the script what the movie is, and scripts are always an imperfect medium. There’s the issue of, “Well there’s no conflict between the guys.”
So in movie land one guy should be fucking the other guys old lady, or one wants to steal drugs and the other guy doesn’t, or one wants to be violent. That’s the normal movie conflict thing that you would see, but that’s not real life, and I wanted to show real life, and the conflict wasn’t really in the script, but these guys fight and bicker like an old married couple, and it was something that I knew they would have to find amongst themselves and that they would find it and it would end up in the movie. It’s really about this team against the world; it’s two guys versus the world.
Capone: How did you first get interested in telling these police stories, both the more ramped-up ones like S.W.A.T. versus some of the more recent stories?
DA: As an arena for drama, it’s hard to beat, because you immediately have life-and-death stakes, you have power and dominance over others, you have the concept of justice and wielding justice and right and wrong, good and evil. So it’s a fantastic microcosm for the larger issues that we all wrestle with in life. The badge is so loaded with symbolism and meaning that it’s inherently dramatic.
Capone: When I was introducing the film last night, I was talking about Michael and saying the term “versatile actor” seemed to have been invented for you. You are a funny guy in the movies where you’re supposed to be funny and you just play the hardcore dramas solidly as well. But this film gives you a chance to do both. There’s a lot of humor here.
MP: I think David said it before that everything you did was training you to do this movie; I felt the same way. I actually was told maybe 10 years ago when I was auditioning for sitcoms by the manager that I had at the time, “Mike, you’re not funny. You're just not funny.” And that was cool that she challenged me, because I was like, “I’m going to be funny. I’m going to find out a way to be funny,” and I studied comedy, and I would be like “Yeah, but I don’t like that kind of comedy.” You can actually make something funny without it actually reading funny, based on two people bumping heads or the element of surprise, and there are little things that you can do. But then I was like “Screw it, it’s got to be all on instinct anyways.”
You have to be open enough to think that you can pull it off, and I was scared shitless when I was doing OBSERVE & REPORT, because it’s such a crazy character and I was like “I think I can be funny!” There were some days that I just didn’t feel funny, which is okay, but this was one of the most fulfilling pieces that I’ve done, because I can do both, but it’s not like I’m trying to be funny. Sometimes he is being funny, and he pulls it off, and sometimes he’s trying to be funny and I was like, “This is not a good joke,” and he’s like, “It’s not supposed to be.” I was like “Oh, I like your style.” So it’s okay. That’s what’s even more real, when you’re trying to tell a joke, and it’s not a good joke. It’s kind of cool that, “Oh, this guy just told a joke that bombed, but it’s still alright.”
Capone: About a month and a half ago I pulled OBSERVE & REPORT off the shelf and watched it again, because I love it so much and I wanted to show it to somebody who hadn’t seen it before.
MP: Dude, I go to Coachella or Lollapalooza and it’s like, “Dude, it’s fuckin' Dennis!” [Laughs] They love that character man, it’s crazy.
Capone: So for any time you’re choosing a new role, is fear something that you listen to and say “I want to do that, because I don’t know if I can do it.”
MP: For sure. I don’t know how many times--and David kept saying “Good,”--me and Jake would look at the script, and there was so much dialog, and this was the first time that it wasn’t like plot-driven dialog. Usually you're telling the audience what they should think and you’re telling them the story to make it seem grander. But this was like a David Mamet play.
Capone: It’s conversation, not exposition.
MP: Yeah, but even as I was reading it, there was a certain rhythm to it, hard-hitting ideas. They were simple ideas, but they were just from different viewpoints and different attack angles from one idea, and I don’t know how many times in rehearsal I was like, “Okay dude, I’m scared shitless,” and then he’d be like, “Good, work through it.” But that’s it, if it doesn’t scare you… I was always a little nervous every day during shooting, which I think is a very natural thing, because I put so much work into it that you’re like, “I just want it to be good.” So then that adds to the pressure, which is fine. The worst kind of pressure is like, “Dude, I didn’t study man. Let’s see what happens,” but then it’s kind of apathetic and lazy, and I remember when I was doing CRASH and I was doing that monologue and I was supposed to play it cool, I was so nervous.
Capone: In talking about the authenticity that you were striving for here, you said last night that really no one’s gotten it quite right on TV and in movies. Michael, you were on "The Shield," which I thought was one of the greatest cop shows I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if it was authentic or not, but I liked it. David, what were you particularly targeting that you wanted to get right that no one else had gotten right before?
MP: Can I say real quick that for "The Shield" I went on one ride-along, and we didn’t see anything whatsoever. Also, I went to the range for about half an hour, so that gives you some perspective. Versus five months of extensive training. For TV it was like half-hour ride-along, half hour of shooting, you can do a cop movie.
DA: The LAPD is such a specific force and it’s very professional, and it has a very specific look with their equipment and their vehicles. Everything is very specific and very clean and very dialed in, and it’s something as simple as giving the guys their body armor. Normally there’s this foam body armor that actors wear in movies. Instead of that, I got them real ballistic vests, gave it to them early, so they did all of their training in the ballistic vests, because over time they conform to your body an it creates a very specific silhouette that you see with LAPD cops, so I wanted them to have that silhouette.
Their gun, leather, and boots, they got early on, so they are doing all of their training in the actual equipment they were going to use in the movie. What that does is they're wearing it, it’s not something they're handed by a prop guy for the first time on day one; it’s theirs and it’s like a glove and it’s lived in, and they're comfortable with it and they know how to manipulate everything and where to put their hands and all of that police training.
There’s a textbook vehicle stop where they walk up on a cartel guy in a pick-up truck, and they had to drill those tactics again and again, so they had the muscle memory and they understood tactically why they're doing what they're doing. And all of that training in tactics, when they get to set now, is like a memory, it's muscle memory, and they have that, so all of their tension can now go to doing the scene and doing the acting. So there’s no question about what they are doing and why they are doing it, all of the energy goes into performance, and they feel like they live in that world. They feel and look like real cops.
MP: That was one of the only times that I actually felt like the character. CRASH was definitely one of them, this was one of them. Comedy is a different thing, but I felt like I almost got there with WORLD TRADE CENTER, but if I were to do it again… I don’t know what I would do actually. But there have only been a couple of times in my lifetime where I’ve done that.
Capone: It’s hard to drill instinct into someone, and really that’s what you’re talking about, just making it instinctual rather than acting.
DA: Exactly, it's instinct.
Capone: We talked last night about the female officers, but we didn’t really talk about Natalie and Anna [Kendrick, who plays Gyllenhaal's girlfriend]. I have never seen Anna do anything like this, this kind of emotional…
DA: Dramatic, kind of serious…
Capone: How did she convince you that she was right for this?
DA: It’s funny, I did a little music video with her and I thought she was fantastic.
Capone: Oh right, the LCD Soundsystem video? I saw that.
DA: Yeah, but she’s known as more of a comedic actress, and the role is so serious, and often in movies there’s a certain kind of actress who normally gets cast to be “the wife/girlfriend,” and when you cast that person, suddenly everything becomes über serious, and by casting someone who is perceived as being a little lighter spirit then when you get to the heavy-duty stuff that happens in the movie, somehow I think it just makes it feel more real, and there’s also more tragedy to it of this fun person projecting these ideas going through this. She crushed it.
Capone: I thought Natalie did a great job assuming the role that I’m sure a lot of cop wives are, with bringing the new cop wives into the fold. We know that she and Anna are going to become friends..
MP: And we talked about that every time before we had our little mini-dates. She’s a very independent woman and she sometimes plays the badass, and one day, she was like “You know what? I’ve just decided to take care of you. I’m just going to take care of you,” but on her own determinism. It’s her saying it and it’s her deciding it, so it’s almost like empowering her to be like, “Yeah, I’m going to take care of you,” and so she thinks she is taking care of me, I think I’m taking care of her, and I didn’t even really think about that, but that’s putting in the time.
Capone: I want to talk a little bit about the use of cameras--the hand held, the clip on, the more traditional means of filming. I don’t want to call it a "found footage," because it’s not like it was lost and then found. But it’s non-traditional photography. Why was mixing it up like that important? What do you think that added that you couldn’t have gotten otherwise?
DA: Well I got these references that were shot by cops, everything from hand-held video cameras to cameras they are wearing to dash cam, and there’s just something so strong and compelling and inherently dramatic in that coverage style, and I’m like, “Well I have never really seen that in a movie.” Then the task was to fold those styles of images--I call it like “YouTube coverage.” Basically YouTube was my reference for this, and I think people see images differently now than they did in the past, and this movie violates every rule of coverage, of editing, of shooting style, mixing formats. I do all the things in it you’re not supposed to and you get your hands slapped in normal movie making land. But it works somehow, and it was a big gamble and it all works, but I didn’t want to take any tool off the table in photographing this movie.
Capone: And that’s the thing, you don’t use any one format exclusively, which is maybe the biggest rule breaker of them all. Even a guy in the audience last night said to me, “You’ve got to use one or the other; you can’t do both.” I’m like, “Yeah, you can. Why not?”
DA: That’s the thing: there are no rules. It’s whatever helps tell the story, and the movie should stand on its own as a creative endeavor. “Who’s holding the camera?” Who cares? [laughs]
MP: We talked about how you were going to shoot, and I guess in the editing as well, it’s like even if it didn’t look the prettiest, it’s the one that told the best story.
Capone: Jake might not be the first guy that comes to mind in this kind of role, and I know he was the first one to sign on. What did you like about the way he approached this?
DA: That’s the thing. Normally for this kind of role, you would cast very hard, edgy, über-masculine leading kind of guy. You would cast the guy that you would expect basically, and when you meet cops, it’s like not a lot of people are like that in real life in the first place, these heightened sort of movie roles, and I wanted a real person with dimension and flaws and faults and an emotional life. He’s playing a young guy, a guy in his mid- to late 20s struggling with all of these issues, and Jake is a very thoughtful guy who struggles with life. He’s always thinking. He’s always challenging. He’s always learning. And I saw his own personal wrestling with everything around him as a great thing to bring into this character as this character wrestles with the job and his choices.
Capone: Michael, the scene with you scrapping with that guy in the apartment is still my favorite scene. It’s just such a fun moment.
MP: It’s the second scene, dude. [Laughs]
Capone: Hey, it's not my fault you peak early. [everybody laughs] It’s great. It says so much. You know how the street works, and you know that’s how it’s going to go down, and that tells us a little bit about you without words, that you’re willing to engage. And then when the guy you fight shows up later and is like, “No, this guy is cool.” That was a great return how that buys you currency with him.
DA: That stuff happens.
Capone: I totally believe that.
MP: It’s in the script as an introduction, which is the best kind of introduction. It’s better to see it instead of hear it, and I remember it read, “He takes off his belt?” “You want to do that?” That was screaming at the dude while I’m taking off my belt, and we rehearsed so much taking off the belt so it would look like he'd done it a million times before.
Capone: Like you had done it a million times before.
MP: Yeah, the worst thing would have been if I was like, "How do I get this thing off?
Capone: I know people take some props home from set, did you get to keep the gold AK?
MP: [laughs] Nope, you guys kept that. Where is that? Everybody during the shoot was like “That’s crazy.”
Capone: Did it work?
DA: No, it was an Airsoft Gun that we painted.
Capone: Before they kick me out, Michael, I know you’re in GANGSTER SQUAD. Did you have any part of the reshoots they did?
MP: Yeah, I did. It was a big set piece at the end, and we reshot it, and it was basically the same scene, but somewhere else.
Capone: Okay. I was going to ask how different it was from the movie theater climax.
MP: It’s at a different location. That's pretty much the only difference.
Capone: How did it make you feel that you had to go back and the reasons behind it?
MP: I mean it’s crazy, man. That guy was on drugs, and it was something that he told people before that he was going to do, and I feel really bad that that happened, for sure.
DA: The system failed to interdict him, and it’s tragic that it happens and it’s heartbreaking, because I think movies represent such a great escape for so many people and I think they need to remain being that. We shouldn’t let one guy change our world. Let positive people change our world, not the negative.
Capone: All right guys, thank you so much. It was great to meet you. Thanks for last night.
DA: No problem.
MP: I appreciate it.
-- Steve Prokopy
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Sept. 16, 2012, 4:26 p.m. CST
by Toe Jam
His body of work is pretty hit or miss, and I say that as a huge fan of films about dirty L.A. cops. I know a lot of people say "Training Day" was overrated and good only because of Denzel's performance, but I love that movie. Really hoping "End of Watch" is half as good.
Sept. 16, 2012, 6:29 p.m. CST
Still haven't seen Harsh Times yet but this looks good. I forgot that Ayer was involved in The Fast And The Furious and S.W.A.T...double shudder. S.W.A.T had so much potential and was such an abominabal shitfest.
Sept. 16, 2012, 10:48 p.m. CST
Michael Pena: The only thing making 30 Minutes or Less Watchable since 2011
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