Writing is Brutal: David Ayer on End of Watch, Ten and Fury

The filmmaker talks about his screenwriting process, favorite cop movies, working with Schwarzenegger, and his upcoming World War II tank movie.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

After writing the breakout, Oscar-winning hit film Training Day, David Ayer became known as "the cop movie guy," proceeding to write and/or direct other films about life behind or around the badge, including Dark Blue, S.W.A.T., Harsh Times, Street Kings and now End of Watch, which we here at CraveOnline think may just be his best movie yet. (It made not one, but two of our yearly Top Ten Lists in 2012). The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, two beat cop partners whose friendship is tested when a new drug cartel becomes convinced they're more important than, perhaps, they really are. David Ayer shot End of Watch in the found footage format, applying the horror movie trope to a gritty and realistic drama, with excellent results.

You can watch the film on DVD and Blu-ray today, and read our interview with Ayer about his writing process, what makes a great cop movie (including a list of some of his very favorites), working with Arnold Schwarzenegger on the upcoming thriller Ten, and his upcoming and apparently very ambitious World War II tank movie, Fury.

CraveOnline: So End of Watch was kind of awesome.

David Ayer: Oh, thank you, thank you.

Thank you. It wasn’t really what I expected from you. A lot of your films have a very dark tone.

[Laughs] Yeah, you could say that. I married, got kids, I’ve got love in my life and so I guess my dashboard has changed, what I’m seeing on the road.

Were you in a darker place when you wrote Harsh Times?

Oh f*ck yeah. [Laugh] Hell yeah.

Because both of those films are about a bromance.

Yeah, it’s the male friendship thing, and bros, and Harsh Times was about hiding from the world inside of a friendship, and End of Watch is kind of about taking on the world inside a friendship.

Is that based on any relationships you’ve had, or are you just creating a fictional world?

I mean, I’ve lived a life. There’s elements that I may or may not have seen firsthand.

Do you remember the first interaction or conversation or scene you wrote between Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala?

It’s from the beginning, you know? It’s like the thing just sort of erupted out of me in continuity. I sat down and wrote the script and it was always about the opening chase, and seeing these guys work as a unit, and sort of voyeuristically riding along with them as they do this. But I just kind of wrote it in continuity, and both of these characters, it’s like they were sort of born fully formed. A lot of times you’re kind of chasing characters in a script, and going back and going back and trying to find the voice, and these two guys they just erupted with their voices.

Do you usually write in continuity?

Yeah, absolutely. I write a script in order.

Do you structure yourself very firmly beforehand? Do you have a big board?

You know, it’s funny, I used to. I used to do the big outline on the wall and all that, and sometimes I still do the note card thing. I actually have note cards on the wall for my next spec, but I don’t know how many scripts I’ve written, and after a while you just internalize the structure stuff and you get an internal clock and you realize, “Okay, I need some action now.” “Okay, I need some funny now.”

What’s interesting about End of Watch’s structure is that it feels very organic and character-driven, but there is, unbeknownst to the protagonists, a bigger, more plot-driven story going on in the background.

Yeah, there’s a submerged shark, in that they only see occasional evidence of it and don’t really quite put it all together. There’s big, dark things and dangerous things out there, and no matter how badass you are there’s someone bigger and badder.

Did you play around with that? Are there versions of the script where they become more aware of the drug cartel plot going on, and were more involved?

Yeah, the quote, unquote, “traditional” version or “Hollywood” version would be: personify the bad guy, have some dude pounding a desk. “I’m going to get those cops!” Have it be about the tit-for-tat mystery story of who these guys are and what’s going on, and obviously I didn’t want to do that here. I wanted to say more that evil isn’t necessarily personified, and evil isn’t necessarily something you can solve in three acts, but that there’s bigger, more permanent problems out there.

What grade did Brian end up getting on his film project?

I don’t know if he turned it in. I don’t think he turned it in.

It seems like he kept going on longer than a semester.

Yeah, exactly, but that was a device. That was an excuse to explain why these guys are filming stuff. In the real world, cops film themselves all the time, and don’t need an excuse, they just do it because they come from society. They’re you, me, or friends, cousins, brothers, whatever, and they use social media. They video themselves, they do all these things that we do.

I loved that End of Watch took the found footage conceit, which for the most part has been limited entirely to the horror genre…

Right, right…

And applied it somewhere else. What interested you about that conceit?

Well, it’s a little hard to explain. It’s this idea of… I split the baby between found footage and traditional subjective photography. I think there’s a film school word too for who’s holding the camera and maybe even some French words or things like that, which I don’t know, but I know that people lit into me for blending these techniques.

I don’t think they should do that at all. I think it worked.

Yeah, it’s pretty funny that there’s rules and stuff. I just wanted to tell a story with every tool available. But I’ve heard critiques of I shouldn’t have done the found footage concept at all, and just had it be a dead-ahead movie, but the moment you lose is them talking to the camera, in the essence of talking to the audience, and I think that’s why we kind of end up loving these guys is because they’re involving us. They’re calling us into their world and showing us their world as they go through it, and if you take out the found footage element, you lose all those moments where they’re letting us inside the tent.

It’s a tricky balance though, because you don’t want to be too didactic, I imagine.

No, oh god. We wrestled with this in editing. The original concept of the movie was to feature found footage, and then just ended up moving away from that slowly.

One of the things that struck me as I watched it again was the opening voice-over narration, where Brian’s talking about being a cop, not necessarily believing in the law but enforcing it anyway. Was that always in the draft?

Yeah, that was always there, page one, a sort of mission statement. It’s not the swaggering bravado, it’s just a regular guy explaining his job, and that’s the problem I had, the problem with cop movies, is that they’re based on tropes and clichés these days, and I wanted to take people inside the world of policing and put them in a black and white, and have them realize, “Oh my god, they’re just bros. They’re just dudes.” That’s part of it. It’s not personal, it’s just business. It’s a job. They pay me.

I think my favorite bit in the movie is actually rather early on, when they’re arresting a guy, and he basically says to throw down. You take me down, you can put the cuffs on. At first it seems like that’s them being bad cops, and then you realize that’s actually them being really good cops.

Look, that stuff happens. [Laughs] In fact, an LAPD officer recently got fired for doing that, so it happens. It’s like, you patrol an area, you meet the people, you get a reputation, you get a name on the street, and if you’re an assh*le to everybody and piss off the neighborhood, you’re not going to be an effective cop. In a way it’s sort of the extreme, unsanctioned version of community policing. But you know, you treat a guy decently and play the game as a man, and go toe-to-toe, then later on that can pay off, which we sort of see happen in the movie, when he tips them off that there’s a green light on them.

Yeah, exactly.

Which happens all the time to cops, and a lot of times they do react just like that. Where they don’t give a sh*t. They hear that crap all the time.

When you’ve written and directed as many cop movies as you have, I imagine that gives you a different perspective on “other” cop movies.

[Laughs] Yeah, you could say that.

What are you looking for when you see a cop movie that someone else has made? What interests you the most?

Character. Real people. People behaving plausibly in a real situation as they would, and not as we think they should. Complexity.

What strikes you as some of the best cop movies out there, besides your own obviously?

There’s this movie, I think it’s Sidney Lumet, called Q & A, with Nick Nolte. It’s amazing. Serpico, Prince of the City, those kind of movies. Colors is pretty good. It takes you inside the cop car bit. I like reality, myself. I like reality-based kind of movies.

You’ve got another cop movie, it’s more of a DEA movie, coming out [with Arnold Schwarzenegger] called Ten.

Hell, yeah. We’ll see what it ends up being called, but right now it’s called Ten.

It sounds a little more plot-centric than End of Watch.

Oh yeah, it’s an action-thriller. The best way I can describe it is it’s almost like Silence of the Lambs meets The Hurt Locker.

That’s a hell of a comparison.

[Laughs] It’s intense, and a lot of action. It’s going to be a new Arnold. I really worked with him. We worked together. It helped create a character, and play a character.

Have you seen The Last Stand yet?

No, I’m dying to see it.

When you put Arnold in a movie, you’re not just putting an actor in a movie, you’re putting an icon.

You’re putting a legend, yeah. There’s people [who] project so much, and have such strong expectations of who he is and what he does, so it’s something I had to be conscious of as a director and very carefully engineer how I reintroduce him to the audience.

Are you going to try to balance that, or is your intention “True-Acting Arnold?” What was your approach?

I gave him moments and put him in a fantastic team, and absolutely played with his strengths, but at the end of the day we do want to see him play these action roles, and so it’s kind of like, what I’m hoping, and I think it is, the best of both worlds. Where his traditional fans are going to get what they want, and the new audience, and an even older audience, are going to see him in a new light and be pleasantly surprised.

We ran an interview with you when End of Watch came out in theaters – I didn’t conduct it – and you were talking about a World War II tank movie you were working on.

Yeah, that’s what I’m writing now.

How’s that coming along?

Writing is brutal, let’s just say that. Writing is tough. I think nothing has been filmed as much as World War II. [Laughs] To do it in a way that transcends all expectations… My goal is really nothing short of reinventing the genre.


So a younger audience can be fully engaged and fascinated. I want to make it real. No mythologizing, no sepia tones, no soft-focus, but just brutal, hardcore reality. Normal people undergoing heinous events.

What are you looking at for research? What sort of books or documentaries are you watching?

It’s hard. I can really point to any movies because what I want to do, I haven’t really seen. But I’m a little avid sort of amateur at World War II. I’ve been going to a lot of the original source material. Reports and maps and unit histories and after-action reports and everything, because I want to portray it as they saw it at the time and not reverse-engineer how we see it now.

Does that have a title yet?

Right now, Fury.

That’s a good title.

It’s the name of the tank. Foxtrot company.

William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel, the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and the co-star of The Trailer Hitch. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.