When you take a look at writer/director David Ayer's resume, it becomes readily clear that the man knows the inner workings of the inner city. Training Day, Dark Blue, Harsh Times, and Street Kings all fall under Ayer's gritty, in-your-face style and focus on police, gangs, crime, and brutality in South Central Los Angeles. With his latest film, End of Watch, Ayer takes that style one step further by using found footage in another inside look at the LAPD.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña are at the epicenter of South Central's police force, and through their experiences the film explores the shifting social structure of LA's gang scene. As police wives and girlfriends, Natalie Martinez and Anna Kendrick show both the sense of family and the consequences that come from being involved in this world. Hot off the world premiere of End of Watch, Gyllenhaal, Peña, Martinez, Kendrick, and Ayer shared with Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier the intense nature of these stories, their research with both sides of the law, and making your own family.
Emmanuel Itier: End of Watch uses a very guerilla-style of filmmaking – hand held cameras, in-your-face action shots… what was that experience like?
Jake Gyllenhaal: Well, I held the camera a lot of the time, so... But I mean by the time we started making the movie, I think we all felt like friends. You know?
The cinematographer was with us for months before we started shooting. He was with us doing a lot of stuff, and David Ayer was with us, and Michael and I had prepared for five or six months before we started shooting. So by the time it came around to cameras being in our face and tons of people being around, we were so well-prepared that I didn't even realy notice it.
EI: I understand that you spent about five months researching and rehearsing with the cast and crew. During all that preparation, what surprised you the most about the world you were immersed in?
JG: Well, both gangsters and the police officers that we had the privilege to work with and encounter in this process were so highly intelligent. I was fascinated with how the police officers were real studies of human behavior. That's the only kind of criss-cross in my profession and theirs is that they had to walk into a situation and immediately assess somebody and how they behaved and how they moved, and sometimes change their own behavior accordingly... which some of the best police officers I was working with, that's what they were doing and that was amazing to me.
I was always surprised at the sense of humor, too, that existed everywhere. Even in some of the most dangerous situations, there was always that sense of humor—from both sides, to be totally honest. Even from a criminal side when something was not, you know, when they were going to get locked up, even in the situation where there was real danger, there was always somehow a sense of humor.
EI: It seems that you also spent a fair amount of time driving the cop car. Any war stories or accidents?
JG: Yeah, we had a real accident while shooting. There's a shot in the movie that's a crash in the movie—that is actually a real crash. It's in the trailer. It's also in the movie where it's a dash cam shot and Michael's driving the car, I was in the passenger seat, and they had taken the anti-lock brakes off the car because it shook the cameras. We had to chase after this van at the end, and it stops really abruptly and they had just repaved the street that we were filming on. Michael braked about 100 feet before the other car and it just skidded right into the back of the van. It's in the movie. The airbags deployed.
I had my producer hat on in the middle of this scene because I knew we only had one car and we were a low-budget movie, so we got out of the car in the shot and we ran to the shot, and it's the shot in the movie. So that was a real car accident that we got into, but everyone was okay.
Anna Kendrick & Natalie Martinez
Emmanuel Itier: This film had an interesting filming process… I understand the cameras were constantly rolling, whether or not you were shooting a scene. Was that experience helpful to your process as an actor?
Anna Kendrick: It was really liberating to feel like, "Oh, at any point during the day, there's a camera on us. We might see it; we might not see it. But just in case, we're going to stay in character all day long." Lunch was the only time we were certain that we weren't on camera, so it was the only time that it was Anna and Natalie and not—
Natalie Martinez: It was very freeing. You don't have to worry about anything. You just had to be who you were and enjoy that ride and that journey, which I feel made it seem so natural because we had to kind of be that character 100%, and not worry about the fakeness around you or anything; just kind of be in the scene.
EI: End of Watch focuses on the inner lives of both the LAPD and the various gangs they encounter. In your extensive research and rehearsals, what surprised you most about these two different worlds
AK: David made a note of this in the script, but the idea that gangs will often shoot themselves committing crimes, like, will film it. I thought that is absolutely, absolutely insane. And I thought that that might be one of the things that people might think is fake and was strange in the movie. But yeah, come on now.
NM: If you think about it, it's YouTube nowadays. Everything's on YouTube, everything's on camera phones—
AK: [Interposing] No, because it really feels like if it wasn't filmed it didn't happen, and that's kind of the psychology these days.
NM: Yeah, to show proof—all it is just a boost about, "Oh, look what I did," or, "Look what I've done," or, "I have the balls to do this, and this, and that." So it's a little weird, but it's crazy because a lot of those people were from that lifestyle, and a lot of these stories are true to form. The cop stories and the things that happen, those came from real cops, and the gangsters who were at the gangster party and everything, those were real gangsters. So that's really interesting.
Michael was telling me that the party was kind of—there had actually been fights while shooting in that party. And people were like, you know, kind of being the way that they were. So it's a little intimidating.
EI: After working so diligently on this film, what would you like to see the audience take away from it?
AK: Obviously, people are talking about the way it makes you feel about law enforcement officers, and obviously that's a big part of it. But I think, at the end of the day, it's a movie about the family that you create when you're an adult. When you're an adult, you get to choose your family. And these are people who've chosen wisely. I think it's about finding the people who have your back and making that your new family.
NM: I love the relationship side of the story, and I would love people to walk away with this and see the respect that these gentlemen deserve—ladies and gentleman—in the police force.
Emmanuel Itier: This film uses a relatively recent style of hand-held, found-footage filmmaking. What was your experience like, staying in character and constantly on camera?
Michael Peña: I embrace it, because you want your acting to go one and one with the kind of film... the camera movements and all that stuff, and also the way that the scenery is set. I do think that it changes. I do think that your acting has to change a little bit here and there. Like, you wouldn't do a comedy the same way you would do this.
And also, I just finished doing this movie Gangster Squad. It's a big, fun piece and I definitely attacked it that way to make it seem as big as possible. I don't know if it's just a mental thing, but I think that you fit the scenery.
And this one, it was really comfortable—probably because we rehearsed for five months—but it was one of those things that you just feel fortunate to be part of, because it was a great script, and the writing was just fantastic. And then Jake and David Ayer really added to the whole thing. You got to pinch yourself.
But I really wanted this movie—I got to be honest with you. So when I got it, and then after filming it, I was like—I actually thought, "I hope I don't get fired a week before. I hope I don't get fired." I was like, "Okay, I filmed two days. I filmed two days. I'm probably not going to get fired. I filmed a week. They can't fire me now." So I'm glad and lucky to be doing this movie.
EI: It’s almost as if the police working in these areas are functioning in a separate universe. What surprised you the most about this world??
MP: It's the way that they think about the neighborhoods. Probably that's the biggest thing. They think of it in terms of preserving the good people. And they actually have a lot of relationships with the good people around there, like good business owners, and good church folk, and kids just playing baseball, you know, basketball... It's a little sad sometimes when you see these guys that were star basketball players, and all of a sudden they're selling drugs. And he's like, "Yeah, man, he had a ticket." And they fall into something that's easy money or whatnot. They're looking at it like that as opposed to just attacking the whole neighborhood.
EI: It seemed like the gang members have their own universe as well.
MP: Yeah. It's funny… Obviously, they don't like the police over there, but they do have a pact where they'll die for each other. They'll take a bullet for somebody else. And then if you're fighting somebody like that, or going up against somebody like that, the police have to have the same kind of mentality. They have to form their own kind of brotherhood in order for them to survive.
EI: Tell me about the driving. There's a lot of driving in the movie.
MP: Oh my gosh, I did a lot of driving.
EI: Any accidents happen? Any wild stories?
MP: No. Yeah, I crashed a car. It was so weird. It was freshly tarred right where we were filming, which was... You'll see it when we go in. It was tarred, brand new, and I stepped on the brake—I mean I was going fast, but I went fast for every other driving sequence. And then I stepped on the brake pedal, and it went [screeching noise]. That’s a long time to screech. You see the tires and it was all full of tar, and it got really...
But we ran out and we finished the scene, so that's the kind of movie that this is.
Emmanuel Itier: When you first premiered the film, were you nervous about how it would be received? You’re no stranger to the world of LA cops, but this is a very different style of filmmaking.
David Ayer: The movie played very well. In the end, we got a standing ovation, which is a first for me. That was an incredible moment. I think it's something I'll remember for the rest of my life.
When you make a movie, you never know. You don't know how it's going to turn out. You don't know if it's going to click, if it's going to gel and be well-received. I sit there in the editing bay with my editor, and we make these choices and, "Hey, this is funny. Maybe people will laugh." And then you play it before an audience and they laugh where you thought they'd laugh, and they gasp where you thought they'd gasp, and they get very quiet and focused in those areas that you expected. And it's nice when it works the way you want.
EI: End of Watch focuses on similar themes to Training Day, but this time you changed your style by incorporating found-footage. What inspired that shift in technique?
DA: YouTube. I have a friend who's a policeman, and he and his colleagues bring video cameras to work and they do what the guys in the movie are doing, and they film things with these video cameras. He showed me this footage; it was riveting. It was incredible. It just seemed like a brilliant tool to use to make a film, and it worked.
I used both conventional photography and this crazy faux-documentary style, and I break all the cinematic rules of coverage and editing; yet, somehow it flows.
EI: Those familiar with your work and personal history know that you are very familiar with the inner world of the police and their day-to-day dealings in South Central, Los Angeles. Even so, did you learn anything new this time around?
DA: I learned that when you're on parole, you have to call your probation officer wherever you go, or you get in trouble... because we did the party scene, and everybody showed up and they kept asking where the phone was so they could let their parole officer know where they were.
I learned that police in pursuits will get into crashes when the suspect stops, which happened to us. We have that scene where Mike crashes a car into the back of a minivan. That was not planned. The airbag went off. I was in the backseat. That was fun.
And I learned how brilliant Michael Peña and Jake Gyllenhaal are as actors. They're incredible, incredible actors.
Open Road Films' 'End of Watch' is now playing in theaters nationwide.