Stepping into David Ayer's hotel room, for the first time in my life I felt as if I was shaking hands with a screenwriter who could literally snap me in half without even flinching. It's not that he's muscular, menacing or intimidating -- in fact, he's none of those things. However, as my eyes met his, I could tell the man had traveled (mentally and physically) to some dangerous places. And, although he managed to survive a tough childhood, going on to become one of the most sought-after screenwriters in Hollywood, his gritty past was written all over his face.
While I was a big fan of Ayer's script for Training Day (a film which saw Denzel Washington take home an Oscar for Best Actor), as well as interested in talking about his directorial debut Harsh Times (opening this Friday), I really wanted to know more about Ayer, and what attracted him to such dark, rough material. Here's a guy who grew up on the streets of South Central, Los Angeles, who somehow found a way to escape by joining the Navy and then wound up writing Hollywood screenplays. How does that happen? Well, I did my best to find out ...
Cinematical: What was it about the story and the idea behind Harsh Times that made you so determined to get this thing made? I know you took out a mortgage on your home to finance it yourself -- I mean, what was about it that spoke to you that way?
David Ayer: Well, I wanted to direct and I wrote it with the intention to direct. I know the world, I know the characters and I know how to do it right. And there's also a uniqueness to it because it's so personal and I knew I could really duplicate some of what I've seen in my experiences and thoughts. I couldn't hand it over to someone else, and it was just time for me to direct -- it was time for the career change. I believed in it. It was a Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab Script, and we ended up doing a table reading at the silent movie theater for like 350 people. People were crying at the end, and I'm like okay -- this is a movie. I have no doubt now, this thing could be a movie. So I was just determined to get it to the screen.
Cinematical: What were some of the problems that the script faced? Did you try to get financing for it?
David Ayer: Yeah, I went the traditional route and sent it around to the studios. It's tough material, it's like a slice of life being so culturally specific -- it's like an L.A. movie, but not just an L.A. movie, but like downtown L.A., the hood, the ghetto -- so I don't think a lot of people got it and thought it could be a movie. It's not your traditional Hollywood commercial ending -- it's a tough business call, and I can't fault them for being afraid of it.
Cinematical: It felt as if the script was written specifically for Christian Bale -- the guy was absolutely fantastic in the movie -- but in reality you wrote this a long time ago ...
Ayer: Yeah, like ten years ago. Christian read it in 2002 and came onboard then. I mean, I tuned it for him because I knew he was going to be doing it. And during rehearsals the character evolved a bit, he would come up with ideas and I would incorporate them into the script. But he really understood the character, I mean the basics of the character have always been there and he just thought about it for years. And I think that shows -- he just prepared, he learned everything he had to learn. He learned how to act, walk and talk like he was from the ghetto.
Cinematical: Yeah, he was amazing. Do you think Bale might follow in Denzel's footsteps and get nominated for an Oscar?
Ayer: Man, I mean one should only hope. The guy is insane in this movie.
Cinematical: Talk about the distribution for the film. It's been over a year since it was in Toronto, why did it take so long to get into theaters? Are you happy with the way Bauer Martinez -- or should I say MGM -- marketed it?
Ayer: Yeah, what's happening to the movie is exactly what needs to happen right now. Part of it was Bauer Martinez is a new company, a new distributor, and MGM is a new company, and everybody kind of had to get their systems up and rolling to be able to do this. MGM has crafted an amazing campaign, and we're going after the urban audience and we're going after them hard. They know how to reach young and ethnic -- that's who this movie was for. And it's going to have its day, finally.
Cinematical: Looking back at Toronto, would you do anything different?
Ayer: Not at all. If you told me in Toronto at the end of the day it would be Bauer and MGM releasing it on 800 screens with a nice P&A commitment, I would have been ecstatic. It's a stronger release then I actually made a deal for. It's pretty solid.
Cinematical: Okay, now to segue -- one of the things I love about your scripts are your characters. They're so powerful and so real -- how do you go about approaching characters when you write? Is there something that you tap into? Specifically with Harsh Times, I know it was very personal -- what did you look for in these characters?
Ayer: I have a lot of my own life to draw on, but when I write -- I don't know how to explain it -- I guess I just start channeling the character. I start thinking like that character, I get in their head. And I know how they're going to behave in any given situation. I could tell you what sign they are, where they went to school, what their grades in English were -- I have a complete biography in my head prior to writing the script.
Cinematical: That's interesting, I know a lot of writers will do that before they sit down to write a screenplay. They'll ask their characters a tremendous amount of questions and answer them before they even start to write. Is that what you do?
Ayer: No, it's a little more seat-of-your-pants, a little more intuitive. I've done this long enough where, certain kinds of characters especially, I just understand. But a lot of it is gut because you can't be too intellectual; it really comes from emotion and your heart. And you have to think, how does this character's heart work? That's always the biggest mystery to crack.
Cinematical: A lot of writers will tell you to stay away from writing what you know because sometimes you can be too emotionally close to subject that it's hard to really be truthful to it. Since a lot of your life comes out in your scripts, did you ever find yourself at a point where you had to step back because you were a little too close to the topic?
Ayer: Not with any of the street stuff. But I wrote a script about the Navy, and because it was such a searing experience for me, I could never get any objectivity on it. I could never find that viewpoint with which to understand, so I think in some cases that's absolutely true. The caveat is for first time writers, I really think. Because when you're writing what you know, you want to be more faithful to the truth then to the story. And the highest master is the script, it's the story. Who cares if your dead honest -- life doesn't happen in three acts, put it that way.
Cinematical: I want to talk about your childhood for a moment because, in your scripts, I think you tap in a lot to those early days on the streets of South Central. What was it like growing up for you?
Ayer: Yeah, you know I got to witness the ... crack. I mean, just crack showing up and changing everything. All of a sudden it got really violent. Back in the day, the gangs would face off against one another in football games in rival neighborhoods. They called it Hoover Stadium, because it was this park on Hoover. Once crack hit, there was a lot less of that and a lot more gun play. The guys who could kill ended up taking everything over, and everything became about money. I know a lot of good people just got sucked up and threw their lives away. It made me want to get out of the neighborhood big time, it was a nightmare. Crazy, crazy shit.
Cinematical: And I guess you were exposed to a lot of this shit?
Ayer: Yeah, you'd be walking the sidewalk and would have to step over brains and blood and stuff like that. People getting shot at was like an everyday thing. I mean, you would hear gunfire in my neighborhood every single day. And not just a couple rounds going off -- all night, gunfire. It was crazy.
Cinematical: I know at a point in Harsh Times, Freddy Rodriguez's character wants to know what it's like to kill a man. Did you come across people like that -- people who were so used to the violence, they just wanted to see what it felt like to be a part of it?
Ayer: There's a couple different things. There's the guy who wants to know what it's like because it's part of being a man, like a right of passage. And then there's the sort of person who's more intellectually curious -- you know, what happens when you do it. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of deep thinking in the hood and people do stupid things because ... it's like joining a football team. It's normal in that world. That's what people don't understand. What's heinous and unimaginable in suburbia is just normal to them, like everyday shit.
Cinematical: But you got out and you joined the Navy. Where the hell did screenwriting come from?
Ayer: Straight out of the service, I had some short stories and was working construction. I was also working at this guy's house, Wesley Strick. I was writing these short stories about the military and he thought I had a talent there. He wanted to teach me how to write a script. I mean, I was an electrician, but I went ahead and wrote one. It wasn't a movie, it wasn't a fully-formed script -- but the scenes worked, the dialogue worked, the story worked -- and so he passed it on to some producers and nothing came of it except, ya know, our door is open and we'll read anything you send our way. That's when I discovered that I really liked writing a lot. So, I kept at it and wrote more, wrote more, wrote more and, eventually, I wrote Training Day. That became my writing sample and I got hired based off that for other things like S.W.A.T. and U-571. It took off from there. At the end of the day, if you wanna learn how to write, spend 2,000 hours in a chair doing it. There's no other way around it. You can't talk about it, you can't hang around Starbucks -- you gotta do it. You only get better by doing it. The hesitancy, the fear, the writer's block -- the only way to get through it is to just write. That's the tough truth.
Cinematical: How many scripts did you write before Training Day?
Ayer: About six or seven. Yeah, those are all sitting in a drawer -- they're not movies. It took me that long to figure out how to write a movie.
Cinematical: Based on what I've read, you began your career writing a lot about life in the Navy. You had two unproduced scripts about boot camp and a thriller set in a submarine, and then you were hired to write U-571. However, at some point, everything shifted and you began writing these tough, gritty urban cop dramas. What brought about that change?
Ayer: You could say it's an amalgamation of military experience combined with street experience. Ya know, 'cause cops are a para-military organization. And the streets are an arena I know and understand. So it made sense to just bring the two together. People told me to find my niche and exploit it -- you won't see me writing a romantic comedy. I don't really want to. I write what I'm comfortable with and what I know. I write the kind of movies I want to see.
Cinematical: There was a recent article in the New York Times that talked about branding writers. How it's too dangerous to be too versatile.
Ayer: You have to have an identity as a writer. Like, oh it's "the snappy social commentary dialogue" guy or, you know, the "action set-piece guy." The "urban" guy, the "cop" guy, the "military" guy -- it's that specific. Studios throw a lot of bodies at these scripts, a lot of writers and they need a hook to understand you. There's a saying that goes something like, "apprentice of everything, master of nothing." [laughs] Maybe that's applicable, I don't know.
Cinematical: Now, after The Fast and the Furious, you went on to pen three films about cops, two of which featured corrupt cops. Even Harsh Times works in the whole LAPD angle at one point. What is about that world that appeals to you so much?
Ayer: At the end of the day, I can write a lot of movies about accountants -- like, "Dude, we missed the tax deadline!" -- but there's an inherent drama when you face up against bad guys, there's guns and the stakes are higher. Any time there's danger, there's drama. Also, I'm fascinated that there are people running our society that are legally sanctioned to perform violent acts and kill people. You know, cops literally have a license to kill -- obviously under very very strict and restrictive parameters -- but at the end of the day, they can go dump someone. That's a lot, that's heavy duty -- what's that do to a person? I've always been fascinated by that bleeding edge of society where order is maintained and what's that area of turbulence really look like.
Cinematical: Out of your films, besides Harsh Times, which do you feel the most ownership over?
Ayer: Training Day. I was a co-producer on it, I was the only writer to touch the script -- I mean, that was my baby. I was involved in getting a director, casting it, getting it set up. Ya know, it almost ended up being a Matt Damon/Samuel L. Jackson movie at Miramax -- that was one version of it.
Cinematical: Wow, really? Damon and Jackson?
Ayer: Yeah, seriously. I mean, that was my baby, it was the script that really broke me in town. And, fuck, it got Denzel an Academy Award.
Cinematical: Your next film -- tell me if this is true or not -- but you're really throwing people for a loop and remaking The Wild Bunch?
Ayer: Yeah, it's not a remake. It's inspired by The Wild Bunch -- it's called Cartel, and set in present-day Mexico. The back drop is America's longest-running conflict which is the drug war. It started out when I was hired to remake The Wild Bunch, and as I created the script I was like, "this has nothing to do with The Wild Bunch." It's Mexico, and yeah I got a train robbery sequence in it. But other than that ...
Cinematical: How far along is it? Any casting?
Ayer: Uh, we're out to people ... but that's a secret. Kind of like the one-line on it is CIA officers are trying to kidnap a drug lord. Yeah, it's good stuff.
Cinematical: Finally, why should people go see Harsh Times? What is it about the film that you feel will appeal to audiences?
Ayer: If you've ever had a best friend, you should see the movie. If you've ever not known where you're going in life, you should see the movie. If you've ever been in a relationship, you should see it. If you like dirty, low-down ghetto action, you should go see it. But at the end of the day, it's universal -- kind of like Of Mice and Men. The performances are insane and it has a really powerful ending. Yeah, just go and see it.