An interview with scriptwriter David Ayer. You could follow in the footsteps of the SUICIDE SQUAD writer by entering our latest contests RIGHT HERE! A featured article from the WriteMovies archive first published November 2006 by Daniel Robert Epstein.
David Ayer’s Harsh Realities
|Friday, November 10, 2006.
With Joseph Wambaugh’s new novel Hollywood Station set to hit book shelves later this month, his kindred filmmaking spirit is now fully in charge of his own LAPD landscapes.
By Daniel Robert Epstein
I imagine Harsh Times writer-director David Ayer could be a very dangerous man if he wanted.
He grew on the gang and drug ridden streets of Los Angeles; his favorite book is Sun Tzu’s Art of War; and, he was a submariner in the US Navy. But luckily for him – and us – he turned to the craft of screenwriting to exorcise his demons.
His experiences have informed screenplays like Training Day, U-571, S.W.A.T. and now Harsh Times, which also marks his directorial debut. The film stars Christian Bale as a former Marine who is now looking for work as a police officer in Los Angeles. But the real craziness starts when Jim and his best friend Mike (Freddy Rodriguez), rather than filling out job applications, spend their time looking for new ways to get into trouble.
When speaking with Ayer, it’s hard not to start with a question about whether or not the film contains autobiographical elements. “It is in the arena,” he admits to FilmStew. “The movie takes place where I’m from, LA., and I associated with a lot of characters like Jim over the years. I’m a military veteran and in broad strokes I’ve experienced some of these things. I spent a lot of time in Mexico so there are pieces that fit in.”
“Maybe Jim is like my dark side times 20 over,” he adds. “But I’m not in prison, so I’m not too Jim-like.”
In their own way, the characters of Bale in Harsh Times and Denzel Washington in Training Day are the demilitarized equivalent of Jack Nicholson’s Col. Nathan R. Jessep in A Few Good Men, who uttered the immortal line, “You can’t handle the truth!” As the world gets crazier and crazier, some might argue that these gatekeepers are unavoidable and necessary.
“You don’t want to send a nun into combat,” suggests Ayer. “You need trigger pullers and not everyone is equipped psychologically to do that kind of work.”
“The reality of it is that a guy like Jim is actually the guy you don’t want, because he is loopy and therefore unpredictable,” he adds. “You want someone who is calm under fire and isn’t afraid to pull the trigger. I think Jim might like it too much actually, but there are a lot of Jims out there.”
“I think in any population sample, it’s always the bell curve. You’re going to have people at one end and Jim’s definitely at the dark end.”
Another movie analogy pops into my head. Just as L.A. Confidential was successful because it completely captured the look and feel of 1950’s Los Angeles, Harsh Times owes a lot of its veracity to the homegrown Angeleno perspective of Ayer.
“It’s the city I know,” he concurs. “It’s the city I grew up in. People who are from L.A. see the movie and are amazed because that’s how we roll out here. That’s how we do it. Maybe I err on the side of accuracy because I don’t know if the “dudes” and the “dogs” could be off-putting to people. But sorry, that’s how we talk.”
“It was surreal working [on location] a block away from where I lived,” Ayer marvels. “I never in my wildest dreams would have envisioned myself directing a movie in that neighborhood.”
Ayer wrote the script for Harsh Times immediately after Training Day, and admits that it is a companion piece of sorts to his 2001 treatise, which garnered Oscar nominations for both of its LAPD policemen. But in this case, in order to maintain creative control at all times, Ayer re-mortgaged his house to finance the film.
“Studios didn’t share my vision,” he recalls. “I think it’s such a specific vision and such a strong vision that it’s really hard to communicate the final movie. I don’t think anybody expected this final movie from the script. The script reads a lot edgier than the movie is.”
“There’s something about seeing something on a page, which makes it more poignant than seeing it on the screen,” Argues insists. “When someone’s talking smack, you can’t see the smile. You can’t see the context.”
In the original script of Training Day, the film ended with Jake [Ethan Hawke] bringing to Alonzo (Washington) the money that was going to be used to kill him. Ayer only added the gunfight and car chase action module to suit Warner Bros. marketing purposes.
And had Ayer gone the studio route again with Harsh Times, he’s convinced another epic shoot-out would have been required. A roomful of studio executives might also have insisted that an Iraqi war sequence could not be synched to a hip hop music soundtrack.
“That’s what these kids listen to,” Ayer says. “They pipe it into their armored vehicles. They’ve got their iPods in the fields and they’re blasting Limp Bizkit as they run around whacking people. Every war has its soundtrack.”
Another soundtrack to Ayer’s perceived war was provided by a recent New York Times article, which painted a colorful picture of animosity during the making of the film. But Ayer says things were not as bad as the news that’s fit to print made them out to be.
“I got final cut, I got 800 screens and I got a solid print and advertising,” he maintains. “In my mind, I’m way ahead of the game than where I thought I would be when I sold the movie in Toronto.”
“I’ve got commercials [for Harsh Times] on all the time now,” he continues. “It’s a genre movie and when you market a genre movie, you hit two weeks before release and you hit hard and you hit targeted. That’s exactly how it works.”
Bale was one of the other actors who auditioned for the part played in Training Day by Hawke, and asked afterwards to read whatever else Ayer had lying around. He got Harsh Times.
Today, Ayer is looking at a couple of possible follow-up projects to his directorial debut: Mafia Cop and Cartel, which actually grew an attempt to put together a script for a remake of The Wild Bunch.
”I was hired to do The Wild Bunch and in the process I realized the script I had written really didn’t have anything to do with The Wild Bunch,” he explains. “It was modern day, drug cartels. A totally different animal. If anything, it has more in common with Traffic than The Wild Bunch.”
Ayer is also dying to jump into the TV arena, where he feels writers are treated with much more respect. “I want to get my cred as a studio director first and do some solid pictures,” he reveals. “Then settle into the TV world.”
“I’ll always be a screenwriter at heart and that’ll always be who I am,” Ayer avers. “But directing is my new career. I love directing. I’ll eat a mile of my own guts to get on set.”
“Working with actors and converting the words into performance is amazing,” he says. “Christian brought the fire. He was in character the whole shoot and then, at the end of the shoot, we wrap and all of a sudden there’s Christian Bale again.”
“He’s a very intellectual, thoughtful, Welsh guy and all during the shoot he was Jim. The change in him was so profound. It freaked me out.”
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