‘End of Watch’ Director David Ayer: “Genre Expectations Can Kill Creativity”

By  · Published on September 20th, 2012

Filmmaker David Ayer seems to really love cops. From the dirty ones to the good-natured kind, Ayer continuously explores the men and women who wear a gun and badge, and then sees how they use that power. With Street Kings, Dark Blue, and Training Day, Ayer showed that power can corrupt certain cops. With End of Watch, the writer/director does the opposite of what he’s known for: portraying good, incorruptible men.

It’s not often we see cops this well-intentioned on the big screen. Not a single part of End of Watch delves into police corruption. It’s a real love letter to the force which strays away from certain genre conventions, something Ayer attempts to do when he’s writing solely for himself. Here’s what director David Ayer had to say about the large thematic world of law enforcement, the work-for-hire process, and the style of End of Watch:

You had written Harsh Times ten years before it got made. Was it the same long process for End of Watch?

No. I wrote the first draft in December of 2010, four months later I was in pre-production, and a few months later I was shooting the movie. We shot in August of last summer. It took 13 months to finish it, which is crazy quick. Normally it’s not like that. You’re usually battling to see if anything will stick.

Was it harder to get Harsh Times made because of that character?

It took a lot longer because nobody was going to make that. Nobody was going to do that movie commercially. Basically, I wrote a check and hired myself to direct that movie. For this, I wrote the script, and people were really responding to it. When you draw a strong piece of material like that…I’ve been in the game long enough to know what elements you have to package together to get a movie into production. I made sure going into this there wasn’t any deal killers, per se.

What qualifies as deal killers?

Well, having your main character be a fucking psycho. That can make shit hard to get made [Laughs]. Everyone’s a critic.

[Laughs] Characters like Brian and Mike are very different compared to Alonso Harris, because they are genuinely good people. Does that make the writing process trickier, having characters who don’t create problems for themselves?

There’s all sorts of screenwriting rules. The rules are only as good as much as they help you with something. I can list all the rules of screenwriting, because I’ve been writing for 17 years. The rules get tedious, because they force you into repetition. The more experience you get with writing the more free you feel to play with the boundaries. On this one, it’s simply a character study with two best friends who happen to be cops. The movie is their relationship. I don’t do the traditional movie bad guy thing of someone twirling their mustache. They’re never actively pursuing the bad guy in this. I try to capture the feel and rhythm of law enforcement, which is more important to me than serving a traditional story.

Since you’ve previously told many stories about cops, do you think there’s an endless amount of thematic possibilities with that job?

Exactly. You know, you put on a badge, strap on a gun, and you become a symbol of authority. When someone abuses that power, it’s interesting, but we’ve been getting every iteration of that lately. The difficult part is the good guys, the ones who aren’t breaking the rules. Having that be interesting is by going inside the relationship, making that primary relationship.

What appeals to you about that buddy dynamic?

Two guys in a car talking smack. It’s like a play, you know? You have two characters in a close proximity who are isolated. You change the visuals around them and connect them to a world. There’s no getting away. I just love setting scenes in cars [Laughs]. It’s all my thoughts on male friendship and bonding, which evolves as I get older, have kids, and see people changing.

You mentioned the rules of screenwriting. After doing this for 17 years, do you have your own list of rules?

For me, it’s just process. I know what my weakness and strengths are. Like anybody, I try to work towards my strengths. It’s all about planning. I used to start out with there’s bare bones outline, but now I do this very detailed treatment before I write, which is usually over 15 pages. They include dialog, and it’s very rich and detailed.

So those outlines help avoid getting stuck halfway through a script searching for where to go?

Yeah, I can’t do that. If someone’s hired me, I don’t have time for that. The longest process is coming up with the treatment and breaking the story, and I’ve always been good at breaking the story.

Is it ever helpful having that time crunch?

Oh, yeah, deadlines are great. People react to them differently. If you’re a writer in Hollywood, they expect a draft in two weeks. Two weeks for me usually means I’m done with the first act [Laughs].

When you are serving as a work-for-hire writer, how different does your approach to the story become?

Everything’s very formal. When you’re writing something, you know what they’re going to tell you to change. Everything is going to be pushed into a very similar moral space and voice: shinny and poppy. I can write in that space, but it’s much more rewarding to write whatever the fuck I want. If you’re working on a job, you just have to suck it up and deliver. You do the best you can. It’s the job. You’re not going to get hired again if you’re burning people. As I speak, there’s lots of writers working on studio scripts which will never get made.

I know you had six or seven scripts written before Training Day. Do you ever plan on doing something with them?

[Laughs] Well, the stuff that never got made is not that good, and some of it isn’t my property. The earlier scripts of mine that didn’t get made didn’t get made for a reason [Laughs].

[Laughs] Were they more extreme than Harsh Times?

No, they just sucked. It takes a lot of time to really develop the craft and be a good writer.

Did you think they were brilliant at the time, though?

I thought they were brilliant. I thought people should’ve handed me bags of money for them. Oh God, I’ll never touch of those scripts. I’ll never dig up the old pirate’s chest to see what’s in there.

[Laughs] Did you know you wanted that semi-POV style with End of Watch from the beginning?

I got really specific with photographic style and what cameras we’d be using in the script. You know, that wasn’t done for me, but to help people involved in the movie to understand the photography and why we were seeing what we were seeing.

The style fluctuates right from the beginning. Did you want to establish that earlier on, rather thank having to break the rules all the time or have point-of-view shots that make no sense?

Yeah, the script started as a pure found footage kind of thing. In pre-production, I gravitated very quickly towards augmenting that stuff with normal operating cameras. In editing, I had all this footage, which me and my editor built the movie out of, with never worrying about genre expectation. Genre expectations can kill creativity. If you do something different, it will get hated. The best filmmakers can do everything on the approval list and knock it out of the park. For me, I have a hard time being creative when I have to color in between the lines.

Say when you’re not even writing as a work-for-hire, do you ever think it’s okay to give into conventions?

Kind of. A movie is a certain thing by definition. There’s nothing wrong with knocking out a good genre picture.

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End of Watch opens in theaters this Friday, September 21st.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.