David Ayer & Michael Peña on END OF WATCH

Filmmaker David Ayer (“Training Day”) does something a little different with ‘End of Watch.’ Instead of focusing on corrupt cops, for a change, he focuses on the ones that put their lives on the line every day in order to do what they have sworn they would: Serve and Protect.

Told through a mixture of hidden-camera and traditional techniques, the film invites the audience to spend some time, riding along with two young officers who find themselves “marked for death” after doing the ‘right’ thing – their job. Instead of relying on action sequences, the film explodes with sparkling dialogue between its two leads.

What’s refreshing about the film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), is that it manages to find humor even in the darkest moments. It also establishes a friendship that feels real and powerful, delivers performances that come across as improvised, and takes you through a vivid journey that feels fresh.

During TIFF I had a chance to speak with one of the film’s stars, Michael Peña, and director/writer David Ayer. The two conversations turned into a story for the Georgia Straight.

But, I had some left-over notes, which I thought might be worth sharing here – like riffs:

Michael Peña

On getting the role…
“Thank God I got the part,” says Peña. The filmmakers thought he was right for the role after seeing his performance in ‘Lincoln Lawyer.’ “After that, it  was a full-time job of rehearsals, rehearsals, rehearsals.”  Five months of rehearsals, 3 weeks of shooting, to be precise.

On getting into the role…

“This is the kind of movie where you can’t right off the bat have a great audition, it’s the kind of thing where you have to put in the work to become that police officer and put in the work to do all the weapons training so that you can just focus on the acting and the relationship.”

On using guns…

“I’ve maybe shot guns twice in my lifetime,” admits Pena. “We had to shoot and be able to walk and talk — and that’s the hardest thing ever. It’s so much harder than it looks.”

On ride-alongs…

Ride-alongs informed the real movie because it should feel like you’re on a ride-along: “We wanted for this to look like an improvisation or documentary, like you have a secret camera and are tagging along on a ride-along.”

On getting along with Jake Gyllenhaal…

“Once me and Jake became buddies we started kidding around a lot and joking and trying to one up each other.” They are friends to this day.

Was it difficult to work with a hidden-camera?
“No, in fact it was freeing because you could do whatever [you wanted] and you could do no wrong. You could shoot forever with that camera. It was just very freeing to have the camera there and if you mess up you can do the whole thing again, but if you look at it there are a lot of things that are just one take through the whole thing and I really enjoyed that about the movie.”

DAVID AYER

On doing LAPD movies:
“A friend said ‘dude, you have to write a found footage cop movie’ and that was the last thing I wanted to do — another LAPD movie – cause you get typecast as the take-on-the-LAPD-movie-guy. But it’s a thing that I do very well and a world I know very well and I love cops.”

On cops:

The public usually deals with cops in bad situations, so they get misunderstood, but
“99% of cops are really good people, really cool people and they are doing the right thing, doing the job the right way. I honestly believe that the majority get into law enforcement because they want to help. It’s a tough lifestyle, there’s a lot of sacrifices and there’s more going on than just getting the paycheque.”

“I wanted to show the heart in the men and women behind the badge and the relationships, the weddings, and life events — all those scenes were incredibly important to me and it was something I wasn’t willing to sacrifice and it’s this counterintuitive thing where the commercial version of the movie may not be the by-the-numbers version.”

On finding comedy within darkness…

“Good drama is the happy and sad mask, it’s not two sad masks,” he laughs.
Dealing with tough situations, you need humor. “Exactly. That’s how cops process the world they are in is humor, you gotta have a sense of humor, otherwise the second you lose your sense of humor you need to get out of policing and cops I know are freaking hilarious.”

On cop’s wives…

“It’s a cop’s wife, she kisses her husband good day and she doesn’t know if he’s going to come home from work.”

On female audiences…
Thinks it would be interesting for women to see because it portrays a “secret society not only of law enforcement, but also male friendship[…] this is how we talk about you when you’re not around — and guess what, it’s not that bad!”

Favorite scenes…

“Scenes of just them sitting talking in their car are the most riveting — they are the questions that we all deal with – Should I get married? Should I get a girlfriend? Are we going to have kids?”

On the improvised feel of dialogue:

“This is a testament to how great these guys are cause they take a rigidly scripted dialogue which I wrote to sound natural and breezy and a little loose and deliver it in such a way that you think it’s two best friends talking. That is the hardest thing to pull off.”

Training…

Ayer took Peña and Gyllenhaal to the Orange County Fire Department and did a controlled burn. He put them in a room and lit it on fire so that they can feel what it’s like first-hand, so that they had the muscle memory of a real fire for a scene in the movie…

Why hidden camera?
Ayer’s friend is a copy and had showed him footage that he and his colleagues have shot at work – some of it official/some of it not so much: – “It’s fascinating and riveting and better than anything I’ve seen on TV or in movies – I thought, this is a fantastic tool to tell this story.”

Breaking the rules:
The film is a mixture of first-person experiential video where characters shot themselves and traditional filmmaking. “Who’s holding the camera? Who cares,” says Ayer, “There’s going to be some film geeks that are going to nail me to the cross for that, but I’ve done worst things in my life, believe me.”

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