David Ayer does not make light movies. Ayer’s name is most known to mainstream audiences for Suicide Squad and Bright, but his filmography is mostly hard-hitting crime thrillers. Harsh Times, Street Kings, and End of Watch – they’re Los Angeles crime movies with plenty of brutality, believability, and attention to detail. They feel legitimate, perhaps partly because Ayer is a longtime resident of Los Angeles, having moved to South Central in the ’80s.
This year, there are two more projects from Ayer set in L.A, starting with Fox’s new drama, Deputy. The Stephen Dorff-led cop series is executive produced by Ayer, who directed the pilot and another episode. While the network drama is not as brutal as Ayer’s crime movies, the story, character, and world are very familiar to him. Sometime in 2020, we’ll see another L.A. crime movie from the filmmaker, called The Tax Collector, which he confirmed will hit VOD. The director also told us about his experiences in Los Angeles, working in television versus film, dealing with creative differences, and working with movie stars.
You’ve portrayed law enforcement many times throughout your career. What’s the difference depicting law enforcement now in 2020 than, say, 10, 15 years ago?
I think it’s a changing world. I think the cops are more reflective of the community they police now. I think there’s definitely the awareness of any decision you make is going to be viral in two seconds. I think the climates and variance of law enforcement in general, it kind of makes the job harder, but I also think they’re looking a lot at themselves in their culture and making a lot of positive change.
You’ve depicted Los Angeles many times. When did you first move out here?
Oh, man. It was before the Olympics. That was a lot of fun.
How was it? Was it an exciting or interesting time?
Boy, I was living in South Central, just became my world, I guess. I just kind of got absorbed into it, and then I was close to downtown, so I was always in downtown, real wild. East LA and South LA, it’s always been where I feel at home.
The last time you shot city for Bright they were tearing down so many buildings and locations. You saw a lot of changes, including even some gentrification around skid row. What did you notice this time shooting L.A. for Sherrif?
It’s hard to find anything that really looks like iconic LA. So many new apartment buildings. So much stuff is getting torn down like… The roller derby rink is gone and it’s new apartments. It’s old restaurants that have been around forever, gone, shuttered. So you’re seeing the switch from family-owned businesses and neighborhood people to just a lot of people from out of town and in corporate.
What parts of LA did you want to show this time?
We want the East L.A. visual. You know, downtown, it’s interesting to realize sheriffs, their jurisdiction of the entire county, so they can enforce the law anywhere, LAPD territory, anywhere. They’re a senior agency.
You’ve portrayed good and bad cops. In your experience of talking to law enforcement and research, what usually separates the two? Maybe a broad question, but what makes someone cross that line?
I think the kind of bad cop that fascinates people is just an extremely rare animal, and that’s just like a bad guy somehow got in the system, got a badge. It’s happened but rare. I think what a lot of people think bad cops, the other kind of category, are just guys that have given up on the job a little bit, and maybe become jaded and stop seeing people that they police as their neighbors, and friends, and family, but see them as something else. They stop… It’s the humanity. The good cops I know are all just pretty good people, good souls, good hearts. They want to help, and if you think about it, you don’t take a job where everyone’s going to shit on you when you want to help people [Laughs]. Then you get shit on some more. It’s brutal, but when you call 9-11 and some really bad shit’s going down, you do need the police to show up.
What about gang activity in L.A.? How’s it evolved in the last few years?
It’s like drug sales used to be you had to hold down territory, you had to hold down your neighborhood, so you could move product. Now, it’s all by text. The Latino gangs have pretty much taken over all of L.A. There are very few isolated pockets still of like African-American gangs, but they’re kind of getting pushed out of the game.
How under-the-radar is it? You don’t see too much of it on the local news.
I think for anything, it’s organized, it’s corporate, and everybody knows dead bodies are bad for business. So, there actually is an effort in the gang world to really reduce murders. Keeps people off their back, lets them do their business. It sort of speaks to the strength of the control system that that can be controlled.
You’re clearly someone who immerses themselves in the worlds they’re depicting, so I was wondering, what are tiny details about law enforcement and gangs that immediately strikes you as phony when you see them in movies or TV shows?
So LAPD uniforms that have epaulets or uniform regulations to slow them down, but the shirts don’t come that way. So you always see LAPD cops on TV with these sloppy lapels. It’s just a little detail that everybody overlooks, and then the worst is when they stick a microphone with a cord hanging by someone’s neck because now a bad guy can choke you out and kill you.
What about gang violence? What rings as truthful or false to you?
Real violence is not cinematic. It just happens, and it’s fast, and it’s done, and then everyone is crying. At the end of the day, even if you’re a gang member, you’re a person. You have a mom. You have a dad. You probably have a job. You have a girlfriend who’s on your case, so it’s like regular people at the end of the day, and it’s good if you see some dimensionality.
Your work doesn’t tend to sugarcoat violence or uncomfortable situations. You will make unpleasant movies or moments. Do you ever get pushback on that? Does it ever create any creative differences?
Yeah, for sure. I think you have a scene that makes people uncomfortable, and there’s often a reaction from your collaborators to be more fun. “Could you be more pleasant? Can we take that out?” But uncomfortable doesn’t equal a negative impact. Uncomfortable can have a positive impact on your story, so it is knowing how to not go too far, but you’re walking a line.
You’ve always struck me as someone confident in their voice and what they want to say, so how do you handle creative differences? Is it just different every time?
It’s different every time, and it depends what it is. At the end of the day, it’s a business, and it’s not like I’m only doing oil paintings where I own my brushes and paint. I need trucks, and lights, and crews, and I’m not paying for them. So there’s always the war between art and commerce, but there’s a lot of great homes for artists to make good movies still.
What are the similarities and differences working with a network like Fox and a major studio?
I think everybody has a format. So a studio movie needs to be structured a certain way, play out a certain way. It’s sort of certain numbers with the audiences. Same way with broadcasts. These guys have been in the business a long time, and they know what works on their air, and so I’ve been learning a lot about their business. At the same time, they’ve been amazing in letting me have just a lot of creative freedom.
When you shoot for the small screen, do you think differently than you do on a movie?
Actually, take more chances. You can be a little bit more aggressive with the photography because it may not work on the big screen. A shot may fall apart, but with a real kind of in-your-face documentary live vibe, well, I don’t know if I’d be that aggressive on a movie.
Why is that?
Just experience. People, you got to show a performance and faces, and really park in stuff. And with the TV, it’s fast. It’s fast; it’s moving. With movies, you have let the scene flow.
You’re definitely someone with a distinct voice behind your movies. Was there a time when you felt you found your voice or what you personally liked as a storyteller?
To me, every movie’s kind of different, but then you look back, and it’s like, “hey, you do your thing a certain way.” I think it’s something you discover. I’m still learning, and my cinematic language is going to grow and evolve as I learn more.
Anybody who you think definitely influenced your style?
Obviously, Scorsese, just naturalistic, great dialogue and performance, characters that you understand who they are. It’s De Palma. Oliver Stone’s a big influence.
What did you think of The Irishman?
I liked it. It was a good hitting home around Christmas, and I’ve got time to watch, but it stands on the shoulder of Scorsese’s gang canon. It’s not really a movie, I think, that is a lone piece. You really have to be a fan of Casino and Goodfellas, and understand those movies to really appreciate Irishman.
I’m surprised you haven’t made a three-hour LA crime epic yet.
Yeah, I’m a fan of L.A. Confidential, and I think there’s definitely big, cinematic stories out there that deal with the history of Los Angeles. I think it’d be a lot of fun to tackle one of them.
Is The Tax Collector coming out soon?
Yeah, it’s going to come out. It’s going to come out this year. I think it’s just going to be video on demand.
Is that movie more in the vein of Street Kings and Harsh Times?
Absolutely. Yeah, it’s a small independent movie about the LA streets about what’s going on today.
I liked what you brought of Shia LaBeouf in Fury. We hadn’t seen a performance like that from him before.
He’s one of the best actors I’ve worked with, and he’s the most committed to body and soul. He had a tooth pulled on Fury, and then on Tax Collector, he got his whole chest tattooed. So he kind of goes all in, and I’ve never known anyone that committed.
I really enjoy that movie but easily could’ve watched a three-hour cut. Was there a longer cut you would’ve been happy to release?
We had another cut that was definitely more… a little bit longer. It was a good cut, but I’m happy with the movie, and it’s kind of a cult movie now. It’s really, really stuck.
Do you look back much on your movies or move forward?
It’s a little bit like cutting off your arm, and throwing it in a closet, and locking the door. [Laughs] You know if you open the door and look at it, it’s going to be ugly.
[Laughs] You’ve worked with Will Smith, Keanu Reeves, and Brad Pitt, just some of the most talented movie stars around. What’s it like when you work with actors on that level? Is the collaboration any different?
They’re very conscious of what they bring to the screen, and they need to know that you have their back. For me, it’s about finding out what are the strengths, and let’s really double down on the strengths. And it’s also understanding what kind of characters work for them, and then everyone has their own intangible side that you have to figure out how to capture with a camera. Because you’re stars for a reason, and you learn how to find that quality and chase it on set.
Keanu Reeves and Brad Pitt, for example, what are their strengths you want to double down on?
With Brad, it’s you need the time with him because he’s relentless. He wants to try different things. He’s not walking away until every drop of sweat’s on the field. Incredible work ethic. Kind of the same with Keanu. All these guys actually have incredible focus and work ethic. With Keanu, we put him through tons of firearms training and law enforcement training. He’s just so gracious and focused, and just showed up, and did his homework without complaint, day after day.
Deputy airs on Fox on Thursdays at 9 pm.
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