Street Kings - David Ayer interview
Compiled by Jack Foley
DAVID Ayer can be counted on to create realism and authenticity in the arena of Los Angeles crime. The filmmaker wrote and co-produced the excellent Training Day and directed Harsh Times. His latest film Street Kings is a tough police drama, set in the city he knows and loves, with all its flaws, but this is not a portrayal of LA that filmgoers are often used to seeing on the big screen. The following interview with the director was conducted in Los Angeles.
Q: Can you explain what Street Kings is all about?
David Ayer: It’s about realization and growth. It is about a guy who is very skilled at something very bad, who is trapped by that and manipulated by it. Yet he is cherished by the ability he has to exercise violence so effectively. The film is about his awakening and the ironic ‘cleansing’ of his world through violence. It’s a tragedy but it does not end tragically.
Q: What does it say about the police and is it specific to LA?
David Ayer: I think it’s specific to any city that has a police department. It’s the story of a cop in a specialized unit who is being manipulated by his superiors, realizes that, and takes action. At the same time he is being manipulated by even higher superiors than he realized.
Q: Did you update and change the original script?
David Ayer: We did because it was conceived at the time of the OJ Simpson verdict [when he was found not guilty of murdering his wife]. It was a period movie that focused on racism and surrounding issues and I felt like the racial politics have already been addressed and are not very contemporary. I wanted to set it in the present day. This is not a documentary; it’s a work of fiction. It’s a good detective story, a detective yarn from James Ellroy’s original story, so I wanted to tell it in the way that I was best equipped to tell it. That meant focusing more on the street element.
Q: How did the LAPD officers react? Did they have concerns?
David Ayer: You have to realize that at the end of the day, everyone knows this is just a movie. And you have to separate the official department attitude from the individual policeman’s attitude. On an individual level, every cop I have talked to is excited about the project. We have Daryl Gates, the former LAPD chief actually in the movie. He read the script and liked the redemptive qualities it expressed. The police officers’ concern is about getting the details of their culture correct and that is where those relationships with the police came in. We had a lot of police cooperation on an individual level but nothing on an official level.
Q: Do you think the LA Police department actually is corrupt?
David Ayer: “It’s interesting. The LAPD gets itself into trouble over the use of force, while other departments historically have had different problems, problems with organized crime style corruption and racketeering. LA hasn’t had the same kind of problems with organized money collection systems but as far as ‘boots on faces’ there is an issue sometimes. They really tried to reform the department and policies and the way they use force but the problem is that they are underfunded and do not have enough people, so they are forced to chase radio calls in a car whereas in other large cities, the cops interact more in the community and that always helps.
Q: Why is it that LA police do not interact with the community as much as in other cities do you think?
David Ayer: LA is so spread out so in military terms, they are like a ‘quick reaction force’ going from fire to fire to fire, putting out fires. Doing that, they tend to become very disconnected from the community they police. And the other thing is that they discourage officers from living in the areas that they serve, whereas other cities will actually encourage it.
Q: How authentic is the film and how real is it? Did you interact with the community?
David Ayer: We went into real neighbourhoods and places that film crews normally don’t dare to tread, I guess. We shot in some very pretty and photogenic parts of the city but in parts that people normally do not film. For me, it was all about showing LA’s beauty, but from a different side and perspective. There’s a location in East LA in the film where we are looking at downtown LA and people normally don’t see that view or even know where it is and it is gorgeous. It’s beautiful and really ties you into the city. My primary consideration was: “How do I depict the city on film?” It was difficult logistically but we went in and shot and it turned out well.
Q: What response did you have from the community when you were filming? You must have a lot of respect from these neighborhoods, more than other filmmakers?
David Ayer: They call it the ‘ghetto pass’ [laughs] and I definitely have that, coming from those neighbourhoods myself and knowing the people. They remember me from Training Day and Harsh Times and say: “Oh, you did those films? OK cool.” But you have to go in and talk to people; you are basically going into their living rooms. We had an open set. We didn’t have security guards keeping everyone out so people were able to walk through our set and talk to our people and interact with our crew and that kind of open attitude really helps a lot because if you were belligerent or condescending, you would have problems. But we did not have any problems.
Q: Why did you cast Keanu Reeves in the leading role?
David Ayer: He actually chose me. He was attached to the script and he had seen Harsh Times and thought that I would be the right guy to direct this, so he picked me. But I was very happy. He is a great actor. He gives a psychologically realistic performance that is nuanced and intense. And after Keanu, we were able to get a great cast. Forest [Whitaker] was the second cast member and once we had him as well, people started to perceive this as a much more interesting project.
Q: What did Forest Whitaker bring to the role?
David Ayer: He worked so well as Captain Jack Wander because we had to cast someone who the audience believes can be a political climber and achiever, who could reasonably be chief or mayor. Believing he could achieve those heights was crucial to the film. Forest is such a powerful actor with an uncensored stream of consciousness and his style really complemented Keanu’s more introspective, deeper style.
Q: What about Hugh Laurie?
David Ayer: Erwin Stoff [the producer] thought of Hugh for the film. He suddenly said one day: “What about Hugh?” Hugh was really interested in the role and really understood the part. He understood that man’s sensibility and did a great job as the ‘secret policeman’.
Q: To what extent do you understand these cops you depict?
David Ayer: I understand them pretty well. I was in the military so I understand that culture and most of my friends are cops.
Q: Should they be allowed the freedom they have?
David Ayer: It’s hard to answer that question. There’s always going to be that war between civil rights, individual liberty and public safety. It’s the individual police officer on the street who is the arbiter of our rights, who is faced with stopping a crime or apprehending a criminal. The individual has to interpret that black and white law and the regulations of his department. And there are mistakes made. That always fascinates me.
Q: Isn’t it dangerous though to leave those decisions up to individuals?
David Ayer: Soon we will have micro-chips and computers taking care of everything and it’ll take the man out of the loop entirely. Perhaps there is an argument for doing that.
Q: What is your take on the violence this film depicts?
David Ayer: It’s hard reality. There are a lot of murders in LA and police kill people. Any week you can pick up the paper and someone else has been shot, whether it is by the LAPD or another department. Maybe the sad thing is that I take it for granted because that is part of my world and part of the world in which I grew up. I grew up around violence so I hate to say I am desensitized to it because I’m not, but it’s something that I am trying to understand and process. And I do not think there is ever an answer. I think it exists and is part of our lives. Should it be there? Absolutely not. Is it good? Absolutely not. What is the answer? I don’t know.”
Q: How fascinated do you continue to be by this genre?
David Ayer: I’m pretty fascinated by this field, yes. I think I will always be interested in these questions. It’s about the question of what happens to people who are franchised by society to kill on our behalf. We have given them that power to shoot people. What does that mean? But I’m absolutely ready to spread my wings as a director. I’m a huge science fiction fan. I love military films. I’ve taken a very steady career path, taking things I know I can deliver on. So, I told Keanu Reeves: “I can get you where you need to be as a corrupt cop in a cop movie. I can deliver on that promise.” Now that I’m more confident and a lot more skilled as a director, I’m ready to explore other genres.