Officers in action: Michael Pe�a, left, and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Officers in action: Michael Pe�a, left, and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Penned by the same writer who brought us the Academy Award-winning Training Day, End of Watch, released in SA over the festive season, is touted as “a riveting action thriller” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as two wet-behind-the-ears LAPD officers who unwittingly come across a secret that finds them directly in the cross-hairs of the US’s most notorious drug cartel.

• End of Watch has been receiving rave reviews, both locally and abroad. Writer-director David Ayer offers an inside look at the film, which is very much a love letter to the policing profession and the difficult job its members do. Was that your intention?

It’s interesting because, when we Americans see our servicemen or servicewomen in uniform in the airport, we’ll go up and shake their hands and say: “Thank you for your service.” Because they’re going into harm’s way on our behalf, right?

Police do this every day, but no one ever walks up and shakes their hands and thanks them for their service. Even though the police genre is the most beaten-dead horse in the film and television world, the public at the end of the day really know very little about what the police actually do. And that’s what I wanted to show.

• So how did you get beyond the clichés of what the public might expect to see in a cop movie?

The challenge with this movie is communicating that it’s not what you’re expecting. It’s non-traditional film-making in several ways: the photography, the story-telling, even the acting, I think, because stylistically it mimics reality. There’s a documentary feel that evolves into this hybrid collage of video images that the characters have created themselves, and then my editorialisation as a film-maker projected into their world. It’s really unique in that regard. The script is non-traditional in that there’s no bad guy – they’re not solving a mystery throughout the whole movie in order to arrest a bad guy and make everything right. It’s a bit more of a metaphor, or a take on the reality of it, in that no matter how many people you arrest, there’s more guys waiting to be arrested.

• It must be an incredibly frustrating profession in that respect… Yes, because they’re just holding the line. These are the guys manning the ramparts of society so that we don’t destroy ourselves. And that comes at an incredible emotional cost. A law enforcement officer is going into harm’s way every day, and they come home every day. And they’re bringing that hangover of the streets home with them.

• Can you tell us a bit about the two officers at the heart of End Of Watch?

I wanted to show normal guys. This movie is a study in friendship, and it’s a study of Jake and Mike, who deliver these fantastic perform-ances, and it’s just an analysis of these normal guys who are best friends who happen to be officers dealing and processing and understanding and growing and getting married and becoming parents. I think it’s a success.

• Did you encounter the opposite reaction with your scripts for Training Day and Dark Blue, which are about the bad apples in the police force?

They’re more impolitic. The strange thing about Training Day is that, since I wrote it, I’ve met so many cops who say: “I know that guy. I’ve worked with that guy.”

But I’m such a technical perfectionist. I want to get all the details right – the vehicles, the uniforms, the look, the attitude, the tactics, the behaviour, the physicality – so that when cops see the movie and they tell me I nailed it, it’s really rewarding to me. But for me the headline here is these unbelievable performances that Jake and Mike deliver. This movie lives and dies on their friendship, and you really do believe that these guys have been riding in the same car together for years.

• They’ve both said that it wasn’t the easiest journey getting to that stage. Would you agree?

Yes. We rehearsed for five months before the shoot. They’re both incredibly gifted professional actors, and they initially started tackling the problem as professional actors. I was like: “Guys, this isn’t something you’re going to create with technique – it’s got to be real. You’ve got to have that familiarity.”

And somewhere during this journey, somewhere during the ride-alongs, and being with the real cops at 3am, and running into gang members, and dealing with the aftermath of shootings, and firing live ammunition past each other’s heads, and tactical exercises, and real training with the LAPD, somewhere in all of that this spark of friendship burst into flame. They’re still friends to this day.

• Was there ever a point where you wondered if they’d be able to achieve that camaraderie?

A little bit, because what I was asking for was so beyond the normal buddy movie.

What I was asking for is what you see in the film.

They delivered it, they created it, and you can’t command or browbeat somebody into that space. You can’t force two people to have that genuine human warmth and trust. It was amazing and an honour to watch them transform in the rehearsals. You started seeing glimpses of it, in these little moments, these little epiphanies, and it was like watching them throw fire back and forth at each other, passing this incredible energy back and forth.

At a certain point, I was like: “I think this is going to work.”

• What was it like when you finally entered production?

They were so locked on by that point. They were the easiest part of filming because, as a director, once we got to that point, most of my issues simply became logistical and technical.

Because of their technical and tactical training, I didn’t have to spend time explaining what they were doing, because they knew the job. I could just say: “Okay, guys, you need to do a vehicle stop on this dude.” “Great, we got it.” And they knew everything they needed to do, because they’d been trained.

“Okay, guys, in this scene you gotta go in and clear this house.”

“Okay, cool.”

They’d just kind of shrug and amble up and do it when I called action, and it looks fantastic because they’re doing it for real. That made my life easier.

They were joyous to work with. I really miss them.

• You also entrusted Jake with capturing first-person footage with a video camera, which you’ve incorporated into the film.

He shot a lot of the movie. It’s insane.

And it’s interesting because I would tell him: “You’ve got this camera in your hands – it’s not Jake Gyllenhaal operating the camera, it’s your character operating the camera, so you have to see the world through that character’s eyes and figure out what about that is going to capture your attention so that you’re going to want to record that on video.”

It added this amazing layer, where not only was he my actor, but he also became a visual collaborator.

• You know this world inside and out. When you’re not making films, are you hanging out with the LAPD trying to find more stories to tell?

I’ve got friends who are cops and we hang out, but also my wife is from South Central, and so we have family down there.

We’re there a lot socially, so it’s this strange life of mine, where I have one leg in one world and one leg in the other world.

• Did you ever want to be a cop yourself?

No (laughs). I was a high school drop-out. I was the guy that ran from the cops in those very neighbourhoods in South Central. It was never anything that was realistic or on the table for me to be a film-maker. I thought I’d end up dead or in jail, so it’s a real blessing to have this life, and I think it’s a true American and Hollywood success story that a guy like me could be embraced by the film-making community and given the opportunity to work with these stars and be given a voice. I’m honoured.