Last spring Jake Gyllenhaal showed up at the Silver Lake offices of writer-director David Ayer to pitch himself for the lead role in End of Watch—a cop movie whose $8 million budget was less than what the actor reportedly took home for starring in the Prince of Persia. “I told Dave I was ready to devote my life to this,” Gyllenhaal says. “I’ve said in the past I’ve wanted to devote myself to a project, but I’ve never done that in a way that I did for this movie.”
Gyllenhaal had recently returned to town from a press tour for the science-fiction movie Source Code, and it was five in the morning when he picked up Ayer’s script about an LAPD officer working on a homemade documentary about the struggles, small victories, and male bonding that he and his partner experience as they patrol South Los Angeles. “I just blew through it,” Gyllenhaal says. “I knew David Ayer, but I had never seen such a big heart in any of his work before—the sense of relationship. When I finished it, the sun was rising, and I consider that a metaphor in many, many ways.”
Much of the action for End of Watch was shot with a camcorder that was strapped to Gyllenhaal’s abdomen. Focusing on the day-to-day, the film offers an even more authentic look at police work than Ayer’s screenplay for the 2001 film Training Day, whose unvarnished vision of L.A. made so many other movies about the city’s toughest streets seem clichéd. Denzel Washington earned a best actor Oscar for his portrayal of a corrupt detective.
To make LAPD officers of Gyllenhaal and his costar Michael Peña, Ayer put them through five months of punishment. Several days a week Gyllenhaal reported to an Echo Park dojo run by a friend of Ayer’s. “Dave said, ‘I really need you to know what it’s like getting the crap kicked out of you and how to beat the crap out of somebody,’ ” Gyllenhaal says. “And in the beginning it just started with getting the shit beaten out of me by 14- to 20-year-old kids literally every morning. Towards the end I definitely got some good kicks and punches in on those boys.”
Instead of the couple of nighttime ride-alongs that have become obligatory research for cop movies, the actors spent weeks in L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, LAPD, and Inglewood police squad cars. Over yogurt and granola at a Silver Lake café, Ayer describes how during Gyllenhaal’s first time out, he saw a gunshot victim die on the street. “Jake called me up that night and he was like, ‘That shit changed me,’ ” says Ayer, who is 42. His head shaved, he wears cargo shorts and a plaid button-down shirt whose loose fit only manages to make his shoulders look more massive. “I’m like, ‘Good, that’s exactly what I was hoping.’ It was horrible, and I know it isn’t going to sound right, but my hopes were that in this process he would encounter some truth and some reality about what’s really going on in L.A.”
Ayer needed no such education. He grew up in the neighborhood of West Adams in the mid-1980s, when the area was overwhelmingly Mexican and Mexican American, with a growing influx of Salvadoran immigrants. The MS 13 gang was expanding its reach, and the violence was getting worse. In a soft voice Ayer talks about the crack house that opened down the block from him, about avoiding puddles of congealed blood when he walked to school, about administering CPR to a victim shot at a party across the street. Though the guy died, Ayer was targeted by the shooter because he’d disrespected the neighborhood when he tried to save the enemy.
In those days, Ayer says, the line blurred between spectator and participant. He spent his teenage years on probation—he won’t say for what, other than it didn’t involve drugs and no one was hurt. Ayer gained a thorough familiarity with the tactics of the LAPD. Police didn’t think a white kid could possibly live in the area; the assumption was that Ayer was there to buy drugs. “They’d fly their helicopters at phone pole height,” he says, “and you could see the pilot staring at you through his Ray-Bans.” Once the police beat him so badly, he needed to go to the hospital. “They did it with joy in their eyes,” Ayer says, a rueful grin stretching across the confines of his neatly trimmed goatee. “That was the mind-blowing piece.”
His path to the neighborhood began on Christmas morning when Ayer was four years old and his father, who held a doctorate in geology and worked for the navy and U.S. Geological Survey, committed suicide in their Miami home. “It’s like, ‘Hey, Merry Christmas,’ ” he says. “That was my send-off into life.” Ayer’s brother and sister were much older than he was and already out of the house at the time, so he alone accompanied their mother as she began moving around the country. “She was a quote-unquote venture capitalist, whatever the hell that means,” Ayer says. “She was always trying to start companies and get things rolling.”
The itinerant existence only deepened Ayer’s sense of loss and dislocation. Then puberty hit. “I was feral,” he recalls, “uncontrollable, did my own thing. Brushes with the law and all that stuff.” He punctuates this with a gruff laugh. “It was a disaster.” Most everyone who knew Ayer was predicting a future in prison for him. “It was just the expectation that a lot of people had of me. Because I was not a good kid, and the consequences were getting more serious.” When he was 14, his mother sent him to live with cousins who were among the first urban homesteaders to move into a West Adams Craftsman, in the shadow of the 10 freeway. “The irony is, I was just a bush-league juvenile delinquent,” Ayer says. “And I end up in fucking South Central. Now I’m around the professionals. I was like, ‘Holy shit.’ I quickly grew accustomed, though. You can get used to anything.”
Ayer read a lot while he was in high school, but he also liked to smoke on campus. After repeating 11th grade, he dropped out. While Ayer remembers fitting in well enough as one of the only white kids in the area, his friend Paul “Sparky” Barreras isn’t so sure. Barreras met Ayer when they were both security guards downtown at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in the early 1990s. He says Ayer’s nickname used to be “Crave”—short for “Crazy Dave.” “He was a crazy white boy hanging out with a bunch of Mexicans,” Barreras says, “and people would pick on him. He was drunk and getting into fights and other stuff.”
Around the time Martin Scorsese was shooting the remake of Cape Fear, the film’s screenwriter, Wesley Strick, and his wife, Marla, bought fitness pioneer Jack La-Lanne’s house in the Hollywood Hills. “It was a very cool house,” Strick says, “but it was also a shithole, if I may say so. And one of the big problems was the electrical.” A 22-year-old David Ayer was an electrician on the contracting crew brought in for renovations.
He had recently left the navy, where he’d served as a sonar man in a submarine that tracked Soviet nuclear subs in hostile waters. “The whole point,” Ayer says, “was to pump them full of torpedoes before they could launch and to smoke as many as you could.” Nobody onboard expected to escape the retaliatory onslaught from the escorts. In other words, Ayer had put himself either on track for annihilation or, if he was lucky, a Cold War military career. That plan collapsed with the Soviet Union. “One discovers that one isn’t dead and hasn’t died in the apocalypse,” Ayer says, “and then it’s like, ‘Now what am I going to do?’ ”
He returned to L.A. and worked construction, writing short stories on the side. Ayer had always been a storyteller, and with his experience in the navy and West Adams, he had more authentic material to work with than most film school grads. After spending a little too much time eavesdropping on Strick’s conversations with his agent, directors, and studio executives, Ayer decided to take a chance. Still wearing his tool belt, he approached Strick and shyly asked him if he would take a look at his work.
Strick might have balked if, like others, Ayer had handed him a screenplay. But the stories were only a few pages long. “I could see that he was self-taught,” Strick says. “The stories weren’t sophisticated. They were raw, and that was part of what I found powerful about them. They seemed honest.”
Ayer ended up hanging out at the Strick home off and on for the next three years, living and writing in the poolside cabana. Strick has crafted his share of violent action—Cape Fear as well as the 2010 remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street—but the carnage in some of Ayer’s scripts was of another order, and he advised him to notch it down.
The Stricks knew Ayer had a wild streak, but they trusted him implicitly. He even baby-sat for them. Strick was out of L.A.—and sometimes out of the country—for long stretches of time working on projects. “It was comforting to know David was around,” he says, “because he was a big guy.” The couple also felt protective of Ayer and worried about him. “I’m not someone who goes looking for protégés, by any stretch,” Strick says, “but we both could see he was a little lost—it was ‘a mind is a terrible thing to waste’ situation. While it was clear the guy had potential, it was also clear that if somebody didn’t take hold of him soon, he might wander off in the wrong direction.”
Ayer wasn’t pleased with his early screenplay attempts. “I wrote this script called Squids,” he says, “about my life in the navy. It sucked.” He made enough progress to get into some meetings, but little more, and it was in a mood of sour dejection that he came up with Training Day in 1996, about a charismatic LAPD detective who is beyond redemption. The script went nowhere. “People told me I didn’t know shit about cops,” Ayer recalls, “but I was hearing these stories from the gangsters, and I saw what went on from my own experiences growing up.” Three years later the news broke about a group of antigang officers at LAPD’s Rampart Division who had become violent criminals themselves. “Once that happened,” he says, “it was like, ‘Oh shit, maybe this is real.’ It got me jobs.”
In 2000, Ayer cowrote U-571, director Jonathan Mostow’s World War II submarine saga. Training Day premiered the next year as did The Fast and the Furious, which was based on a script Ayer had overhauled. By 2004, he was living in Los Feliz with his wife, Mireya, who’d met him when she was working at Daily Donuts in Los Feliz. It impressed her that the Anglo guy, tanned from relentless runs in Griffith Park, spoke fluent Spanish, chatting her up while he waited for his coffee and chocolate doughnut. When they started dating, he told her he wanted lots of kids. Mireya, who had just graduated from high school, wasn’t ready for that, and they lost touch. Years later she contacted him after seeing his name on a poster for U-571. “I come from a big family,” says Mireya, “and almost every weekend there was a party—somebody’s birthday—and he just liked the idea of being surrounded by all these family members. And I think he was yearning for that, something he never had.”
Despite his strides, Ayer continued struggling. “He would drink with his buddies, and that was kind of like an outlet,” Mireya says. “I always knew he felt maybe anger towards his family. There was something inside him. I knew he needed help, but I didn’t know how to help him.”
Ayer typically takes about four weeks to hammer out a script. He wrote End of Watch in six days. “It just kind of hemorrhaged out of me,” he says. “There was something so intuitive and natural about writing in that space and about these characters. I guess it was time for me to tell this story—I don’t really know how to explain it.” For an Ayer screenplay, End of Watch is a departure in that the main characters are not bent on the destruction of themselves and everything in their path. It’s partly a reflection of how the LAPD has transformed itself since the days of the Rodney King beating and the Rampart scandal into a community-policing organization with officers who look a lot more like those they protect and serve. But it’s also a testament to how Ayer has reconciled with his past. “It just took me years to work through a lot of things,” he says, “and then create a life on my own terms and create a family and create stability—to get over the need to destroy the world.”
The Los Feliz neighborhood where David and Mireya are raising their four children looks nothing like the working-class, predominantly Latino area in Chicago where Michael Peña grew up. Nevertheless, during the many hours he spent at the Ayer home preparing for End of Watch, the actor found himself in familiar surroundings. “There were all these aunts and uncles and grandmothers,” he says, “and all these kids running around.”
Ayer put that house on the line in 2004 to finance Harsh Times, his debut as a writer-director. In the film Christian Bale portrays an unhinged military veteran, fluent in Spanish from a childhood spent in an L.A. barrio, who has a girlfriend in Mexico and ambitions to be a cop, even though he is plainly psychotic. Harsh Times came out the year after Bale starred in Batman Begins. Most of the critics who panned Ayer’s film wrote that it was too violent, bleak, and despairing. The box office—about $6 million—was enough to keep his house.
Around that time Ayer took a trip to find out what he could about his father. He spoke to his father’s friends and colleagues, read scholarly papers he’d written, and listened to a tape recording his father had made of himself and given to a friend. Ayer hadn’t heard the man’s voice since he was four. “I think that was just closure for David,” Mireya says. “He needed to know who his dad really was, and after he did that, everything changed. It was a big transformation, from drinking David to nondrinking David. It was just nice to finally have him back.” Though Ayer has made his peace, the scars flare every December. “Let’s just say Christmas is a downer,” he says. “I’ve got these kids, and it’s like fighting with a demon every year.”
This month Ayer begins shooting Ten, a thriller starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a dirty DEA agent. “I’m basically going to reinvent him,” Ayer says. “He put himself in my hands. I’m going to cut his hair, throw tattoos on him, and put him in a different sort of space he’s never operated in. This isn’t like, ‘Shoot a guy, crack a joke.’ ” He’s also considering a project that might address his early years more directly, in a children’s movie sure to make Rumble Fish seem like Mary Poppins. “It will be like some East L.A. stuff,” he says, “facing some of the dilemmas I faced. ‘Do you take the gun out of the house? Do you get into the car? Do you do that thing they’re asking you to do?’ ”
Writer-at-large Ed Leibowitz wrote about LAUSD superintendent John Deasy in the September issue.
This feature was originally published in the October 2012 issue of Los Angeles magazine