David Ayer – Street Kings

June 6, 2008 by  
Filed under Interviews

David Ayer’s writing and directing credits include “Training Day,” “Dark Blue,” “S.W.A.T.,” and “Harsh Times” – all dramas revolving around corrupt police officers. In his latest film, “Street Kings,” Keanu Reeves stars as a veteran LAPD cop who is implicated in the death of a fellow officer.

Via phone, Ayer spoke to me about making his first studio-financed film, what he’s learned about himself as a director over the last year, and why he loves making cop movies.

Based on your filmography as a screenwriter, your genre of choice seems to be the crime drama. Why did you decide to return to this type of film for your second outing as a director?

This is my first studio film as a director and I felt comfortable picking an arena that I really know. It made sense for me. It’s an L.A. movie. I know the city well. L.A. is like a character in the movie. It’s a world I trust myself to deliver on.

How “street smart” do you actually consider yourself to be?

I grew up in south central L.A. I was the only white boy in the neighborhood. I still have relatives down there. I’m always down there. I get the ghetto pass.

Since this was your first studio film, how much easier was it to make in terms of getting financial support?

There are a lot of resources, but at the end of the day it’s the money. Fox Searchlight is really filmmaker-friendly. They let me make the movie that I really wanted to make. Other mainline studios will sometimes go for a more commercial version, but Searchlight let me have my own viewpoint. We’re really not making a lot of movies like this these days – old school, hard-R cop movies.

You wrote and directed “Harsh Times” last year but are only directing “Street Kings.” Is it hard to let go of the writing credit and watch someone else take that responsibility or do you welcome the break?

It was interesting to work with another writer. It does take a lot of load off your shoulders. I want to direct and want to get my career as a director going. I’m comfortable as a writer. I’m established and know what I’m doing there. It was nice to be able to have a writer help me out. Part of my job as a director is to make sure the actors have everything in the script they need to do their jobs and make them connected to the material. A lot of what I did was fine tuning for Forest [Whitaker] and Keanu [Reeves] and Hugh Laurie.

Have you learned what kind of director you are in only two films?

I’m really hands on as a director. The director’s job is to communicate [to the actor] what you want and where you want them to be. It’s tough because as a director you’re the only guy who knows what the movie is. I’m really involved. I find the more feedback you can give an actor, the better they do.

Keanu Reeves’ character in this film reminded me of Russell Crowe’s from “L.A. Confidential” maybe because James Ellroy wrote both. What did you want to get from Keanu’s character to make it different from other leading roles you’ve written and directed?

I wanted a guy with soul. I wanted someone who was good at heart but did bad things and justified what he did for the greater good.

In “Street Kings” you get to direct your first Academy Award winning actor in Forest Whitaker. How exciting was it for you to get him cast in this film and what was he like to work with?

It was great to work with Forest. I really chased him hard [for the role]. I wanted him to understand why his character was so unique. I really needed him. I needed someone we could believe could be the [police] chief or the mayor and someone who has this political charisma. Not every actor can pull that off. Forest certainly can. Once he walked in, it was definitely a great day for me.

With your love for the cop drama, I’m wondering if you ever wanted to be a police officer sometime in your life.

I entertained the idea after I got out of the military, but I guess I wasn’t ready for that lifestyle. I think I am drawn to it because there’s drama. You’re out there on the streets dealing with people in the worst moments of their lives. There’s always drama in conflict.

Street Kings

April 5, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Forest Whitaker, Hugh Laurie
Directed by: David Ayer (“Harsh Times”)
Written by: James Ellroy (“L.A. Confidential”), Kurt Wimmer (“Ultraviolet”), Jaime Moss (debut)

If the name David Ayer is anywhere in a film’s credits, it would probably be safe to say the theme of the movie is going to revolve around corrupt cops. In his new film “Street Kings,” the director hands over the writing responsibilities (even after he did such a great job with 2005’s “Harsh Times”) to a trio of screenwriters who fail to understand the meaning of multilayered characters.

In the last seven years as a writer, Ayer has given us “Training Day,” “Dark Blue,” “S.W.A.T.” and “Harsh Times,” the last of which he was credited as both a screenwriter and first-time director. Now, in his sophomore film, Ayer’s lands some solid punches with the boys in blue, but doesn’t give us enough depth from the main and supporting characters. In “Training Day,” he transformed Denzel Washington into a crooked LAPD detective, a role which landed him his second Academy Award of his career. He also gave us an incredibly unique character study with Christian Bale as an ex-Ranger turned police officer in “Harsh Times,” one of the most overlooked performances of that year.

In “Street Kings,” the story follows LAPD vice detective Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves, who has come along way in the acting department since hamming it up most of his career), a trigger-happy cop whose on the right side of the law, but likes to do his job more like a renegade instead of a police officer. Think Russell Crowe’s Bud White in “L.A. Confidential,” which was also written by James Ellroy. Basically, he’s the jury, judge, and executioner.

When Tom uses his brute techniques to wipe out a couple of Korean kidnappers, he is thrust into the L.A. limelight as a heroic cop moving up in the ranks. Although his commanding officer Capt. Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker) likes the way he does his job, others, like Tom’s former partner Terrance Washington (Terry Crews), let internal affairs know there’s a guy on the force that isn’t exactly on the up and up. Now internal affairs officer Capt. James Biggs (Hugh Laurie) is watching Tom’s every move, which, of course, makes Tom want to confront his ex-partner for ratting him out.

During the confrontation, which takes place in a local convenient store, Tom and Terrance find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time as they are ambushed by two masked gunmen who fill Officer Washington’s body with machine-gun ammo before Tom even knows what’s happening. But with the history between the two officers, Tom isn’t in the most ideal place, especially with Capt. Biggs asking questions.

Capt. Wander and the rest of the department, however, quickly step in to clean up the mess. “We can’t afford to lose you,” Wander tells Tom. “You’re the tip of the spear. Who’s going to hold back the animals?” Thus, corruption begets corruption and so on as Tom attempts to steer clear of Capt. Biggs and search for Terrance’s killers.

Unintentionally funny at times, “Street Kings” is a complex story with unrefined characters. With an entire cast basically playing bad or dishonest cops, there’s no real sense of conflict even between the cops and the thugs in the ghetto. And what fun can be had when everyone is on the same team? Even with semiautomatics, the story sputters in the film’s final anticlimactic act and quickly turns from complex to comical.