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.