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Interview with David Ayer, writer/director of Harsh Times

Review of Harsh Times

David Ayer writes and directs Harsh Times about Jim (Christian Bale), fresh out of the military, and his best friend Mike (Freddy Rodriguez), who try to escape from their dangerous life of drug-dealing and violence in South Central L.A.. This is David Ayer's directorial debut. He has written films such as S.W.A.T., Dark Blue , Training Day, The Fast and the Furious, and U-571. I had the privalege to interview him.

MGM will release Harsh Times on November 10th, 2006.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Which directors have influenced you as a writer/director?

DA: [Francis Ford] Coppola, Billy Wilder, [Alfred] Hitchcock and John Ford. Iím really about conservative bread-and-butter filmmaking: good performances. You can do the whole thing in a two-shot if the actors are on and they have a good story and good material. When you start using the camera to put energy into a scene, that means that thereís no scene to put energy into.

NYC MOVIE GURU: When did you begin your writing career?

DA: After I got out of the [military] service, I was doing construction work and painting and electrical work. I went to work on [the house of a guy] who was a screenwriter and told him some stories. I had some short stories that I had written down about the navy. He asked to see them and thought I had something. [He] talked me into writing a script. So, I wrote my first script. It wasnít [turned into] a movie, but it opened just enough doors to get me going.

NYC MOVIE GURU: When did you write Harsh Times?

DA: I wrote it right after I wrote Training Day 10 years ago. Itís more about L.A. that I wanted to [write about].

NYC MOVIE GURU: Would you ever give up writing?

DA: At heart, Iíll always be a writer. Itís like my bread and butter. Itís what got me to where I am now, so Iíll never change.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Were the scenes you directed the way you imagined while you were writing them?

DA: No. When youíre reading it, thereís all this snappy dialogue and all the guys are talking smack and itís really funny and then you get on the set and itís just these guys talking smack. Itís like, ďAlright, whereís the depth? Whereís the power behind it? Whereís the meaning?Ē Any scene in a movie should be about a power struggleósomebody wants something, somebody else wants something. They want different things. Itís all about subtext, so I learned how to bring subtext to a screen. It really changed me as a writer because I always come from that angle nowówhatís really going on in a scene, whatís the subtext? When you come on set and it falls flat, what are you going to do?

NYC MOVIE GURU: Harsh Times seems similar to Training Day.

DA: Itís definitely a companion piece. Itís almost like two cars that pass each other.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What similarities are there between you and Jim Davis, played by Christian Bale?

DA: I grew up in South Central. I was the only white guy in my neighborhood. I joined the military, got out [and] spent time on the streets. Itís the world of people I know.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Why did you seize the production of Harsh Times from the original production company?

DA: Itís kind of the standard development stuff. Like, why are these guys, Jim and Mike, friends? They wanted me to write a flashback to when they were kids and theyíre fighting on the playground or something. [But], you get the friendship immediately when you see them onscreen together. Maybe I had a lot more faith with myself as a director than they did. I knew I wouldnít need all [those flashbacks]. The other thing is the ending. They wanted a happy ending where everybody does the right thing and everything works out, but this movie has always been about the ending. Everything is just to get you there and I wasnít going to lose that. All the power of the movie is in the last 10 minutes. [They wanted me] to pull back the humor and [to] pull back some of the situations and soften [them]. But, people go to movies to see different worlds. You donít want to see the cookie-cutter movieóthatís why this is different. Iím like a final cut. Nobody had any influence me on this.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How much research did you do?

DA: Iím the kind of guy that wants to know everything, so when you need a detail, itís there already. I can get hung up on my process; if I donít know it, itíll just freeze me. But Google saved my life. Iím a better writer because of Google. Some former military cadets came in to help me with the battle stuff, train Christian [Bale], [teach] how to fire weapons. I had ďhomieĒ advisors to teach Christian how to talk, how to walk. The Spanish on the streets of L.A. is totally different than what youíre going to hear from anywhere else. I wanted a seamless movie so that somebody from the neighborhoods of L.A. would see this and be like, ďYou got it. You nailed it.Ē I want the guys in county jail to cry and say that this is art.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What do the actors expect from you?

DA: Actors are looking at you for leadership. That focus is what the director provides and you constantly have to nudge and steer and make little corrections the whole time. The second you donít, the tension goes out of the materialóit becomes boring. I can see it on takes where I wasnít focused on doing the right thing. Itís tough, but very rewarding.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did Terry Crews, who plays Darrel, get on board?

DA: He was in Training Day and that kind of got him rolled in everything. Itís a no-brainer to put him in it. Heís such a nice guy and he just totally [understood] the character. He lights up the screen.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did Christian Bale get on board to play Jim?

DA: He came in and auditioned for Training Day and, obviously, didnít get it, but he wanted to read anything that I had written, so I [gave] him [the Harsh Times script] and he fell in love with it. He decided that he was going to play that part no matter what. His career obviously took off in the intervening years and I got him right off Batman Begins. This is the first movie he did after [that movie].

NYC MOVIE GURU: Jim, played by Christian Bale, seems like a selfish character.

DA: Thatís exactly right. He was so broken and wounded that he didnít have anything to give anybody. Heís just taking from everybody around him and destroying people and just not thinking twice. At the end of the day, heís a selfish character.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Is there any hope throughout Jimís life?

DA: Thereís hope. The trick with that is you donít want to let him get so far-gone that you lose hope for the character. Part of that is [his friend Mike]. As long as [Mike] likes him and can reach him, thereís still hope.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How much of what you write in Harsh Times is based on your own experiences?

DA: Itís a fictional story and I just used my experiences and people I know to influence that story. They say to write about what you know, so itís all a big ďWhat if?Ēóto take things to their extreme.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you get off of the streets?

DA: Thereís always a good woman involved. Love conquers the demon. Thatís what the movie is about. Itís about not letting love conquer the demon, though.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What did it take to become who you are now?

DA: Hope.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What gave you that hope?

DA: Writing. My mentor really saved my life.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Are you glad that Harsh Times opens during the war in Iraq?

DA: I never really made that connection until people started asking about it. Where I grew up, the people fighting in wars are the poor kids, people from the hoodóthatís who does it all. All my friends are now going through [the war in] Iraq, and so, it just carried down. Itís part of the course, part of the scenery there. So, I just thought, ďOh man, so what if you got a captain whoís like a hardcore military trainer and heís running around the street doing things. Thatís an interesting situationóyea, it [has] happened [before].

NYC MOVIE GURU: Would you consider doing a movie with a character different from you?

DA: Again, itís ďwrite what you knowĒ. My mentor gave me some really good advice which is to find your niche and exploit it. Iíve had a good run doing just that. Itís maybe both unfair to both myself and the studio if I start stepping outside my box. They wonít pay me a full fee to right a romantic comedy. I might do it one day, you never knowóI might do a kids movie.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Did you find any humor within Harsh Times?

DA: At the end of the day, itís really funny. When the guys who I grew up with, my friends, see it, they laugh their asses off. Itís supposed to be funny, [but] a lot of people donít get the humor because itís edgy and really [street-smart]. And, often, on the streets, humor is at the expense of some one else, unfortunately. But, itís something [that] I think is pretty hilarious.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Why do you include Latinos in all of your movies?

DA: I think that Latino culture is ascending. People are finally realizing that there are Mexicans in the U.S.óthey figured that out last week. They are already the majority in California. Itís really going to be the future in a lot of our culture. The big companies are just realizing, ďHey, markets are Latinos. We can make some money.Ē Thatís how I grew up. I think Iíve always been ahead of the curveóIíve always put Latinos in my movies, but thatís more about where I come from.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Did it take longer to edit the film than to shoot it?

DA: No, we had a rough assemble within a few weeks and finalized it pretty [quickly]. The post-process wasnít that much.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What was the most difficult part of shooting it?

DA: Our first three days in Mexico. Our company moved down there and drivers didnít know where they were going, cell-phones didnít work. Somebody kept on jamming our wireless sound from the actors. It was crazy down there. It looks great; you canít see the agony on the screen, though, thank God. I was gonna shut it down. We totaled the hero car the first night. Everything was going wrong.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did working on Training Day help you prepare for directing Harsh Times?

DA: I was co-producer on [Training Day], so I got to see the entire process from the inside. I tried setting it up at different studios with different directors, different cast. Thereís a Samuel L. Jackson, Matt Damon version of it over at Miramax. Thereís a lot of evolution. Itís kind of my albatross in that regard because itís what Iím always measured as. A good screenwriter is only going to have one or two really great scripts over a lifetime and that was one of them. Hopefully, Iíll have another one.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Have you ever considered making a documentary or a project for television?

DA: I like the veritť feel [of documentaries], but, no, long form feature [is] my thing. Iíll definitely do T.V, but I want to do some studio movies. I want to have my ticket punched to have a good run and then really be able to do some T.V. on my own terms.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What do you enjoy the most about directing?

DA: When a scene works. Working with the actors and you give them direction and you crack the scene. Because the first few times you run it, itís not quite there and then you go in there and drop that little nudge and they run with it and all-of-a-sudden, itís magic. Thereís transcendence there, a real power when they really nail it. Itís like the cricket stopped chirping, the crew freezes upóeveryone can feel it on the set. Itís almost like church.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What do you want audiences to take away from Harsh Times?

DA: Growth. The best of both worlds is somebody whoís rolliní wrong and kind of changes their directionómaybe saves a life. Thatís pie in the sky. But maybe to just understand that not everybody is like them and [that] there [are] different worlds and each world is different.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What are you working on now?

DA: Mafia Cop about [2] corrupt NYPD officers and their history. Iím just writing it right now, but Iím going to direct it. Then Iíve got a project called Cartel about the drug war in Mexico. Itís an original [script] that I wrote loosely based or inspired by The Wild Bunch and Iím going to direct that.

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