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Interview: Bringing the Streets to Hollywood

Writer/Director David Ayer Talks About His New L.A. Film ...Harsh Times...

By Nivair H. Gabriel

David Ayer is best known for the film that won Denzel Washington an Oscar — 2001’s “Training Day,” a morality play set in the rough streets of Los Angeles. Almost a decade earlier, however, Ayer wrote the script of “Harsh Times,” which is loosely based on his childhood in South Central Los Angeles. Ayer’s story focuses on Jim (Christian Bale) and Mike (Freddy Rodriguez), two childhood friends from South Central who, as adults, end up in a dizzying spiral of self-destruction. The Tech met with Ayer, who also directed the film, in a roundtable interview to discuss “Harsh Times,” which opens Nov. 10.

The Tech: Why did [the script] take so long to get produced?

DA: Well, Training Day took about six years to get made. It takes a long time to get a script made. In this case, I think it took longer because I wasn’t willing to compromise. I wasn’t willing to back off of my vision. I wanted to direct it. If I’d given it to a more established director, it probably would have gotten made quicker. I finally decided to get a trillion mortgages on my house and write the production bills myself. Violating the first rule of Hollywood, but it worked out.

TT: So you wanted to wait until you could do it right?

DA: Yeah. It was so personal. I grew up in these neighborhoods, I was in the Service, I went through a lot of the stuff, I know people like this, I know this world — and I just didn’t want anyone else to do this. I knew it was a good first-time director project because I had such a strong, specific vision. I could dial in everything in a way I think few others could.

Q: Would it be fair to say you broke another rule of Hollywood movies in that you have a character who is dislikable in your film?

DA: I think that’s really in the eye of the beholder. Structurally, narratively, it’s Freddy’s movie. Freddy’s very likable and charismatic. I like to believe the audience has hope for Jim as long as Freddy has hope for Jim. I know a lot of Jims, and I really made this movie for people who come from my neighborhood, people who come from the inner city, people who come from the ghetto. It’s another country. It might as well be another country, called Ghetto-stan, I don’t know. The rules are different. People from the inner city see this movie, and they’re crying — “It’s art, man.” This movie is for people who don’t get movies made about them.

TT: I read that you filmed in 24 days. Did you want that to keep the intensity up the whole way through?

DA: I didn’t have any money! 24 days was all I could buy.

Q: So you worked with first takes then? Were you able to make the movie you wanted to make?

DA: Absolutely, because we ran two cameras the whole time, and we shot on Super 16, so it really made it economical in that regard. We used a lot of bleeding-edge technology and post-processes to get every molecule of information off the Super 16 frame, so today our resolution is the same as the 35-mm print you’ll see in your average cineplex. We really had to build a workflow stream from camera to final print. We built an original one and got a really good look. It was definitely running-gun. I was fortunate to have an amazing DP [director of photography] that could light for two cameras. We were in places with mirrors and stuff, and this guy was lighting for two cameras. Other DPs would have walked at that point. Again, the actors were stone-cold professionals, so they know their lines. They nail it on the first take, and then by the time you get to take four, you’re really seeing something special.

Q: The production design is great. Were you exacting about that?

DA: I was ruthless. I would drive people insane. Every chair, every furniture item, anything that went before a camera, I picked. I’d go through catalog books with the production designer picking everything — lamps, ashtrays. Every beer bottle, positioning of lights, everything — I’d go on the set and I’d move stuff, and spend some time absorbing it as part of my process, and take things out or add things. I was really meticulous in that regard.

TT: Can you watch it now, or are there things that annoy you?

DA: It’s funny. You know, you learn to accept the movie as the movie unto itself. I think it really becomes an entity. It really takes on a life of its own. That’s what I learned in editing. I was very, very green starting out, and by the time I finished the movie I felt grizzled. There’s things that bother me and shots that bother me and scenes that bother me, that I would definitely do different now, but that’s through experienced eyes. I’ve gone through the entire process now. For a 24-day shoot, and spending $1.5 million on principal photography, it’s friggin’ amazing.

Q: What’s harder, the inner city or Hollywood?

DA: Hollywood. Hollywood eats its dead. At least in the inner city we just bury ‘em.