'End of Watch' aims to be 'ultimate cop movie'

Director David Ayer poses for a photo as he promotes the movie "End of Watch" in Toronto on Monday, Sept. 10, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO - A veteran writer and director of cop-genre flicks, David Ayer wanted to do something a little different and a little more real with his latest "End of Watch," which opened Friday.

Rather than pitch another over-the-top story about kingpin criminals and corrupt cops, Ayer wanted to focus on the real lives of police officers, including their tight on-the-job friendships and their relationships with their chronically worried families.

"I really set out to make, in a lot of ways, the ultimate cop movie," explains Ayer during an interview at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. Ayer has previous credits for the crime dramas "Training Day," "S.W.A.T." and "Dark Blue," among others.

"This movie is a little more existential ... it really drills down into the lives of two best friends who happen to be cops, who happen to wear the badge.... The truth of it is they're just people like us, they're just bros, they're just dudes in a car talking about their lives — and when it's time to work, the switch flips and they hit it."

To get the realism he was after, he convinced his lead actors — Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena — to spend about five months preparing for their roles by undergoing extensive research with real police officers and intensive personal training. And the director spent a lot of time with the actors to workshop the best-friend relationship between the two partners, including their scripted but seemingly off-the-cuff banter.

"We did some scenes and rehearsed some scenes like 100 times and that's the kind of work you've got to put in for you to try to make it seem effortless," says Pena, who is set to appear alongside Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn and Emma Stone in the upcoming "Gangster Squad."

He respected the lengths Ayer insisted on to get his vision, which seemed neverending.

A father to a toddler, Pena admits he fell into some bad habits eating too much junk food as he got into parenthood. He was told he'd need to shape up if he wanted the role of a tough, intimidating street cop and that meant losing his gut, 25 pounds, and completely transforming his body.

Shadowing real police officers on their day-to-day calls was no easier.

"The ridealongs were no easy task, I remember going on one ridealong and you see somebody shot in the face, shot in the arm and stuff, and that's not easy to digest," Pena says.

And then during the very first week of shooting he had a scene involving a scuffle with a drug suspect.

"I got popped in the face and my nose started bleeding, right off the bat," recalls Pena.

"And (Ayer's) like, 'Wipe it off, dude, let's go for take 2.' And I'm like: Oh man, so that's the kind of movie this is going to be. Alright, cool."

Ayer also wanted the film to have a YouTube-inspired, non-Hollywood look. Gyllenhaal's character is taking a course on filmmaking and constantly carries around a camera documenting his exploits. His shaky footage gives the film a first-person perspective, one that Ayer became familiar with after watching the personal video collections of police officers he is friends with.

"Just like we do, when something interesting happens everyone grabs their iPhone — cops do it," Ayer says.

"Some of this footage that I've seen, it's absolutely riveting, and it rides this spectrum from utterly hilarious to heinous and it seemed like a fantastic way to tell a story."

Even with all the strenuous demands put on his actors, it was one light-hearted scene that Ayer got the most push back on.

Gyllenhaal's character falls in love and gets married (to a character played by Anna Kendrick) and decides the reception should kick off with a choreographed dance number.

Gyllenhaal was reluctant to shoot the scene but Ayer wouldn't hear it, insisting it was an important way of showing the softer side of hardened police officers.

Kendrick also said it wasn't her favourite part of the shoot but agreed it needed to be included.

"I think when you do something uncomfortable for you, nothing relaxes you more than when the person doing it with you is even more uncomfortable. The fact that Jake was so resistant to it made me feel like I sort of had it a little bit under control," says Kendrick.

"And without showing the family lives there's really no kind of heart and soul to these men. They don't feel as much at risk, they can start to seem inhuman or superhuman."