Any relationship comes with a certain degree of difficulty, but being the wife of a police officer comes with a special brand of worry and wonder. In End of Watch, the latest film from director David Ayer – no stranger to the streets of Los Angeles after writing Training Day and directing Harsh Times and Street Kings – the filmmaker takes a verite styled look at the lives of two partners (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena) as they navigate through a series of cases and busts connected to a dangerous cartel taking over the district they’ve been patrolling.
Meanwhile, in the home lives, Pena’s character is happily married and expecting a kid and Gyllenhaal’s is about to strike up a long term relationship. Their significant others are played by TV Veteran Natalie Martinez and former Academy Award nominee Anna Kendrick, respectively, as the two high profile actresses work to craft a portrait of realistic police wives.
Martinez and Kendrick sat down with Criticize This! while they were in town for the Toronto International Film Festival last week to talk about how David Ayer creates a world for his characters, working with almost entirely handheld shooting techniques, how to build relationships with people you’ve never met, and trying to get Jake Gyllenhaal to dance on camera.
What’s David Ayer’s biggest strength as a director?
Anna Kendrick: Standing. (Natalie laughs) Actually, he’s a stoic and very intimidating person when you first meet him, and for a couple of times after that he’s still actually pretty intimidating. He’s very serious and protective of his work. I think until you break that barrier or proving to him that you are just as dedicated to what you want to do as he is, he’ll play things pretty close to the vest.
But what he’s best at is that he asks a lot of questions. He asks you things, but he doesn’t necessarily expect you to answer them. He doesn’t give you these kinds of nitpicky, specific directions. He just wants to get your wheels turning.
Natalie Martinez: I feel especially since this was really all his project that he was just very secure in what he wanted at all times. He always knew where it was going and how he wanted it to play out. He had that vision. He was like my security blanket and I very rarely had questions, but if I did have one he would be there to answer it almost without a thought. I found him to be very helpful and very open.
What did he tell you about your roles going in?
NM: Well, with me we talked a lot before hand about what was happening between me and Michael, and kind of how in a relationship where you’ve been together for so long and something bad can happen where your mind can go. You don’t always have to make it a big scene. There are a lot of quieter scenes that are far more effective. So we talked about that, and we also talked about how since she was pregnant that I wouldn’t be working out or eating. (laughs) We talked about looks a lot. He just has this vision in his head about what every person is like, and while he’s welcome to ideas and hearing them, if it’s not in his same little room, it’s like you can’t come in.
AK: We talked a lot about how because we have a limited amount of screen time about how we lay the foundation about what the character is and what my relationship is to Brian before we ever even meet Janet. We established that she comes from this big Irish family and that she feels like a fish out of water in her own family. We talked about how the things that are broken inside of Janet are a mirror of the things that are broken inside or Brian. That creates a relationship where they really seem to need each other, and it’s not just this desire or kind of flirtation with them. I think they discover pretty quickly that they need to break down all these walls or we should go our separate ways. All of that was there for me before I even came to set.
Did you guys meet or hang out with any spouses or significant others of active duty officers to get an idea of what that world is like?
NM: One of my best friends is actually a sergeant, and his wife is one of my best friends. I’ve known them for about six years now, and I’ve also played detectives before, so I know what these kinds of characters are already sort of like, and I’ve met their families and kind of hung out in that environment. It was pretty familiar to me, and what you get out of a cop’s wife is that they’re a pretty strong woman. I kind of hold that with this character and that’s what I got from other women.
Now what I did to prepare for this role in particular was to spend more time with Michael That was kind of the preparation here. That was what I used. I decided that since we had so little screen time we wanted to show how much of a connection we had. We had to play characters that were together since they were 18 years old. When you see us we have to be this really comfortable, secure in our own skin, kind of relationship where we’re about to welcome a baby and nothing’s going to break us. With that you have to have a good relationship with your onscreen partner. So we had these things that we called our “mini-dates” and we would go out and hang out. It was really funny because I was dating someone at the time and he would drop me off at these mini-dates. (laughs) But it’s all good because I know this was the kind of movie we wanted to do with all our heart, and we really tried to make this as real as possible. By the time we got on set, he could put his arm around me or kiss me or whatever he wants and it’s not awkward. He felt that freedom to use those mannerisms that make a couple feel comfortable with each other.
With Mike and I we were playing a couple that was together for so long that he had probably told me so much that there wouldn’t be anything that I couldn’t get him back for in our relationship, but I feel like it’s pretty self explanatory. They are true to themselves. You get to be in an intimate area with them. When they’re together in that car and just talking, that’s the closest we can be to them. It just explains to you who you are.
AK: My rehearsal period was only with Jake and we only rehearsed something that we never intended to shoot. David wrote this lovely scene that was meant to be our first date. We rehearsed it for hours and we never intended to shoot it. Weirdly, I wish I could do every movie that way, where you just rehearse everything that comes before the movie. But then again, you would have to write a bunch more stuff for that. (laughs) I don’t know how many people are going to want to do that. (laughs)
With this we had the luxury of shooting in chronological order. When I came onto the set for the first day and I’m meeting Gabby and Mike, I felt as though I had gotten to know this person and that I was about to be meeting new friends for the first time. I had met them briefly, but it was my first time getting to know them. I genuinely felt a little out of place and like I was trying to prove myself and make the best first impression. It was one of those life imitating art sort of things, and I think that also made Jake kind of feel a little extra protective of me, as he would be if you were introducing your new girlfriend to your old friends. It was a really interesting dynamic.
What are some of the advantages to shooting something like this in chronological order?
AK: We’re so used to not doing that that it just feels like part of the job, but once you do it once you wish you could shoot in order all the time. The advantages are obvious: knowing where you were in your last scene almost immediately. That’s the hardest thing sometimes. You do scene 56, then you shoot scene 52 and you say “Shit, I shouldn’t have done that and now this doesn’t make sense.” There’s nothing you can do about that, so shooting in this way offers you a certain kind of luxury and opportunity.
NM: Yeah, I mean, you don’t want to graduate from college before you start walking. It kind of gives you a way for a relationship to evolve. We might start working together and have to pretend to be best friends, and then at the end of this you can get the relationship to be where it should have been the entire time.
Would you say that the boys in the film are heroes or cowboys?
NM: A little bit of both.
AK: Yeah. A lot of that comes from this being the story of two guys who are good men with good intentions, but it doesn’t have rose coloured glasses on, either. I don’t think it portrays them as being on a pedestal. I think there are definitely scenes in the movie that are designed to make you question if that was the right judgement call. I think that’s good. I think that’s honest.
The movie is, indeed, a bit of a boys club aside from some really strong female characters in it. Did you guys feel any added pressure given your reduced screen time to make more of an impact in a role that could’ve easily just been another withering housewife in someone else’s hands?
NM: I didn’t feel any real added pressure like that. I just thought the role we played was strong enough because we brought that human quality to it. I just kind of felt that I needed to make the scene really real. That was what was going through my mind the whole time, so the feeling was to make it as real and organic as possible as we can.
AK: For me there was certainly a sense of responsibility. Pressure has such negative connotations, but I do think that in reading the script when these characters would pop up it was less about the dialogue and the number of scenes, but about feeling their presence throughout, and the way the boys talk about their respective partners while they’re in the car; just feeling like they are putting across that heart and soul when you can creates just a much more well rounded world for the entire arc of the movie.
Of course I felt like I wanted to get it right, but in terms of it being a boys club, in terms of how the set was, I found that they were almost deferential to the females on the set. They were all very respectful gentlemen, so it definitely didn’t feel like we were out of place. If anything, when we were there we were kind of allowed to not necessarily run the show, but… I don’t know…
NM: Yeah, they were very respectful guys who were appreciative and very welcoming.
AK: It was almost like when we were there it was our territory, so they would kind of look to us for what we wanted to do on those days sometimes.
NM: I think we gave them a bit of a break, too, so they didn’t have to focus on them the entire time. (laughs)
That idea of a break is interesting because you guys really are playing the only breaks these cops really have in their lives. They could possibly become too overcome with testosterone to really feel anything for anyone other than themselves if your characters weren’t there to ground them.
AK: Yeah, and there’s certainly an interesting contrast between Natalie’s character and my character. For Janet to come in and see the woman that she has to become is quite daunting, I think.
What was it like working with all of the handheld camerawork on the shoot?
NM: That was the funnest part.
AK: Yeah, very much. I realized yesterday that when the more traditional cameras on set would be reloading and filming – which was very rare, actually – Jake or Michael would pick up a handheld and we would just shoot something. It almost became too weird to not be filming. That was a great place to be living in.
NM: I found it to be interesting because it takes away from everything else and just allows you to be in the moment. You have to really read into your characters because at any given time, you can be recorded. Once the cameras were off we would start running around and Jake or Mike would have a camera and just start asking us questions, and you just have to act like I was Gabby and she was Janet…
AK: And we were in character for 12 hours a day…
NM: I got in set and I was Michael Pena’s wife until I signed out.
Did the film at all inform or change your feelings about the LAPD now that you’ve seen this look at it?
AK: I think it gave me a newfound appreciation for the kind of things they might see everyday, but as I said, I think it doesn’t over romanticize the kind of people who do this work. Our leads are two really good men, but sometimes they don’t always do what would be considered the right thing. There’s also characters here who just want to retire and other that are there for the wrong reasons, so I do think it did give me a new appreciation, but the film just shows human beings, and you find good and bad in all walks of life.
NM: I feel the same way, too. It puts a new perspective on what they do on a day to day basis, and it makes it more like real people than just the badge. My sergeant friend I mentioned actually saw a screening of it in Miami. What we did was that we had a 20 city screening tour around to all of these police stations. I did San Francisco, Austin, and Dallas, and I couldn’t make it to Miami, which is where I’m from and where he lives, and he calls me from the movie theatre and he says “This movie’s insane! I’ll tell you after.” Because he’s already in the theatre talking to me. After it… and this man is six foot two and a whole lot of weight. I can’t even guess, but I can’t even hug him all around. He’s just huge. He said that we just had him crying. It was one of the most bad ass cop movies he had seen and his wife doesn’t want him to be a cop anymore after they went to see it together. In Austin, I know the Chief of Police stood up and thanked us for not showing a movie that portrayed a crooked cop or making everything kind of shady. In this one you see cops with good intentions who sometimes handle things questionably, but it’s really true to form. They have good intentions and good hearts and they want to do good, and the public never really sees that. So hopefully they’ll have a change of view when they see this movie.
Anna, what was it like trying to film the scene in the film where you and Jake have to dance together at your wedding?
AK: (laughs, looks disappointed) Jake really pouted his way through those dance rehearsals. He was NOT pleased, but obviously on the day of shooting he was there and he was a team player, so there was never any worry that he would leave me hanging. He was not excited to that. Then again, I only thought that about three seconds of that dance was going to be in the movie, and then it turned out to be looooooooooong. (laughs) David, you bastard! (shakes fist).
End of Watch opens in Canada on September 21.
Top image: Jake Gyllenhaal and Anna Kendrick in a scene from End of Watch. Courtesy VVS Films.