Thursday September 20, 2012

ORLANDO, Fla. -- It's a given of the movie business. Cast two movie stars opposite one another as leads in your film, they develop chemistry. Or else.

But the "or else" is what happened when cop picture specialist David Ayer put Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena in his writing/directing effort, "End of Watch."

"I get these two actors together, and they're not digging each other," Ayer says. "I'm watching my movie slowly die in front of me."

He can laugh about it now, but Pena ("Crash," "Shooter" "World Trade Center"), for one, owns up to how badly things were going.

"It's kind of embarrassing," Pena says, laughing. "We had to be cop brothers. And we couldn't agree on anything. I think we were giving each other (grief) just for the sake of it."

But Ayer had a plan -- five months of police training, doing ride-alongs with real Los Angeles police officers, martial arts training, weapons training and sparring.

"The torture that I put them through made them become friends," Ayer says. From two actors who were barely on speaking terms, "It became ‘Oh God, what have I created here?' They wouldn't shut up."

Pena saw it as a necessary evil, a part of the process this time around. "We were trying to get past the fake social graces, the politeness, to really talk to each other. The nitty gritty. That's a lot of pressure to be under, being ‘real' with a stranger.


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The actors started feeling like police officers, "brother officers," Pena says. "And we broke through. I'm addicted to that process, now. I want to approach every role with that much attention to realism."

Ayer wrote "Training Day" and "Harsh Times." For his latest trip into uniform, he wanted to present a year in the lives of two beat cops, not bad seeds the way Denzel Washington (an Oscar winner for "Training Day") or Christian Bale ("Harsh Times") were.

"By the book policing -- that's what I wanted to show," Ayer says. " These guys play the kind of cops that you would want coming to your house in an emergency."

Ayer has gotten to know a lot of police officers in his years writing movies about that line of work. He wanted to get at "the emotional price paid by police officers. I wanted to get past the action and get into the lives and the big off-duty questions we all face, but that they face, as cops."

Pena, a 36 year-old Chicago native, had his share of run-ins with the police when he was younger. "Latino, 5-9, brown eyes -- I ‘fit the description,' " he jokes. But he learned a new appreciation for the work, the bravado and intimidation that can come with the job.

"Those guys hassling me when I was a kid, I realized that's what ‘To protect and serve' meant to them. They're protecting the community, the business people, my neighbors, by watching me. And letting me know they were watching.

"But I'm still going to sweat a bit when a cruiser pulls in behind me in traffic. Yeah, they're running my plates. They're running yours, too."