by Dan Soulsby
Harsh Times a play by David Ayer
Sundance Institute – Screenplay Reading Series
Monday, October 16, 2000
I rolled into the small Silent Theatre on Fairfax expecting to be a bit bored on Monday, I even sat on the end of the row to take off if the reading was slow. What I found was a deeper understanding of writing and characters.
The theatre is nestled a block south of Melrose and is cozy and warm. The walls are littered with black and white photos of silent film stars. Two small pianos sit at the bottom of the stage to accompany the films shown there nightly. However, there was no film tonight. There were no special effects, no blocking, no action sequences, nothing but nine actors crouched in black folding chairs reading from a script they all rehearsed together for the first time four hours ago.
The script was written six years ago by David Ayer who also directed the performance. Since that time Ayer has found himself atop the Hollywood A-list. His credits include U571 and Training Day, which will star Denzel Washington and will begin shooting this January.
This piece is based on the events of himself and his homeboy Blue during rough times in the mid nineties. With some well placed fiction, Ayer weaves a tale so thick and rich no one even tasted the free cookies served afterwards. The story takes us through a few days in the life of two young men from LA. One wonder-bread white boy named Jim and one Hispanic named Mike. Struggling to find jobs and love the pair encounter street gangs, stolen guns, stolen weed, drug deals, beer consumption and death. Jim recently out of the Army Rangers is looking to become a law man and begins testing at the Drug Enforcement Agency. His cohort Mike tries desperately to land any job and settle his ‘ol lady down in the meantime. We watch the pair drift apart as Jim begins to slowly go mad under the pressures and reality of the killing he did as a soldier. Instead of the classic “growth” of a character during a movie, we see a downward spiral of deception and loss. Jim begins as a likeable gringo but ends up hurting everyone around him and destroying himself in the process. Think: Blood in Blood Out meets Reservoir Dogs meets Cheech & Chong (any one). It’s humorous, it’s emotional, and it’s raw.
After the show, I was able to talk with Ayer sitting up in the balcony of his Hollywood Hills pad overlooking downtown. He’s honest and down to earth and remarkably candid in this town of ‘players’.
How did you like the actors performance tonight?
David: I was utterly amazed. The rehearsal went great, and my confidence went way up, but there was fucking magic on that stage. The actors all had a solid instinctual grasp on the characters, and then I was able to give them little insights into roles. Backstories, attitudes, whatever wasn’t on the page that I thought would help. The trick is not telling them how to do it, but why. During the performance I could see the direction take root in the performances. My main goal was to entertain the audience and it happened. People were laughing their asses off. It’s really hard edged humor, a lot of beer drinking guy talk and the women in the audience ate it up, “Oh, that’s what men say were not around.”
Where does this story come from?
David: My sordid past. There was a time in my mid-twenties when I was just fucking lost. I wasn’t working, I was living in a shitty gang neighborhood near Downtown L.A. and me and my best friend just hung out, driving around South Central drinking beer. Total escapism. We thought we knew how everything worked and liked to challenge our streetsmarts. We were fearless, or stupid, or both.
Who do you think this movie going to appeal to?
David: Everyone. It’s a universal story about friendship, about growing up. About relationships. I see it as the ultimate beer drinking guy movie. It has major street creds. A lot of shit talking, some T&A and some violence. But it has a lot of heart, and ultimately a powerful message that hits you in the gut like a truck. Dudes locked up in County are going to be wiping tears and saying, “Man, that’s art.”
Are you looking to direct “Harsh Times” on the big screen?
David: Fuck yeah. That’s why I wrote it. I was going to shoot it down and dirty in the hood. I never expected it to get picked up by Sundance. I went to the film makers lab to work on it, and what I got tonight, for the first time, was a real sense of mission. I have to direct this know. The material is more powerful than my wildest dreams. Now I feel a sense of responsibility to get it out there.
What can you offer directing your own screen play that another director couldn’t?
David: Well, I lived it. I know the characters inside and out. I know the world, I know how it’s supposed to look. And I know where the heart is, and the pain. Because I wrote it, and be writer/director at the same time, like letting it grow by itself, not being afraid of the happy accidents on the set that are often the best moments in a film. I can give actors insight another couldn’t. I want this to look real as hell. Almost feel like a documentary. Directing is a motherfucker of a job. But I have confidence in my work ethic and trust my eye and technical skills.
Do you have anything in production now?
David: I worked on a Universal project called Redline about the illegal street racing scene in L.A. with Vin Diesel and Paul Walker. I was brought on to do a little script doctoring. Rob Cohen, the director is shooting the shit out of it. It looks pretty damn good. It wraps in a couple weeks and gets released in March 2001. My script Training Day is set up at Warner Bros. Antoine Fuqua is directing, Denzal Washington stars. That starts shooting in January 2001.
What’s the lowdown on “Training Day”?
David: It’s about corrupt cops in L.A. I wrote it five years ago because I was sick of trying to second guess the studios and wrote something I know they would never take, but at least I’d have a blast writing and let my demons walk the block. I lived in Rampart Division when I wrote it and got the lowdown on what the cops were up to from the gangbangers. But now with the Rampart scandal, people are a lot more open to it. It’s the real deal low down dirty hardcore street shit. So stand the fuck by.
Has anyone been cast opposite Denzel in “Training Day”?
David: Ethan Hawk plays the rookie Denzel tries to corrupt. The guy can act, no shit. He and Denzel are a dynamite combo. Needles to say, I’m majorly psyched.
What did your old navy boys think of U571?
David: They dug the hell of it. I slipped in a lot of inside lingo. I was mortified at the premiere because a ton of Navy sub-types showed up in
uniform. I was worried they would call bullshit on the writing. I finally worked up the courage to talk to them and they raved. They really appreciated the accuracy, the realistic nature of the relationships. Later they took me out for a beer and I went down to San Diego to checkout their
submarine. U571 was the best writing experience I ever had. It was like old school Hollywood, me and Jonathan Mostow, the director, pacing around an office in Rome with Dino De Laurentis across the hall smoking cigars. We’d bounce lines off each other, dash off some pages, fix them. It was intense, I lost like twenty pounds.
Was Mathew McConnehey stoned on the set?
David: No. The guy was a total pro. That was the biggest movie he was in to date, and there was a certain seriousness about the production, a gravity, a sense of respect. He showed up totally good to go. He was really into it, and just hungry to absorb everything he could about the character, about the war, the subs. He can do whatever he wants in his off-time, but on the set, all these actor dudes are major pros.
Couldn’t the Bon Jovi death scene been more violent?
David: The dude gets decapitated by a flying hatch. Short of blowing his guts out with shrapnel, I wouldn’t know what else to do. It got cut way down for the theatrical release. They went for a PG-13. Bon Jovi is a way cool guy, totally down to Earth, fun to hang with over a brewski.
What was the worst job you had before getting a steady writing gig?
Man, Ive had some bad ones. Housepainting sucked, sanding ceilings, spraying oil base paint. I tested software for Disney before my career popped, but that was pretty cool despite sixty hour weeks. I once did customer surveys for McDonalds, that blew. The Navy was real hardcore, I was on a nuke submarine. I had one way cool job, I worked in a libray in a fashion school downtown. Something like two thousand little hotties. Thats all Im saying about that one. I was stupid for quitting when I got this one little writing job, I thought I was in the Hollywood house, but I got played and it was two years before I saw any more dough for writing.
How do you find the discipline to write everyday?
I don’t. No, it’s really about what I call chair time. You have to sit all alone in the chair and stare at the computer. That’s the only way it’s going to happen. And I’m talking thousands of hours. No shit. The military really got my act together as far as self discipline. I dropped out of high school, but I went through a year of super intensive Navy Sonar schools. I was number one in a lot of them. I learned attention to detail and how to study. Pressure and stress really get me going. Like I said, I do a lot of production work, the studio’s already spending big bucks ramping up the project, and they’re all waiting for the new script so the departments know what the hell they’re doing. Fear of failing is a great motivator. Touching on the worst job thing again, screenwriting is the worst, and the best. Lots of highs and lows, and I never forget that I’m just an employee like anyone else.
What advice would you have to screen writers just starting?
Write. Put in the chair time. Write more. Read lots and lots of scripts. Read Sid Field’s book “Screenplay.” Try and meet people in the business, try and find a mentor. Then write some more. And write from the heart, write what makes your soul cringe, put your guts and heart on paper. Don’t hang around talking about it in Starbucks. Do it. Get some life experience, roll in the gutters, start barfights. Go to jail. It takes several screenplays just to be comfortable with the format, with storytelling. Keep it simple, don’t write some crazy ass shit about aliens and knights in shining armor that’s going to cost five hundred million to make. I’m not trying to discourage anyone, but it is very difficult, lonely and unglamourous work. Hollywood is rough town, be ready for some body blows. But there is no high like when writing clicks and the words tumble out with divine inspiration and goosebumps. That is what sustains me. Honestly, if I had known how truly difficult my career path was going to be, I never would have had the courage to walk the walk. But now, I can’t imagine doing anything else.