David Ayer wrote HARSH TIMES a decade ago as a reflection on friendship on the mean streets of Los Angeles. The two main characters, Jim and Mike, claim downtown and all it casts in shadow as their own private playground - an echo of Ayer's own childhood in L.A. "HARSH TIMES is about friendship and growing up," Ayer says. "It is a parable, a cautionary tale. I wanted to capture the moment in someone's life where that individual simply grows up. It is about being twenty something and thinking you know how the world works."
Ayer wrote the screenplay while in his early 20s, between the sometimes rocky path he left behind, and the future as a successful screenwriter he had yet to fulfill. "I wanted to portray a version of Los Angeles seldom seen outside its mazes of neighborhoods in the shadow of downtown," he says, "streets I know from my teenage years. I wanted to write a story about friendship that had its own code and rules. I wanted to write about the kind of people I knew from growing up in L.A. Many hearts and lives have been destroyed by these streets. And many more have grown strong and thrived. What makes the difference? Usually it's the choices people make."
Adds Terry Crews, who appeared in TRAINING DAY before landing the role of Darrel in HARSH TIMES, "Here's a story about a man who has moral choices to make, and he seems to make the wrong ones," says the actor. "He keeps making these wrong moves, yet they don't hurt him, they actually help him. And it really shows how things can work for you good or things can work for you bad, and it just really breaks down as a big morality play right here in Los Angeles. That's what I love about it."
Jim Davis, played by Christian Bale, is "a guy back from the war, trying to get a job as a cop," says Ayer. "Unfortunately, Jim has brought the war home with him. It plagues his dreams, blurs his sight, makes him scream in his sleep."
An actor who claims one of today's most diverse and compelling careers, Bale was immediately taken with the screenplay. "He got a hold of the script a few years back and he got hooked on it," Ayer recalls. "He wasn't going to let anyone else play that but him."
Jim's only relief from horrors he'd rather forget is his friendship with Mike Alvarez, played by Freddy Rodriguez. "For them high school never ended and South Central is their playground," says Ayer.
Rodriguez describes Mike as "a guy who grew up in the hood but never became a product of his environment," says the actor. "He always knew all the drug dealers, all the gangbangers, but never quite became one. A guy with a lot of potential, but always backslides into being a slacker. A guy who loves a party. He loves to hang out and get drunk and high, and that's why his bond to Jim is so tight is because they both like doing the same things."
Like Bale, Rodriguez was electrified by the script. "It was one of the most original things I've ever read before," he says. "As an actor, a lot of times I get scripts that don't possess that originality. And as an actor I always want to do stuff that is different, or be a part of projects that aren't normally done in Hollywood." Once Rodriguez read for the role, Ayer cast him without looking back. "He nailed it," he says. "It was obvious no one else but Freddy could do that role."
Together for the majority of the film, Rodriguez and Bale spent their down time getting to know one another and bonding much like there characters. "There are a lot of asses in this business and Freddy is not one of them," Bale says. "He was a great guy to play best buddy to. We didn't have a whole lot of time to get that together, but when you work long hours and you're sitting in the car together and stuff, you get to know each other pretty quick."
"Freddy and Christian had great chemistry," adds Ayer. "You believe they're lifelong friends; you believe they grew up together; and as we were shooting they became real friends. I had to sit there and listen to them chatter over their microphones about their families or wives when we were shooting car interiors. It was good to see them come together as friends."
Eva Longoria, who plays Mike's girlfriend Sylvia, spent a good deal of time with Rodriguez. "Freddy is fun," she says. "Freddy and I knew each other, so it was really comfortable having scenes together. We have a really intense relationship with each other in the movie, so it was imperative that we had that chemistry off screen as well."
Inevitably Jim and Mike make some bad moves and pay a terrible price. "I wanted to create a movie that inspires thought and discussion," says Ayer, who grew up on the great street character studies like MEAN STREETS and TAXI DRIVER, "A movie with a single consistent voice that never flinches or justifies what its characters do, allowing them to speak in their own voice, true to their rough origins. Ultimately Jim and Mike are two sides of the same person - sides that must integrate and coexist in order to wholly embrace love and life."
As Ayer gained enormous success as a screenwriter, he held onto the project as a film he wanted to direct himself. The same authenticity he brought to TRAINING DAY was more than evident in HARSH TIMES, but that same authenticity of voice also clearly delineated the film as an independent in every sense of the word. "The studios didn't get the story," Ayer says. "They liked the characters, the world, the attitude, but the story ends tough. It was outside of their comfort zone. Everybody wasn't going to live and walk away and be a happy person at the end. Otherwise, there wouldn't have been any point to making the movie."
Instead, Ayer bravely opted to violate a key tenet of movie financing, i.e. never use your own money. Ayer mortgaged his house and financed the movie himself. "Independently, I've had total creative control," he says. "I have no masters no committee to tell me how to screw the movie up, so it's been a pleasure."
Shot over 26 days, production began in a small town outside of Ensenada, Mexico, where cast and crew experienced both plunging temperatures and a feel for the poverty in the area. Mexico plays an important part in the film, being the home of Jim's girlfriend Marta. "When I first read the script I thought this could be done in a cruel and prejudiced manner, but knowing David and the love he has for this culture, I knew he would do it with all the nobility and pride," says Tammy Trull. "These people might not have anything but they're noble and they're proud and their labor is pure. There's something beautiful about it."
The most intense scene of the shoot was also shot in Mexico, during an outdoor fiesta sequence when Jim threatens Marta with a gun. "That was the most uncomfortable in the filming," Ayer remembers. "We couldn't wait to get the scene over. Everyone was just kind of wrung out after that. It was tough emotionally for everybody, even the crew.
The company then wound back north in and around Los Angeles, largely in the neighborhoods Watts, Echo Park and Lincoln Heights. Instead of sets, Ayer, production designer Devorah Herbert, cinematographer Steve Mason and location manager Earnest Lewis scouted existing buildings, apartments, houses, and streets to find the living setting for each sequence. They often doubled up, utilizing the Cal Trans building to represent the L.A. City Administrative Lobby building, and the Federal Building for two separate sequences.
Cinematographer Steve Mason collaborated with Ayer to create shots that were as naturalistic as possible. "It was in the darker areas in downtown Los Angeles," Mason describes. "We don't have a big crew or a lot of lights, so we had someone climb up telephone poles and put mercury vapor or sodium vapor lamps on them to light the streets in the right direction. We got phenomenal skin tones with the mixture of green and orange light."
To give the film a "down and dirty" look, Ayer and Mason decided to shoot on Super 16. "It also allowed us to shoot much more material," says Mason. "You get twice the amount of footage in each magazine. The smaller cameras were perfect, because a lot of it was shot in cars in tight spaces. We had wonderful little lights that are LED panels in the cars. We are underexposing two and a half stops, and using mercury vapor light coming through the windows for a feeling of realness."
Mason's substantial experiences also enabled the filmmakers to cover multiple set-ups per day. "I've never worked on a movie where we can use two cameras so often," comments producer Andrea Sperling. "He's just a pro at getting the coverage. There's so much coverage on this film."
From start to finish, HARSH TIMES was a labor of love - beginning with Ayer but ultimately infusing each member of the cast and crew. "The story means a lot to me, more than it did when it was just a script," says Ayer. "It became its own animal. It's like a potluck: everybody brought something and it became more than I could have ever imagined alone, or done alone. It has a lot of mothers is the success of that story, a lot of people."
Born in the Midwest, David Ayer moved to South Central, Los Angeles as a teenager. At 18 he joined the United States Navy, where he served in the submarine force. After an honorable discharge, he became a Hollywood screenwriter. David wrote the Academy Award® winning film TRAINING DAY. He was also a writer on the hugely successful, THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, and he co-wrote the World War II submarine saga, U-571. He wrote the critically acclaimed police drama, DARK BLUE and was a writer on the action picture S.W.A.T. for Columbia Pictures, based on the 70's television show. David is currently working on projects for both Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Jerry Weintraub Productions. During the winter of 2005, Dave made his feature directorial debut from his own script with HARSH TIMES.
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