A Long Journey into the Darkness: The Story of STREET KINGS
A huge fan of award-winning crime-writer James Ellroy, producer Erwin Stoff came across the script for STREET KINGS as a potential project for Keanu Reeves. Stoff recognized the moral relevance of the story in today's world and began searching for ways to get the movie made. "I've always been an admirer of James Ellroy's work and became completely enamored with the script," recalls Stoff. "It was the kind of movie that I love and thought it would make a phenomenal film."
To help foster the development of the project, Stoff brought producer Lucas Foster on board, knowing his experience with numerous large-scale action movies and personal interest in the culture of law enforcement would benefit the project. Originally a period piece set in post-Rodney King Los Angeles, the producing team began to re-conceptualize the film in a contemporary setting while keeping the general thematics of the story in line with Ellroy's original vision.
"Erwin and I decided to not make a period movie, which was a big decision that had various consequences both good and bad," explains Lucas Foster. "We stuck to our guns and wanted to make a movie for adults so that we could have the freedom to be edgy and tell the truth, or at least our perception of the truth, about what it is like to be a cop in Los Angeles."
The producing team approached accomplished screenwriter and director David Ayer for the project, who had to pass due to prior commitments. Eventually Ayer's project fell through and he jumped at the chance to work on the project that seemed tailor-made for his sensibilities. He was interested in working with Keanu Reeves as well as material that encompassed his interests and inside knowledge of both the LAPD and Los Angeles.
As seen in his previous work on such films as TRAINING DAY, HARSH TIMES and SWAT, Ayer gravitates toward material addressing the complexities of law enforcement, power and corruption and STREET KINGS was a great opportunity to probe further. "I'm fascinated by corruption in law enforcement and what can happen psychologically to someone trusted to exercise deadly force on our behalf," explains Ayer. "Giving someone the potential to take a human life is incredible power and I like to explore what change the perpetrators of violence, even if it's on our behalf, undergo psychologically."
Although Ayer and Ellroy come from different eras and viewpoints artistically, both share a great love for the city of Los Angeles and all its beauty and ugliness. Producer Erwin Stoff sensed that the pairing of Ellroy and Ayer would put a unique spin on the LA crime drama. "In a lot of ways, I felt like they are an ideal pairing because David has the same level of fascination with Los Angeles and the tribal culture of the police as Ellroy," comments Stoff. "David is a product of LA, he grew up on the streets and is able to preserve the incredibly complex characters that Ellroy created and fit them into an ethnically diverse Los Angeles of today. They are two very similar sensibilities separated by different eras."
Ayer adds, "James Ellroy understands police psychology and law enforcement culture very well and what I bring to the table is my understanding of how law enforcement operates today. By combining Ellroy's incredible novelistic story and grand canvas with my organic understanding of what's happening on the streets of LA on any given day, you end up with an incredibly rich tapestry in a very realistic environment."
The filmmakers set out to put their own unique spin on the police-thriller genre, which has become its own force within American fiction and film. Unlike most other urban thrillers, STREET KINGS would be steeped in realism and contemporary politics. "From the beginning we set out to make a movie that transcended the genre and not just hit the expected beats of the traditional police thriller," explains Stoff. "We made it a point to have the world inside this film populated with real characters with real dilemmas without being white-washed."
Ayer adds, "To me, this film is different than the others in this genre because of the meticulous attention to detail, the level of reality and hand-crafting that has gone into every aspect of the physical world and character design. It has an awareness of time in the present day while also having a timelessness associated with the genre, which has been a challenge to achieve."
"Ludlow is given the responsibility to erase those people who the powers that be deem unfit," explains David Ayer. "Ludlow is someone who started out with righteous intentions and wanted to save the world but found himself going in the wrong direction."
The character of Tom Ludlow essentially represents all of the complex and contradicting ideals of the film's title STREET KINGS; he is the king of the streets and society's protector willing to deal with the most repugnant aspects within the community. He deals a swift and uncompromised justice without the limitations of red tape and standard protocols. While America prides itself on due process and constitutionally secured personal rights, the Ad Vice, a specialized unit of the LAPD, are a necessary evil that allows civilians and common people the freedoms and security they enjoy on a daily basis.
"Ludlow represents the men who stand guard in the night; he sees all the things we don't want to see and guards us from the evils in the dark," explains Erwin Stoff. "He does the things we aren't capable of and may repudiate, but benefit from when we enjoy the safety that Ad Vice provides."
"The Ad Vice are the guys who suffer so that we don't have to," agrees Lucas Foster. "I appreciate the nobility of the idea that there are people whose lives are dedicated to dealing with things to allow the rest of us to live our lives and enjoy our personal freedoms."
Brotherhood and Betrayal
When first introduced to Detective Tom Ludlow, he is still reeling from the death of his wife and finds solace in the bottle. He lives in the shadows of the streets and while he works alone, he serves under the protection of the brotherhood of Ad Vice and its leader, the enigmatic Captain Jack Wander.
"Ludlow started out with righteous intentions wanting to save the world but somehow finds himself going very wrong," comments Ayer. "He's a man with a moral compass, which is why he's so troubled, and senses somehow that his life isn't going the right way."
STREET KINGS asks some provocative questions. What price should be paid for the greater good and at whose expense? Where does the responsibility lie for a broken system and how can we fault those who put themselves in harms way? Who protects those who protect us? Essentially it is a story of brotherhood, loyalty and survival and all the gray areas in between.
"What makes this story interesting to me is that there's nuance to these characters and everyone has a shade of gray," explains David Ayer. "It's an urban thriller, so everyone's a little bit corrupt, but I think the same is true in real life. Nobody wakes up and thinks they're the bad guy. In their eyes they have found themselves in situations that grew beyond their control and are trying to survive."
David Ayer continues that although the film deals with the darker aspects of who we are as people, it illustrates there is always the opportunity for redemption: "The film is structured like a tragedy and feels like a train wreck, but there is incredible redemption there. There is a message that no matter how far gone you are, there is always a way back."
"Anytime you try to tell a story that's populated by real people, there is going to be heroism, darkness, idealism, corruption, betrayal and love," says Stoff. "Those are all the facets of life in every city and we weren't interested in telling a story that was only dark and nihilistic that didn't leave you without someone finding their higher purpose. While the story certainly takes a very dark and disturbing turn, it really is the story of a hero."
The Noble Warrior
Digging deep: Keanu Reeves as Tom Ludlow
With the success of such films as SPEED and THE MAXTRIX trilogy, Keanu Reeves has become one of the most beloved and iconic actors of his generation. His films have made an indelible mark on the landscape of filmmaking and he has one of the most recognizable faces in the world. In STREET KINGS, Reeves and his manager/producer Erwin Stoff saw an opportunity to tackle a complex role with a fully formed and personal performance.
"After initially reading the script I thought this role would be a singularly fantastic opportunity for Keanu as an actor," recalls producer Erwin Stoff. "He is not the type of actor who wants an expectation placed on him of the kind of roles he should take and that's been the hallmark of his career."
"I was intrigued by the level of violence surrounding the character and the dramatic consequences of that," explains Keanu Reeves. "He can be viewed as either someone who kills in the name of the law or someone who delivers justice. Dramatically, there's a high price to pay and I was interested in how it would all play out."
To help extract an honest and truthful performance from Reeves, David Ayer attempted to create a world steeped in truth and grit by surrounding the actor with plenty of physical realism to draw from. He was immersed in the culture of Los Angeles and some of the most challenged areas in the city.
"What was very exciting to me was the idea of Keanu Reeves going into the ghetto and playing a very realistic organic character with a nuanced intense performance," explains David Ayer. "In this film he's not fighting aliens or robots, he's fighting gang bangers, cops and police corruption, so we wanted to help him get to the point where he felt a part of that world to get that very psychologically realistic performance. It was incredible."
Tom Ludlow is man dealing with many demons, both in the real world and within himself. He is a dedicated police officer who touches the darkest elements of society while still reeling from the loss of his wife. The depth of the character gave Reeves the opportunity to live in the skin of someone who is very different from himself.
"The character of Tom Ludlow is an interesting head space for Keanu to get into," explains Foster. "Keanu is very much a pacifist in real life and we've asked him to play a very dark human and it's been amazing to watch him rise to the challenge."
"I'm an actor and it's all make believe, but in the imagining of this world steeped in violence it can be intoxicating," remarks Reeves. "Violence is an elemental force and acting it out has a weird illusion of control. Ludlow is lashing out and using violence to get to the truth, but as someone says in the film, 'Blood doesn't wash away blood.' In the end, violence doesn't change anything."
Forest Whitaker as Captain Wander
Captain Jack Wander is a larger-than-life figure who has gradually accumulated a great deal of power within the ranks of the LAPD. He is known as a man who gets results and his unit has the track record to show for it. He leads his men with fierce confidence and serves up an intense psychology to his followers.
A palpable brotherhood exists within his unit where his men find unwavering loyalty, protection and a sense of family. Although Ad Vice knowingly goes outside the limits of the law to get the job done, the men are unwavering in their dedication to their leader, who they lovingly refer to as "King Wander".
"In developing these characters, I always saw Wander as the father of a dysfunctional family," explains David Ayer. "In dysfunctional families you're often handed your reality by Dad who tells you how ugly the world is outside the house but that inside the house there's love. He makes them believe that what they're doing is for their own good and uses that sort of abusive psychology."
To bring the role of Jack Wander to life, the filmmakers would need a powerful actor to flesh out this intense and charismatic man who is capable of leading men into harm's way with unflappable dedication. They got their wish in Academy Award winning actor Forest Whitaker, who was attracted to the character's strength and unwavering confidence.
"To me, Wander is a guy whose trying to take care of what he considers his family," explains Forest Whitaker. "He lives by a code and feels like he's justified in acquiring power."
In the film, Wander is an LAPD captain in a specialized unit on his way to becoming Commander. His career trajectory seems unstoppable and dreams of taking it all the way. When Captain Biggs from Internal Affairs starts sniffing around asking questions about protocol and the methods used within Wander's department, Ludlow relents to protect his mentor and family against anyone who threatens it. While Wander and his men are working outside the confines of the law, they are looking into the face of darkness going head to head with society's ugly truths.
When Ludlow begins investigating the murder his former partner, Detective Terrence Washington, he begins to discover corruption within the force and begins to view Wander and his brethren with new eyes. Whitaker argues "After looking into the face of darkness coupled with the death of his wife, I think Ludlow's been numb for a while. When he is implicated in Washington's murder, he really begins to investigate his own life which is intertwined with mine and I have to make sure he stands strong to keep my world in place."
Wander's methods of achieving his version of justice are unforgiving and Ludlow serves as his personal enforcer and favorite son. Whitaker notes, "Ludlow is the family member Wander is closest to and if he falls, the whole house of cards could come down."
In his illustrious career, Forest Whitaker has played numerous cops on both the big and small screen and came into the project with an extensive amount of knowledge of the inner-workings of law enforcement. For this material, Whitaker also draws from his own experiences growing up on the streets of Los Angeles. "I played a cop on 'The Shield' for a year and have been on many drive-alongs and had extensive weapons training so I've done that research. In my personal experience, growing up in Los Angeles, I know about cops from the other side. I know how they throw people on the ground and shine lights on them because I've dealt with them. I know what they say to you when you're arrested, so I feel I probably have more research than most."
Forest Whitaker and Keanu Reeves worked with David Ayer before production to flesh out the dynamics between these two connected souls. "When we did rehearsals, I was privileged to see Forest and Keanu together for the first time and witness first hand the incredible chemistry. You never know when putting actors together how they are going to click because at the end of the day we're all real people and we're all complex. The second they sat down together and started riffing on the material, it was obvious that they would be a believable combination."
"I think Keanu is great in the film and is an actor that people want to walk with," comments Whitaker. "Audiences can journey through some really dark places with Keanu because he's the kind of actor you can follow and trust."
"To me, the movie is really about the relationship between these two characters and Forest and Keanu have been very compelling and amazing to watch," says Lucas Foster. "They feed off each other and I think we captured a lot of surprising magic between these two actors who are very much their characters in the moment.
The Watchful Eyes:
Hugh Laurie as Captain Biggs
Internal Affairs Captain James Biggs exists between the worlds of the corporate arm of law enforcement and the cops who walk the beat patrolling the streets. When Biggs is first introduced in the film he comes off as illusive, deceitful and out to get the goods on Ludlow, Wander and Ad Vice. His character asks some probing questions of the various shades of grey in the moral landscape of these men. Through the numerous inquiries and relentless pressure, Biggs serves as a peripheral player in the awakening of Ludlow.
"Biggs was one of the most difficult characters to develop in the film," recalls David Ayer. "He is a very self-aware character who understands the grey areas of this world, yet isn't cynical and is ultimately very smart and pragmatic."
To play the character of Captain Biggs, the filmmakers looked to the award winning and accomplished British actor Hugh Laurie to bring him to life. Laurie, who has found great success stateside as the starring role on the popular television series "House," was interested in both the material and the idea of breaking outside his comfort zone.
"This film was a hard proposition to turn down," he says. "I absolutely loved TRAINING DAY and David is a very bright and interesting writer and director and I've always loved James Ellroy. It was wonderful opportunity to work with this fabulous cast in a very different environment for me. After playing one character for the last three years it was rather wonderful to be able to do something a little different."
Laurie was also intrigued by the questions that the film raised about the morality and ethics of these men who choose to deal with the darker sides of human nature. "The story has a lot of shadows with a lot of shadowy characters and it's not easy to place them in positions on a moral scale. It plays into the reality that Los Angeles lends itself a certain moral grayness."
While Biggs is certainly out to advance his own career, he becomes an unlikely champion for the morality of Ludlow. "While Ludlow is useful to Biggs, Ludlow is the soul for whom these forces are battling," argues Laurie. "In spite of the violence and sordid nature of how he earns his living, Ludlow is nonetheless an innocent and naïve character. He is the soul for which we are battling."
David Ayer was impressed by Laurie's performance and dedication to the complexities of the character. "Hugh did quite a bit of research and was able to understand the politics and psychology of the department. Here you have a British actor from the European school of acting who was able to really transform himself into a captain of the LAPD."
Laurie was impressed by the performances of his co-stars Keanu Reeves and Forest Whitaker. "Although Forest is the kindest and most gentle person to work with, at the flip of a switch he's able to summon up the most extraordinary reserves of physical menace and power. Keanu has often played characters who you root for and sympathize with and he's able to draw on those reserves when delving into some very dark and frightening stuff."
READ MORE: INSIDE THE MIND OF A GUNFIGHTER/ INSIDE THE LOOK OF STREET KINGS
READ MORE ABOUT THE DIRECTOR AND SCREENWRITERS
THE ART OF ORIGINAL FILMMAKING