David Ayer makes movies about cops. You know his acclaimed films Training Day and End of Watch, and you may remember that he co-wrote the original story for The Fast and the Furious. His latest film is also about cops, and it’s also totally different. Sabotage stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as the head of a SWAT team that goes rogue and falls prey to a homicidal maniac killing them off one-by-one. It’s a murder mystery, a balls to the wall action movie, a serious drama about moral corruption, and a delivery system for scene-stealing performances by Mireille Enos and Olivia Williams, the strongest female characters he’s brought to life thus far.
Interviewing David Ayer for Sabotage gave me an opportunity to talk about the impressive female characters in his new movie, how he balanced the many disparate aspects of Sabotage‘s storyline and even discuss the film’s original ending, which was changed to cater to audience expectations about an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.
CraveOnline: So… Sabotage.
David Ayer: Sabotage. Holy cow.
This movie is like Agatha Christie with huge balls.
And a potty mouth.
Yeah. There’s a couple F-bombs.
There’s two or three.
I kept telling the actors, “Guys, stop. Stop.”
“We’re going for a PG, what are you doing?”
“You’re hurting my ears. Quit killing everyone.” I mean, it’s a hardcore action movies, it’s a whodunit, it’s a thriller, it’s really pulpy, it’s film noir…
When you have a movie with this many facets to it, do you try to find one element to be your core… I’m not sure what the word is… Your focal point?
Your thread, your main thread. For me it’s about creating really compelling characters who feel like they have a life and a trajectory and then they become what you follow through the maze.
That’s been a thread through a lot of your work. Regardless of whether the plot is simple or complicated, you tend to really focus on the characters. But this one wasn’t yours to begin with. This was Skip Woods’ originally.
Yeah, it was a Skip Woods draft and it had this really great concept at its core, if you have this really scary badass team of agents and then somebody starts killing them, then it’s like, what kind of monster can kill the monsters?
My initial thought, especially when I saw… was it “Neck” who was hanging from the ceiling?
My initial thought was, “Is this a Predator movie? That would be awesome.”
That would have been awesome.
It’s almost like a horror movie at that point though.
Yeah, exactly. But it’s a mashup. This is hard to pin down because it’s not a true genre action movie, it’s not a true whodunit, it’s not a true mystery, so it’s a very dense, unique animal in that regards.
You have a lot of characters here, but the thing I was surprised about in a film that’s very much about a very masculine, the women steal this movie.
Olivia Williams has a lot of dignity but has a great sense of humor and sexuality, and Mireille Enos is a monster?
Yes, she’s insane.
She just eats the movie alive, man.
She devours it, and that was the thing. They were the toughest roles to cast because I had Arnold and all of these amazing guys to put with them, and then I needed these ladies that had the same horse power and presence as these guys. Mireille had a pretty tough job because she’s playing somebody who’s basically batshit insane, so it’s her versatility and her ability to put the craziness behind the eyes is what got her the job. She’s a very sweet, nice person…
Yeah, I’ve interviewed her before. She’s very cool. Did you like the idea of the image of her being relatively short compared to the rest of the cast? Did it strike you as a director or was it incidental?
It was something we worked with. The idea is she’s like a wasp. She’s very small and scary and dangerous, and something to be feared. And Olivia was interesting because it’s this very formally trained British actress, very well respected in the theater world, and now she’s playing an Atlanta detective opposite Arnold. She really has a lot of strength of character as a person and really complemented his energy. They ended up having a really, really solid chemistry.
A lot of the characters have… I guess “codenames?”
They have nicknames, street names, yeah.
Did those change over time? Like, when you cast Joe Manganiello were you just like, “You’re not really a ‘Tex’ anymore. You’re a ‘Grinder.’” Did that evolve?
I think it’s a little bit of chicken and egg because a lot of it evolved organically. So like with Neck, “Redneck.” With Grinder…
He loves that app on his phone…
He loves the app, and he may or may not ride a bike. Monster, Sam [Worthington]’s character, Sam’s got a lot of rage inside him but at the same time he’s kind of all heart. Lizzy’s just Lizzy. It sounds like a good name for a crazy person, I guess.
She doesn’t need a name.
Yeah, and then Breacher is the guy who goes through the door.
Breacher was also considered as one of the titles for this film.
What was it that led to Sabotage? Why was Sabotage the right title?
Plans get thwarted. Somebody sabotaged the plan. This thing’s supposed to be happening and then somebody else takes over. It’s everybody sabotaging everybody else, you know? They’re sabotaging the DEA, the DEA is sabotaging the cartel, our team’s getting sabotaged internally. Everyone’s fucking up everyone else’s life. [Laughs.]
So was that your idea, the Sabotage title, or did they come to you with this and you thought it made sense?
I think it was an a la carte choice.
They just have a list, and you can use any of them?
It’s everyone. We all worked together to try to come up with a title. I think it’s one of the toughest things in the business if you don’t have a title, or oftentimes you have a great title but it’s not cleared to use, so you can’t use it because there will be a claim on it by another studio or something.
Well, then you can call it Lee Daniels’ Sabotage.
It’s Lee Daniels’ Sabotage. Exactly. Which is actually a pretty good idea… Let’s get those posters reprinted.
Again, I love the focus on the women, but it’s interesting because they’re tough partially because they have to function in a very male-dominated world of crime and crimefighting. Were you worried people might interpret the film, and its attitude towards women? Does that even occur to you, or is it just a character?
It’s a character. The most sane person in the movie is Olivia’s character, who really has her feet in the ground, and she’s tough and she’s smart and she’s able to deal with a guy like Arnold and see through the bullshit of all these other people she’s dealing with. And with Mireille it never occurred to me that there’s some sort of female sacred cow, that a female character couldn’t be batshit insane.
If this were a guy, I don’t even think it would occur to anyone. They’d just think, “That’s the crazy character! I love that guy!”
Yeah, no one would even ask the question. That’s why that dichotomy of her character versus Caroline, and they have some great scenes together, you really feel their competition and their energy. I can’t make a movie if I’m reverse engineering the social politics of it. I just make a movie. I just wanted to make a cool, fun, insane movie.
I’d like to talk to you about – SPOILER ALERT – the finale. The big finale in Mexico. It feels like a shift. It feels like the movie becomes a western at the end.
There’s a mystery and a whodunit and sabotage, and in the end it just boils down to Arnold getting revenge. Was that always part of the process, that you wanted to shift grears at the end and conclude on a different note?
Endings are tough. There was actually another ending which will be out with the DVD. It’s a thriller and a whodunit, and then you have Arnold’s storied legacy and the expectations, and the motivation of what had happened to his family. Arnold being Arnold, it’s like he’s gotta go get some. He’s got to go get his. This can’t stand. So it always felt like it there was a box that was left unchecked, and it’s ultimately very satisfying because you get to see Arnold whack a bunch of bad guys.
And it’s also, if you were really dying for this sort of thing, you get to see him get his comeuppance.
The alternate ending, was it dramatically different or did it just go in a slightly different direction?
Oh, it’s very different.
Was that the original ending?
Was that your decision or were there test audiences going, “I don’t like that we find out that they’re aliens!”
Yeah, I liked the alien ending myself and then it was like, “Okay, can they be androids?” They didn’t like that either.
It’s an organic process. There’s three movies you make. You write the movie, then you shoot the movie, and then you edit the movie. It’s always revealing itself along the way. At the end of the day you want to make something that’s satisfying, in that this movie was always intended as a ride. It just had some fun to it and a great ensemble cast and good energy and sick action. So it was important to really satisfying the audience. So we moved in the direction it needed to go.
Did you have to make those kinds of decision before? I think End of Watch, you said you were originally debating who was going to die.
End of Watch I shot two different endings. I had them both die and then I only had Mike die. Originally it was both of them die, and then you get to the point where you’re like, “Fuck, is the audience going to walk out of the theater cutting their wrists?” And then also in research, the worst thing that can happen to a cop is to survive the death of a partner. I kind of made the movie for cops, and so they understand that, that that’s worse than him dying.
End of Watch is a naturalistic cop movie in a lot of ways. Sabotage is more of a ride.
More of a ride, yeah.
How do you think cops are going to respond to this movie? Like, “Haha! I always wanted to do that?”
[Laughs.] There could be some evil wish fulfillment going on, but it’s also got a lot of the heart and a lot of the detail of the job in it too, so I think there’s a lot of little easter eggs that cops will understand we took the time to write, details and things. But at the end of the day, I think everyone’s going to know it’s just a badass action movie, and no one’s really dealing with this stuff right now, you know? Old school, freakin’ bloody, brutal, insane action movie.
Screw PG-13, that’s what I say.
Yeah, that’s something. I got F-bombs. Guys smoke…
You have the obligatory strip club sequence, with actual stripping. It’s not just go-go dancers.
No, no, exactly. You can’t go to a go-go dance club, and not see racks. We got real strippers too, which is good.