"MONEY IS LIKE CRACK," CHUCKLES DAVID AYER, gazing out at the smoggy sprawl from the balcony of his Wallace Neff-designed home in the Los Feliz hills. "You need it, man."
Money and crack, it turns out, are two things about which Ayer, 34, knows something. Although he claims never to have actually used crack, the drug was ubiquitous and he witnessed its ravages firsthand during his teens, when he was the rare white kid growing up in a gang-dominated stretch of South-Central L.A. As for money, he recently pocketed a million bucks for his original screenplay Training Day, the corrupt-cop drama that earned Denzel Washington last year's Best Actor Oscar, and piles more for doing rewrites on U-571, The Fast and the Furious, the newly released Dark Blue, and (coming this summer) S.W.A.T. rewrites extensive enough that he was awarded screenwriter credit on each of them.
The consensus among those who have worked with Ayer is that his background gives his work a unique authenticity. "It feels like he's been there and he's not making it up," says Dark Blue director Ron Shelton. "There's an urgency, and a madness, to it."
"Most Hollywood writers, what they know about the street comes from NYPD Blue or from other movies," says The Fast and the Furious director Rob Cohen. "But David knows it from having lived it."
Ayer's impressive, if brief, track record as a writer has put him on Hollywood's shortlist for stories about cops, drugs, gangs anything set amid the hard-edged culture of L.A.'s meaner streets. His own life, with its arc of poverty, tragedy, delinquency and redemption, would itself make a pretty good screenplay, although many producers would reject it as too fraught with melodrama, too dependent on tidy coincidence to be plausible.
BORN IN CHAMPAIGN, ILLINOIS, AYER WAS 4 years old and living in Miami when, on Christmas morning, he and his mother found the body of his father, who had deliberately suffocated himself. The family bounced around for a while and eventually settled near Washington, D.C., where Ayer, a willful, troubled kid with no interest in attending school, had enough run-ins with the law that his mother finally sent him, at 14, to L.A. to live with some cousins south of the 10 freeway.
If the plan was to reform the wayward lad, it failed. In the hood, Ayer says, "I went from bush-league delinquency to major-league delinquency. It's a whole different ball game out here." Although he was enrolled at the Center for Enriched Studies, a respected magnet school, "I didn't study, and I cut class. I ran around a lot as a teenager," he says, declining to elaborate.
At 18, seeking direction, Ayer enlisted in the Navy, where, after years of recalcitrance, he flourished under military discipline and eventually distinguished himself as a sonar technician on a nuclear attack submarine. Two years later, in 1990, he left the service with an honorable discharge.
After briefly kicking around Sinaloa, Mexico, where he polished the Spanish he had picked up in Cali and was briefly married, he returned to L.A. and found work as an electrician. At 21, while rewiring a house in the Hollywood Hills, he struck up an acquaintance with the owner, who turned out to be screenwriter Wesley Strick (Cape Fear, The Saint). One day, recalls Strick, "David kind of shyly asked me if I would look at some things he had written about his stretch in the military. They weren't really stories they were more like vignettes. But I thought he had a good eye for detail, and it struck me that maybe he was a young writer. So I encouraged him."
Strick not only mentored Ayer, he and his wife let the former sailor live rent-free in their guesthouse, where he hunkered down to write. "I thought, 'If this guy sees something, I should give it a shot,'" says Ayer. "Not that I was looking forward to writing a whole script which would be the most I had ever written. But I did it. I thought I would sell it for a million dollars and never have to write again. But that wasn't quite the case."
Not by a long shot. His maiden effort "was pretty good, but not great," says Strick. "Then David went back into the guesthouse and just started cranking out reams of screenplay attempts, fragments, and complete ones, too. Knowing full well, I think, that it was a learning process."
"I found out that just because you write a script doesn't mean you know how," says Ayer, who lived with Strick for nearly three years. "If you want to learn, you've got to spend thousands of hours doing it. There's no other way."
While the Navy and his chance encounter with Strick had instilled Ayer with the discipline and purpose he craved, the allure of the streets had not waned. "He could be kind of reckless," says Strick, who recalls a period when Ayer had a part-time job as a security guard in a sketchy downtown neighborhood. "During his lunch break, Dave would go and hang around the bus stop where the drug dealers were, and wait for them to notice him and assume he was an undercover cop, then scatter. That was his idea of a fun lunch hour intimidating the local crack dealers."
On another occasion, Ayer's fondness for Hispanic women left him in need of dental work. "He used to go to these parties to meet Latinas," says Strick. "I guess some people thought it was fine, but others saw it as cultural poaching. One morning he came into the kitchen with a couple of teeth knocked out. Some guy had sucker-punched him at a party. That's the kind of world he was inhabiting at the time. He was safely writing during the day, then he'd go out and look for trouble and adventure at night."
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Ayer poured his rough past and wild nights into his writing, which continued to improve. But nothing seemed to click until, he says, "After kind of unsuccessfully pimping scripts for five years or so, I just got fed up and burned out, and wrote one for me."
The result was Training Day, which, although it did not get picked up immediately (its pre-Rampart-scandal depiction of rogue cops made it a hard sell), got him an agent. It also landed him an assignment rewriting The Plague Season, an original screenplay by crime novelist James Ellroy. Eventually re-titled Dark Blue, it told the story of a corrupt LAPD detective in the days leading up to the 1992 riots. Caldecot Chubb, one of the film's producers, says, "Every once in a while you read a script and go, 'Oh my God, who wrote this?' That's what happened when I read Training Day. It was original, powerful, shocking, with a real voice, and I thought, 'This is the one guy who could possibly rework James Ellroy.'"
Ayer did such a wholesale revamp that Ellroy ultimately opted for a "story by" (versus a screenwriting) credit. Meanwhile, Rampart broke, Warner Bros. snapped up Training Day, and soon, despite his contention that writing is "hard, miserable, lonely work," Ayer was churning out studio rewrites as zealously as he had once plowed through incipient drafts in Strick's guesthouse. "I always had a feeling that Dave would amount to something," says Strick, "although I was stunned by the magnitude and speed of his success. When my wife and I met him, he was something of what the newspapers call a drifter, or a loner a guy on the fringe who, I suppose, could have gone either way."
WHERE AYER IS GOING NOW IS THE DIRECTOR'S chair. Under a production deal with Warner Bros., he hopes to direct a remake of André de Toth's 1954 film noir Crime Wave, with Ethan Hawke penciled in to star. And although Ayer is probably closer in temperament to Ozzy Osbourne than he is to Ozzie Nelson, a wife and new baby have pretty much quieted his restless streak. Reflecting on the circuitous path that led him to this hilltop aerie overlooking the pocked streets that shaped him, Ayer says, "You've got to make your demons drive your work, and not drive you. It took a while to learn that. Everyone's got his shit going on, but for the most part it's really worked out for me. And I'm getting promoted. It's like the military I got promoted to producer, and now I'm getting promoted to director. That's like a colonel or something. You get to tell people what to do. So it's cool."