You want to make a stripped back slice of urban grit; don’t deny it, of course you do, but after decades of street thrillers; seedy, inner-city cop dramas that team with degenerates, audiences have become acclimatised. Sure, they appreciate a movie with an edge but the language of genre cinema is so familiar, so artificial, and here you are, wanting to create a movie in which the humble patron can feel the grime under their finger nails and smell the urine on the pavement, that old fashioned realism won’t do; so what’s the answer? Well, you’re going to need a new aesthetic aren’t you?
So you opt for something old like Cops – the TV show in which cameramen with stab vests follow uniformed fascists in the hope of witnessing an assault, drug bust or worse. It’s a look that says “real life”. Mind you, this is a movie, a thriller, so an intrusive camera crew isn’t really an option. Sure, they can be there during the shift but what about later, when you want to record those intimate moments in the life of a south central plod; those introspective asides that add pathos to the job’s brutality?
Now you’re starting to wonder if this was a good idea; I mean, wouldn’t it just be easier to film it conventionally, then you can have a God’s eye view? But you realise that will mean introducing a conspicuous style to the material; you won’t be able to shoot it on the fly like your Uncle’s wedding video; you’ll have to think about camera movement and lighting and getting full coverage and – ugh, it’s just a lot of work is all. So determined to stick with this camera on the character’s shoulder idea, or their lapel, whichever’s more practical, you decide to have your two leads film their own actions; an obsession with real time video capture from multiple devices that you’ll improbably extend to the criminal gangs that will be driving the plot.
It’s around now that you’ll be stowing your early doubts about the idea and pressing ahead regardless. Someone on the production is already asking questions; you know, questions of the ontological variety, which you try to ignore. For example, when it isn’t practical for either the cops or the crims to film themselves, how are you going to get coverage? You laugh this off and resolve to film the linking footage in the same handheld, amateur style, reasoning that once Jake Gyllenhaal has established the look, using his opening scene to show the audience he’ll be filming shit, they’ll take that as their visual cue and not ask questions about what they see subsequently.
The dissenting voices on set think this is a gamble; after all some of the people who see your movie will also have seen Chronicle and they still have questions about who was filming what in that, and who edited it all together, but you dismiss this as undue negativity. This is a story of camaraderie, of a band of brothers (and their less effective sisters), facing mortal danger on a daily basis; men with attractive girlfriends and new babies: no one’s going to worry about an invisible cameraman who later, perhaps out of sympathy for our brave heroes, donates his footage so that it may be cut together with the stuff the characters shot.
With the aesthetic rubber stamped and all doubters locked up, you’re ready to burrow into the script. You know the story can meander a little, be a little shapeless, because life isn’t a straight line; it’s messy and haphazard, so reflecting this in story construction can only add to the intensification of the material; the audience’s sense that they’re riding with Taylor and Zavala as they deal with missing kids, house fires and sex tips. Nevertheless, you wonder if there’s any room for cop movie clichés. Part of the reason you wanted to make a pig-flick, apart from your sincere admiration for the LAPD and the challenges they face on a daily basis, was your love of cop movie tropes – street slang, shoot outs, domestic complications, your heroes’ colleagues showing up a minute too late to assist in the climatic action, oh and a happy ending. From their cell you can hear the last refusenik, the fool that wouldn’t buy into your vision, shouting that you can’t include those tried and tested elements because it will undermine the movie’s claim on real world experience. You laugh it off. They’ll see. Oh yes, you’ll show ‘em.