For those who work the difficult and dangerous job of law enforcement, there’s nothing more frustrating than being poorly portrayed on television or in the movies.
But for more than a decade, writer and director David Ayer has dedicated his talents to providing the movie-going public with a raw and almost uncensored glimpse of the everyday lives of cops.
From “Training Day” and “End of Watch” to his latest effort, “Sabotage,” which was released Friday, March 28, Ayer has raised the bar in terms of telling stories from a “street” perspective and making Hollywood actors look, act and sound like real cops.
“Cops have the power to take one’s freedom and use deadly force,” Ayer said before the opening of “Sabotage.” “They are the first to see us at our worst, and sometimes our best. There is a life wisdom cops have, and a wealth of stories about human nature.
“As a story teller, law enforcement is a rich and meaningful subject. And it is too easy to ferret that these are very normal, good people doing a nearly impossible job.”
Although Ayer has secured his place as a veteran of the movie business, he is quick to credit the success of some of his most recent projects to an unexpected encounter and tight bond he’s developed with Capt. Jaime FitzSimons of the Summit County Sheriff’s Office.
During the last several years, FitzSimons has partnered with Ayer on three movie projects, serving as a sort of law enforcement consultant on “Street Kings” (2008), “End of Watch” (2012) and, most recently, “Sabotage.”
“I’m lucky to have Jaime and I really owe (Summit County) Sheriff (John) Minor big time for letting me borrow him,” Ayer said. “It’s kind of a rare animal to have someone so effective in law enforcement and also so effective in the movie business, but that’s because he understands people — and a good cop understands people.”
ACT I: When David met Jaime
FitzSimons is admirably modest about the beginnings of his relationship with Ayer and, if it were up to him, he’d be content to leave it by saying the two “just happened to meet by chance.”
The true story, however, is just as remarkable as the close friendship that has materialized in the last several years.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, FitzSimons grew up around the movie business. His father, Charles FitzSimons, is a Hollywood movie producer and served for 18 years as the executive director of the Producers Guild of America. His aunt, Maureen O’Hara, is the famously redheaded actress who played fiercely passionate heroines in more than 65 films and on television and who was several times paired with friend John Wayne.
But as is sometimes the case, FitzSimons’ father encouraged his son to pursue almost any other career than one in the movie business. FitzSimons decided to go into law enforcement and spent the first 15 years of his 24-year career as a beat cop with the Los Angeles Police Department, patrolling the violent streets of South Central L.A.
“Training Day,” a movie written by Ayer, was released in 2001. The story chronicles a rookie detective’s first day working the drug-infested streets of L.A. His mentor, a veteran narcotics officer, employs questionable, if not corrupt, methods in his efforts to clean things up.
The film made a lasting impact on FitzSimons and, motivated by childhood memories of his father, he decided to send Ayer a handwritten note.
“As a producer, my dad was always pouring through a never-ending pile of scripts,” FitzSimons said. “But I remember the impact a personal note would have on him.”
FitzSimons sent the note to Ayer commending the writer for being the first to truly capture the dangerous lives cops lead from a “street perspective.” He never thought the note would find its way to its intended recipient.
“The next thing I know my phone rings and it’s David Ayer asking if he could meet me,” FitzSimons said. “I went down to his office one afternoon and we literally talked for hours. We’ve been thick as thieves ever since.”
Some years later, Ayer started working on “Street Kings,” a movie about an undercover LAPD cop disillusioned by the recent murder of his wife and implicated in another murder of a colleague.
It was Ayer’s second effort as a director, and he reached out to FitzSimons seeking his advice about the script. FitzSimons responded with some concerns about the depiction of the main character, played by Keanu Reeves.
Ayer took FitzSimons’ critique to heart. He asked his new friend to serve as a consultant on the movie and teach Reeves how to be a cop.
“I’ve come to depend on Jaime to work with actors and just to help me get things right,” Ayer said. “It’s interesting that I now have this good friend who also has developed a great understanding of what I need as a director.”
The rest, as they say, is Hollywood movie history.
ACT II: Working with Hollywood actors
FitzSimons has worked on a total of five movies since “Street Kings,” including three with Ayer and two with actor Jake Gyllenhaal, who played the role of Brian Taylor in the movie “End of Watch.” The character and the movie are based on FitzSimons and some of his experiences working in South Central L.A.
FitzSimons and Gyllenhaal also have developed a strong friendship. After “End of Watch” Gyllenhaal brought FitzSimons in to help him with his roles in “Prisoners” and “Night Crawler.”
But FitzSimons said he’s built strong bonds with all of the actors he’s worked with, albeit under progressively different circumstances. Over the course of his last three projects, FitzSimons went from dedicating almost all of his time to turning Reeves into a believable cop in “Street Kings” to being tasked with turning 10 Hollywood actors into a team of highly trained Drug Enforcement Administration agents in “Sabotage.”
“I’m very fortunate to have this side job and to be able to work with David because he sits down with actors from the beginning and lays out the groundwork,” FitzSimons said. “By the time I get there, everybody is ready to work and eager to learn how to be a cop.
“I’ve never really run into the crap you hear about actors being high maintenance, and I’ve worked with some pretty big names.”
Arguably the biggest name FitzSimons has worked with is Arnold Schwarzenegger who, like all of the others, is surprisingly humble, gracious and down to earth.
“Just look at his story — he came to America, became famous for body building, then as an action star, rolled that fame into an election as governor of California and has now come full circle back to movies,” FitzSimons said. “He has a wealth of wisdom, he’s a guy’s guy, but no matter what you think of him, you would never imagine how humble and giving he is with his talent.”
THE FINAL CUT: Leaving a piece behind
Although FitzSimons thinks it’s the actors who make him successful by pulling him into the fold and making him feel welcome, Ayer said the stars of his movies would tell a different story.
In his job to turn actors into realistic cops, FitzSimons puts a little piece of himself into each role by sharing stories from his time working in L.A. However, he never tells two actors the same story, hoping they’ll each latch onto something to develop a completely unique character.
However, those who know FitzSimons best can see the parts of his personality he brings to every movie.
“I know I’ve been successful when my family and friends call me after seeing a movie and say they can see a piece of me in each of the actors,” FitzSimons said. “The money shot for me is not the acting opportunities I’ve received, it’s watching these guys onscreen and seeing them pull it off.”
There is no more brilliant and painful example of FitzSimons’ contribution to Ayer’s films than “End of Watch,” which materialized into a movie script after several years of FitzSimons and Ayer swapping war stories from his days patrolling the streets of L.A.
“Jaime poured his heart and soul into working with Jake (Gyllenhaal),” Ayer said. “He arrived on set and told him, ‘If you want to do this character right, let me tell you about me.’”
Gyllenhaal pulled it off, but “End of Watch” didn’t wrap without FitzSimons taking on a significant amount of stress. After 15 years working the violent streets of South Central L.A., it’s impossible not to carry a certain amount of baggage, FitzSimons said.
“It was draining because I was reliving my career, but at the end of the day, when I walked away from it, it was extremely rewarding,” he said. “It was good to dump some of that baggage. I walked away from that experience feeling very healed.”
FitzSimons’ efforts on “End of Watch” and “Sabotage” have not gone unnoticed by one of his biggest fans and supporters, Summit County Sheriff John Minor.
However, Minor said he thinks FitzSimons’ greatest contributions to some of Ayer’s films go beyond character development, saying he also sees a lot of his captain’s personality in the story structure and the dialogue among characters.
In real life, cops are often exposed to the worst of human nature and they have to strike a delicate balance between their public and private lives, Minor said. In an effort to maintain their sanity and to protect their loved ones from the horrors of the streets, cops will turn to the sanctuary of the department, Minor said, a place where cops can vent among the safety of colleagues.
“Fitz is passionate and he’s intense,” Minor said last month after a special screening of “Sabotage” in Dillon. “There are times when a certain four-letter word becomes all encompassing — as an adjective, a noun, a verb and even a pronoun.
“I think if you watched that movie last night you’d agree it was pure passion, pure intensity.”
But Minor also senses someday someone is going to take notice of FitzSimons’ contributions to the movie industry and pull one of his star cops away from the Summit County Sheriff’s Office.
“I didn’t know about his movie connections for quite some time, but all I can say is someday we’re going to lose a good cop and he’s going to start another career,” Minor said. “That’s going to be our loss, and Summit County’s loss.
“In the meantime, I’m happy to allow him to pursue future projects, as long as he realizes keeping his current job depends heavily on him hooking me up with some autographed pictures.”
“The next thing I know my phone rings and it’s (movie producer) David Ayer asking if he could meet me. I went down to his office one afternoon and we literally talked for hours. We’ve been thick as thieves ever since.”