Bright, Netflix's first-ever blockbuster, a buddy cop action movie set in an alternate L.A. where humans and fantasy creatures live side by side, has been called the worst movie of 2017. But director David Ayer doesn't mind. "This is going on my fridge," he tweeted one critic. "Highest compliment is a strong reaction either way. This is a f**king epic review."
Ayer knows a thing or two about having thick skin. While he's been lauded for films such as End of Watch and Training Day, he is also responsible for one of 2016's most critically maligned films, Suicide Squad. Those reviews were like getting "his throat cut," Ayer tells me, draping one arm over his head so that the "SKWARD" tattoo inked onto his forearm by the movie's star, Margot Robbie, is clearly visible. Bright was meant to harken back to his former works -- think End of Watch meets Lord of the Rings -- with Will Smith starring as an LAPD officer paired with the division's first orc cop (played by Joel Edgerton). That it might also make you think of Disney's Zootopia is not lost on its director. "A rabbit and an orc who just wanna serve the public," Ayer laughs during a recent sit-down with ET, in which he discussed his gun shyness post-Suicide Squad, making sequels and streaming on Netflix.
ET: When you first read Max Landis' script, was there one point where you stopped reading and said, "I'm in. I'm making this movie"?
David Ayer: It was a slow burn, actually. I read the script. I loved the world, I loved the characters. I understood it, but I wasn't ready to go and do another cop movie in L.A. I was actually just going to produce it, initially, and I started meeting with the art directors and through that process, the more contact I had with it, the more solid my vision became and the more I understood how to make the movie. And then I just took it off the table, like, "F**k it, I'm going to direct this."
The characters get to talk about these fantastical things in a very earnest, grounded way. I'm even thinking of someone saying, "It's a magic wand" for the first time. Lines that could feel ridiculous. Was there one bit of dialogue that was most difficult for an actor to get out? Or one that made them crack?
No, because, you know, my job is to make the world real for them, so they believe what they say. There's nothing worse than when an actor isn't connecting, and so it's really my job to connect them to the material, help them understand this world. You treat every character as special and always say, like, "Everybody is living their own movie."
The world building of this alternate L.A. is so immersive and pretty incredible. Do you have a favorite detail in the film?
There's a lot of little stuff. Like, orcs are really into red meat and they love to eat deer and so there's kind of this antler theme with the orcs. A motif. Even the orcish written language looks a little bit like antlers. There is a lot of detail in each frame, and it'll be interesting to see when people do freeze frames and frame grabs and start analyzing what is there, because it was kind of endless. Maybe overkill, I don't know! [Laughs]
I think my favorites were the centaur police officer, who you only see in passing, and the shot of the dragon flying across the L.A. skyline.
Yeah! The idea is, like, it's a keyhole. You're just peeking through a keyhole and the world is much bigger and richer than what we're actually seeing. Also, I don't feel-- I trust the audience. I think audiences are smarter than they're given credit for, and it's OK to let them use their intuition and it's OK to leave the audience a little hungry and not explain everything.
It's easy to imagine more movies being set in this universe and also different genres of films, whether that be a romance or thriller or comedy. I'm sure the focus right now is on getting this movie out, but have you and Max or you and Netflix discussed where this series can go?
It's a crazy canvas. You can almost do anything. It's a rich world. There's a lot to explore. I think [right now] it's like, Let's see how it does. And if it does well, then, you know, Let's see if there's an appetite for another one from the audience.
Do you think you would want to stick with these characters or explore what else is in this world? [Bloomberg reported this week that Netflix has already ordered a Bright sequel with Smith signed on.]
I think you can do both. I think you could spin this off in a lot of ways, but Will's a friend and I love working with him. So, I'll take any chance I can get.
You filmed this at the end of last year, right after Suicide Squad had come out and the reviews, obviously, were divisive.
It was sh*t. Yeah, it was sh*t reviews. I got my throat cut. [Laughs]
And then fans, whether they loved it or hated it, tend to get very loud.
It was a super polarizing movie. Incredibly polarizing.
Did that affect how you came into filming this movie?
Yeah, for sure. It made me gun shy. It's like going to the boxing ring and getting knocked out is how it felt. And I had to go into the ring again. And directing is a confidence game, because you're selling everyone on something that only exists in your head. The actors have to feel that confidence to trust that you know what you're doing, and so does your crew. As a director, you set the tone. Really, it's coming off that movie, I understood the pitfalls, I understood the dangers, I knew where the alligators hide, you know? And so I made damn sure I didn't repeat any mistakes.
There's also the Netflix of it all, the fact that Bright would stream instead of opening in theaters. Was there an adjustment process you had to go through to come to terms with that?
Not at all. We shot it just like any other feature. I mean, we shot it on 70mm cameras! [Laughs] It's large format cameras. We shot on the ARRI 65 with these old school lenses, like the Lawrence of Arabia lenses. I mean, it's freaking a CinemaScope movie! And then same crew, same techniques, same everything. It was shot just like any other tentpole was. For me, it's like, this movie hits the world at the same instant and time [in] 190 countries, every language known. Over 100 million subscribers to Netflix. This is the biggest thing they've done. As a filmmaker, that's an incredible opportunity, because it's only going to be the first time once. And the box office game is brutal. Look how many movies come out every weekend and by Friday at 9:00pm on the East Coast, you know how much it's going to make in the weekend. And if you're not number one, nobody cares. How many great movies just vanish into a black hole, because they didn't win that horse race opening weekend? And I've been on both sides of it. Actually, it's been nice to know you're not walking into a chainsaw opening weekend. [Laughs]
I have this idea of Will Smith being such a huge movie star that he's not dealing with Netflix in the Smith household in his day-to-day life. Did you have to explain to him, You're going to be in this blockbuster movie and it's going to come out on Netflix?
He's a business guy! He's very sophisticated in his outlook and, at the end of the day, they're making eight times the movies of all the other studios combined. They're the future. You know, it is what it is and it's like, I'm proud to be on that train.
If you could dictate the ideal Netflix-viewing experience for people, what would it be?
Oh gee. Well, it's interesting, because you have the new 4K televisions now and you have the high-definition HDR television, which blows away theater systems. The best version of the movie I've seen was on a 4K television, the HDR version. It's stunning! So, with the right equipment at home, you're going to have a better experience. And no cell phones going off.
Lastly, you mentioned getting your throat cut on Suicide Squad, but I appreciate the fact that you haven't walked away from DC and you haven't walked away from that world considering everything.
You know, I'm not a film school guy. I didn't go to college. I'm kind of vocational in my outlook, and it's like, Now I know how to make that movie! Now I could fix Suicide Squad! So... And I love the comic IPs. I mean, I'm a comic geek. And I love Warner Bros. and I would definitely go back.
Where are you at the moment, in terms of your involvement in sequels or spinoffs or whatever?
We're kicking tires over there. We've got stuff in development.