CHRISTIAN BALE TALKS ABOUT “HARSH TIMES”
A twisted story of friendship, loyalty and love, writer/director David Ayer’s Harsh Times brings the rough streets of South Central Los Angeles alive on the screen in his latest gritty drama.
Christian Bale (The Prestige, Batman Begins) stars as an ex-Army Ranger named Jim Davis who’s haunted by memories of his time spent in the military. Freddy Rodriguez co-stars as his best friend Mike, a loyal buddy who gets pulled back into his old life of crime when Jim returns to South Central Los Angeles.
What kind of research did you do?
“I had the best kind of research. First of all, Dave [Ayer] himself. This is inspired by his own stories. All I had to do was say to Dave, ‘Bring ‘em all on. Bring all your friends in. Bring the military guys in. Bring the gang member guys in. Bring everybody in. Let’s just sit.’ And I spent three weeks hanging out. We went on tour, policemen as well.
It was funny because one day we’d be hanging out with an ex-gang member. He’d be telling us all stories about what he did down that street there, and then we go get a drink in a bar somewhere and we’d be chatting. He’d be helping me out, talking about Chicano lifestyle, vernacular, lingo and everything. And the next day we’d be going on a drive-around with a policeman who was showing us the same streets and telling us stories about what he did down there. I could see both sides of the fence and how they actually intersect an awful lot.
On top of that, the military personnel people who were good enough [to spend time with us]. And I’m really appreciative to them for being good enough to come spend some time with me, for allowing me to pick their brains, for some who divulged – and this goes for some ex-gang members, people I spoke with, the policemen included, military – people who told me very personal stories, very tragic stories. The military war’s going on and there’s wars right in the streets of LA, as well. [They told] stories that I would not repeat to anybody, just because these are personal stories that they offered to me with the understanding that it was just between the two of us.
It was a fascinating thing. Many of the military personnel…even though we’re not trying to suggest that this is a generic experience of soldiers. Not everybody comes back and suffers from some kind of PTSD. Many do. It’s not a rare case, and almost everybody knows somebody who has been affected. With [my character] Jim, however, the problem is he won’t admit it. He is in denial about that. That’s what really sends him on his downward spiral because he believes himself to be invincible, to be self-sufficient, and so how could he ever need help from anybody else? He’s this unstoppable force.”
Have you gotten backlash from any soldiers who say the film portrays them like psychos?
“See, I don’t believe it portrays them like that in the slightest. To me, it’s a very honorable thing. Dave would not be like that towards the military. He comes from the military himself. But like many military people, you know what? They ain’t brainless. They are allowed to question what is going on. Sure, you have to be there for the person right next to you. That is what everybody says. That’s why they fight. Because you stand back and look at the bigger picture. For God’s sake, if they don’t have the right to stand back and question what the hell is going on, who does? And so I don’t believe that anybody could look at this and say that we’re pointing fingers at anybody whatsoever.
It’s a complex movie. That’s what I saw in it. That’s what I enjoy about it. I hate to use the word ‘enjoy’ because I could say that for maybe the first half, excluding the very beginning of the movie. But it’s kind of a joyride of a couple of old buddies, basically one of whom who is with Mike’s character [played by Freddy Rodriguez], whose movie I believe it truly is. It’s kind of seen through his eyes. It’s kind of his story of having to let go of a friend who was not fitting into the puzzle of his life any longer. But somebody who has moved on, who is constructing a life, who has committed to a long term relationship with the character Sylvia played by Eva [Longoria].”
Bale continued, “Then you’ve got Jim returning, who basically has seen so much trauma that he truly can’t share with Mike. Mike is a brother to him, but he’s probably become closer to the people that he lost abroad. But he comes back and man, he is just looking for the days of their teenage years when they could just kick back, smoke out, drink, go driving, get into trouble and it was relatively harmless. They were allowed to do that. You get a pass to do that at a certain age. The problem is he’s past that age, but more importantly, he’s past that capability. He’s a killing machine now. He ain’t just somebody with a penchant for violence. He’s somebody with which it’s an art form. He is just not somebody to mess with in the slightest.”
Did you do any military or police training?
“Absolutely, we did all that. I was going down to the firing range with Army Rangers. We were opening up with M-16s, M4s. You have the kind of families down there shooting their pistols who were staring up and going, ‘Holy crap, what’s going on there?’ We were just tearing up the whole building. Yes, I got very handy with a lot of different weapons for it and kind of over-learned. I learned how to use many of the different weapons or pieces that I didn’t even need to end up using for the movie.
My original intention was actually to see if I could attend that Rangers school. That’s what I wanted to do. But it was about eight weeks, so I didn’t have the time for it. I have no idea if they would have even allowed me in or not. It just ended up being, ‘Look, there’s no time.’ But I really wanted to see, because there’s a high drop-out rate from that. I really kind of wanted to test and see all right, would I even be able to manage to get through that training.”
How much of a fan were you of Training Day?
“I had met David regarding Training Day many years back. I am a fan of it. However, this feels more personal to me. You can tell, this is just more his real piece. This is something he started beforeTraining Day. This is something that he just, like he says himself, kind of owns a part of his own soul. And personally, I feel that with this one. I also love that it’s just the kind of grittier, more kind of low-income version.”
Were you up for the Ethan Hawke role?
“That would have been the part that, ultimately, I would have been up for. But I just feel, to me Harsh Times is similar and obviously Dave’s attachment and obviously the locale, the locations. But to me, it goes that much further than Training Day did. I think that was why David kind of wanted to keep it in his pocket. He felt like this was his piece. He didn’t want anyone else messing with it. Training Day, he kind of let out to the studio and he got great results. But this one really felt like it meant too much. It meant more to him than that one.”
How can you be so intense with an American accent?
“I’ve been living it for a number of years. If I hadn’t gotten it down, it would be a little bit questionable by now. I’ve been living here for almost 14 years. The new thing for me on this one was obviously getting the military lingo down, and getting the Chicano lingo down as well – and finding a happy blend of the two.”
How did you get into the Latino culture being that you’re British?
“I’m a shape shifter, man. I’m just like Jim in that respect. He can look at the Chicano culture, he can’t ever be a part of it completely, but he knows it. He can walk it. He can belong there but he’s a pinchero ultimately, and he’s never going to be completely embraced.
He can go to the military. You see him in the scenes in the offices with the bureaucrats. He knows how to behave. And I had to do that, too. I know how to sit in a room and kid people into thinking that I’m one of them, and then I’ll walk out the room and I’ll be somebody else completely. That doesn’t mean I’ve got multiple personalities. I think yourself, you were probably a little bit different this morning than you are right now. When you go back home with your kids if you have them, or family or whatever, tonight you’re going to be a slightly different person again. Everybody’s a shape shifter to a certain degree. But some people can actually really bring it on when they know they need to, and I have that in common with Jim.”
Can you discuss your scene with Freddy Rodriguez and Terry Crews?
“Yeah, that was a hilarious scene. Terry’s great. He’s a great guy. We just rapped. We just kept going because that was one of the few days where, due to locations, we kind of had that house and we were a little bit too far away from any other location. We had a lot of time to be shooting that scene. We ended up with something like a 15-20 minute scene because everybody just kept on going. We went completely off script. It just kept going and we were pissing ourselves laughing. We’d have to stop because we’d just gone way too far off of the script. And eventually just time constraints condensed it to whatever it is, a three minute scene or something, but that was a good day. That was definitely one of the funnier days.
One of the more memorable days on the movie was actually early on in Mexico when we were filming in this little town down south in Ensenada. We just invited the whole town down for a fiesta. There was food… A pig was actually slaughtered right there so there was great eating for everybody that night. There was a band playing. Everybody was dancing. We were handing out drinks for everybody. It was just a genuine party, and we just filmed in the middle of it. We just tried to get our scenes done in the middle with hopefully not too many people walking past looking in camera or stumbling past. That was a very memorable evening. That was a real good beginning to the movie. You also had Dave’s wife and her dad doing the catering for everybody. It was a real family affair.”
There’s also an extremely intense scene in a car. How tough is it to do something that intense where you’re threatening your costar?
“It’s obviously a very uncomfortable scene. That’s one where you’re squirming in your seat. He thinks he’s in control. He thinks that he’s just showing a side of himself that would make her never want to have anything to do with him again. He’s not had the courage to actually talk to her about the decision that he’s had to make, but he does know exactly how to scare her physically. However, at that point, the trauma starts kicking in and he kind of starts really losing it. That was not an easy scene to shoot whatsoever. There’s nothing easy whenever you’re dealing with guns and behaving with them in that fashion.
[The scene] was cut a great deal. In my mind it was just, ‘This is as extreme as Jim gets.’ We actually decided, ‘You know what? We’ve got to take it back some here.’ But no, scenes like that [are difficult]. They are. You don’t leave that feeling good about yourself. You do kind of feel like you’ve got to go have a good shower, clean up.
The thing that I like so much about this movie is I begin it, it’s a joyride. I want to be in the car with the guys, I want to be doing what they’re doing. Then suddenly I go, ‘Whew, I want to be nowhere near them anymore. This is hideous, this is ugly.’ You’re certainly witnessing the ugliness of war in the inner cities, of war in the individual, of just the ugliness of life. There’s such potential for beauty but it’s just getting completely raped. I ended up… You just feel almost physically uncomfortable towards the end of the movie. I finished it and all I could think was, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I have to go perform some really good act for somebody. I’ve got to go and do something to try and make this world a slightly better place.’ That was how I ended up. I feel like my hope is that a lot of people are going to donate to charities or something or help that homeless person on the street or whatever because I tell you, that’s what I felt like doing. It was kind of the moral equivalent of needing to take a shower.”
How long did this character stay with you?
“The intensity as well as the speed of filmmaking meant that he was pretty much there the whole time. I remember Dave getting very freaked out. We were up in the desert on my last day of filming. We went right through the night. We finished at about eight o’clock in the morning. We decided to break open a bottle of tequila and just kind of celebrate. I was suddenly being me again and he was sitting there and he looked at me and he was going, ‘Who the f**k are you? Who is this?’ I could see there was a certain amount of, ‘Well, we’ve all been played here,’ because we’d become fast friends and that was all completely sincere – but it was all done as Jim. I still am, I do still consider myself to be a great friend with Dave but the fact is, he was freaked out at that point because with that speed of filmmaking, you kind of can’t let go of it. But then afterwards actually he was gone pretty quick. I had other things going on in my life which demanded my attention very quickly, which I wanted and needed to give my attention to, and so Jim was gone pretty fast.”
This has been a very good year for you. Is it hard to find these interesting characters?
“Listen, it can be but I’ve definitely had periods of absolutely nothing going on. I have made bad choices as well. I’ve done things which I’m glad I did because I wanted to experiment with certain styles of filmmaking and just see how I worked out. Usually those ones ended up with just one attempt. It tended to be like, ‘Okay, I’ve tried it now. I wanted to try it. I’m done with that.’ Other than that, I just stick with what gets its hooks into me, what do I keep thinking about. I just like to figure that as long as you keep that mentality, don’t try to be my own kind of marketing man whatsoever, then… Well, personally, any writer, any musician, whatever, I want to see that they’re doing it for themselves and, hey, hopefully other people are going to get it as well. So man, it’s so nice when people do get it.
I’m so happy that The Prestige has done so well. So far I’m so pleased with the way that people seem to be getting Harsh Times because in no way was this ever a thing where we wanted to bang people over the head with the layers that there are actually within this movie. There was always the concern that you could potentially get people just thinking it was some kind of love of violence. A bunch of kind of teenagers making a movie about some cool guys just causing havoc and getting into a whole lot of trouble and causing mayhem in LA. And it ain’t that. It ain’t that by a long shot. It’s very nice to at least be hearing from the people who have seen it that they seem to be seeing much more into it, which is the reason that I did it.”
How was working on Harsh Times coming off of filming Batman Begins?
“Perfect, because seven months shooting straight on Batman, the movie obviously was very much helped by the fact that I had gotten that role in between first meeting Dave and then actually making it. I called Dave whilst I was shootingBatman and said, ‘What’s going on about Harsh Times? Let’s get this thing done. I’m still thinking about it.’ He said, ‘Oh, I thought you would have forgotten about me a long time back.’ I said, ‘No, I want to be doing this one. Is it still studio?’ No, he said, ‘I’m going to finance it totally myself.’ I said, ‘Great, you’re crazy for doing that but it makes me want to believe in it even more.’ And within six months we had it up and running and going. We shot it in 24 days and it was perfect to go from one style of filmmaking to the total opposite. It’s as independent as you can get. You can’t get more independent than somebody taking the money out of their own back pocket, re-mortgaging their house.”
Did you get in trouble from your handlers?
“Not at all, not at all. I’d kept on saying to them about Harsh Times. ‘Keep your ear to the ground. I don’t want to lose track of that one.’ They also knew that I like Batman immensely. That was one I’d been chasing in and of itself, but that I had always maintained, ‘I’m doing this.’ In no way does this mean I’m going to keep on doing big budget movies. Big budget has nothing to do with whether it’s a good movie or not. Everybody knows that. And necessity is the mother of invention in many cases as well. Not having a huge budget for this movie meant that we got true believers working on this movie, and you can see that.”
Since you’ve had these opportunities, are you looking forward to returning to Batman?
“I’m looking forward now. I’m getting kind of trickled down information from Chris [Nolan]. I’ve been seeing bits and pieces of it. I’m aware of the whole basic outline now. I am working on something else currently though. I’m back working tomorrow morning in New Mexico on something, so I’m kind of just focused on that completely now. But Chris will be contacting me when he knows it’s the right time and when he wants a bit of input.”
Is that 3:10 to Yuma? How’s that going?
“That’s going great. I’m just three days in right now, but it’s going really well. That’s a Western. It’s directed by James Mangold and it’s with Russell Crowe. It’s based on an Elmore Leonard short story. It was also a movie made, I believe, in the ‘50s with Glen Ford and Van Heflin.”
Michael Caine said he wanted to dress up as the decoy Batman in the next movie.
“You think that’s actually going to end up in the movie?”
No, but are you able to give input?
“Absolutely. Listen, Chris is totally open to ideas – no matter how insane. But open to ideas is a different thing from putting them in the movie.”
By Rebecca Murray.