David Ayer, Joel Edgerton, and Will Smith
12.20.2017

Exclusive: Director David Ayer Talks ‘Bright,’ Eyes Kendrick Lamar & Drake for Future Films

Famed director David Ayer continues to shine a Bright light on the intersection between music and movies. After spearheading Suicide Squad’s star-studded soundtrack, he’s doing it again with Bright, a Will Smith-led blockbuster set to hit Netflix on Dec. 22.

The soundtrack, which is available now, is a compilation of rappers like Logic, Machine Gun Kelly, Future, Migos, Meek Mill, YG, Snoop Dogg, Lil Uzi Vert, YG, and A$AP Rocky, working together with stars from other genres, including Steve Aoki, X Ambassadors, Marshmello, and Tom Morello, among others.

Before the movie’s premiere, Ayer spoke with Rap-Up about how his urban fantasy action crime film came to life. He also revealed why rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Drake would make great actors, and what hip-hop classics would make for great films.

As a writer and director, you’ve worked with a lot of musicians-turned-actors. Which rappers impressed you the most with their onscreen skills?

I got to work with Common a long time ago, when he first started out in film in [2008’s] Street Kings. [Note: Common also appeared in 2016’s Suicide Squad]. It’s like, if you’re a performer, you’re a performer. I don’t know if people understand how hard it is to lead that life, to be a musician, to put your soul out there in front of the world, and perform in front of a massive audience. If you’ve got somebody that has the courage to do that, they’re gonna kill it on a movie set. I’ve always found that to be the case.

Who are some rappers you would like to work with based off their videos or performances? Who do you think would make for strong actors?

Kendrick Lamar. He’s got a real presence. Pitbull would be great. I think he’s got the goods to be a movie star. It’s definitely out there. I’m gonna go ahead and say it, Drake.

Does music play a role in that?

Yeah. These gentlemen have something to say and they’re passionate about it. They’re good at what they do. They wanted to be successful at something so hard. That usually translates well.

What kind of music did you grow up listening to? How has your musical taste evolved?

I grew up on old school house music, Debbie Deb, Afrika Bambaataa, Parliament-Funkadelic, James Brown. That O.G. stuff. Eric B. & Rakim, Ice-T. I mean, “6 ‘N the Mornin'” was an anthem in my neighborhood [in South Los Angeles]. There was nothing like that.

“I grew up on old school house music, Debbie Deb, Afrika Bambaataa, Parliament-Funkadelic, James Brown. That O.G. stuff.”

It feels like it could fit in one of your films, too.

Oh, yeah. Big time. You know, I like to put songs that are important to me in my movies. Music is the soundtrack to your life. It’s what you live by. The memories and the history. Today, it’s like a whole new world. I just like what I hear. With Spotify and SoundCloud, there are all these amazing voices that you otherwise wouldn’t get to hear. They’re not following a corporate line so it’s kind of a new world. You have guys who just slide in between with just mad talent.

Hip-hop and film have similarities with storylines, details, and character development. Have you ever heard a song that made you think it could be a good movie?

Oh, man! MC Breed, “Ain’t No Future In Yo’ Frontin’.” What’s that cat about? What’s that voice? Who’s that, speaking? It’s all about creating a character. Coolio, “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Capturing that voice. You could say a lot in that medium. For people that, for a long time, no one was talking to because no one cared to, there’s nothing like that. There’s nothing like hearing those voices.

What is the message behind Bright and how did growing up in South L.A. influence it?

It started out as a script from Max Landis, who saw it as an homage to some of my other movies about L.A. cops [Training Day, End of Watch]. I keyed in because it’s a way of looking at what’s going on in the world today and talking about it without talking about it because some people just don’t want to hear it. But if you use allegory and fantasy, you can get the message out there in different ways. For me, it’s about whoever you are, you have a right to be anything you want to be. No one should define you. Everybody has the right to define themselves and be anything they want to be in this world.

“Everybody has the right to define themselves and be anything they want to be in this world.”

How did Will Smith surprise you in this film?

He’s a movie star, but what does that mean? It means he’s got a quality that draws you in. He’s got killer comedic timing. He can be the funny guy. He can be the straight guy. He’s also generous. He knows how to share the scene with another actor so what you end up with him and Joel [Edgerton] is incredible chemistry. It’s hilarious to see how those two guys interact, how they roll. A lot of times, I’m standing behind the monitor, trying not to laugh because I don’t want the sound guy to yell at me. He’s a good dude. He makes showing up for work fun.

“Will Smith has killer comedic timing. He can be the funny guy. He can be the straight guy. He’s also generous.”

You have unexpected combinations on this album, like A$AP Rocky/Tom Morello or Machine Gun Kelly with Bebe Rexha and X Ambassadors. What goes into creating these soundtracks? What does that process bring to the film?

I did the Suicide Squad soundtrack with Kevin Weaver, who’s the [president] of Atlantic. He’s a good dude. I enjoyed working with him and we think alike so I brought him onto this to chase some of the success we had with Squad. It starts out like, “Maybe there’s a message or a theme here. Maybe the movie can be inspirational.” Then you reach out to producers, songwriters, and artists, and let them in on your thinking and what the movie’s about. They take that and create something you never could. I’m always amazed by the talent and power behind music. Those are original songs on that soundtrack. As a filmmaker, you usually get a song catalog, pick stuff, and spam it onto a movie. In this case, the music is part of the movie and came out of a similar process. The music is in the voice of the movie, but it’s also incredibly powerful on its own.

You worked with Machine Gun Kelly in the video for “Home.” What was that experience like?

I really connected with that song and the idea that we’re all chasing something. Chasing something that maybe we can’t have but it’s an idea of returning to a home where there’s love, where you feel safe. He showed up to work and he was like, “I trust you.” I told him, “I’m not a regular video director. I make movies so I’m gonna come at this a little bit different. So just get ready because it may get heavy for you.” He was absolutely open to doing whatever it took.

Would you explore more music videos to go along with films?

For sure! Shooting a video is like a Scoobie Snack. Prep it in a couple of days, go shoot it, and you’re done. A movie could be two years of your life. It’s a great way to work with talented people on the set and have fun.

Is there another song on the soundtrack that particularly sparks you when you think about this film?

[Ty Dolla $ign, Future, and Kiiara’s] “Darkside” captures a lot of the tone in the movie. It’s like, people do bad things because, usually, bad shit’s happened to them. No matter how evil a person may be, at the end of the day, they’re working through something. There’s a reason for that. If you can understand that, maybe you can help them change, or help them change themselves.

What are you currently working on that you’re excited about?

I’ve got a television drama that I’m doing with Starz called “Family Crimes.” It’s everything I love. It’s L.A. and it’s about the neighborhoods I grew up in, the people I came up with. It’s going to be crafted with love.

–Andres Tardio