by Cmdr. Cameron Aljilani, OPNAV N97
Cmdr. Cameron Aljilani: David, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. You’ve tweeted that the Submarine Force gave you everything you needed to succeed in life. I would like to explore that today. Let’s start at the beginning. I understand that you had a troubled childhood. Can you explain what was happening in your life at that time?
David Ayer: I was a little bit of a bad kid. I wasn’t focused, I wasn’t academic, and I never really applied myself. I was self-motivated, I always read and studied, but I just never really saw the value in school. I lived in a really bad neighborhood with a lot of bad influences and needed structure. I needed to get away from that. I could draw the trend lines and they weren’t good.
CA: How did you happen upon the Navy?
DA: My grandfather is a 30-year retired commander, and he enlisted when he was 15 years old. He was serving on a submarine as an Electricians Mate First Class during the attack at Pearl Harbor. He was at sea immediately, conducting unrestricted warfare, and was on the first submarine to get a Japanese kill in the war. He transitioned from enlisted to officer and made a 30-year career out of the Navy. My father was a civilian on Trieste and some other Navy projects. He grew up in San Diego, so it’s in my blood I guess.
CA: You saw the Navy, but what was it about submarines that interested you?
DA: There’s a lot of showmanship in the Submarine Force and submarines, and there’s definitely that mystique; there’s a mystery to it. At the time, I didn’t really understand what submarines did, but I was drawn to them, I think a lot because of my grandfather, but also it really is an elite force within the Navy. It just seemed like the right fit for me.
CA: What experiences stand out from boot camp?
DA: This was the 1980s. The old school Navy. Boot camp was pretty tough back then. We got “mashed” (additional grueling physical exercise, usually conducted under demeaning circumstances) all the time, and our division was the farthest away from the chow hall so we were always the first ones up marching. It’s fascinating how that process works. You go in as a sort of disorganized civilian, and by the end of it you’re doing trick drill, trick marching, and you really felt like a cohesive group. Of course, getting mashed on our last night in boot camp after our shower was not fun, but it was tough. That toughness, I think, instills a lot of personal pride, and you carry that with you. Obviously, it’s burned in you: attention to detail—attention to detail—attention to detail. You learn in boot camp that there are consequences for not having attention to detail; it gets seared into you and it never leaves you.
CA: After boot camp, did you go straight to Groton, Connecticut?
DA: No. I stayed in Great Lakes for Basic Electricity and Electronics (BEE) school. I learned about troubleshooting electronic components. It was cold; I’ll never forget that wind coming off the Great Lakes. It was a tough school but interesting. It was a self-paced course with all these milestones and then the final. I was living in the Gunners Mate barracks. There were no Submariners there. We were the lone wolves trapped amongst the skimmers.
CA: You finished BEE and then you made your way to Groton?
DA: Yeah. I loved Sub School because finally you saw submarines. Finally, you can smell the water, you can smell the amine. I’d go down to the waterfront and look at the boats and there was that sense of mystery. “What’s going on here?” “Where are those guys going?” You could hear all the rumors. This was the height of the Cold War and anti-submarine warfare (ASW). There was this great game out there. I just wanted to get in the game.
CA: You were motivated just from being in that environment?
DA: Oh, yeah. I was Honor Man in Sub School. I studied all the time, and that’s the irony. A guy that was basically failing high school, and then I discovered the Navy educational pipeline, how to study, and how to focus. I had a great relationship with my instructors and, at that time, I was very career-focused… a “diggit.”
CA: What’s your favorite memory from Sub School?
DA: I was a phone talker when we were doing the damage control trainer, the engine room trainers that flood. I think it was February, and it was ungodly cold. I was supposed to be talking to DCC (Damage Control Central) on the sound-powered phones, and the staff waited until I was right in front of that crack on the pump before they hit me with a wall of water, and they videotaped it for laughs. I just remember that cold water hitting me, and then later they played the tape to the class, and you couldn’t understand a word I was saying, just screaming in gibberish.
That was just training. Then you realize you’re going into a very dangerous environment and have to be on your game. People are depending on you to be on your toes. If you’re the phone talker and you can’t relay reports, people can die. The other great experience was in the Fire Fighter Trainer. They lit an oil fire and we were wearing OBAs (Oxygen Breathing Aparatus). It was pitch black; you couldn’t see anything. I was down below as the first man on the hose team; you get right in there. There was a barely visible glow in a sea of black smoke, and that’s when I realized that this is serious, this is for keeps.
That’s when I really understood the double volunteer concept for submarine service; you’re volunteering for something above and beyond any kind of regular Navy enlistment. I came out of there with a real respect for what I’d gotten myself into.
CA: That’s what most people don’t understand. The Sailors keeping the ship safe are 18, 19, 20 years old. That’s why the qualification training program is so important. When you’re underway on a submarine, there’s a discussion about who the enemy is…
DA: It’s the ocean.
CA: The ocean, exactly.
DA: The reactor can be bad too sometimes. Depends on your boat.
CA: The ocean is your constant enemy, and that’s what is hard to get people to understand. I’m so glad you have appreciation for that. After you finished Sub School where did you go next?
DA: Sub School, then to the Fleet ASW Base in San Diego to do SONAR training. I loved finally getting into SONAR. You think you’re learning so much, but then when you get to the fleet it’s like, “No, that’s just basic, so basic, what you’re learning.” Learning the BQQ-5 SONAR system was a slog. We got a lot of training, but then when you get to the fleet you’re still just a nub.
CA: Can you still do an Ekelund range?
DA: I could probably bust out some TMA (Target Motion Analysis). Give me a 30-degree fast pass, left, right, I might be able to get it.
CA: When I drive a car, especially in L.A., I’m always thinking about range rate. What’s the range rate to the car in front of me?
DA: I used to do that all the time.
CA: Opening is okay; closing is not good.
DA: CPA (Closest Point of Approach), here we go, right there…mark. It really bleeds into how you see the world. It’s incredible how transformative it is. It’s funny, when you meet a Submariner, when I run into someone who served on submarines, I find I have more in common with that person than anyone else in my life because there’s something profound about being on a submarine that you can only understand by living it. It’s incredible.
CA: Absolutely. Let’s talk about when you got to USS Haddo (SSN 604). When you showed up, was SONAR division welcoming to you? What was your experience when you reported aboard?
DA: They were shorthanded. They needed people, and you’re the mystery package when you show up to the boat. They don’t know who you are, and it took me a while to understand their trust and interdependence and the workload of being on a submarine. When a new guy shows up, they wonder if he’s going to be squared away. It was immediately overwhelming and partly disorienting. My first underway was just a weekly op, and I think we were out for seven or eight days. I was in the Pacific on a 594–class submarine.
CA: Vice Adm. Merz (OPNAV N9) was a division officer on Haddo when you were aboard. He recalls his experience, “Don’t all boats catch fire? Isn’t there a fire every day?”
DA: Every week or so, yeah. It was an older boat. We had weapons handling gear off the Thresher. It was a very demanding boat, which required a lot of work. I was thrown into this group and I could see there was such cohesion and familiarity; it’s this huge family and I’m the stranger showing up. It took a long time to earn my way into that family, and I wasn’t ready for the qualification process. Even though I excelled in my training pipeline, I wasn’t ready for the practical nature of the qualification process. It was really difficult until I got into a groove on quals. Then I excelled and went overboard.
I spent a lot of time in the engine room and learned as much as I could. SONAR qualification was pretty ruthless as well. For SONAR, you had to be able to stand outside the boat and describe the path sounds take from the SONAR sphere through the entire system as it’s converted into an electronic signal; through each cabinet, each cable until it reaches the display in SONAR. It’s really heavy duty and it seemed like overkill, but then when you’re doing the bread and butter of submarining, which is like special operations, being forward-deployed and getting out there, it all sort of comes together and makes sense.
CA: You said you spent a lot of time in the engine room. Was there a coner/nuke rivalry?
DA: Absolutely, and I think it just comes from the nature of Navy nuclear power and the Navy nuclear power culture; it’s brutal. You’re a forward guy and you pull into port and say, “Okay, let’s shut down SONAR, hit the brow, bye!” and those guys, if the reactor is critical, they’ve got to be back there working. It takes forever to shut down.
The consequences of nuclear power and the cultures go all the way back to Adm. Rickover, but I was weirdly envious of that because it’s like another family within the boat and it was so intense. I became kind of like an honorary nuke because I just got super heavy on engineering. For me, this submarine became almost like a living organism. I understood how all the systems interconnected and how everything worked together. I really enjoyed boat qualification. Once I got into that rhythm, I just spent a lot of time on the boat. When I was off duty, I’d work and study, going through the manuals just memorizing and drawing things. I really enjoyed it and tried to learn about the other watches and what everybody did aboard.
CA: Then you got to your final ship’s qualification board. Do you remember your board?
DA: It was brutal because they knew how hard I had worked; there was no mercy. The Engineering Department Master Chief (EDMC) was on the panel. I remember I was so nervous, and I got one or two look ups, I think they were small, easy things. All the hard stuff I knew, and I was really proud to get my board before we pulled in. We pulled into the P.I. (Philippine Islands) and I got my fish on the pier. We mustered the crew for quarters. It was right around the time of the submarine ball, and the crew was in whites. The old man pinned my fish on. It was just an incredible moment. I knew I had earned something that my grandfather had earned, that insignia. Those were the most amazing days of my life.
CA: Did you celebrate that night?
DA: I had duty.
CA: Of course. What was your opinion of the officers aboard? You were a writer for the movie “U-571” and there is a moment when Matthew McConaughey breaks down and the chief smacks him around and tells him to pull himself together. Was that inspired by anything in particular?
DA: I think it’s that classic thing of coffee and chiefs run the Navy, and in so many ways the chiefs really are the keepers of the culture. We were more scared of our chiefs than we were of the officers. The officers were cool, except for the XO, but the chiefs, they kept the machine going.
CA: How have your experiences in the Submarine Force translated into your film work?
DA: I’m in a leadership position, and the things I learned in the military I absolutely apply to what I do now.
It’s funny, a good friend of mine is a retired submarine officer and I’d asked him for advice going into directing a film, a big film at the time, and, “How do I do this, how do I lead this crew?” He said, “Look, the skipper is the crew. If you’re efficient, the crew will be efficient; if you’re angry, the crew will be angry; if you’re calm, the crew will be calm. They are you; they take their cues from you.” It’s so simple and so profound, and I saw it in the fleet. We had an amazing skipper, Cmdr. Larson. He was very calm but didn’t hold back the Bravo Zulus. When the old man would kind of pat you on the back… you lived for those moments. It was amazing.
CA: I noticed in some of your movies, you thank the United States Submarine Force in the credits. I noticed it with “Fury” and “Suicide Squad.”
DA: Yeah. I pretty much throw that in all of my movies, whether it ends up in there, I don’t know, but it’s funny because one endeavor that is a lot like submarining is the film set. You have a crew broken down into departments, broken down into individual functions, and it’s highly technical. Film making technology is state of the art. It’s a situation where it’s all logistics-driven, very high stakes, and all these people do a lot of standing around. We’re standing around and chatting and it gets very boring, but then when it’s go time, it’s like clockwork and everybody is professional. They do their job, they go in and they nail it, and so you’re waiting an hour for a two-minute or 15-second moment where all these mechanisms and people have to function perfectly.
For me, it’s a direct translation, being calm under pressure. I experienced real casualties on the boat. When you’re forward-deployed and you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing as a Submariner, you’re the tip of the spear and you feel the weight of what you’re doing; you feel the responsibility. I was the battle stations passive broadband operator. I was the primary sensor for this vessel of 135 people, and that’s a lot of responsibility. That’s something you take with you; it will never leave you.
CA: Once you finished your time, what were some of your first jobs coming out of the Navy?
DA: Electrician, no brainer. I was really good at troubleshooting. I’d worked construction prior to the Navy, so I fell back into that. It was tough to transition because I think when you’re in the service, it’s such a disciplined environment: you’re going to dress like this, you’re going to show up at this time, and you’re going to do what you need to do, and then some chief is going to tell you, “Get your hands out of your pockets.” At the time it could seem oppressive, but then you get into the civilian world, nobody cares about each other; nobody cares what you do.
Nobody gives you that purpose, you don’t have that sense of mission, you don’t have that crew, you don’t have that family, and you don’t have that belonging. That was the most shocking thing for me. That’s what I really missed, that camaraderie, that closeness and achievement, and it took a long time for me to find that in the film industry. It’s funny because we talked all the time about how great it’s going to be when we got out, and it wasn’t like that, it was very disappointing.
CA: Were you always motivated to be in the film industry because you grew up in Los Angeles, or was it something that you later decided that you could do? How did you get to where you are today?
DA: I had written some sea stories when I was an electrician. I was working on this guy’s house and he turned out to be a screen writer. I mentioned the stories, and he wanted to see them. He saw in them some talent for writing, and he inspired me to write my first script. It was awful, but there was something there. Putting that Navy discipline and focus to work, I was able to put in the hours sitting in a chair typing. I know so many people that want to become writers, but you just need to have the discipline to just write.
CA: Are there any other skills from your submarine training that you take with you on the set?
DA: It’s funny because you get so much mechanical knowledge on submarines, it’s just like special effects and rigging. I understand how all that stuff works. You use a lot of hydraulic systems and electronic systems. Like in “Suicide Squad,” we were using this very advanced camera called a “Phantom” to shoot a rain sequence and the camera stopped working. The camera technicians there weren’t getting it going. We had the only Phantom camera in Canada, and we were calling around to get one flown out to us. I decided to take a look at it, and it was like troubleshooting 101. It was like any other piece of equipment on the boat. I isolated the problem, which turned out to be a bad connection to the power supply. I took it apart, adjusted it, and put it back together. The camera was working and we were filming again, and it only took a few minutes. The crew was standing there with their mouths open as the director was troubleshooting this piece of equipment.
CA: Do you find that the tradesmen have a respect for you because of that?
DA: Absolutely. Because I was in construction, because I’m a hands-on guy, I have that experience and I know their jobs, I know what it’s like. You treat people with respect and I think a lot of directors or a lot of senior people in Hollywood can be a little bit aloof or autocratic. On the boat, you know your officers have gone through the same process; they’ve qualified. Those officers were in a similar position when they showed up. Any qualified person, you know what they’ve been through, whether it’s an officer or enlisted, even the old man at some point was a new junior officer on some platform.
CA: Going back to the boat, what was it like to stand watch and be at sea on a submarine?
DA: SONAR was hot. We’d strip off our poopie suits and we just stood there sweating; we would open up all the vents; it was brutal. When I first showed up and put on the headphones, all I heard was static, everything sounded like mush. Then, after a while, I could call out a lot of information about the ocean environment. My problem now is, if I hear any rotating machinery when I’m trying to sleep, I’m trying to do a turn count or I’m trying to figure out what it is. If I hear any noise, electrical noise, rotating machinery, I can’t sleep.
There’s something magical about being underway and being isolated, and it’s that independence that I was talking about, the independence of submarine duty. I got to experience some incredible things. It was the classic experience of being able to see the world and foreign ports. I was fortunate to do some really cool things.
CA: I want to push out your story because I think it connects with a lot of the guys who are joining the Navy today because they watch your movies. I can’t think of a guy on a boat today that hasn’t seen “Suicide Squad,” “Fury,” “Bright,” or any of your movies, so they can connect with you through that. What would you want to tell those Sailors?
DA: Take advantage of what the Navy has to offer. If you can get college credits, go for it, work hard. Everything you put into it, you will get back. It’s tough, and there will be crisis moments, but you can talk to the chiefs. Find a mentor, find someone in a senior position, find that first class petty officer, find that chief that you can talk to and be honest with because everybody’s gone through this stuff, everybody’s had dark days, but everybody’s also had great days. Just get education, get the credits, be the best at it. If you’re there, be the best at it and I promise down the road you’re going to look back at it as the best experience of your life, and you’re going to miss it.
Be the best person you can be in this situation so you can look back on it with pride. It’s an honor to be in that community; it’s an honor to wear dolphins. Pride runs deep, and it’s real. You don’t have that in the civilian world, you don’t have that anywhere outside the military. Stay away from the negative guys, stay away from the negativity. Just be positive, work hard, and find the fun in it. Find those moments.
CA: Thank you.