For an actor like Gyllenhaal who -- he admits -- can be a bundle of energy on set, it must have been a major gear shift. At a recent New York cocktail gathering for his new film "Life of Pi," Ang Lee -- who directed Gyllenhaal to a Best Supporting Actor nomination for 2005's "Brokeback Mountain" -- recalled that energy. "He provided a lot," Lee said. "He has a good heart. But," he offered with a smile, "I think when the camera's rolling, an actor should conserve their energy." (More on how that philosophy impacted Gyllenhaal in our sidebar on his work with top-tier directors over the years.)

Sam Mendes, meanwhile, who worked with Gyllenhaal on "Jarhead" the very same year, told HitFix that "as a person [Gyllenhaal is] a bit more of an unexploited bum. He’s got much more rage and kind of anger in him and complexity. And so it was a mixture of that sort of youthful, big-eyed innocence and then something else…I think that he’s got a streak of madness in him."

For Ayer's part, he made sure he got the most out of that spirit and vigor. "Let's put it this way," he said. "The days are so long and grueling that whatever energy he had I made sure got diverted into the movie. So there wasn't a lot of time to sit and think and bullshit. The work velocity was so intense that you had to bite down and run…and he was locked on."

One important element, though, was establishing a camaraderie between Gyllenhaal and Peña. And it wasn't an easy task. "It was like kind of an arranged marriage of sorts," Gyllenhaal says. "At first, Dave was like, 'Get together; you're supposed to be best friends.' And we're like, 'Uh, okay.'" But things needed to get heated if they were going to hug it out.

Gyllenhaal repeats an oft-told story about a tactical training exercise he was doing with his co-star that involved live ammunition. Due to ear protection, they couldn't hear each other well. "I was shooting and he kept shooting and I started to get pissed," Gyllenhaal recalls. "And we came out and we like had it out. We just went at it. Then we stormed off and he called me the next day and was like, 'Hey.' I was like, 'What?' And he was just like, 'You know, it was kind of cool.' And I was like, 'You're an asshole.' And he was like, 'I think we're friends now.' It was a quintessential moment where as soon as we went that far with each other, from that moment on it was like, 'All right, if I can hate you, I can love you, and that's it…I got your back.'"

The multi-camera technique was another challenge, but it was mostly fun and opened doors for the actors. There would be cameras rolling pretty much all the time and Gyllenhaal says they had something like 135 hours of footage when all was said and done.

"Dave would call 'cut' and everyone would go off and Mike would be doing shit that was brilliant," Gyllenhaal says. "He's so funny and he's like in it, we're still in it. So I just put the camera on him and I'd be like, 'Let's roll sound,' and we'd roll sound, and I would just press record on the camera and I'd film Mike doing this stuff. It was gold! Our editor, Dody Dorn, was brilliant that she could even put it together."

At the end of the day, Ayer got exactly what he wanted out of the actor, and the actor got exactly what he wanted out of the experience. "He has a good heart," Ayer told me, "and that's why I thought he was so right. Because sometimes you cast this stuff and it's this action hero vibe. I didn't want an obvious cop. You don't cast a guy you feel like is a cop. You cast a guy who feels like a dude, a normal guy, a normal person with depth, and then turn them into that cop. So this character, you can feel the curious mind and the soul and the emotional life behind the demeanor of a law enforcement officer, a ghetto gunfighter."

And finally, says Gyllenhaal of Ayer, "That motherfucker changed my life. I don't know how to put it any other way. He took this kid, who had, like, grown up in LA, relatively easy lifestyle, and he threw him into a world that I definitely had preconceived notions about and had my own stigma about, not only with law enforcement but also southeast LA, all that, and he just blew it open. He just showed me a place that he called home, that changed his life, that made him who he is…There was no safety net. And I think that in a majority of life lived with safety nets, someone who pulls that out and says, 'That's for real. Are you ready for this?' That changes your life."

"End of Watch" will be returning to theaters nationwide on December 7 in a re-expansion. It arrives on DVD/Blu-ray on January 22. Meanwhile, "If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet" resumes performances at the Laura Pels Theater in New York and plays through December 23.

(Check out our sidebar discussion with Gyllenhaal concerning what he's learned from the many talented directors he's collaborated with, from Ang Lee to Sam Mendes, David O. Russell to David Fincher.)

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Kristopher Tapley has covered the film awards landscape for over a decade. He founded In Contention in 2005. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Times of London and Variety. He begs you not to take any of this too seriously.