Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Paul Haggis

"Crash" Testing

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Posters at

Writer/director Paul Haggis is excited to talk about his new film Crash. That's precisely what he made it for; and he hopes that what he has to say leads to more talking.

A recent Oscar nominee for his Million Dollar Baby screenplay, Haggis, 52, wears a black suit jacket over a casual shirt. His generous eyes widen as he speaks in excited, jagged sentences.

"We certainly didn't make any money on this. We all waived our fees and did it because it was important to us," says Haggis of his amazing ensemble cast, including superstar Sandra Bullock and recent Oscar nominee Don Cheadle, as well as Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, Thandie Newton and rapper Chris "Ludacris" Bridges.

Like a smaller, tenser Magnolia or Nashville, Crash tracks a handful of Los Angeles residents over the course of an unusually chilly December day. A wealthy white couple gets car-jacked by a couple of young black thugs, and the camera follows each of them afterward. We meet several other characters from all races and classes. Each person begins the film secure in his or her beliefs, but each learns that life is more complicated than that. No one is good or bad, and each experience adds shades of gray.

Crash began, in a strange way, after Haggis was car-jacked. "I never intended to write this movie. It just crept into my psyche," he says. "At 2 o'clock in the morning one day, I just woke up and started writing. And by the morning I had these stories."

"I just followed the characters. I started with the two carjackers, and they bumped into the characters based on my wife and myself, and so on. They just kept bouncing into each other and bouncing off of each other."

Haggis's theory of writing is that if you put yourself in your story, cast yourself as the villain. That way you're forced to see things from an outside perspective. This technique allowed him to "revisit" the carjackers and to understand them better. "It really helped, creating those full and wonderful characters, like my Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It was liberating for all of us to be able to talk about these things during the process of shooting. Because once the truth comes out, whether it's a beautiful or an ugly truth, it's the truth, and it's liberating."

Another reason Haggis was able to gain perspective on his story was the fact that the Canadian-born filmmaker has lived as a citizen of two countries. "Having lived in both communities for so long I now feel comfortable enough to be an outsider in both places," he says. "That's a great place to be, just a little bit back, just a half step behind everyone else. You can view them and yourself from a perspective that maybe you couldn't if you were too close to it."

When he first arrived in the United States, Haggis found work in television, writing for such shows as "The Love Boat" and "The Facts of Life," before creating his own shows "Due South" and "EZ Streets." In 2000, he left television, found Jerry Boyd's collection of boxing-related short stories (written under the penname F.X. Toole) and adapted a screenplay. Almost at lightning speed, Clint Eastwood agreed to produce and direct it.

Despite that critically acclaimed hit, Haggis has done some of his best writing at the climax of Crash, unifying his disparate storylines with a freakish and beautiful Los Angeles snowstorm. "It snows in Los Angeles every 30 years," he says. "If it can snow in Los Angeles, anything can happen. And that's what this movie is about, that we contain these possibilities within us, for good or for ill. I think it's a very hopeful movie, for that reason."

See also: my Crash review.

April 29, 2005

Movies Unlimtied