"I stole liberally from Robert Altman!"

Paul Haggis on how scribbling Crash kept him up all night

How did the script for Crash come about?
There was an instance in 1991 in which my car was jacked and I just kept wondering about these two kids who’d stuck a gun in my face and stolen my car. One of the problems with being a writer is you don’t think like human beings, you have these bizarre thought processes and rage doesn’t even enter into it. I became very curious and wondered if they were best friends? Was this their first time or was it a career? Did they think of themselves as criminals? I never thought of writing about them but I’d think of them every couple of years. In November 2001, I woke up at 2am and I couldn’t get them out of my head. I hate waking up with an idea in the middle of the night because whatever you write, when you read it in the morning, it’ll just be a piece of crap. So I fictionalised the situation, took the couple who’d been carjacked home and it went from there…

How much of the couple, played by Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock, are you and your ex-wife?
It’s fictionalised, but it came out of the fact that I remember we got the locks changed at 2am because these guys had our house keys. I said to myself, “What if the guy changing the locks was Hispanic, with gang tattoos and baggy pants?” How would I have felt about that? I don’t think I’d want to answer that one cos I don’t think I’d have felt safe and that’s pretty dark. So I put those words in Sandra Bullock’s mouth and she says these horrible things. Then the kid overhears one line and I wonder what he thinks about that? What happens to him? So I followed him. I just kept following these characters and by 10am I had all this stuff.

Somehow you went from a collection of ideas to making it into a movie…
Yeah, I went on to write Million Dollar Baby and after that I was looking for another project to do because I hadn’t sold that script and I was unemployed. So I called my friend and fellow writer Bobby Moresco and said, “I have 40 pages of a script and I could be wrong but I think it’s a movie.” We sort of banged our way through it and two weeks later we had a script; it was a very organic process. When we were done, I still didn’t know if we had a movie because it didn’t follow any of the rules I knew. I mean, not that I invented this, I stole liberally from Robert Altman!

How did you approach casting?
I have a visceral reaction, an emotional reaction to an actor more than a logical reaction so I really couldn’t say why I chose somebody. I just went, “Oh, that person would be perfect.” It was a long casting process; it took us a year and a half to cast it because there were so many roles, we had so little money and people had to do it for love. We went to Don Cheadle first and he said he wanted to do the movie, and then he went back and forth between the role of the detective and the television director for six months. Every week he called me and said, “I’ll do this role.” I’d say, “Great, you’ll be great as that.” The next week he’d change his mind. Finally he landed on the detective.

You mentioned having Sandra Bullock say these dark things…
Yeah, I wanted Sandra Bullock in that role. I wanted people to say, “Oh yeah, we know who Sandra Bullock is …” Then when the audience see her say those things, all our preconceptions of who Sandra is are gone. People are holding their breath during her first scene. I think it’s the same with Matt Dillon.

What are you personally saying with the movie?
I’m actually not trying to say anything. I don’t think it’s our place to say anything. My job is to ask questions and make films but I like to write about things I don’t have the answers for. With Crash, I didn’t have the answers to any of these questions. They are things that have troubled me, living in LA, over the years.

Is there a supernatural element to the film?
I wanted to tease people with that but I don’t think so, no. There are elements of fate – it’s like when I get too big for my boots and the gods come along and smack me upside the head, “We’re going to cut you down to size Mr Haggis, you’re puffing your chest out a little too much.” It’s like Matt Dillon’s character says, “You think you know who you are? You have no idea.” We really believe we know who we are but we don’t – not until we’re tested. That’s what I was exploring.

You’ve been in the business for a long time but it’s only now that you’re getting some heavyweight recognition. How is fame for you?
I think when you have a little bit of celebrity like I’ve had in the last year, you have to know some things. Firstly, it’s going to last about six months! I’m going to be cold again by June or July! So you need to use it for something: you can either go out and make a $100 million picture, buy a big house and pay off the mortgage, or you can make a picture that means something to you, to say things that you wouldn’t normally be able to say. And I took that route immediately. I went to Warner Bros with a project about what we’re doing in Iraq, what’s happening with our men and women over there. I actually sent it to Clint Eastwood first. He called up the head of Warners and said, “The kid’s got an idea” and that was it – I’m doing that one [Death And Dishonor] next.

You also wrote Clint’s next film, Flags Of Our Fathers…
I’ll write anything, any day of the week for Clint. It’s been an honour to work with him. I’m just getting used to saying these names, you know, “Clint’s on the phone.” It’s hysterical!

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