Crash

With his Oscar nominated adaptation of last year’s “Million Dollar Baby,” Paul Haggis went from TV scribe oblivion to instant A-list status in Hollywood. That his follow-up was “Crash” — an ambitious, panoramic study of class schisms and racism in all its permutations in the City of Angels — revealed not only a penchant for emotional storytelling, but a director capable to guiding a strong assemblage of actors to some of their best work.

Co-written with Robert Moresco, “Crash” reveals a steady helmer’s hand, but it was the gumption required to tackle hot-button topics that sets Haggis apart. Pic received a mixed critical reception but drew auds, earning $55 million on a modest $6.5 million budget.

GENESIS: “In 1991, my ex-wife and I were car-jacked. Instead of having any kind of normal reaction, I had a writer’s reaction. It wasn’t rage, it was curiosity. I kept thinking about these kids who took our car. So finally, at 2 o’clock one morning, I started writing about them. I wanted to know about these kids and I wanted to write about how we affect the lives of strangers, even without knowing it.”

VISION: “The tone was the hardest part. I knew I wanted to suck the audience in, and in order to do that I wanted to make everyone feel very safe in the beginning. I wanted to give you a lot of characters you could judge very quickly and know very quickly — or think you knew very quickly. To do that I put them under tremendous pressure — which was the only way I could get my characters to say the things they were going to say. It’s not the 1950s. People just don’t say things like they say in this movie, unless there’s tremendous strain. We know we shouldn’t feel these things or say these things, and we know we’re good people so we deny that we think these things. But rather than getting rid of them, we shove them deep into our soul, where they’ll only come out under extreme pressure. So I started everything in the middle of a crisis, so you could see the characters react under that pressure, so the audience could make those quick judgments.”

CHALLENGES: “I knew I needed 45 days to shoot this film, but we got 35. Then our budget kept getting cut until we were down to one Brownie camera and one bank of lights. I had to cut all of my wonderful transitions, with characters driving from this place to that, because I didn’t have money to film driving scenes. It got to the point, when we were shooting interiors, where I knew I had one day to shoot the scenes in both Thandie Newton and Terrence Howard’s house and the scenes in Matt Dillon’s house. I also knew that if I had to move my crew from one location to the next I would lose a half-day, and I didn’t have a half-day to lose. We eventually found a house to shoot in. We painted three of the walls in one room red, and left one corner unpainted. The painted side became Thandie and Terrence’s house and the unpainted side became Matt Dillon’s house. There are like 30 or 40 tricks like that in the film, things that we had to do for pennies just to get them done.”

MAGIC: “I knew my actors were really gifted, but we had very little rehearsal time. Also, I gave everyone very little notes, almost no input at all. Somehow, my actors just took my words from the page and walked onto the set and gave them back to me fully realized. It happened with everyone in the film. It was amazing.”

NEXT: “I’m writing a few things. There’s a project called ‘Death and Dishonor’ for Warner Bros., which is adapted from a Playboy article by Mark Boal. And I’ve written one for New Line called ‘Honeymoon With Harry’ that we’re trying to attach actors to — though, until they say yes it’s not really a project.”

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