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Crash course
Filmmaker Paul Haggis and an ensemble of talent ó including Matt Dillon ó tackle issues of diversity in a post-9/11 world
BY TAMARA WIEDER

CALL IT BEGINNERíS LUCK: Paul Haggisís first film, Million Dollar Baby, for which he wrote the screenplay, went on to win the 2004 Academy Award for Best Picture. His second cinematic effort and directorial debut, Crash, opens on May 6, and has already won critical acclaim, including a rave in the New Yorker, which called it "easily the strongest American film since Clint Eastwoodís Mystic River." Itís no wonder, then, that one of Crashís stars, Matt Dillon, jokes that Haggis ó whose television credits include the short-lived but critically acclaimed EZ Streets ó is "dragging me along on every one of [his upcoming films]."

For Crash, which takes place over 36 hours in a postĖSeptember 11 Los Angeles filled with racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic tension, Haggis assembled an ensemble cast including Dillon, Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser, Ryan Phillippe, and Don Cheadle, who also served as one of the filmís producers. Itís a volatile movie in which no character is entirely sympathetic or entirely irredeemable ó and therefore are all fundamentally believable. Even Dillonís Officer Ryan, a racist LA cop, manages to elicit sympathy by the filmís end. "I like doing films that people can walk outside and argue about afterwards, and discuss," Haggis says. "Thereís nothing more boring than a film which you go through and you walk out and go, ĎThat was nice. That was good.í And then never think of it again."

Q: I really liked the movie. It stayed with me for several days, and it was visually very compelling.

Paul Haggis: That was mostly Matt.

Matt Dillon: "Shut up, Haggis; I know what Iím doing. Haggis, sit down. Put the camera up there and shut up, Haggis."

PH: Exactly.

Q: I read that the germ for the film came from a carjacking that you experienced?

PH: [From] many different sources. Many different starting points. I was carjacked in 1991 by these two kids, and I kept asking myself over the years who they were. Were they hardened criminals? What they did when they went home? How long theyíd known each other? Over those 10 years, I couldnít get them out of my head. I woke up one morning at two oíclock and just started writing this story.

Q: Did you have actors in mind for certain characters?

PH: Not when I was writing it. In Million Dollar Baby, I knew exactly who I wanted. Not this, no. Once Bobby [Moresco] and I finished writing the script, then we started thinking, whoíd be good for this? We really tried to look for people who had not done these roles before, who could bring something just so fresh and different to it. That was our secret in getting actors, I think; we gave them something they hadnít done before.

Q: When did you settle on Matt?

PH: As soon as he became available, actually. We were originally interested in John Cusack.

MD: This is news to me. Had I known this, I wouldnít be here right now.

Q: I have a hard time seeing John Cusack in that role.

PH: Me too. Matt was the one we thought of from the beginning, but he was on another film at the time. So when John couldnít do it, we went, "Ooh shit, Matt." The other thing was, heíd just done another low-budget film, another independent film for my producer. I went, Jesus, actors, youíve got to do an independent film and then youíve got to do a big [film]. Youíve got to pay your rent. And I was feeling sort of guilty asking him to do this. But I really wanted him. So he read the script, and I went over to the studio and sat down with him and begged him to do this.

MD: He didnít have to beg, I just want to say. I made him grovel!

Q: What was your initial reaction to the script?

MD: I thought, this guy canít write ... what are they wasting my time for? No, what happened was, my manager had said to me, "Listen, youíre going to really like this script. Itís really good. The partís quite interesting." And I read it, and I immediately liked it. I guess I canít remember really having any doubts about it, even though I said, well, this guyís kind of a bad guy. But Iíve never been one to shy away from that. I like a challenge. So I met with Paul. I didnít really know Paul; I didnít know his work at all.

PH: Nobody did.

MD: But he seemed very focused, and the writing was good.

PH: I canít imagine anyone else in that role now. Honest to God.

MD: Thatís so nice to hear.

PH: Oh, itís completely the truth. And I would say it just for [the interviewerís] benefit, but Iím saying in this case itís the truth, because you see it and you go, "Oh, thereís Matt Dillon," and then within three or four seconds, itís no longer him. The way he approaches a role, I donít think itís intellectual ó it really looks like it comes from the bone up, through the marrow and the sinew and the muscle and oozes out through the skin. Thatís just the way it feels.

MD: I always work from the inside out. So doing this film, it was important for me to get around LA cops, not just to learn the procedural stuff, which is important, but to kind of humanize them in a way. Because I had my own preconceived ideas of what LA cops were like. Iíd been arrested by them when I was younger, for silly things like jaywalking.

PH: Drugs. Attempted murder. Silly things.

MD: But when I was able to walk in their shoes, I realized that these guys are just guys struggling like everybody else, trying to do the right thing, trying to make a living, trying to pay the bills. Sure enough, those were the people that I met. And they didnít try to sugarcoat that job. When they were taking me through the procedure, what these guys do when they pull somebody over, I said, "What would a guy with a real chip on his shoulder do?" And they would tell me.

PH: Yeah, LA cops were great to us.

MD: They were really open to it. You know, the line in the film where I say to Ryan Philippe, "You think you know who you are? You have no idea." That was my experience. We all think we know who other people are, who we are. We donít know. I didnít know. My idea about LA cops was that they were like robotic, aggressive, hard-nosed, narrow-minded people. Thatís not the case at all. There are elements of that. So I had to play one of those guys to learn that theyíre not all that way. Which is really interesting. Itís what the filmís about.

PH: Itís about those contradictions.

 

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Issue Date: May 6 - 12, 2005
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