Million Dollar Boomer

Paul Haggis and the long road to directing

One restless 2 a.m. in November 2001, writer-filmmaker Paul Haggis lay awake, wrestling with whether to get out of bed and write down what, in his half-sleep, looked like a white-hot idea. "I hate waking up with an idea in the middle of the night," he laughs, "because whenever you dowrite it out, it's shit when you read it the next morning. But if you don'twrite it down, you forget it by morning, and it's the greatest idea you've ever had."

In this case, Haggis is lucky he dragged himself to his desk—and so are we. Crashis the fruit of that insomniac struggle, and marks the powerful debut of Haggis as a director, fresh on the heels of his triumph as the screenwriter behind the Oscar-sweeping Million Dollar Baby.

The idea that badgered Crashinto being grew out of a nightmarish memory. Haggis and his wife were victims of a carjacking in the early 1990s. He had never considered the incident useful story material, yet, as he recalls, "Once a year or so, I would ask myself: Who werethose guys? Were they best friends? Were they professionals? Or was this their first time? What did they do for pleasure, in their off times?" The two had also, after all, stolen the keys to Haggis' house. He and his wife had had to stay up into the wee hours waiting for a locksmith. Remembering that night, Haggis asked himself: What if the locksmith who arrived had come styled as a tattooed gangbanger? How safe would he have felt then? And what if Haggis had been rash enough in his rage to voice such fears (as Sandra Bullock does, in Crash) within the locksmith's earshot? How would the locksmith have felt? And who was that locksmith, anyway? What was hishome life? This time, the questions drove Haggis out of bed, which led to other questions, and other characters. By 10 that same morning, without having once left his chair, Haggis had completed a 40-page treatment, which in a matter of weeks he developed into a fully fledged script with his friend Robert "Bobby" Moresco. This comes to the screen intact, with the cooperative support of producer Bob Yari and producer Cathy Schulman.

"Crash is not 'about' race," cautions Haggis. "It's about strangers, others. About how we love to divide ourselves. Take Rwanda—a perfect example of two tribes, of one race, divided by colonial politics, who slaughter each other over differences that are invisible to an outsider. And that's so much who we are, as human beings. We will always manufacture differences." This seemed a truth so volatile that Haggis feared Crashwould be misunderstood: "I thought, 'Oh fuck, I'm either going to be strung up by everyone I respect, or I'm going to be the poster boy for the KKK.'" His late friend and CBS executive Anita Addison (the first African-American woman to hold a top network position) strongly advised him not to change a thing. She died while Crashwas in production, but made a wisecrack that went into the film, which is dedicated to her memory: "Santa Monica, Burbank, Toluca Lake—those are some scary places for a black woman to find herself."

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Born in 1953 in London, Ontario (just across the border from Detroit), Haggis, who was raised Catholic, smiles at the memory of himself, at age 6, telling his mother, "I wish there were more Catholics in this neighborhood, because all the Christians want to do is fight." He moved to Los Angeles in his early 20s, determined to become a film director, only to spend the next 25 years in television, writing or executive-producing shows such as The Facts of Life, thirtysomething, L.A. Law, Walker: Texas Rangerand EZ Streets, honing his skills and solidifying his financial base for the jump he made in 2000, when he bought the rights to the two short stories by F.X. Toole that became Million Dollar Baby. "I'm glad now that I didn't get to direct movies at 23," he reflects. "They would've been so bad. It takes a long time to figure out what you want to say, and how to say it."

A subtle snobbism dividing movies from TV still operates in the industry, he discovered: "People thought, 'If we let him direct, it'll come out looking like a TV movie.' Completely forgetting that Michael Mann and even Steven Spielberg came out of TV!" He nevertheless persevered, and his aesthetic as a director comes visibly steeped in the prowling camera work of the great Europeans ("Godard was an early hero of mine, and Costa-Gavras? There's a career I wouldn't mind having!"), not to mention the trust in actors typical of the best Americans. ("As should be obvious, I stole liberally from Altman.") Casting Don Cheadle thus proved crucial: "Every gifted actor wants to work with Don. Having him onboard attracted everyone else."

Haggis was even set to direct Million Dollar Baby, having already lined up Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman to co-star when, in the second week of shooting Crash, Clint Eastwood (whom Haggis had originally invited just to act) expressed his interest in the project—provided hedirect instead. An agonizing weekend ensued, but in the end the call was a no-brainer: "If I was going to give up the director's chair for anybody, it was going to be for Clint." Eastwood is currently directing Flags of Our Fathers, also written by Haggis, for DreamWorks. This, in turn, has led Haggis to collaborate with Steven Spielberg on the script for his second film as director.

"I want to keep doing things that scare me," he says. "I want to stay uncomfortable. If you see a well-made film that's wonderful while you're watching it, but it's all tied up by the last frame, often you forget it when the lights go up. I prefer an experience like Mulholland Drive, where you come out with your friends and argue over what the hell you just saw and compete to explain it to each other. Now that'sa movie to me! I have the impression that, with Crash, a lot of couples get very argumentative over the 'frisk' scene." This would be the hellish moment when a self-tortured, hotly abusive cop crosses the line into racist brutality when he runs his hand up the dress of a well-to-do black woman, "looking for weapons" as her husband, a black television director, looks on helplessly. This incident gives way to a triple agony as the couple sort out what the husband shouldhave done and the cop dodges (but only for a while) the indictments of guilt pulsing in his own mostly amputated conscience. "There is very little way to talk about that scene without risking a quarrel, especially if you're one of a couple," says Haggis. "But the responses are fascinating. One friend even said, 'That cop did such a favor to that man'" because, despite the evil of his act, it promotes life-changing (if life-threatening) confrontations in the lives of both the TV director and his wife. Adds Haggis, "So often in life we live out a paradox: 'It's your enemy who helps you and your friend who drags you down.' And we are each such bundles of contradictions. Something like racism can be opportune or inopportune. You can conduct your life with decency most of your days, only to be amazed by what will come out of your mouth in the wrong situation. Are you a racist? No—but you sure were,in that situation! In the best movies, we don't know what the characters are going to do next. Our contradictions define us.

"I just have a lot of questions," Haggis concludes. "I figure if I have the questions, a lot of other people might, too."

 
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