When Jack Nicholson announced on Sunday night that “Crash” had won the Best Picture Oscar, even the undisputed king of Hollywood could not suppress a “Holy sh–!” moment. Jack’s astonishment was, of course, shared by millions, as the intricate, panoramic ensemble film from writer/director Paul Haggis had been pegged by few, if any, viewers as likely to beat out “Brokeback Mountain” for the top Oscar.
MTV’s Kurt Loder spoke with Haggis (the screenwriter of 2004′s best picture, “Million Dollar Baby”) shortly before the big night, and came away not only with insights into the creation of the Academy Award-winning film, but a glimpse into the workings of the man who is now arguably the hottest writer/director in Tinseltown. (It’s also worth noting here that, months ago, Loder picked “Crash” as the best picture of the year; see “The Best (And Worst) Movies Of 2005, By Kurt Loder” )
Kurt Loder: Did “Million Dollar Baby” give you, in a sense, carte blanche to go ahead and do whatever you wanted with “Crash,” or was it still a battle?
Paul Haggis: You’d think so, but I did “Crash” before “Million Dollar Baby.”
Loder: I didn’t know that.
Haggis: Yeah, I was two weeks into shooting “Crash” when Clint [Eastwood] read “Million Dollar Baby,” and he was just so quick. He shot it during the summer of 2004 and said, “I think we’ll get it out now,” and released it in December. He had Warner Bros. release it, of course. I had to find a distributor for “Crash” being an independently financed movie, so it took longer.
Loder: How did the “Crash” story assemble itself in your head? Was it built from stories you read in the newspapers, or did it come completely from your imagination?
Haggis: Living in Los Angeles for 30 years, these things come to you. They’re mostly things that I’d witnessed. The Terrence Howard story came from something I saw on a studio lot, the way a black director was treated. The Matt Dillon story came from a piece of hate mail I received while I was on a television show. Normal stuff. “Why is it that you writers are always talking about the poor black people and the awful white people? Let me tell you a story about my dad.” And the writer then told the story that Matt Dillon tells Shaniqua in the film, about his own father, which I thought was so moving and so compelling. Intolerance, fear, racism — these are things that we think are really simple and easy to define, and they’re not. They’re very complex. In this case you have a man who did everything he could to try and set a good example for his son, and the son learned the opposite lesson.
Loder: It was your idea to cast Sandra Bullock. Did you know her for a long time?
Haggis: No, I didn’t know any of these people. I was a television guy. We sent the script out to her and said, “Listen, have a look at this,” and she read it and called me and we discussed it on the phone for an hour and a half. First of all she said, “I just really want to be in this movie.” She didn’t really care what role she played. I said, “Well, there’s one white woman, how about that?” And she said, “Sure, I’ll give it a shot.”
There were, like, four scenes, but she said “Oh! I know this character.” And she did. And that’s the way to get good actors, to give them something they haven’t done before. It’s also, I think, what audiences love — they don’t like to see somebody who’s already done it four or five times do it again. Why go to that movie? See something that’s fresh. And in this case, the fact that people had preconceptions about some of these actors really worked for me because the movie itself is about preconceptions.
Loder: Was it important for you and all the actors in this ensemble cast to really get to know each other, live together, before filming, or did you just go right into the movie?
Haggis: That’s exactly what you should do if you do this kind of movie, but no, we had no money. We had no budget. We wanted 45 days to shoot it, and we ended up with 35. We had no time to rehearse so we just stole moments here and there, and people weren’t even in town at the same time, the cast was so large. So we stole a few days before we shot, and then on weekends while we were shooting we’d get together some of the actors in my living room and, for example, we’d turn chairs upside down if we were doing a scene where the car goes upside down. The actors would laugh at me, and I’d say, “OK, you can just try it.” And we sort of pieced it all together.
Loder: Were you called in to be a script doctor for the upcoming Bond movie, “Casino Royale”?
Haggis: Yeah. They sent me a script, a very good script, and asked me to think about the character and re-conceive the character of James Bond. I took 10 weeks on that.
Loder: How is this film going to be different than the 1967 original?
Haggis: It will be completely different, I think. You know, it takes James Bond from the very first Ian Fleming book, “Casino Royale,” when he becomes James Bond — when he gets his “Double 0″ status, which means he has two kills, and therefore has his license to kill. But all the bells and whistles, all the things that Q used to give him, the gadgets, those are all gone. So you deal with the character as an assassin and what it feels like to be an assassin. And I ask the question, “Why does he treat women the way that he treats them?”
So I’ve either helped to re-energize this series, or I’ve just ruined James Bond for everybody forever.
Loder: Do you still marvel at the way Hollywood does things, or have you pretty much accepted it all by now?
Haggis: The only thing you have to be careful of is that this time of year, Oscar time, your head starts to inflate to such an extent that it actually starts to crack. So you just have to hope that the swelling eventually goes down, and you become a human being again.
Check out everything we’ve got on “Crash.”
Visit Movies on MTV.com for Hollywood news, interviews, trailers and more.