Paul Haggis: "The wonderful thing about Clint is you can never second guess how he is going to react to anything."

Oscar winning screenwriter/director Paul Haggis talks about working with Clint Eastwood on Flags of our Father and Letters from Iwo Jima, racism and Crash. London, 2006

You provoked controversy among the Christian right in America with your screenplay for Million Dollar Baby and here you are now doing a film about race relations. You have said before that you're drawn to material that is political and volatile. Why take such risks at a time when so many people are playing safe?

"Unless I'm really uneasy with what I'm writing, I lose interest very quickly. I like to write about things about which I have no answers, questions that trouble me. These things trouble me. You want to dig in and find out what something means to you. And if you do that, I think you have to take risks. I also guess I'm a bit of a contrarian. I left television when everyone was rushing to it. When Jerry Bruckheimer was going 'My God! Television! It's taking over!' I was going, 'You know what? I think I'll go into independent film.' I guess I've never been interested in taking the path that everyone else takes.”

From what you said, I suppose people shouldn’t look to your work for answers.

“I don't think it's the job of filmmakers to give anybody answers. I do think, though, that a good film makes you ask questions of yourself as you leave the theatre. The ones that are a total experience in themselves, where you leave the theatre going, "Yeah, nice film," I think are failures.”

Do you have a political background? I know that you're involved with organisations such as Artists for Peace and Justice, and The Centre for the Advancement of Non-Violence.

"I can't say I'm overly political. I'm just as concerned as the next citizen and feel that if you're concerned you have a responsibility to do something about that. So, you know, we're just doing little things here in Los Angeles to make actors, writers and directors a little more aware of what our country is doing in our name. If we can each do our little bit then maybe, eventually, something will happen.”

We've mentioned taking risks. When you were writing Crash, did you ever ask yourself whether you had the right to put the kinds of words that you do into the mouths of your racially diverse cast of characters?

"Oh completely. Every day we sat down I said, "Bobby [Moresco, co-writer], what the hell are we doing? We're two white guys. We're going to be killed. We don't have any right to say these things, do we?" He'd say "Well, if it's true, no matter how ugly that truth is, yes." I actually think that it was kind of ballsy for Bobby and me to do this. Because, you know, you write a story about the LA experience and usually it's all from our perspective.”

One of the bravest scenes for me was the one where the black couple, played by Thandie Newton and Terrence Howard, talk about black identity. Did that feel particularly risky for you?

“Absolutely. But, oddly, it's the black community that really embraced this film more than any other. And those were the ones I was most worried about. The white liberal community, whenever you talked to somebody, they’d say, 'What are you talking about? We don't have this problem. We've solved all this nonsense. Why are you bringing this up?' But I was most worried about the black reaction to it.”

Tell me about Matt Dillon’s racist cop. He’s a fascinating character because his racism is not inherited but stems from his love for the way his father’s been treated. His hatred for black people come from his love for his father.

“The inspiration for that character came from hate mail I received while working on a show called Family Law. It was about a mixed-race divorce and the letter writer said: ‘Why is it that it’s always the white people that are the villains and the black people that are the heroes? Let me tell you about my dad …’ He told me the story Matt Dillon tells about his father. I thought: ‘Wow, isn’t that interesting? You have a good man , and because something happens to him, his son learns the opposite lesson that his father was trying to teach.’ So if you think a racist father begets a racist son, who begets a racist son – it’s not necessarily so.”

Was there anything that was off limits? You don't have any Jewish or any Arab characters in the film, for instance.

“No, there was nothing off limits. I didn't have a graph and say, 'OK, I'll have two Asians, two Jews, and two Arabs.’ I didn't do that. I just followed the characters. We started with the two carjackers, because I knew them. They jacked my car [a Porsche] and I created a life for them over 10 years in my head. So I knew who they were. They were now my protagonists. They were my Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and I knew what they were going to do. So I started with them and I said, 'Well, who do they bump in to?' I said, 'They bump into me and my wife, an affluent white couple.’ I fictionalised us, took it home, and said 'Well what did we do?' Well we changed our locks at two o'clock in the morning, because they had our house keys. The guy who had come, what if he had been Hispanic and what if he had looked like a gangbanger? Would I have felt safe? I had to admit that I wouldn't have felt safe and I was so deeply troubled by that, so shamefully, that I said, 'Ooh, ooh, I want to do something.' So I just kept following the characters and when they bumped into people, I wrote about them."

Why did you wait a decade before you started writing the screenplay? You have said that 9/11 focused it for you.

“Well it did. I never actually set out to write this. I never thought there was a movie in this. I just kept asking myself different questions. Then, after 9/11, I have a black friend, he's a writer, who said, and he hated admitting this, but he felt kind of good about all these Arabs and Muslims who were now being searched on the aeroplanes, because now it was someone else's turn. I went 'Ooh, that's interesting.’ So that was one of the kicking-off points and I started to investigate it more, because I wanted it to be universal. I was interested in the deeper responsibility, the more human aspects of our fears, than the sociological aspect of it. So that was where it started.”

To what extent does the fact that LA is such a car-based society, a point which is central to the way Crash works, determine the way people there view and interact with each other?

“Very much. We are all strangers to each other. But it's not just Los Angeles. Unfortunately, it's the world now. Every time you step out of the urban centre you lose contact with anyone who looks different than you do, because we can now choose where our walled communities are. And we all do this. Every single ethnic group decides that they want to live within their own communities, whether it be Little Ethiopia, Little Italy, or wherever.”

How much do you think the racial dynamics in LA impress themselves on the way different ethnic groups are represented in Hollywood films?

“Well it depends who you talk to. If you talk to most white critics, or most white writers, directors, or producers, they'll tell you, 'It's fair [laughs], it's representational, and we're doing our best to do a bit more.' You talk to someone who's Latino or Hispanic, or a lot of black actors, and you find out different.”

Were you at all responding to the stereotypical images that we often see on screen? Was that in your mind when you were writing the screenplay?

“No, I try not to think about other films when I'm writing or directing. I guess the images that I have are pretty clear, from small instances of racism I've seen on studio lots to the LA riots. We have these riots and then [gasps ironically] we're all horrified, shocked, horrified. It's as if we live in Casablanca, you know? And then a year later we go, 'Thank God we have cured this problem,' [Laughs] and we've done nothing. Then three years later we wonder why people are still unhappy. Gosh, why? We just love to live in a state of delusion. That’s why I write about Los Angeles. It’s a lovely city. The weather’s great, you drive convertibles, there’s palm trees, beautiful women, and fabulous restaurants. But scratch that surface, and you find it’s different.”

Is the scene where a white producer tells a black television director, played by Terrence Howard, that a character is not being black enough in a scene something that you have witnessed?

“Yeah, I hadn't seen that particular scene but I'd heard about it happening. I'd seen other things like that. For example, I was on a studio lot not too long ago and I saw two white producers of a television series talking to a black director, and as I walked towards them on the studio lot, I noticed that one of the white producers was telling a joke. I couldn't hear what he was saying, but as I came a couple of steps closer, I noticed that it was a racist joke. He was telling the joke to the black director as if to say, 'See, we can do this now. We're all the same. It's a level playing field.' And before I got close enough to say, 'No you can't, you asshole,' the punch line came and the black director sort of half laughed, slapped the guy on the shoulder, and tried to walk back to the stage. Meanwhile you see the white producers walking away feeling very good about themselves and thinking, 'See, we've overcome this race problem.' [Laughs] That I found fascinating. I just asked myself, what piece of that man's soul did he just chew off and swallow to get next week's assignment? You know, just to live, just to work as an artist, or to feed the family?”

For me Crash is one of the most upfront treatments of racism in an American metropolis since Do the Right Thing. Did that make it difficult to finance?

“Oh it was terrible. No one wanted to do it. First of all I was an unknown director. I had directed for television but that's actually worse. It would have been better if I had been a complete unknown. Also, it's very hard to tell the tone of the movie from the script, because it could have come off as really preachy, or rather the characters preaching and being didactic, and the film could come off that way, which I didn't want to do. I wanted to lampoon these characters who were saying these great, wonderful things. So we took it out of the studios, no one wanted it, and we took it to quite a few financiers, and they liked the script but didn't want to do it with me as the director. And then, finally, we found Bob Yari and Cathy Schulman, and they said, 'Yeah, we'll put up a little bit of money, to get it cast.' So it took us a year and a half to get the right cast that worked for them so they'd put more of the money up. All the actors worked for nothing. We all waived our fees.”

How difficult was it finding a cast? I know that Don Cheadle played a major role in bringing people onboard.

"Don was great. Don was the first person onboard. I was terrified taking this film to Don. For one, I didn't know him; I didn't know any of these actors. He was the first African-American actor who read the script, and also I have so much respect for him. So when he came to sit in my living room, I had no idea what he was going to say. He might have just come to say, 'Listen, I just want to say what a racist bastard you are, and I want to say it to your face.' He didn't. He sat down and said, 'I want to do the movie.' I said, 'Great. What role?' He said, 'I don't care, any role.' He actually went back and forth between the role of the television director and the police detective for six months. Every week he'd phone and go, 'You know what? I changed my mind.' [Laughs] He finally made up his mind six months later. We asked him to produce the film with us largely because I knew he'd bring a credibility that I didn't have. People look at him and they know he's associated with quality films. Also, actors want to act with Don Cheadle. He's an actor magnet. He's like Sean Penn."

Will Smith claimed a little while ago that he was not allowed to kiss Cameron Diaz in the romantic comedy Hitch, only the Cuban-American actress Eva Mendes. You keep to this configuration in Crash, by giving Don Cheadle's character a Latino lover (played by Jennifer Esposito), although you do comment on the prejudice that still exists in America towards mixed race relationships. Nonetheless, did you at any point consider breaking the taboo and giving Don a white partner?

“Yeah. Actually no, I didn't, because I knew where I was going with that plot. I wanted him to say she's white to his mum, just to piss her off [Laughs], and that to drive Jennifer's character over the edge. Again, I didn't really do anything for effect. I just followed the characters and took them wherever they wanted to go.”

Where do you find your common ground with Clint Eastwood because politically you come from different ends of the spectrum?

“The wonderful thing about Clint is you can never second guess how he is going to react to anything. I sent him this project, the third thing we're doing together, Death And Dishonour, about Iraq, it's a really difficult story, a true story, and I thought he could have called me up and said, 'You Commie bastard. What are you getting me into now?' But he didn't. He called up and said, 'Wow, difficult material. Hard story.' I said 'Yeah, but it's the truth.' He said 'Yeah, I think we should tell it.' So, you know, I really admire him. People think they know who Clint Eastwood is but they just don't know.”

You’ve also a written a film that he’s directing called Flags of Our Fathers, about the raising of the Stars and Stripes at Iwo Jima, which sounds very patriotic.

“Clint didn’t want to make, as he put it, ‘a bullshit John Wayne movie.’ It’s a difficult film about war. It’s going to honour the men, but it’s not going come down and say: ‘Yes, we should go to war. It’s an honourable thing.’ It was a brutal, brutal battle and the toll it took on those men’s lives was something that we don’t shirk.”

© Stephen Applebaum, 2006

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