Former TV writer Paul Haggis (Thirtysomething, Due South, L.A. Law) earned an Oscar nomination this year for his screenplay for Million Dollar Baby. He didn't win but the film and its director, Clint Eastwood, did. The duo now have two more features in the works, Flags Of Our Fathers and Death And Dishonour. In the meantime, Haggis has made his directorial debut with Crash, a punchy and ambitious drama about race relations in LA, starring, among others, Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Thandie Newton and Brendan Fraser. Here he talks about racism, artistic responsibility and taking risks.
Million Dollar Baby upset the Christian Right in America and here you are now doing a film about race relations which does not pull its punches. You have said before that you're drawn to material that is political and volatile. Why is this?
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.
So people shouldn't look for answers in your work?
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.
Among the multi-racial characters in Crash are a black couple who argue about black identity. Did you ever question whether you, a white middle-class Canadian, had a right to write something like this?
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.
There is a scene in the film where a white producer tells a black television director that a character is not being black enough. Is that something that you have witnessed?
Well I'd heard about that particular scene happening but 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 I noticed that one of the white producers was telling 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. 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?
Did you set out to challenge the racial stereotypes that have dominated a lot of American cinema?
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 seeing these small instances of racism on studio lots to the LA riots. To have these riots and then [gasps ironically] we're all horrified! Shocked! And then a year later we go, "Thank God we have cured this problem." [Laughs] And we've done nothing. We spent a lot of money on some study and said, "Thank you so much for your wise words," and then did nothing. [Laughs] Three years later we wonder why people are still unhappy. Gosh, why?
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 really admire him. People think they know who Clint Eastwood is but they just don't know.
Crash is released in UK cinemas on Friday 12th August 2005.