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If you’re a creator in any capacity, you’re well aware of the fact that it isn’t easy to hear criticism from others. Clearly there’s no avoiding critique as a filmmaker. You release your film and people get their chance to praise or trash it. It’s one thing to make a shoddy film and have it panned across the board, but there’s something about making a good film and winning an Oscar, only to suddenly have your movie torn apart, that’s not only a unique occurrence, but must be a pretty tough situation to deal with too. Well, that’s exactly what happened to Paul Haggis and his Academy Award winning film Crash. After Crash stole the Best Picture statue from Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck and Munich, people basically revolted.
This was no easy question to ask Paul, but genuine curiosity about the repercussion of such a change in tides compelled me to ask him how he feels about the whole thing. He was nice enough not only to answer the question, but really elaborate on the situation. Haggis began by explaining how Crash went from an indie production to being looked at as a big Hollywood movie, when in fact, nothing had changed in terms of the production even after the film became an Oscar potential.
First of all, it’s an independent film, $6.5 million, then suddenly, when it got the Oscar attention, it became a big Hollywood movie and I’m going, ‘I’m sorry, were you on the set of a big Hollywood movie? Are you out of your minds?’ [Laughs] You’re talking about race and intolerance in Los Angeles, a big Hollywood movie, yeah, okay, good, that’s why it took me four years to make.
But that wasn’t the only issue that arose along with the Oscar buzz. Haggis continued:
But the other thing I saw is how people have to make themselves feel smart and smarter than the filmmaker. Well, I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I certainly knew I was dealing with stereotypes. I don’t know if Crash is a good movie or not because I didn’t set out to make a movie. Really what I wanted to do is more of a social experiment. I was really upset. I just thought about myself and my preconceptions about people and the way that I judged people and I was also upset about the friends I’d see who’d done things that were in that film. It was really bothering me living in Los Angeles and so I said, ‘I wonder if I could do this.’
Adding to his concern about stereotypes in LA was the general sentiment at the start of the war with Iraq:
All of my good liberal friends were saying, ‘We have to invade.’ They’d say, ‘He’s a terrible, terrible villain.’ Well, I’m sure he is. He gasses some people. We did get him that gas, but he did all the stuff. But why him? Why invade this country and not let’s say some of the countries with dictators we support? Why? Because he looks like a villain. His swarthy dark skin, he has pock mark skin, he has a big mustache; looks like a villain. We judge people by the way they look, especially if their skin looks a little different than ours.
This is what drove him to create Crash in the manner he chose. Haggis continued:
So I said, ‘Hm, I wonder if I could do this. I wonder if I can do a movie which reinforces all your preconceptions. I’m going to sit you in the dark, I’m going to tell you everything you already secretly know, all those stereotypes, I’m going to reinforce them. This person does that, that person does this, all these different things, that’s exactly what – Shh, it’s okay; you’re in the dark. No one’s going to challenge you. It’s fine.’ So I set up all of these stereotypes right at the beginning and then I said, ‘Now watch this. Watch me just fuck with you,’ [laughs] and I just, one at a time, made you question every single thing you knew about those characters until, hopefully, you left spinning. So I don’t know if it was a good movie, but I know it was a good experiment because people literally walk out saying, ‘The movie just changed my life. I just started thinking differently. I just started dealing with my housekeeper differently,’ whatever.
Yet another problem Haggis says he has to deal with is the misconception that he only writes stereotypical characters:
They say that’s all I write. My long history of television, Easy Streets and all of these shows, which I was allotted for writing such detailed and subtle characters and then suddenly, oh, I just write stereotypes. Okay, you judge me anyway you want. I don’t give a shit. I just find it funny that people have to feel superior somehow to others. That’s what they do.
Finally, Haggis had a little something to say about winning that Best Picture statue:
As far as winning best movie, I didn’t think it deserved to win best movie. I was a big fan of the other four films that year, huge fan. I was so honored to be a part of it and just to meet those filmmakers. It was a great experience for me! So, I think it’s a ridiculous thing judging one film better than the other and certainly ridiculous to judge our film better than those films, but I didn’t make that judgment, others did.
As bitter as you may be about Crash stealing the Oscar from your favorite film of 2006, Haggis is right about one thing: what’s done is done and he didn’t make that decision. Whether you agree with the Academy’s choice or not, pointing a finger at Haggis won’t make a difference. He had his reasons for approaching the project in a particular way, is well aware of the common misconceptions surrounding the film and is simply looking past them. He’s still quite proud of his accomplishments, eager to continue moving on in his career and is working on more projects he’s passionate about.