- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 4, 2005

“You can make a great living writing bad TV.”

Paul Haggis, 52 and safely ensconced in the big time, says this with more regret than satisfaction. His hotly anticipated feature debut, “Crash,” opens in theaters nationwide tomorrow.

A movie he developed and tried to direct himself finally came to fruition last year with Clint Eastwood at the helm. “Million Dollar Baby” earned Mr. Haggis a best-adapted-screenplay nomination.

With that kind of wind at his back, he can reminisce about jobs scripting episodes of “The Facts of Life” and “The Love Boat” without feeling the gnawing guilt that comes with wasted youth.

He even can laugh, slightly, at the cosmic comeuppance of the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Rolling in cash and in something of a midlife crisis, Mr. Haggis had bought a fat house in plush Pacific Palisades. With the rumble of a tectonic plate and Mr. Haggis’ failure to have secured a homeowner’s insurance policy, the House That Bad TV Built was no more.

No one ever said life’s lessons arrive subtly.

After our interview at a Foggy Bottom hotel, Michael Pena, whose performance in “Crash” stands out gemlike among the movie’s impressive ensemble, walks in. He and Mr. Haggis are standing next to the movie’s promotional poster, which shows Mr. Pena in an anguished pose, a little girl in his arms and his head cocked back in reaction to some unspeakable act.

Mr. Haggis greets the young actor and, curiously, places his hands on Mr. Pena’s face. He tilts it backward to match the pose on the poster.

“There,” Mr. Haggis says, chuckling. He walks out of the room.

Everything is in place.

n n n

Mr. Haggis, a Canadian transplant, has mixed feelings about the TV work he has done over 30 years. Some of it, such as the CBS series “Family Law” (1999-2002), leaves him indifferent. “It was good, but it had no meaning for me,” he says. “I had no passion for it.”

Mr. Haggis even takes unabashed pride in some of the work, such as the dark urban drama “EZ Streets,” a short-lived 1996 series he created and wrote for CBS. (Starring “The Soprano’s” Joe Pantoliano, it met with critical praise but gained no traction with the public.) Writing for director Ed Zwick’s “Thirtysomething,” he says, was a vital education that serves him to this day.

However, there’s one that haunts him; its specter had him in cold sweats at night — the Chuck Norris martial-arts-slash-cop-thriller “Walker, Texas Ranger.”

“I wrote the pilot as a favor for a friend,” Mr. Haggis pleads. “That was it.”

The thought of his gravestone reading “Here lies Paul Haggis, creator of ‘Walker, Texas Ranger’ ” impelled him to search for bigger, better work. In 2000, he optioned two short stories by F.X. Toole (the pseudonym of boxing manager Jerry Boyd) and wrote a screenplay called “Million Dollar Baby” with no firm idea of what it might amount to.

(This was before Sandra Bullock, incidentally another cast member of “Crash,” became interested in the movie as a starring vehicle for herself.)

Clint Eastwood got wind of the project and wanted to direct and star in it. Mr. Haggis, who had pictured Mr. Eastwood in the role of fight manager Frankie Dunn, had no qualms about handing over the reins. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says.

Mr. Eastwood shot “Baby” in 37 days, the kind of tight ship Mr. Haggis wishes he could have run for “Crash,” which took months to cast (stars such as Miss Bullock, Matt Dillon and Brendan Fraser each worked for bargain-basement paychecks) and even longer to budget.

Don Cheadle (“Hotel Rwanda”) came onboard as producer and helped raise funds. (They cobbled together about $6.5 million.) It took Mr. Cheadle six months, Mr. Haggis says, to decide which job to take on-screen; he wavered between the role of a Los Angeles detective beset by family troubles and a TV director. (He chose the former; Terrance Howard of “Biker Boyz” and “Ray” plays the latter.)

The conceptual impetus for “Crash” came in the early ‘90s, Mr. Haggis says, when he and his then-wife were carjacked by two young black men. He wondered what became of them. (“We only got to know each other at gunpoint,” Mr. Haggis quips.) He had the locks changed at his house; he wondered about the life of the locksmith.

From there, he and friend Robert Moresco (co-writer and co-producer of “Crash”) had the basis for a story, a parable about the random interconnectivity of strangers. Mr. Haggis says the conspicuous themes of race in the movie are only incidental to the story he wanted to tell, about “how our lives are altered by strangers.” He insists race was merely a handy and realistic dividing line between strangers and friends.

The movie takes place over two days and deftly weaves together various plot points, all centered in the Los Angeles metropolitan area and its uneasy multiethnic mix. It begins, naturally, with a carjacking.

By the last reel, the movie’s sprawling story lines converge, often violently, but with guarded optimism that American pluralism is, indeed, mankind’s last best hope.

“Every decision has consequences,” Mr. Haggis says, and the characters end up “embodying these fabulous contradictions.”

In “Crash,” as in Mr. Haggis’ odyssey through the bowels of Hollywood, the pieces ultimately fit together perfectly.

Everything is in place.

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