WRITERS ON WRITING: The Writing Of ‘Crash’

Bobby Moresco was raised in the Hell’s Kitchen district of Manhattan. In 1978 he moved to Los Angeles where he opened his own theatre company The Actor’s Gym. Since then, Moresco has written, produced and/or directed over 35 theatrical productions. He co-produced and co-developed the Oscar®-winning Million Dollar Baby and co-wrote and produced the Oscar®-winning film, Crash.

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WRITERS ON WRITING: The Writing Of 'Crash' by Bobby Moresco |Script MagazineDo I contradict myself ? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.

—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

The Writing of Crash. We started with the end of Act Two, with an epiphany—a horrible realization—and asked, what do you do about it? During the writing process, we didn’t try to understand where these people go. We put them in situations to test them, to come to some understanding about who they were, and we wanted to end the movie there, where most movies would actually be ending Act Two. We knew that we wanted to come back to a place in time later on in the movie, and we knew it had to be with Don Cheadle’s character (Det. Graham Waters). That seemed like the best way to tell this story.

But now, let me start at the beginning. What happened was Paul Haggis called me up one morning and said, “Listen to me. I have these pages, this idea for a story. Nobody is ever going to pay us to write it and nobody is ever going to make it.” I responded, “That sounds good.” He sent it to me, and I called him up and said, “You’re right. Nobody is ever going to pay us to make it, but it is a story worth telling.”

The essence of the story was this: In Los Angeles, we spend our lives in cars and buildings, and we have no idea what happens when we brush past people—as opposed to New York, where we all have to live together in apartment buildings, share elevators as well as the streets themselves. L.A. is also a potboiler of racism. What drives it? The answer is fear. Fear and how that fear manifests itself through the things we say and do.

Shaniqua Johnson (Loretta Devine) encounters Sgt. Jack Ryan (Matt Dillon) in the HMO office. PHOTOS: Lorey Sebastian.

If you want to encapsulate Crash in one place, one line, it would have to be when Matt Dillon’s character, Sgt. Jack Ryan, tells Ryan Phillippe’s character, Officer Tommy Hanson, “You think you know who you are? You have no idea.”

We tried to take all of these characters who were stereotypical on the surface and put them in potboiler situations. We tested them. We said, “This is what you think you know about yourself? You think you have any idea who you are?” Then we showed them who they really were when the driving force of FEAR became part of the equation.

There were people who reacted negatively to the film. Possibly, that was because we held a mirror up to this aspect of the human condition but did not provide any answers for the problems we portrayed. We didn’t think we were smart enough to have any answers. And, I don’t think film should be about providing answers. It should be about asking questions, about characters asking themselves questions that we should be asking ourselves. If people react negatively, it’s okay because they’re talking about the film and about this problem beneath the surface.

The best thing about making this movie is that people started talking about it. We wanted to show what is worse about racism today, as opposed to before the Civil Rights Acts in the 1960s, is that it is not out in the open. Racism is hidden somewhere underneath, and we have to dig away and try to find its source.

WHAT LIES BENEATH

When we started writing Crash, we came up with what most people would consider a series of stereotypes. We figured you can’t deconstruct stereotypes unless you build them. Interracial relationships, Mexicans, blacks, Iraqis, Koreans, the LAPD—all those stereotypical characters were absolutely planned. We started with what we thought would be typical L.A. natives or not-so-natives. Then we tried to say it’s not that person you think you are looking at in the turban, it is not that cop, it is not that black kid walking down the street. They are human beings just like you and me, and they live with real needs and real fears and real loves. We all intersect in ways we are not aware of. Paul and I weren’t trying to set up notions about how we should live our lives. What we were trying to say, was that we’re all in this thing together.

CRASHING INTO ONE ANOTHER

Structure-wise, we wanted to write about random situations where you can lead off with one person and follow off to another character—play a scene where some guy at a diner might have a nice speech, but then we follow the guy who is at the next table. We felt like that was a cool way to tell this story about random encounters.

We knew that we wanted to break down the preconceived notions of what these people thought about each other. That meant we had to set them up. We said, “You think you know who this person is?” Then, we created some situation where we tore that preconceived notion apart and said, “You don’t know they are. You have no idea.”

By the same token, sometimes we let the preconceived notions ride. Anthony (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Peter (Larenz Tate) jacked that car, and Jean (Sandra Bullock) knew it was going to happen. Anthony even comments on Jean’s apparent fear of him before he carjacks her and her husband. Why did we let her be right about the two well-dressed black boys? Because this is a complex world—there is nothing simple. We didn’t try to feed into any kind of stereotypes, so sometimes you are right and sometimes you are wrong. But, there is this idea that we look at strangers and we come up with this whole perception of who they are and what they do in an instant. Sometimes we guess right, and sometimes we are completely wrong.

A great deal of what fuels racism are misconceptions about who other people are, as well as about who we are. Jean’s character is a West-end liberal. She thinks she is the best person she can be. She helps this group and that group, and she goes to rallies and food drives; but during the situations where fear wells up—things come out that you never thought would come out. You don’t find out who you are until you are tested.

GIVING SOMETHING UP…

For me, the most difficult of all the “crashes” to write was the scene between Ryan and Shaniqua at the HMO office. The scene is set up earlier when Ryan calls the office in an attempt to get some help for his ailing father:

The Writing of Crash

There was this incredible story I read while researching and trying to understand what this world is about—the African American world, light-skinned and dark-skinned, older and younger.

There was one story where a woman talked about going to the plantation where her great-great-great grandparents were slaves. It was a magnificent white colonial home with a man-made river running through the length of the property. By the river was this sign that declared the river wasn’t there in 1780; it was built by the owners of the house. On the sign were pictures of all these wonderful people who paid for the building of this house, but there was no mention of the thousands of slaves who actually built the house and dug the river out and the many who had died in the process… Not one mention of them.

Writer-producer Bobby Moresco on the set of Crash with actor Matt Dillon. PHOTO: Lions Gate Photography.

Writer-producer Bobby Moresco on the set of Crash with actor Matt Dillon. PHOTO: Lions Gate Photography.

So, we thought Shaniqua was this woman in the story. But every time we rewrote the scene, it kept coming out as didactic, which was what we didn’t want this movie to be.

The next scene between Ryan and Shaniqua is the scene that we rewrote the most. Paul and I wrote the first draft in two weeks—in the heat of passion we just kept writing. At the end of two weeks, we went back to my theater company, The Actor’s Gym, and got a bunch of actors and did a reading. Paul and I took lots of notes about what worked and what didn’t work, and we did another rewrite. The biggest thing we learned in that reading was that the Shaniqua/Ryan scene didn’t work for a couple of reasons. For the longest time, it was the one scene where we were didactic.

We rewrote that scene entirely. We tried to make it simpler, more humanistic, more about the problem that Ryan had with trying to save his dad. This guy would like some help and, maybe if he were a different guy, Shaniqua might provide the help… But she remembers his phone call clearly.

The phone call came out of frustration from Ryan. You have to understand Ryan is dealing with fears. He has a fear that his dad is going to die before he can do something about it. His dad is the best human being on the face of the earth. His dad told him to never hate anybody—treat people for who they are, what they deserve. But now Ryan is beginning to hate, and it is even more crazy because his hate is fueled by his father’s situation. That frustration is what drives his first phone call. I think he is surprised that he has gotten that far. Following is that difficult scene:

The Writing of Crash excerpt 2The Writing of Crash excerpt 3The Writing of Crash excerpt 4Had Shaniqua seen Ryan’s father face to face, she would have helped him; there is no doubt in my mind. She is a good woman, and I think she takes real pride in her job. She also takes pride in who she is.

If you look at that scene in the movie, in the background Paul found a telephone pole shaped like a cross. That was very symbolic because both of the characters in that scene had to give something up in order to help an innocent man. Neither one of them did, and Ryan’s father was the one who suffered—that is a real tragedy. We don’t feel a sense of hope for Ryan’s father.

…AND GETTING SOMETHING BACK

My favorite scene is where Cameron (Terrence Howard) stops on the side of the road to watch what he at first thinks is snow. That scene came entirely out of the collaborative process. Working with a writing partner is a great way to hash things out and discover new elements of the story. Early on in the writing process, Paul and I both remembered being in L.A. in the 70s when it snowed. We thought that if it can snow in L.A., then there is hope for anything. Originally, that scene was written with real snow, but it just didn’t work.

One of the ironies of the scene—strangers touching other strangers—is that Officer Hanson kills a hitchhiker he picks up (an act driven by misconceptions and fear), puts the car in a lot, and sets it on fire. Kids are dancing around it, and it is a bad thing because in this car a man was murdered. Turn it inside out—strangers affecting strangers. Cameron sees the burning car while driving past. He sees his youth, his home, who he was as a child, something he has forgotten. He walks out there with these boys and he is home; and he is finally able to say “I love you” to his wife. So, one person’s death becomes someone else’s redemption. To add snow on top of that seemed too heavy-handed. Paul came up with the idea to make it look like snow but be something else, ashes. Then, of course, the snow comes at the end. The ashes scene is the one scene where we try to write into the clarity of finding out who you are—you think you know who you are? Cameron found out who he was: “This is my home, this is my bearing, this is my soul—and if I forget this again, I am lost.” But, he’ll never forget that moment. He and his family and his life and his job are forever changed.

AND FINALLY, HOPE

People say this movie is a downer, but we were trying to write about hope. Daniel (Michael Pena) is the character who is tested but never actually fails, the character who proves your preconceptions wrong. He was the strongest character because he was also the one with the child. You see hope in him and, of course, that is what this movie is about.

The first time you see Daniel, you are sure he is a gang-banger. Jean is afraid of him because she has just been a victim of violence, and he looks like he could be an aggressor, and so she reacts with fear. The truth is that Daniel is the one character in the film who is not, at one point or another, both a victim and an aggressor. He is the only one who doesn’t seem to ever cross the line. He comes so close to breaking when Farhad (Shaun Toub) screams at him about fixing the door; but, instead of losing his cool, Daniel walks away and goes home.

We see the truth about Daniel right after Jean assumes that he is a gang-banger who will sell her house keys to his friends. Daniel did spend his whole life in gang-banger territory; but he had a kid a few years ago, and he decided to change his life. The problem was that he couldn’t change it enough to get his daughter away from the violence—in their last house a bullet came through her window. His great fear is that he will lose his daughter to that world. So, we knew he had to be a good parent. He tries to protect his daughter from her fear of the bullets by moving to a better neighborhood. In this scene, he tells her the story about the impenetrable cloak (Paul came up with that, but we both knew that the moment we wrote the words “impenetrable cloak” that it had to be tested. You can’t set up  something like that and not test it. So that was magic found in the writing. We realized later on Daniel was going to be shot, but we didn’t know how yet).

As Daniel looks out the window in the end, he knows the bullet is still out there and he hasn’t gotten past it yet; but there is hope for him and his daughter. So, what will he provide his daughter? All the love in the world. How will be do that? By giving her an impenetrable cloak. We tested that cloak, and it protected her and Daniel. We feel, as he looks out the window searching for that bullet, that they will continue to be protected by that amazing gift.

THE TRUTH ABOUT WRITING

The great thing about writing with Paul is talking and hashing things out. In that process and in the writing itself, things happen that lead us to something else. The big mistake that I think a lot of writers make is that, while the structure is all important to the writing process, we adhere to it much too closely. We don’t allow the creative process to happen while we are writing because we are trying to stick too closely to an outline. I think we have to let the left side, the logical side of the brain, go once the writing starts and let the right side, the intuitive, instinctive part of the brain, take over. For me, that’s when I write better. We have to have a clear sense of where structure is taking us and we also have to allow ourselves discovery in the writing. So many writers, including myself, adhere too closely to the structure. Structure is the skeleton of the story; but once it is in place, you have to let it go.

Then you’ll find out who you are… As a writer.

Originally published in Script Magazine January/February 2006

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