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In director's debut, strangers are on a 'Crash' course

Matt Dillon remembers the December day in 2003, during the filming of ''Crash," when director Paul Haggis was facing the Clint Eastwood Dilemma.

''We were shooting the scene where there's a car that's turned over, and he said, 'Yeah, I've got this project; I've written it for myself and I've wanted to direct it. The good news is that I've got this great cast -- Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman. And now Clint wants to do it. The bad news is that Clint wants to direct it, too. And I have to make a decision.' "

Haggis ended up saying yes, and Eastwood ended up winning an Oscar for directing ''Million Dollar Baby," the project Haggis had been midwifing for three years.

Not that he's bitter about it. ''I figured I'd be a fool not to let Clint Eastwood direct that movie," Haggis says during a recent visit to Boston. The decision was made easier ''because I was already shooting 'Crash' " -- it's the first movie he has directed -- ''and I would have had to wait another eight months before I could do 'Million Dollar Baby.' And as you see, he got his movie out before mine, because he's just so fast."

''Million Dollar Baby" won four Oscars, including best picture, and although Haggis was nominated for his adapted screenplay, he lost out to Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, who wrote ''Sideways."

He will probably get another shot with ''Crash," which opened Friday. Set in Los Angeles, the film is a funny, harrowing, heady web of vignettes and story lines that overlap during a 36-hour time frame. Among the characters are a district attorney and his wife (Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock), who are carjacked by two young men (the musician Ludacris and Larenz Tate); a racist white police officer (Dillon) and his rookie partner (Ryan Phillippe), who harass a successful black TV director and his wife (Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton); a police detective (Don Cheadle) whose brother is one of the carjackers; and a Mexican locksmith (Michael Pena).

Haggis says that until he was nearly done with the script, he didn't think it was about race. ''I knew I wanted to talk about our fear of strangers . . . and I knew I wanted to talk about LA, because LA troubles me." He says Los Angeles lacks ''the kind of human contact that you have, for example, here in Boston. In LA, people travel 50 miles to visit fake city streets, like the . . . Universal City Walk, where they can walk among strangers, be jostled and touched, where they can feel humanity -- and they don't even know that that's why they're going there. I think there's a very deep need in us to interact with strangers."

The strangers in ''Crash" whose lives intersect almost uniformly misunderstand and abuse one another. Matt Dillon, whose police officer character has one of the creepiest scenes, when he frisks a black woman in front of her enraged but inert husband, says that for him, the film is about all races, and therefore about none. ''I love that expression, 'The center of the universe is a very crowded place,' " he says. ''We're all so self-obsessed and consumed with our own lives. . . . That's why people cling to these ideas and belief systems that aren't always right and can be destructive."

Haggis says Dillon's character voices the singular statement of the movie: '' 'You think you know who you are, but you have no idea.' In our own minds, we are all heroes, we are all protagonists. No one thinks of himself as a villain. But put us in front of a burning building, and someone's screaming for help, and it's pretty much certain that if you run in you're going to die. What are you going to do? It could be the big scrappy guy who won't run in, and the pregnant woman who does -- you don't know. People do not know who they are until they are tested."

Haggis came into filmmaking after a 25-year career in television. He grew up in Canada, and although he calls himself ''a terrible student," he did manage to study cinematography at a community college. He worked construction and ran a small theater that his father built in London, Ontario. ''When I was 22," he says, ''my father came to me and said: 'Listen. Construction, you're no damn good at it, are you? Why don't you go to Hollywood, that's what you want to do, and your mother and I will support you for the first year."'

He began writing for television in 1975. ''I was a very bad writer for many years, and I earned a good living as a bad writer," he says. In the late 1980s, he got to work on ''thirtysomething," which marks the time he started writing more seriously and more personally, he says. The show he's proudest of was one of his biggest failures, a 1996 precursor to ''The Sopranos" called ''EZ Streets."

Leaving television in 2000 to write ''Million Dollar Baby" and ''Crash" is a decision Haggis calls ''a dumb thing to do" because of how risky it was. He had tried writing a movie before.

''I wrote what I think is a really terrific, and deeply flawed, piece. I had taken a year off, and, you know, you take a year off when you've got three kids in college and a fourth in private school -- it ain't easy. And that script didn't work. Never left the drawer; I never showed it to anybody. So I was hoping these next two would work, but I didn't know. 'Million Dollar Baby' is a tough piece, and 'Crash' isn't a walk in the park, either -- try pitching it to a studio."

As a first-time director, he experimented with lighting and coloring -- in what he hopes have turned out to be subtle ways.

''There's a scene with Ryan Phillippe and Larenz Tate in a car, and I wanted it to feel very normal, so it starts with the contrast normal, the skin tones bright," Hagggis says. ''But during the course of the two-minute scene, we dialed in a lot more green and a lot more contrast, slowly, until it becomes uncomfortable, but you're not sure why. We just played with things like that, so that, hopefully, it will affect you in a subconscious, visceral way."

Leslie Brokaw can be reached at lesliebrokaw@yahoo.com.

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