From Script to Screen: Crash

By Jeff Legge · February 18, 2018

Crash is that rare breed of film that has actually had its legacy tarnished by an overabundance of praise. I’m referring, of course, to the film’s left field Oscar win against such heavy-weight films as Brokeback Mountain, Munich, Capote, and Goodnight and Good Luck.

Released as a modestly budgeted tapestry of racism in Los Angeles, Crash received lukewarm reviews, though it managed to generate some serious buzz for writer-director Paul Haggis. Few at the time would have considered it a serious contender for best picture, which is perhaps part of why our collective memory of the film has soured so much since its release.

Watching Crash nearly a decade later reveals a film full of effective moments, some of which are undone somewhat by a lack of nuance and an overreliance on stereotypes. Far more effective, though, is the film’s multi-branching structure, which builds to an undeniably powerful finish. For example, check out our latest script-to-screen breakdown of this climactic confrontation from Crash’s final act:

Six Degrees of Separation

Crash’s central conceit is structural – it explores themes of prejudice through a mosaic of distinct characters, all of whom are separated by race and socioeconomic status. For the most part, these characters do not know of each other, and when their stories do intersect, it is often in the subtlest and most inconspicuous of ways. At least at first.

The fun of such a structure, of course, is in watching everything come together. In this type of story, everything is connected – even when it’s not obvious. And when the lives of these various characters do clash, the results are almost always powerful, regardless of how they are framed within the story.

In this particular sequence, we watch a flawed, albeit sympathetic character nearly murder a little girl over a misunderstanding. This is made all the more riveting by the fact that we’re already familiar with this would-be victim, and her father, who feature prominently in one of Crash’s other plot threads.

This kind of storytelling was popularized by filmmakers like Robert Altman (Nashville) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia), but here, the thematic signposts are clearer. Paul Haggis has a point to make and an ax to grind, and his choice of story structure is in direct service of that aim.  Like its structural forebears, not every story strand is effective. Still, the fact remains that this sort of complex, interweaving structure is more than just a choice. It’s a natural extension of the themes the film explores. 

Reversals and Payoffs

Reversal’s come in all shapes and sizes. From intimate emotional moments to grandiose third act twists. What they all have in common is the element of subversion. In other words, an effective reversal defies the expectations of your audience.

Take Kay Corleone’s admission that her miscarriage was actually an abortion in The Godfather Part 2, for example. Or, better still, take this scene from Crash, in which we learn that Farhad’s gun was loaded with blanks, thus sparing the life of Daniel’s daughter. But the script doesn’t stop there. Instead, it chooses to wrap an already powerful reversal in an even more powerful payoff by calling back to the imaginary “impenetrable cloak” that Daniel gave his daughter earlier on in the film to help her sleep. Is it subtle? Not really. But given its positioning near the climax of the film, it doesn’t really matter.

Maintaining a reader’s attention means trapping them in a sort of ebb and flow of suspense. Follow a single through-line or stick to a single formula too closely, and you run the risk of predictability. This is precisely why reversals are so effective at keeping an audience on their toes, which, by extension, keeps you in control.

Say what you will about the subtlety of Crash’s social commentary, but there’s no denying that the script itself is seriously sophisticated in its craftsmanship. Particularly towards its final act. This scene, in particular, is no different – it’s grounded in conflict, laced dramatic irony (our knowledge that Farhad’s anger is based on a misunderstanding), and punctuated by a miraculous reversal and a satisfying emotional payoff.

In other words, this is writer Paul Haggis firing on all cylinders when it comes to his writing toolkit. 

Striking the right balance.

Here we have an interesting case of a scene that arguably carries more weight on the page than it does on screen. The opposite should be true, of course. Film is an inherently visual medium – a screenplay is just words on a page. A roadmap, a declaration of intent, but not the full experience.

Pick your favorite scene of all time and strip it of its performances, cinematography, and musical score. What you have left is essentially just description and dialogue – a blueprint, in other words, which is exactly what a screenplay should be. The full experience comes later, on the silver screen, with all the bells and whistles added.

While there’s nothing stopping a great scene from moving us on the page, the final product, in all its audio-visual glory, should move us even more.

Yet here, I would argue that the opposite is true. What we have on the page is a nail-biter culmination that ends with a cathartic reversal and a satisfying emotional payoff. Haggis’ craftsmanship is on point, which is no surprise given his reputation as a writer.

On screen, however, the scene teeters on sentimental. What was balanced so well on the page begins to teeter into “too much” territory with the addition of extreme close-ups on extreme reactions, and a haunting albeit emotionally manipulative score that drowns out all diegetic sound in the scene.

Restraint is a virtue – especially when it comes to screenwriting. And this scene, in particular, is a great example of why. It still works in its final form, but it feels overbaked. The lesson? When in doubt, hold back. Like a particularly finicky recipe, the slightest imbalance can throw off a great moment.

Download the script for Crash for free here.

Frustrated by the dark, frozen winters of Canada, Jeff Legge spent his earliest years indoors nurturing a life-long obsession with the movies. Later, he moved to Los Angeles where he cut his teeth as a script reader while completing an MFA at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. He does not recommend playing Scene-It with him, though he does appreciate a good ego boost.

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