An ultra-provocative look at life-and death, and sex, and rebirth-in the fast lane, writer/ director David Cronenberg's Crash reached the finish line of US distribution only after unexpected pit stops along the way. Though the movie won a special jury prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival "for originality, daring, and audacity," Ted Turner, then-owner of distributor Fine Line Features, decided the film was a bit too original, daring, and audacious for domestic consumption, and bumped its release from last October to this March. The mogul feared that impressionable viewers might emulate some of the unsafe-at-any-speed activities Cronenberg depicts, as did Britain's ratings board, which agreed to release the film uncut in the UK this summer once consultations with psychiatrists, disabled groups, and obscenity lawyers were completed.
Crash has always had a bumpy ride with guardians of public morals. Its source, J.G. Ballard's novel, was in some quarters dismissed as the work of a lunatic when it appeared in the UK in 1973, but championed by others fascinated by its twin-engined combination of sex and technology. The book is brilliant, yet remorseless, and is not the sort of reading to curl up with at the end of a long day. In contrast, the film is compulsively watchable if you've journeyed down Cronenberg's road before (through films such as Scanners, Videodrome, and his remake of The Fly), even if the glare of its achievement forces you to avert your eyes from time to time. Less explicit, though no less outrageous, than the book in content, Crash replicates its tone: cool-to-sterile, non-judgmental, rigorously unsentimental. "Love it, hate it, see it" read the Canadian ads for the film; see it twice, if the first time you have trouble absorbing it through the blinkers of your (or your country's) preconceptions and anxieties.
In Crash, James Spader plays James Ballard, a TV commercial producer who reawakens to a strange new world of moral and erotic possibilities after surviving a near-fatal car crash. Drawn into a cult-like circle of similarly injured thrillseekers, including Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), the wife of the driver killed in his own "fertilizing accident," Ballard is soon playing chicken with his own sense of self. His exploration is led by Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a renegade scientist who obsessively recreates the infamous car-crash deaths of celebrities, like James Dean and Jayne Mansfield. Joining Ballard in his peculiar liberation, which edges closer and closer to annihilation as the film progresses, are his increasingly entranced wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), and Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), whose shattered body is as finely accessorized as the Mercedes she and Ballard admire in one of the film's many outrŽ scenes.
Much of Crash, including its bizarre (but mostly clothed) sexual encounters as these characters transcend more than the speed limits, takes place in cars. Finding interesting ways to shoot offbeat action is by now all in a day's work for director of photography Peter Suschitzky. The film is the DP's fourth with Cronenberg, following Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, and M. Butterfly, and he says he and the director communicate largely through osmosis.
"We know each other's minds," Suschitzky says. "We say very little about how it's going to look, because we both work in a similar way. We discover what the film will look like without too many prejudices or fixed ideas upfront. He relies on me to conjure the right atmosphere for each scene."
Their collaboration is traced in the superb Criterion Collection laserdisc of Dead Ringers, which is highlighted by its meticulously filmed twinning effects. "The script for that film attracted me to the project," Suschitzky says. "I hadn't seen any of David's movies, and I hadn't really gone to see too many horror or science fiction films"-an interesting admission from a DP whose resume includes The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Empire Strikes Back ("It's quite gratifying to see that it's gotten an extension of its life in cinemas," he says of its current reappearance), and, most recently, Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!
"But Ingmar Bergman, whose films I love and admire, wasn't working anymore," he laughs, "so I decided to pursue the best material I could find, and that was Dead Ringers." Cronenberg's decision to hire the DP paid off in acclaim for that film's coolly elegant look and, for Suschitzky, the first of three Canadian Genie Awards for best cinematography.
The DP has since established himself in Cronenberg's circle of regular collaborators, including production designer Carol Spier, costume designer Denise Cronenberg (the director's sister), editor Ron Sanders, and composer Howard Shore. Naked Lunch and Crash have also been honored with best-cinematography Genies. "I don't change my approach, like a chameleon, on each film, but I do change slightly. I thought this film should have a harder, more contrasty look than the ones before." Part of this approach was suggested by the book: Ballard's novel was consulted extensively throughout the shoot, and certain shots, like those from a high-rise of a freeway system pulsating with automobiles, are near-exact visual quotations from the text.
And part of this approach was heaven-sent. Many of the nighttime "cruising" sequences take place on rainswept roadways; the rain adds a further touch of menace to the goings-on, but it was not artificially created. Crash was shot in the late fall and winter of 1995, on a modest $6 million budget, and if it rained on one of the 18 nights the film was shot along closed-off stretches of the Toronto freeway, "we just went with it," Suschitzky says.
"Physically, being winter and all, conditions were as hard as any I've ever encountered in my films," the DP says. "And because of the budgetary restrictions, you had to take risks. On the freeway, some of the sections were so long that I knew I wouldn't be able to begin lighting them with our budget, so I took a chance and decided to use only available lighting: sodium-vapor lights on the highways, headlights, and street lights. It was quite tough, but I don't think I've laughed so hard or had so much fun in my life. Making a film with people you've worked with before, especially a director you're on the same wavelength with, is like making music."
Initially, shooting the cars hit a few sour notes. Most of the 200 autos used for the film are anonymous-looking "picture" vehicles, in keeping with the mundane roads and parking garages seen in the film, and offset by the taboo activities transpiring within. Vaughan's car, however, is a 1963 black Lincoln convertible-the same kind John F. Kennedy was assassinated in-and with that terrible pedigree the vehicle naturally becomes a star of the show. Six were used: three for driving, one for smashups, one cut in half for studio shots, and one converted into a pickup truck on which to rear-mount the Panaflex cameras to get driver and passenger point-of-view shots. But all had heavily tinted windshields. "We just couldn't afford the $2,000 it would have taken to change them to clear ones," Suschitzky says. "I thought long and hard about this, but again, we decided to go ahead and shoot with what we had. Ultimately, it wasn't worth the cost to change them."
Because the Lincoln was an open vehicle, however, Suschitzky was able to slip in a few non-roadway lighting instruments, gelled in greens and orange-reds to add a touch of sick sensuality to an otherwise steely palette. For other scenes, filmed in tight car interiors, available light from the roadways or parking garages was used, and some interesting reflection effects through windshields were obtained. "I was concerned about how small the vehicles were, but not overly worried," Suschitzky says. "We just went with the flow of it, including the actors, as in the Mercedes scene-we tried to enjoy filming these sequences as much as we possibly could." Some closeups of the cramped actors were saved for studio shooting, however.
As far away from an old Burt Reynolds movie in its depiction of car crashes as possible, the titular events in Crash are filmed as austerely as its sex scenes. For as much as Suschitzky went with available light shooting the film, the movie is not a flat-looking chronicle of weird events. Per Cronenberg's desire not to be overly realistic, the light and camerawork adds texture, and further abstraction, to the proceedings: The crashes, arranged by stunt coordinator Ted Hanlan, catch characters and viewers alike completely offguard.
Wounds, including Arquette's orifice-like injury (created by prosthetics designer Stephen Dupuis), are filmed so as not to dispel the illusion. "I've done quite a lot of special makeup shots, but still, they don't always come easy," Suschitzky says. "Crash has extremely tricky makeup to get right. You usually don't go in for closeups on the effects: If you do, you have to be very careful with the lighting angle, so the makeup doesn't show up as makeup." Judging by the howls of outrage that have greeted scenes showcasing Dupuis' handiwork, the DP clearly succeeded.
For his next film, a remake of The Man in the Iron Mask with Leonardo DiCaprio, Suschitzky leaves the express lanes behind for a swashbuckling period adventure "likely to favor candles and torches in the lighting." He hopes to return for a fifth adventure with Cronenberg later this fall, as the director starts work on eXistenZ, a sci-fi epic on a greater scale and budget ($40 million) than the hermetic highways of Crash. "With David I've had the best collaboration I've ever had in my professional life," the DP says.