Colliding anew with the meaning of Los Angeles

Times Staff Writer

"It's the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We're always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something."

-- Opening lines of the film "Crash"


IN "CRASH," the 2004 film that won the Oscar for best picture, the city of Los Angeles was more than a character. It was an allegory for isolation. The rich, the powerful, the poor and the disaffected. Black, white, Latino, Korean and Iranian came into contact literally only by accident, suggesting that nearly everyone was blinded by racism.

"Crash," the 2008 television series to premiere Oct. 17 on the cable channel Starz, is a bit different. Although the setting is Los Angeles, the car crashes are fewer and farther between, the myriad of people tends to mix more naturally, and the city is presented as an oppressive force. (Ironically, the show was shot not in L.A. but in the tax incentive-offering state of New Mexico.)

As the pay cable channel's first foray into an hourlong scripted drama, the 13-episode series hopes to snag viewers with as much surprise, conflict and political incorrectness as the original. In fact, the feature film, directed by Paul Haggis, was originally conceived as a television series.

A highlight from the upcoming TV series: actor Dennis Hopper as aging wild man Ben Cendars, a once-successful hip-hop music producer struggling to retrieve his top-dog status. Since this is pay cable at 10 p.m., viewers will be treated to his dark and self-destructive habits, including drug abuse and sexual dysfunction; in the first episode, he exposes himself.

Angelenos inspired most of the disparate characters, according to writer-executive producer Glen Mazzara ("The Shield"): Cendars and his black, streetwise limo driver (Jocko Sims), a former Korean American gang member trying to make it as an emergency medical technician (Brian Tee), a frustrated Brentwood mom (Clare Carey) and her developer husband (D.B. Sweeney) and a variety of misbehaving cops (Ross McCall, Arlene Tur and Nick Tarabay).

In the television version, Los Angeles becomes less of an allegory and more a simple elucidation of the raw power it exerts over its residents -- for better or worse.

"A lot of living in Los Angeles is a hustle," Mazzara said. "There's a tremendous amount of success and optimism. 'If I work hard, make the right connections and I put in the right time, I can get what I want.' It may or may not be true, but people believe that."

Mazzara was sitting in the "Crash" writers room, a below-ground-level office on a Hollywood hillside, with his handpicked team: co-executive producer Frank Renzulli ("The Sopranos"), producer Stacy Rukeyser ("One Tree Hill"), executive story editors Chris Collins ("The Wire"), Randy Huggins ("The Shield") and staff writer Sang Kyu Kim. Although none was born or raised in Los Angeles, each brought their own experience from the city -- female, black, Japanese, Korean -- to the table.

Suddenly, that table, as well as the floor and the walls, began to shake.

"What's that?" Mazzara said.

"Earthquake!" said the others.

For a minute, everyone talked at once -- laughing or clapping -- guessing the size of the quake and its epicenter. In another minute, the writers room returned to its previous focused, creative calm. It was, they said, a perfect " 'Crash' moment."

Starz took a big bet on the series by ordering 13 episodes from the start. Kevin Beggs, president of TV programming at Lionsgate, a production partner, said the movie's structure of overlapping story lines would have been difficult to capture in a single pilot episode. With more than a dozen episodes, characters can be introduced at leisure over long, intersecting arcs, he said.

It's all very L.A., says the show's creative team, which includes Haggis, Bob Yari and Don Cheadle. Except, of course, that some of it is actually shot in Albuquerque.

"Those tax incentives allow us another day of shooting per episode, or to hire a star you might not otherwise be able to afford," Beggs said.

Mazzara said he was initially concerned about the location but decided to use it to his advantage. Since they were already in a desert, he introduced a new character, Cesar, a Guatemalan boy (played by Luis Chavez) headed by himself through Mexico to L.A.

"That's a part of the Los Angeles story I don't see told anywhere," he said.


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