This interview appeared in Dazed & Confused, Issue 31, June, 1997:
Ballard in Conversation Immediately After His First Viewing of Crash.
By Chris Rodley
Dazed & Confused: Did you think at any time that Crash would make it as a movie?
JG Ballard: When I wrote Crash in 1971/72 -- 25 years ago -- it did seem pretty unlikely that it would ever be filmed. I mean, it seemed impossible in the context of the early 1970s cinema but of course the 1990s are very different. In a way the 1990s have caught up with Crash -- the people are much more willing to face the implications of the landscape in which we live, which was saturated with sex and violence.
D&C: Would you have been happy to see it just stay as a book?
JGB: No, I've always wanted as many of my novels as possible to be filmed and Crash is really, I think, my best novel, my most original novel and in a way my most autobiographical novel, notwithstanding Empire of the Sun, which was actually about my childhood in Shanghai. Crash is an autobiographical novel in the sense that it's about my inner life -- my imaginative life -- it's true to that, not that life I actually have led. I've always wanted to see my novels filmed and Crash most of all.
D&C: Do you consider it one of your darker novels? You say it's the most original, but what else might separate it from the rest of your work, in your mind?
JGB: I think Crash is the most extreme imaginative statement I've made of my feelings about the modern world that we live in. I mean, Crash is a kind of blueprint for the year 2000. It's a cautionary tale, and at the same time, it explores the sort of new relationships that people are making in terms of technology and I think it's an original book in the sense that it's one of the very few to look frankly at the sort of landscape in which we actually live.
D&C: You must have been amused over the years, having seen films such as Terminator, I mean, popular culture taking on ideas about people having to merge in some way with metal and mechanisms and technology literally -- that their bodies will literally have to accommodate these new developments.
JGB: In films like Terminator you see people annexing pieces of technology literally into their bodies. I'm not so much interested in that in Crash. I'm interested in the way that we a annex pieces of technology into our minds -- the way in which we are surrounded by advanced systems of technology to which we respond imaginatively on a day to day level -- the cars we drive, the planes we sit in, the high-tech airports and hospitals we use, the motorway systems -- an elaborately signaled landscape that's like a central nervous system that we move along as we drive every day. Now, these are the aspects of technology that begin to colonize our minds without us being aware of it. I've very interested in -- I've always been interested as a writer in the truth about our relationship with the technological landscapes we inhabit. People are very sensitive to their surroundings. You see this in the case of people's homes, for example, a particular kind of ceramic hob in the kitchen, a particular kind of bathroom will affect the psychology of everyday life. People's cars affect the psychology of everyday life in a way that no other human artifact does. We're intensely sensitive to cars -- their stylizing, the interior trim, the whole experience of driving a motor car along a modern highway, which is an intense combination on all sorts of unconscious levels between us and this machine. Now, Crash explores this relationship which most of us take completely for granted.
D&C: Were you surprised that Cronenberg was interested in the novel -- how did it come about, and was it a pleasant surprise when it did?
JGB: I was delighted when I heard that David Cronenberg was interested in filming Crash. I'd been an admirer of his films way back to his early films like Scanners which are minor masterpieces -- there's no question about it -- and some of his later films are major masterpieces. The Fly is a remarkable film, in which the archaic myth and modern super-technologies collide and fuse. The arena of The Fly is the human psyche at its most archetypal level. So too, -- I think, is Crash -- I mean, there are certain affinities between Crash and The Fly. One sees in both films the human psyche laid completely bare, which is something very difficult to achieve. It's much more difficult -- it's not just a case of random violence or naked sexuality. They've got to be employed meaningfully -- which they certainly were in The Fly and even more so, I think, in Crash.
D&C: Of course, because David is a big motor-racing driver himself and it seemed to me it's something he'd never been able to articulate in the other films, necessarily. He's a real speed freak. Did you know anything about this kind of interest in cars and that he has some of Jack Bradley's original models, and all this kind of stuff?
JGB: When I first met David Cronenberg three or four years ago he told me he was very interested in motor cars and I think he was surprised that I wasn't in the same sort of way. Most people assume I'm a car freak. In fact I'm not -- I'm not in the least interested in the difference between this kind of Maserati and this sort of Ferrari. My dream car is a big fat American Buick with an automatic drive. But I think that he, being a considerable car freak, understood what Crash was about, because, being an extremely sensitive and thoughtful man, he obviously realized himself that this huge piece of technology that propels us around the world every day has a darker side. It's filled with imaginative links to our unconscious. He knew all that in advance and I think that's why he responded to Crash.
D&C: Do you think in some respects that there are some things that exist quintessentially just as writing and are most powerful at that level and are best left alone by film?
JGB: I don't think there's any novel that can't be filmed in one way or another. I think it's up to the film-maker's ingenuity and imagination to find a way into even the most complex and difficult of novels. Someone years ago filmed James Joyce's Ulysses. The Naked Lunch was certainly a very difficult novel to film and I thought David brought that off brilliantly. Crash, I think, is more straightforward, as David said, its a much more external novel. The events are seen externally, and dealing with motor cars, motorways and so on it's easier to film in that sense, though very difficult, obviously, in other ways. The sort of ideology underpinning Crash is very difficult to put across, and I think that's the great achievement of David's film of Crash -- that he actually expressed all the ideas that were in the novel in visual form.
D&C: I've always wondered why in the novel the character is also called Ballard. Because now, of course, in the film you see it even emphasized -- it's written on a parking space and people are just hearing it and seeing it.
JGB: I used my own name in the novel and my name is used in the film because the novel is told in the first person and I wanted to tell the truth, and I thought the best way to tell the truth about my own imagination and the way that I see the motor car and the way that I see technology and the world today is to put myself into the novel. I’m glad that David retained that in the screenplay and that James Spader plays me. I was once as young as James Spader, but I was never so good looking. I think he represents everyman, he is the audience, he’s the representative of the persons sitting in row J. He is someone like me, as I was writing Crash, who is exploring this extraordinary world. I, as the novelist and as a character in the novel, was exploring this strange, hoodlum scientist Vaughan and these extraordinary women and, likewise, in the film, James Spader plays a representative of the audience who finds himself exploring this extraordinary world.
D&C: I can't remember very clearly but as soon as he across the screen he seemed to look exactly like Ballard does in the novel.
JGB: I thought the actor Elias Cotias, who played Vaughan, did an absolutely brilliant job: he conveyed the kind of messianic dream of violence and sexuality that drives Vaughan on in an almost insane quest. I thought it was a studied performance as were the performances by Holly Hunter and Deborah Unger.
D&C: It was difficult for the women, wasn't it? They have to do rather more than the men, have to expose themselves literally, and in many other senses too.
JGB: I think the women's roles in Crash are very difficult to play and I think that every one of the actresses triumphantly brings off the task of responding to this strange logic that's unfolding. They have to strip themselves, not just physically, not just by exposing their emotions during sexual excitement but they have to expose their inner dreams of what sexuality is going to be in this new order that arrives.
D&C: There is a sense in which the book doesn't have a time and a place in some way. Could we talk a little bit about the world of Crash -- written in the early '70s, but where is it? Is it inner space? Is it outer space?
JGB: Crash, my novel, is set in and around a London Airport in area close to where I actually live. David decided to film the novel in Toronto and I absolutely supported him on that. I’d been to Toronto and it's the absolute paradigm of a North American city without being recognizable. One of the problems, I think of filming in Chicago or Los Angeles or San Francisco or New York is that they're instantly recognizable. You suddenly realize half way through a film that you’re following Jim Rockford or Humphrey Bogart around the corner. That isn’t true of Toronto -- it’s not recognizable in the same way and therefore it becomes a kind of all purpose North American city. Now, I think it was very important that Crash be filmed with American cars. As I wrote the novel I visualized American cars and I tried to bring in as many American cars as I could. In the novel, Vaughan drives a Lincoln Continental of the same year and model that Kennedy died in and I think, had Cronenberg tried to film around a London Airport, he would have found that the landscape wasn't charged enough. I mean, the European cars are simply too small and too noisy -- they don't have that iconic force that big American saloons have and, moreover, big American highway systems have -- those vast interchanges that you get in Canada and the United States - the multi-lane intersections, the great feeder roots [sic] in and out of the major cities aren't available in the same way anywhere else in the world as far as I know. They exist uniquely in North America which is the unique home of the automobile and its strange psychology.
D&C: You talk about it with some passion. Would you welcome a British Isles which was a six lane freeway everywhere, and really go against the grain?
JGB: Yes, I'd love to see the whole of the British Isles covered in tarmac and turned into one vast filling station.
D&C: It's been 20 years since you wrote the novel. It's very easy to assume that it's ahead of its time, but have you seen things rolling over the last 20-25 years more or less as you imagined?
JGB: it's something like 25 years since I wrote Crash and in a sense I think that the prophecy Crash embodies has been fulfilled and I think people recognize that. People are much more honest about the nature of their own sexualities, about the nature of their own imaginations. They're much more aware of the role that the technological landscape plays in their lives. No prediction in the future, even 25 years ahead could be accurate, but I'm not disappointed in the prophecies that I made when I wrote Crash.
D&C: You take an amoral stance, which is something that bothers a lot a lot of people.
JGB: People have worried about the moral standpoint that the novel took when it was first published and may well worry about the moral standpoint, or lack of one, evident in the film, but I think one has to see that the role of the writer and the film-maker today has changed. We don't come to the printed page or to the cinema screen with a complete moral system of value because the world isn’t like that any more. We’re insecure people who are unsure of our own motives in many ways. We don't have the kind of confidence and conviction in religious beliefs that we once had: we understand far more about our own appetites and our own wayward imaginations than our parents and grandparents did. I think we're more honest with ourselves and, in a sense, we almost believe in nothing. We're rather like people who arrive every day on a desert island and have to construct their lives from scratch, including their moral lives. I think that Crash is that sort of novel and it's that sort of film Crash is a totally honest film -- it's honest about our basic emotions and our basic imaginations. It may seem violent but, curiously, if you watch it for a second or a third time there’s comparatively very little violence in it and comparatively little sex compared with some of the sort of brutally crude offerings that Hollywood, in particular, brings to us these days. The violence present in Crash, the sexuality present in Crash it’s the sexuality, it’s the violence you find in our everyday lives. It’s a totally honest film and I think it should be seen in that light.
D&C: I wonder if you could talk about that idea of the author and the film-maker as scientists having to be rather more rigorous and strong about testing.
JGB: I think both the novelist and the film-maker in the 1990s approach their different jobs in a very similar way. I think they both, in a way, are like scientists approaching a particular mystery -- “What is the explanation for this strange phenomenon?” In the case of Crash of course the phenomenon is the role of the car crash in the imagination of the 1990s. There's no doubt that for some reason the car crash occupies a huge place in the public imagination, particularly among filmgoers and television viewers and to some extent among readers of novels, where to some extent it's almost impossible to see a film these days without a car crash. Now why? What is it about the car crash that so touches some vital part of human experience? We did after all fill our imaginations with accounts of ship collisions or plane crashes or bus accidents. There's something about the car, this is a machine that we individually control, that we've invested a great deal of imaginative capital which to some extent is an extension of the home. It is a sort of substitute home that we enter when we leave our own houses or apartments and enter the public domain of the highway. Now, what is it about the car crash that so stimulates our imagination?