Fine Line Features [online] (March 1997). Interview to publicize the film Crash (no interviewer named).
Interview With J.G. Ballard.
[Online circa March 1997; from internal evidence, probably conducted in 1996]
Q. What was your initial involvement with the project for Crash, the movie?
JGB: About four or five years ago I met David Cronenberg for the first time. I knew his work of course, and we hit it off extremely well. We had similar kinds of imaginations. Then, about two years ago, he wrote a script that he sent to me, which I thought was excellent. I didn't have anything directly to do with the screen writing or the production of the film. I was confident that a highly sophisticated and intelligent film would be made.
Q. You published Crash in 1973. How have the nineties "caught up" with Crash?
JGB: In the nineties I think we've gotten much more honest about human nature and we're more open about the truth of our own identities. At the time I wrote the book (I started it in 1970) the idea that people could get any kind of excitement from the idea of car crashes -- well people just couldn't cope with it, they thought it was totally insane. Now people are much more honest about the psychology of the late twentieth century and people can see, moreover, the way in which the car crash is built into the entertainment culture. No respectable Hollywood thriller has anything less than six car crashes. And people realize the extent to which aggression and libido are built into the experience of driving a car. Every woman knows there are lots of men around who can't bear to be overtaken by a woman driver. A lot of men find driving extremely competitive. Obviously, the experience of driving taps all sorts of aggressive strains in our make-up and it's necessary; after all, you have to be decisive if you're going to overtake on a narrow road at sixty miles an hours. You've got to call on a certain amount of aggression. My novel and the film face up to it fairly and squarely.
Q. You've called Crash a cautionary tale. Is it still?
JGB: Yes, I still think people are shocked by Crash, but it doesn't take them as long to realize what the book is trying to say. I think its message is as valid as ever -- probably more valid because there are more cars! There's a whole motorway culture around the world.
Q. Why do you think Crash has been so influential to other artists?
JGB: It's difficult for me to answer that. All I can say is that I hope Crash opens some windows and doors and lets some sunlight into an area we prefer not too look at -- which is, really, the human imagination.
Q. Has the banning of the movie in England brought new readers to the book?
JGB: Yes, actually. The sales of the book have climbed, it's gone into many new editions, and sold a very large number of copies, by English standards. And of course, the film hasn't even been shown here.
Q. Have you had new kinds of reactions to the book?
JGB: Well here there has been an incredible media storm, which says something about our strange little island, I think. It started with the Cannes premier, when one of our newspaper critics called it "the most depraved film ever made." This lead to all sorts of rumblings, and when the film was shown at the London film festival, a huge storm broke out in many of our major newspapers. There were calls for the film to be banned, politicians got involved -- including one member of the English cabinet! We're about to come up for a general election, and everyone expects the Conservative government, which has been in power for the past 17 years to lose the elections, and of, course, the Conservatives are in a state of panic. They're looking around for anything that can help them. And the Labor party, which will probably be the next government, are nervous about identifying themselves with anything that has a bad reputation. We have a film censorship board -- The British Board of Film Certification -- and they're just sitting on Crash because they're under such pressure from the politicians. But I think that this will all pass, and the film will probably be shown, at last.
Q. What makes the film so shocking?
JGB: Well, with the exception of two or three film critics, all the people who are protesting against it haven't even seen it. They've been responding to an idea they've mounted in their feverish minds, which is very peculiar. I think its a tribute to the accuracy of the film, the fact that it touches a nerve. Because there are far more violent films than Crash -- any Hollywood action movie, for example. They don't make any attempt to look at the psychology of violence, which Crash is trying to do. They picked the wrong film to ban!
People ask me how I would feel if young men, after seeing the movie, went and crashed their cars into other people, and of course, if this did happen, it would be a tragedy. But it hasn't happened anywhere in the world where it's been shown, and it's highly unlikely to happen, because the sort of kids who go to see Stallone and Bruce Willis and Schwarzenegger movies, which are non-stop, end-to-end violence, are not going to be able to read a film like Crash -- it's much too cool and sophisticated, too slow. It isn't even sexy in an obvious way -- you see far more graphic simulated sex scenes in your average Sharon Stone movie. Or that one with Madonna and Willem Dafoe...
Q. Dripping hot wax?
JGB: That's far more graphic than anything in Crash. Or Blue Velvet -- the violence, the perversity. Or Goodfellas -- a great film but very disturbing. There's no worry about young men killing each other in bars after watching Goodfellas, and that's a blueprint for it!
Q. Or all the TV violence....
JGB: Well, we haven't got that over here, yet. You've got to take the rough with the smooth, and America is a far more open, liberal and free society. There's a downside to that, but here we have these prudes who have succeeded in censoring the news -- if there's a terrible plane crash, with a hundred people killed, you wont see a single body.
Q. Can you talk about an autobiographical element in your work? In several of your books, including Crash, the hero is named James Ballard.
JGB: The story is told by a first person narrator. A large part takes place inside his own imagination, as he describes meeting all these strange people. And I thought, well, these are my ideas, the products of my imagination. I wanted to force the reader to face what I was laying out, and the best way to do that, I thought, was to be honest, not hide behind a mask, like most novelists do, but to throw the mask away and say, look, this is me, these are my fantasies, my dreams. I hoped that would give the book a little more authority.
Q. The movie is very faithful to the book, but the book's style seems to me more ornate, less realistic.
JGB: I regard the film as extremely faithful to the spirit of the book, but there are things you can't duplicate. I had to create the lush, hot-house eroticism of love and death just using words -- I didn't have Deborah Unger or Holly Hunter talking off her clothes. So that's a bit of a handicap! Cronenberg could show directly what I could only describe. Film is a realistic medium -- you have real cars, real bodies. And there's no way to precisely translate the interior -- the interiorized -- world of the novel to the kind of public world of film. It's like the dream of a neurosurgeon who has taken a shot of heroin. And if you try to reproduce those effects on film you get dream sequences, which are a huge headache.
Q. What explains the importance of cars and celebrities in Crash? They mediate all the relationships in the story.
JGB: Well, we had to change that somewhat in the film. I talked to David about it, and we agreed that he couldn't use an actress who is a current sex-symbol in the same way that Elizabeth Taylor appears in the novel, Crash. Vaughan, the central figure in Crash, wants to die in a crash with a famous person, and he's obsessed with Elizabeth Taylor's anatomy as he's seen it in magazines and films. David pointed out that no actress in Hollywood would play herself being stalked by a psychopath -- it would be too dangerous! He could have used a virtually unknown actress playing an invented film star, but that would have looked phony, I think.
The celebrity theme is important in the book because of the celebrity culture that has developed in the last thirty or forty years. It's a very important part of the mass imagination. We see Princess Di interviewed on television and we see the little pimple she's got on her chin. We're as close as we would be if we were sharing a bathroom with her, practically! Both the celebrity and the car have changed all our relationships with each other, and with ourselves. We live in a world which is now entirely artificial, almost as though we were living inside an enormous novel. You have dozens of little machines in your kitchen, in your living room. The range of machinery that surrounds us is quite incredible. And the biggest piece of domestic machinery, which is an extension of our homes and our own private space, is the motorcar. When people drive they have the possibility of death at their own fingertips. And then, people are aware of a whole range of emotions that they can't express when they're in their office, dealing with other people, that they can express alone in a car. You can't swear at your secretary for making a spelling mistake but you can swear at another driver behind your windshield and you're -- generally -- safe.
Q. How will the internet change people's relationships? This interview, for example, will appear on the internet.
JGB: That's ironic, because I've never used or seen the internet in action -- I'm a complete stone-age peasant! But my girlfriend's P.C. does have a modem, so we're going to get hooked up.