Last year when Starz debuted a series based on the 2004 Best Picture motion picture "Crash," critical response was mixed and ratings did not exactly 'crash' through the roof. However, with a second season and more than a little retooling, Starz hopes to change all that. The first order of business was to bring in veteran television producer Ira Steven Behr to take over the show and shape it into a winner. Time will tell whether Behr has succeeded but his passion for the project was evident during an extensive chat with our Jim Halterman. During their one-on-one interview, Behr talked about how he made "Crash" into essentially a new series, how a certain Kennedy helped shape Eric Roberts's character and what he brings to the show after many years in the sci-fi genre.
Jim Halterman: Backing up a bit, tell me how you came on board to be a part of "Crash" for the second season?
Ira Steven Behr: Actually, it was kind of simple. I was sitting at home and got a call from Barbara Wall over at Lionsgate. Lionsgate and I have done a dance for many years going back for a long time and they had shows that they've tried to get me to be involved in and for one thing or another it's never quite happened. This time, she said 'The show is 'Crash.' I don't know if you heard about it... ' which I hadn't. 'I know it has its problems, it wasn't that successful last season but we're open to any changes you would want to make and then basically this is the chance for you to do Dickensian television... ' and, for once, they didn't mean Philip K. Dick, they meant Charles Dickens so what writer is going to say no to that? It was a chance to do an ensemble series, which I like. It just seemed that the bar for the show was set extremely low last season and I tried to figure out what went wrong last year and Glenn Mazzarra from, what everything I can tell, is a talented guy but there are a million stories, a million fingers pointing of what exactly happened. It's the chance of sweeping all that aside and starting new just seemed like something that could be interesting especially about a show that takes place in Los Angeles.
JH: How did you approach diving in and keeping some of the characters and storylines while others didn't come back?
IRB: It wasn't quite carte blanche but there certainly was a feeling that they were open to anything. The first thing I said, then, was that the bottom line from my point of view is that last year this show turned into a cop show and there are so many cop shows and procedurals on TV... here you have a show that really didn't have to have a police, medical or legal franchise, thank God! My first thing was 'Let's tear down the police set because if we tear down the set then it's not going to be a cop show.' They said 'Absolutely!' From there, it was just I have this character and that character and what about this character and I just started pitching ideas and never looked back, even at the characters who came back last season. With the characters we wanted to bring back, the stories are totally different so you don't ever have to have seen a single episode of last season and you're totally up to speed for season two.
JH: The first line in the season premiere is spoken by Ben Cendars (Dennis Hopper) saying "LA never changes" but has Ben really changed since he came out of rehab for substance addiction?
IRB: Well, it was meant to be slightly ironic because obviously we're going to change everything we can about this show and in some ways, things are in constant flux and that's what some of the storylines are about this season and then certainly, like you said, we've changed quite a bit of the story because here's a man (Ben) who lives his life without the veil of handy dandy narcotics to put a glow on everything. There's none of that. When you can't use artificial means to face your day you have to face your day it's a very different thing.
JH: How did you shape the Eric Roberts character? Though he seems to be a successful businessman, he clearly wants more.
IRB: Originally, the take on the character was slightly different. It was like a real straight, down the middle billionaire, whatever that means. I wouldn't go so far to say a stereotypical or clich� billionaire but Seth is the guy who lived for money, the guy with the phone always in his ear and suddenly, when I spoke to the actors, I always talked about Robert Kennedy, who went from being this bulldog assistant to Joe McCarthy and this kind of right-wing hard-ass Kennedy guy, the real son-of-a-bitch of the Kennedy clan goes through this tragedy and literally changed as a public figure to the point where after [Martin Luther] King was killed he would stand on a car without any body guards, just standing with his shirt sleeves rolled up in the middle of the night in a neighborhood that's being torn apart by racial strife and tell people 'I understand the pain you're going through but violence isn't going to help and go home' and they listened to Bobby because they believed him.
What I told Eric was 'Think of him as Bobby Kennedy. You're going through this one triumphant guy in this one kind of world' and, of course, it gets more complicated with Eric because it has to do with God and inner rage and hallucination or some kind of religious experience. That change is at the basis of the character and when Eric showed up and started doing the role, he realized he's not that billionaire to begin with. Yes, he could do it and he looks great but he's not like Donald Trump or Richard Branson anyway. That was interesting.
JH: The one thing that all the characters seem to want is more whether it's more money, more love or more something else. Is that how you see them?
IRB: I think they want transformation and I think it's that LA thing. Last year one of the things that we couldn't figure out looking over the show was how little they did with Los Angeles and, from what I understand - and, again, it's all second and third hand bullshit - it was a conscious decision that once they decided to move to New Mexico they felt like the show had to stand on its own and be an any-city. They weren't interested in doing a LA-identified show and we felt it needed to be that. Who comes to LA? People who either want to redefine themselves, redefine their lives, second chances, going after the golden opportunity of the end of the American dream. It's where the American dream stops, baby, it's as far as you go. As I said, it's paradise but paradise comes at a price and everyone pays.
JH: So can viewers expect to see the characters and stories eventually intersect over the course of the season?
IRB: Absolutely. In all different types and ways but, to be honest, even though we know that's fun we don't want it to be too gimmicky. It's different in a movie. In a movie it's two hours, boom, boom, it's over and the crash is acute. In the TV series, you're in risk of 13 hours seeming just a bit precious so the crashes will come because they're making a point that we feel valid.
JH: You have an extensive background with the "Star Trek" franchise and "The 4400," but are there similarities for you with "Crash?"
IRB: I see similarities in everything I do. Lots of characters, looking at faith - not religion - in modern times and this time we don't have the genre protection. This time we have what is called a mainstream shows so, yeah, I feel like a lot of the topics we're able to look at and it feels to me that nothing has changed. The only thing that's changed is what they call premium cable so there are no commercial interruptions, you don't have to write in acts, you just write the show, you have a couple more minutes [and] you don't have the network cutoff of 42 and a half minutes. And you can say every cuss word imaginable and show naked people doing naked things; a brave new world for me!
JH: After "The 4400" was cancelled, you were very vocal about your disappointment. Has that kept you from not getting so closely attached or is that impossible to do?
IRB: Believe me, when I joined this show everyone was telling me I was out of my mind, as usual. 'Why do you want to do that show? That show has absolutely no heat behind it. Any other network would have cancelled it.' For me, I see the opportunity. That's great because it means they've kind of been bloodied so they're open. They've been beaten senseless so they're willing to listen to new ways of doing things and certainly I took that opportunity with 'Star Trek: Deep Space Nine' to kind of attempt to do something different because people's attentions were on other parts of the franchise. 'The 4400' had such a kind of rocky beginning in some ways that the success was so surprising to USA network that we just looked at is as an opportunity to run with the ball so I'm using the problems of last year to kind of give us a better opportunity this year... ['Crash'] gets better. Just like 'Deep Space' and just like 'The 4400,' we really hit our stride with episode 5, 6, 7, 8, 9... I have to say I'm pretty happy with those shows.
The season premiere of "Crash" airs tonight at 10:00/9:00c on Starz.