The Oscar-winning screenwriter and producer of Best Picture winner Crash (which he also directed), Paul Haggis is also well known for scripting the previous Best Picture winner (Million Dollar Baby) and being the screenwriter to reboot James Bond for the Daniel Craig era. Haggis wrote, directed, and produced the dramas In the Valley of Elah, with Tommy Lee Jones, and The Next Three Days, with Russell Crowe, as well as scripting the Clint Eastwood two-fer Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Haggis first garnered critical love (and frustratingly low ratings) in television, where he created EZ Streets, Due South, and (with Robert Moresco) The Black Donnellys. Haggis sat down with me, at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, to discuss his new film Third Person, an ensemble drama starring Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, Adrien Brody, Moran Atias, Mila Kunis, and James Franco.
Groucho: To not mince words, you like fucking with audiences—
Groucho: In your own way, of course.
Paul Haggis: Yeah, I do.
Groucho: In a good way. So can you talk about how and why you like to yank an audience’s chain—perhaps especially with Crash and with Third Person.
Paul Haggis: Even In The Valley of Elah what I did was I said, "Okay, I’m going to tell you this is a very simple murder mystery. That’s all it is. And this guy—Tommy Lee Jones’ character is going to get to the truth no matter what." And then these—and you follow the conventions of murder mysteries for two acts and suddenly I said, "Oh, oh. I changed my mind. Not a murder mystery—now a moral mystery." And people came up to him and handed him answers, which you cannot do in a murder mystery, you can’t do in a detective story. Ah—because I wanted to get to a deeper truth. I think that’s why I like playing with formats. And with expectations. Because you surprise people, and you make them think a little bit maybe. And I make myself think. I challenge myself—I want to challenge myself more than I want to challenge the audience. But yeah, I don’t like doing things easy. I’m a real contrarian.
G: The biggest impression I took from the film was from the characters played by Liam Neeson and Olvia Wilde.
G: To me that relationship—it just reeked of real experience.
PH: Yeah. Absolutely.
G: That was coming into your screenplay and coming alive on the screen. And perhaps not coincidentally those are the first two actors to sign on the project.
PH: Everything in this movie is true—just none of it actually happened.
G: Yeah, I was just going to say, obviously it’s disguised and reworked and fictionalized.
G: But can you talk a little bit about the dynamic in that relationship and what you think is going on?
PH: Well, you have a writer—a novelist who’s questioning his own talent and ability—you know, each book he’s done since his very first one, which was hugely successful, has done less and less well and maybe he’s starting to let his characters make excuses for his life rather than to challenge them. And then you’ve got Olivia Wilde, who desperately wants to be taken seriously in every form of her life. As a writer, as a woman, as a person of respect. And yet she is just a nightmare. (Laughs.) And she just whirls into his room and is a tempest. And he cannot resist her. You know, that’s their relationship. And she can’t resist him. They’ve got this wonderful, joyous internecine relationship that I think we’ve probably all experienced at one time or another. And you know this is not going to go well. (Chuckles.) And yet, if she could only open up and trust. If she could just trust him. But she knows, as soon as she opens up to him, he will betray her. So she’s never going to open up to him. Until she does.
G: I was reading, in my research, a little bit of what—I think some interviewer of yours described the film—one of the phrases she used was "writers sucking dry their haunted muses."
PH: Yeah. We do—we are. We are incredibly selfish—writers—me especially. We live a life in which we are totally absorbed with ourself. And we spend hours and hours a day, seven days a week usually—sometimes six—if we’re trying to be good human beings. And this self-exploration—but it truly is for a work of art—whatever we call it. And other people often suffer because of that selfishness. You see who suffers in Liam’s life because he took his eye off the ball. He was too interested in his work and his muses and everything else around him. And he paid a terrible price. Others paid a terrible price for that. And in some way he’s trying to rewrite his life and understand it and explain it to himself. And explain to others. And he’s using everything and everyone around him to do that.
G: Right. I imagine as a writer you have to be fearless with your self and true to yourself—examine yourself to understand what you’re writing. But also you’re inevitably going to do that with people that you know and I don’t know how much—
PH: Never, ever date a writer. It’s always a mistake. Just do not trust us.
PH: No matter how wonderful we look or how we have a pretense of vulnerability—no, it’s just—
G: To me, the film is almost as much about the creative process as it is about it's presumptive central themes—
PH: Exactly. I really wanted to explore that. You got that. And I’m not nice to writers. Or what I have to say about the creative process. That really intrigued me—investigating that.
G: It seemed to me also that there’s an interesting crossover. In thinking about this interview, I almost had an epiphany: that maintaining or cultivating a relationship is not unlike the creative process because you’re constantly fantasizing, even conversations about how it’s going to go—"I’ll say this, they’ll say that. It'll all work out perfectly"—sort of writing an alternate version of your life in imagining how this relationship’s going to be.
PH: Even his relationship with Olivia: seeing them talking about each other in the third person as if they’re not even there.
PH: And that they’re comfortable in doing that.
G: Yeah. And of course projecting ourselves onto others and all of that—to our own peril. Is that connection something that you consciously set out to put into the script?
PH: Yep. I really wanted to be—I like writing—if I put myself in a film I’m almost always the villain. Or I’m the character that you look at and—I like writing from someone’s perspective who I completely disagree with. And I happen to have been in a relationship where this woman said, “I’d never open up to you because once I do you will betray me.” She’s crazy, this woman. But what if she’s right? And how would I betray her? You know, infidelity—too easy.
PH: You know? What would destroy her? And would I do that or not? And that’s what Liam has to face—what he’d do or not. And hopefully—we all hope he makes the right decision.
G: Right. It’s sort of also, I guess, a crossover with what actors do, right? Becoming the character. Do you feel an affinity for actors?
PH: Yeah, I love actors. I just love how brave they are. And how willing they are to be vulnerable in front of me. Which is much like love. You see that and you go, "Oh my god. That’s fabulous." Look who they are. They’re trusting. At least as a director and an actress or actor you can never betray that trust. If you betray that trust, you lose them forever. They will never give you—they will never open up to you again. And the thing is you want them to go out on a limb—like Olivia did and a lot of them like Mila and James—all these characters that just went out there.
PH: Moran. They’re all great risks. Or Liam in just being that—baring himself—baring his soul that obviously on screen.
G: Yeah. You’re one of those writers, I’ve heard anyway—of course, you slaved over the script probably more than any other, right? You did dozens of drafts.
G: And then once you have the script, and you know this is how I want it, that you are precise about the dialogue. You want the actors to speak it as written.
PH: Well, yes and no. I love thick dialogue—or it plays into my head. But I like to give the actors freedom. And they do take freedom in it. Usually, if you give them that freedom, they come back to the script. Because they’re comfortable with that. They start to find—I often say this is your decision: say whatever works in this scene. But they would come back to the script. Sometimes they would add things. Sometimes they would delete things. Sometimes they say it a slightly different way. It is funny that actors in my movies, for the most part, don’t want to improvise—even though I’m quite open to that and comfortable with that. There’s a safety in it too there for them.
G: Oh yeah. Right—knowing that they have that already well-crafted. One more question about actors before we move on to another topic. Over the years in all capacities you’ve worked with so many actors. Does one come to mind as having the most interesting process, for better or for worse?
PH: You know, they’re all different and your job as a director is to give them what they need. Not the kind of direction you think they should have. Olivia really needed to understand this character because she just—at a point, she couldn’t understand her. How could she work so much against her own interests? Why would she walk away now? Why—she wants this man’s love, why torture him so much if he is all she wants? Which is the truth. Liam found his character very easily. You nudge him here; you nudge him—just a little bit. And he got there. Moran, for example, is a method actress, and she really—she went ahead—she came to Italy three months ahead of time. She lived with gypsies. She stole. She washed windows. She wanted to know what it was like to be someone—to be a woman in Italy who was reviled. Because, you know, women—usually in Italy, men just love them. But for a gypsy, nuh uh. People would spit at her on the street, and she wanted to know what it was like. So she went to get it in her bones. Mila, again, did her own homework. When she got to set, she knew what she was up to. And again, you nudge her here, you nudge her there. You try—James the same—I said, try this—what about this? And he was very open to direction. So luckily they were all open to direction. I didn’t have to give much.
G: The difficulty of trusting anyone—
G: Even or perhaps especially those that we love is one of the themes of the film. I know you’re in the business of asking questions and not answering them through the work, but what have you learned if anything in wisdom about trust in relationships?
PH: Well, you know, you see who wins in this movie: the ones who take the biggest risks are the ones who win in love. And the ones who try to protect themselves are the ones who lose. And I think that’s in love too. My god, it can blow up in your face. You’ve seen some of the characters who decide to trust, and it just destroys them. Others decide, like Adrien['s character] to just trust someone who’s completely untrustworthy, even when he knows he’s being conned. He’s a smart man and he keeps stepping up—to a point where it’s just ridiculous.
PH: I mean, it’s just ridiculous. He gives up everything. For a stranger. But then, what does he need? In his case he needs to be a hero—he needs to save somebody. He needs that so deeply—because of what’s happened in his life, what he did, the shame he feels—he’s got to save this girl.
G: And even to just believe that something good can happen.
PH: And that’s the thing—that’s what they’re exploring. If you trust someone who’s totally untrustworthy—if you believe in them even when they don’t believe in themselves, is love, in that way, transformative? Do they rise to that? I’m a romantic: I think they do. Or, like James’ character, if you hold a mirror up to somebody and you say, "Look at this. Look at yourself. Face yourself. Tell me how you fucked up and admit it and then you’ll change." Who’s reflected in that mirror—you or him?
PH: And what’s the result? You get what you want by damning somebody. I don’t think so. We all tried. That’s why I tried all these things. In Liam’s case—as we talked about with her, and if you open up, what happens? You can’t always believe what’s in front of you. And that’s of course what is right—what Liam’s character is trying to do is he’s exploring all these issues through his writing, and at the same time, he’s using all of them to hide from the most obvious thing in his life: the thing that he can’t—this thing’s haunting him that he doesn’t want to look at. And I thought he gave this away so many times and people didn’t get it. Once James’ son says, "Watch me," and the next cut is Liam’s backing away from his computer: "What the fuck did I just write? Why am I writing this?’" Well, who’s—and he keeps trying to force the characters back into this construct. Finally the characters literally lead him to what he needs to face and can’t. I don’t know what you can get out of that. Write what you want to write.
G: Sure. Sure. You go way back with Blow Up—that was a formative film for you. It seems that was and remains a big influence on you including with this film, right?
PH: Yeah. Very much in this film.
G: Can you articulate what it is about Blow Up that—
PH: Yeah, really. It ‘s come out. It’s cool. It’s sexy. It’s a murder mystery. And you have a guy who’s—okay, he’s a tad immature. He’s fascinated by this woman he discovers. And oh my God, he sees all these clues. And he’s gonna get to the truth—only to be told he will never discover the truth. He will never know what happened. And then he has to completely give up any notion of knowing these things, and it ends in a tennis game between mimes!
PH: That’s the answer. And you leave the theatre going, "What the hell?!" And then it sits with you, and you ask yourself questions. And you go, "Oh, that’s what he was doing with those themes. Yes, that’s why it had to end that way and yes, that’s what it’s about." It’s not really about what we—it’s—we pretend it’s about one thing; it’s actually about something else. And I love that in films. My poor version of that is this film here. As a way of—hopefully this is a double-date movie: you go with three friends and you can argue about it on the sidewalk. Between the four of you you can figure out what the hell. I love those kind of films. I remember myself on sidewalks arguing and talking about things—I love it.
G: Are you still a shutterbug at all?
PH: You know, I don’t take many photographs anymore. I have a camera. I just—I don’t—because whenever I’m not writing I feel guilty. (Laughs.) So I get right back to working on the story. I’d love to take the time and just take some pictures—just a little Leica and go off some place and shoot.
G: I did want to ask about—I’m sure everybody asks about James Bond. You had a stint writing for the Bond franchise.
G: A successful stint. So I was curious, first, what your personal take was on what you wanted to do with the character—if you had carte blanche, and then—
PH: I did have carte blanche.
G: You did? I was going to say: did the producers say anything to you about like "This is what we want to achieve"?
PH: Yes. They came to me, and they said they wanted to redefine Bond. And I said, "Wow. You know that if I do this, I will ruin Bond for everyone forever."
PH: They trusted me. And then I had a director in Martin Campbell who wouldn’t change a word of my script. And it was just the best experience of my life. I just had so much fun playing with those conventions, taking Bond and asking real questions about him: what’s it like to be an assassin? What's it really like to be an assassin? Do you shoot a laser from the moon or something and say some smarty line? I don’t think so. You know, you get in close with a knife—a dagger or something, and you kill somebody, you get blood all over you, and no matter how much you’ve wrapped your soul in Teflon, somehow that will affect you forever and it scars you. Then it’s also—what’s with Bond and women? And here’s a man who obviously has serious issues, trust issues, and there’s a line there I took from [Ian] Fleming: he says to her, "You’re not my type." She says, “Smart?" He said, "Single." He liked married women. They’re easier to control. But also when they first meet, and you have one scene for them to fall in love. How do you fall in love with somebody? Jesus Christ, it’s an exposition scene. She has to bring him on a—she has to say, "Don't screw up." That’s it—train. I said, "Why do I fall in love?" And I said one reason is if somebody sees right through you—sees exactly who you are—and accepts that. And if you see through them. And I said, "Well, that’s easy. James Bond’s a poker player. His job is to read the person across from him. If you play the person across from you—their hand. And so he’ll just look her up and down and tell her by what she’s wearing, how she’s standing and what her accent is exactly who she is, where she came from, feel very superior and confident. And then she’ll turn around and do exactly the same thing. And we’ll go ‘God, these two people should be together.’" So that’s the kind of fun I had, plus the great lines and finally you get to turn those lines upside down like "Do you want it shaken or stirred" and "Do I look like I give a damn?"
G: Right. Right.
PH: And all those—I just had so much fun writing it. Felt blessed to do that.
G: And the other question I had about it was at what point did Daniel Craig enter into that process?
PH: After I wrote the script.
G: Yeah, after you wrote the first script?
PH: Yeah, they actually—they were nice enough to ask me who I thought would do this. They had a short list, and I’d seen Daniel in—in—
G: Layer Cake?
PH: Layer Cake. I said, "He's terrific." And they were worried that he was blond. I said, "He's terrific—exactly what you want." And I think they were already leaning that way anyway—I know that Barbara Broccoli is a huge fan of his. It didn’t take any nudging from me. They just did what they wanted. Their choice was correct.
G: Yeah. And did that in turn influence at all how you wrote the second script?
PH: No. No. Because I wrote the second I think not knowing it was him.
G: No, I meant the second film.
PH: Second film! Yeah—no, it didn’t. I actually didn’t want to do the second film because I didn’t think I could do as good a job. I think I wrote a pretty darn good script for that. I think that my draft was actually probably better than Casino Royale. But for whatever reason, they decided, you know—the writer’s strike hit, and the director decided to rewrite it. And took it to places he felt more comfortable with. It’s still a good movie. It’s not mine like Casino Royale is mine.
PH: There’s still a lot of my scenes in there and stuff which I really love. But I wanted to be a little braver with the character.
G: Yeah. Uh huh. There is this old Hollywood credo about—or maybe it’s not that old—do one for them and one for you and that sort of thing.
PH: Well, it’s not that so much as you just have to live.
PH: You have to pay your rent. And so—and you do a film like this and you do it—it’s been almost six years since I started this. And I’m half—you do that for love. You’re not getting paid for this. You do that for five years? That’s tough. So you live off your savings for awhile, and you sell your house in Santa Monica and you go on. And then you do something else that keeps the ex-wives and the kids happy. You phase your mortgage and you’re good. At a certain point in my career, I had to decide between being an independent filmmaker and having the kind of lifestyle that puts houses everywhere. I said I’d much rather be an independent filmmaker.
G: Yeah. Yeah. That tension when you’re working on something that you don’t have carte blanche on—
G: How do you—I think you’ve lectured on this topic before. But how do you sort of navigate that and keep the space for yourself to—
PH: It’s really hard. I mean, I just did a project where the director and I just didn’t see eye to eye. And you have to realize it’s the director’s film. He or she is going to take it in the direction they’re going to take it. So, when it’s your film, you can have the say. It’s hard.
G: As long as you make the case.
PH: Yes, and when you write the thing, you put your best—everything—you bleed for it. Everything you write. You do your best—try to see it through their eyes—you write the best for them. And then if they don’t want it, you know—it’s hard because your name stays on it often. And you rarely get credit for great scripts, but you always get damned for the bad ones. Or for the ones that don’t succeed or—so that’s hard. And you can’t run around and say, "Hey, hey, hey! You rewrote me. That changed." You can’t run around and do that. You take your lumps.
G: This one, you probably don’t get asked very often. But I was doing my research, and I looked all the way down to the first writing credit you had listed on IMDB, which is The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show.
PH: Yes. Exactly. It wasn’t the first cartoons I wrote, but it was probably the first ones to be listed. I did—I worked for Ruby Spears and Hanna Barbera when I first came to Hollywood after a few years—I was working as a furniture mover. And I met a fella who was trying to spec some cartoons. And I thought that was interesting. And his brother was a very successful cartoon writer. And so we sat—we spec’d some cartoons and took them to Joe Ruby—who was running Ruby Spears, which is where I was at the time, and he said, "Great." And he hired us to do the first season of his new show called Dingbat and the Creeps. And it only lasted, I think, thirteen episodes. And then from there, together, we wrote a lot of other—Scooby Doo, Plastic Man, Richie Rich—and did that for a year and a half. And made a good living at it, supporting my family, paying the rent.
G: I imagine too that’s a sort of segment of Hollywood writing that can function almost like a boot camp for writing.
PH: It is. It really is. You have to follow certain rules. And you have to—as you’re doing it, you have to call the shots—you have to shift—to call the angles: it’s very technical as well. So you learn a lot about filmmaking, by writing those things. And you learn about the rules of cartoons, which hold true in a lot of writing: the things you have to do, the way that even in a little comedy—so it was great fun. At some point I decided I had to quit because I saw other writers around me who were getting really successful at it. And I said I can’t do this my whole life, so I should quit. And I went out and started trying to break in elsewhere. And it was hard to leave a comfortable position like that. Even if it was just freelancing, it was lots and lots of work. It was hard to walk away from that when that’s all you have, and you have to go back to being a furniture mover. But I wanted to take the risk. Getting too comfortable is always a bad thing. That’s sort of what my career has always been. As soon as I get too comfortable I have to leave.
G: Yeah. Yeah. Well I think we have to wrap it up, but it’s been fantastic talking to you.
PH: Thank you so much, man.
G: Good luck with the film.
PH: Thank you. Thanks for all the good questions.