Rapid Round: Paul Haggis Picks His James Bond, Talks Scientology Six Years After Leaving

Paul Haggis Show Me Hero Premiere - H 2015
AP Images/Invision

Paul Haggis Show Me Hero Premiere - H 2015

The Oscar-winner also reveals the challenge of shooting HBO's 'Show Me a Hero' for 72 days straight.

When two-time Oscar winner Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby) heard that David Simon had a new HBO mini-series in the works and was looking for a director, he told his CAA agent to say yes at once. “But don’t you want to read the script?” asked his agent. “No, just say yes,” said Haggis.

Tackling Show Me a Hero, the real-life story of Nick Wasicsko, the mayor of Yonkers, NY, who became embroiled in a legal case to desegregate the city’s housing, was not easy, especially with a schedule that involved shooting seven to 10 script pages per day. But Haggis is thrilled with the result, the first time he has directed a project he did not also write.

The filmmaker spoke to THR about the miniseries, his decision to abandon Los Angeles for New York (“I never go back there,” he says), who should play James Bond and the controversy that ensued when he left Scientology.

How did Show Me a Hero come to you?

I had a project pushed because of actor availability and my agent called me and said, “We have this and this, and David Simon has a miniseries. I am a huge admirer of David’s, and when he said “Do you want to direct the first episode? The last?” I said, “I want to do them all.”

How different was shooting a miniseries from making a film?

As David says, his company is the PBS of HBO. On a movie, you shoot a page to three pages a day, and with a TV series you shoot four to six pages a day. We were shooting seven to 10 pages every single day. We shot for 72 days straight.

Do you get stressed in those situations?

No. The worse things get, the calmer I get. It just becomes ridiculous; it gets to a point of absurdity and you have to appreciate that absurdity.

Is the issue of segregation better today?

Of course not. I’m reading a wonderful book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City [by Matthew Desmond], which shows it’s just different and probably worse. We still create these ghettos. We’re not building as many towers; we’re now giving people vouchers. But they can’t get decent housing with those vouchers, they can’t pay their rent with those vouchers. As I’ve read, 70 percent of what they earn has to go to their rent, in dilapidated, cold places that you and I would never want to walk by, let alone live in. We don’t really want to put the effort into fixing it. And you see what’s happening: Look at the murder rate in Chicago. We need to seriously address the issue of race and poverty in this country and we haven’t done that. Look at the current election and how we’re vilifying the poor, vilifying immigrants. We’re a country founded on immigrants, and now we’re saying once again, “Oh, they’re rapists, they’re bad people, we need to build this wall to keep them out.” Really?

I guess you’re not a Donald Trump fan.

I’m not his biggest fan, no.

Have you ever met him?

No I haven’t.

Well, you both live in New York now. When did you move there?

I got a loft here 12 years ago because I loved cutting in New York — I cut all my movies here after Crash. I moved here full time six years ago. I like the anonymity. There are so many interesting people and they don’t really care about you. I like the interaction with journalists, with designers, with architects, with scientists. As I wrote in Crash, we truly crave the touch of strangers, and so I could be alone all day writing, and I just walk down the street to get a coffee and I don’t bump into anyone I know, but I don’t feel lonely.

You mentioned reading Evicted. What else have you been reading?

A terrific book called Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior [by Leonard Mlodinow].I’ve read it twice and I’m about to read it again. I’m not an educated man — I barely made it through high school — so now I love reading about these things that I should have known when I was much younger. The work they’ve done in neuroscience in the last 10 years tells us how much we don’t know about ourselves, and that’s been a common thread in my work. We love to believe we know everything, especially as Americans, and there’s so little within our control.

Speaking of what’s in your control, there was quite a fuss when you left Scientology six years ago. How did that impact you?

I didn’t make the decision thinking about any impact it would have on me. I’ve seen how they’ve harassed others; I’ve seen how they’ve attacked others, how they’ve tried to destroy others. They can be cruel people. When I finally opened my eyes, which shamefully took me way too long to do, I just realized I had to act and wrote a letter of resignation. But they no longer follow me, they no longer go through my trash. They more or less leave me alone. What they really try to do is try to ruin my reputation online and that’s where they put most of their efforts, using websites that tell you what a liar and horrible person I am. They’ll go onto a blog and say, “Haggis is a pretty shitty director.” [Laughs.] A lot of people already think that.

You worked on two James Bond films. Would you do another?

I was just over the moon doing Casino Royale. They gave me a lot of room and I loved working with Martin Campbell, the director, and Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, the producers. That’s what I’m proudest of. I didn’t know at the time that I would enjoy the process as much as I did or that I’d be as proud of that script, and Martin didn’t change a word. There’s nothing better for a writer. I also worked on Quantum of Solace and I did, I think, a pretty good script, but the Writers Guild strike happened so I wasn’t able to follow the production, and the director [Marc Forster] decided he wanted to rewrite me. I’m not as happy with it. Would I do another? Oh sure, but they’ve got really good writers doing their stuff now.

Who would you cast as Bond?

Whoever Barbara Broccoli decides! There are four to five really good candidates I’ve heard of so far. And I’ve also heard the idea that there’s going to be a black Bond and I think that’s great. I mentioned it to somebody who went apoplectic, and I said, “Oh please, when Daniel Craig came on they said, ’A blond Bond? It’s impossible!’ Idris Elba would make a great Bond.

What’s next for you?

I’m waiting for a deal to close and hope to be within a month of starting soft prep on a project I’ve been waiting to do for 10 years. It’s based on a series of books by John Flanagan called Ranger’s Apprentice and the movie is called The Ruins of Gorlan. It’s a medieval adventure that I read to my son when he was eight years old.