Toronto 2013: Paul Haggis on Being Miserable, Producing 'Third Person'

Paul Haggis Headshot - P 2013

Paul Haggis Headshot - P 2013

"I just wanted to restore the challenge to me, because if I don’t have a really good sense that I can fail and humiliate myself, then I’m not happy," says the Oscar-winning writer-director.

TORONTO -- Paul Haggis’ latest movie, Third Person, rates pretty high on his misery index.

And that thrills the Hollywood writer-director, who apparently thrives when a pall of creative gloom really sets in.

"I found I was miserable enough that I was happy, and so I made the movie," Haggis tells The Hollywood Reporter about the creative process behind Third Person, which stars Mila Kunis and James Franco and will have its world premiere at the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival in September.

Misery for Haggis after winning successive Oscars for writing Million Dollar Baby and then Crash?

Apparently so, as he opts out of soul-trading with the traditional Hollywood studio system to bring a Belgian-financed ensemble film to Toronto about three interlocking love stories in three cities: Rome, Paris and New York.

And, as with Crash, the stories touch on sexuality, loss and desperation.

PHOTOS: Toronto 2013: The Films

Haggis said he worked for two and a half years on the script for Third Person and then took another year to produce the picture, which also stars Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, Adrien Brody and Moran Atias.

In effect, Third Person marks a return from the wilderness for Haggis since his last movie, 2010's The Next Three Days.

"I just wanted to restore the challenge to [myself], because if I don’t have a really good sense that I can fail and humiliate myself, then I’m not happy," he says of his sweat-equals-satisfaction approach to filmmaking.

The genesis of Third Person started immediately after he finished shooting The Next Three Days.

"As with Crash and In the Valley of Elah, there were questions in my head I couldn’t answer myself, about the nature of love. It got in my head and I wouldn't let it go," Haggis explains.

Then the characters started emerging from the computer screen to talk back to Haggis as the screenplay evolved.

In Paris, a writer who recently left his wife has a visit from his lover, with whom he shares an on-off relationship owing to her inability to commit because of a dark secret.

Then in New York, a mother recently charged with attempting to kill her son loses custody to the father, prompting a tug-of-war over the child.

And in Rome, an American business man on a trip to Italy falls in love with an Italian woman and is drawn into a plot to try and free a daughter who has been kidnapped by an Italian gangster.

"I think I wrote something like 50 drafts and got it wrong 49 times," Haggis recalls.

The drama, from Corsan/Film Finance XII and Haggis' HWY61 Films, heads to Toronto without U.S. distribution.

Paradigm and CAA will shop the U.S. rights at TIFF, while Corsan World Sales is the international sales agent.

As for the upcoming world premiere itself, Haggis expects to be suitably verklempt in Toronto.

"I'll be paralyzed with fear -- which will make me very, very happy," he says with laughter.

That said, he's confident the Toronto audience will be moved and challenged by Third Person.

"At the end of the day, I’m pleased with my work. I think it’s my best film," Haggis says.