Toronto: Paul Haggis Reveals His Reluctance to Go Hollywood (Q&A)
The Oscar-winning director discusses returning to his roots with the new relationship drama "Third Person" and why he wrote that open letter to Leah Remini.
Never mind his status as Toronto’s favorite son. Ontario native Paul Haggis would be partial to the Toronto Film Festival even if he hailed from far away. Haggis’ Crash made its first stop on its journey to a best picture Oscar at the festival’s Elgin Theatre in 2004 before selling to Lionsgate days later. The writer-director also brought his Iraq war-themed drama In the Valley of Elah to the famed Edwardian stacked theater three years later for a return visit.
“Of course I asked for the Elgin again,” Haggis says of his latest film, the relationship drama Third Person. “It’s really exciting to be able to take a film back to Toronto and that beautiful old theater.” Written, directed and produced by Haggis, 60, Third Person will make its world premiere Sept. 9. Liam Neeson, Mila Kunis, Adrien Brody, Olivia Wilde, James Franco and Moran Atias star as three couples involved in interlocking love stories.
The New York-based divorced father of four took a break from working on the lm’s mix at London’s Boom Studios to speak to THR about revisiting the multistoryline structure he explored in Crash, how a coffee with Atias provided the inspiration for Third Person and why he’s done talking about Scientology.
You are not the kind of ﬁlmmaker who bangs out a script every year. Are you particularly methodical with your writing process?
I wish I could. My God, I wish I was Woody Allen. But then again, who doesn’t? It takes longer for me to get a script right. And Third Person was the longest one ever for me. Million Dollar Baby took me a year to write, while Crash took a few months but then a year of research. So this one took two-and-a-half years. Then we got financing, and it went fairly quickly after that.
What was the genesis of Third Person?
I was in the last few weeks of shooting The Next Three Days and looking for my next project. [Moran Atias] and I were having coffee. She suggested that maybe I should do a sort of Crash for relationships -- about how they go bad, how we destroy the things we love and the various ways that you can either save or ruin a relationship, which I’m interested in. We talked for quite a while about that. I started digging into some books. I started writing one story. I then created a multicharacter, multistoryline piece out of it. I wrote it all backwards. I wrote it from the inside out rather than structure it first, which was a huge mistake. Being a structuralist, I should know a lot better.
This is your ﬁrst multistoryline screenplay since Crash. How do the two screenplays diﬀer from each other?
It’s not the same narrative structure. In Crash, the characters are led to each other. These are more parallel stories. They’re intertwined in a very odd way. They don’t know each other for the most part.
Where did you draw inspiration from?
Pretty much my life, as with Crash. You see things, you hear things, you feel things, and then you fictionalize those things. While I can’t say I’m any of the characters, I’m also all the characters. And the women are women I loved, although they’d never recognize themselves. I was also inspired by time I spent in Italy years ago. I was very interested in how Gypsies were treated there. I wanted to [delve into] what it would be like to be one. I had a love-hate relationship with Italy. I created a man, a salesman there, who just hated everything about Italy. He falls for the one woman he should never fall for and decides to trust someone who is completely untrustworthy. He has reasons for doing that.
You are recently divorced. Did that play a role in shaping the story?
Of course these things go on personally in your life. There is always something going on. It raises questions about the nature of love. Take the cynical view. If you can get your partner to change into someone that you think you can truly love, you may no longer love them. Do people become what you infuse them with? If you trust someone who’s completely untrustworthy, if you believe despite all the evidence, do they become trustworthy? Will they rise to that? Or if you damn them, do they become damnable? And so there are those three questions I was asking. And those three questions are spun out in the story.
You’ve written big-budget ﬁlms like Casino Royale. But your directing vehicles are more intimate. Do you ever feel the temptation to direct a big-budget ﬁlm?
I’m thinking of doing a big one next. I’ve been developing a script for a few years from a series of books called The Ranger’s Apprentice. It’s young adult, but it’s quite dark. I don’t like talking about these things because it’s Hollywood. It’s all bullshit ’til it happens.
What has kept you from diving into the deep end of the studio ﬁlmmaking pool?
It’s hugely scary, all of the special effects and all that action. The wonderful thing about directing a film like Third Person is that you bring in wonderful actors, you rehearse, and then decide where you’re going to put the camera and capture it. Usually, you don’t bring that to the big-budget film.
You wrote an open letter in THR in July praising Leah Remini’s break with Scientology. What kind of feedback did you receive?
I’m in London, so I’m fairly insulated from any feedback. I figured what I would do is make this like the last letter I write on the subject and then leave it alone. After the letter, I was asked to do a number of interviews. I turned them all down. I plan to continue turning them all down.
Born: March 10, 1953
Film in Toronto: Third Person
Selected Filmography: Crash (2004), Million Dollar Baby (2004), In the Valley of Elah (2007)
Notable Awards: Academy Award, best original screenplay and best picture, Crash; BAFTA, best original screenplay, Crash; Writers Guild of America, best original screenplay, Crash