You do not think Paul Haggis is an OK filmmaker. You love his work (“In the Valley of Elah”), or you can’t stand it (“The Next Three Days”). You admire him for tackling difficult subjects (“Crash,” “Million Dollar Baby”) or find him manipulative and shallow. Maybe both.
Mostly, the divisive Canadian filmmaker—whose scripts for “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash” both led to best picture wins (and a best original screenplay Oscar for “Crash,” which Haggis also directed)—wants this. He loves movies that get people arguing, and he’d never want to make one people called “nice.” Because of this interest in debate, Haggis, 61, says “Third Person,” opening Friday, is “not a date movie; it’s a double date movie.”
That’s a good line. You may think the film, a collection of stories (featuring Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, James Franco, Mila Kunis, Adrien Brody and Kim Basinger) about flailing relationships and lost children, also is filled with resonant quips about love and trust—or not. Again, that’s what Haggis wants. He also claims he’s only happy when he’s miserable—as reflected in our chat at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel about his varying degrees of professional woe.
“Million Dollar Baby”
“You talk about a movie that’s about girl boxing and euthanasia [laughs], so I didn’t think any audience would come to see that. Thank God Clint Eastwood stepped up to direct that and did a marvelous job.”
“[That] was a tough one. As a writer it was a real challenge because I knew I was going to present stereotypes in the beginning. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to say, ‘OK, you’re in the dark theater. I’m going to reinforce every stereotype you’ve ever thought of anybody and say, “It’s OK, I know you’re a big liberal. Sit back and relax.” ‘Hispanics fail to park their cars on the lawn’ and ‘Asians don’t know how to drive’ and reinforce all these horrible things that, somewhere in the back of your mind, you think.
“But as soon as I was able to do that and make you comfortable, then I can start twisting you around in your seat and make these characters contradictory. So that made me uncomfortable knowing that it could be misunderstood. [I] had nightmares about that.”
“In the Valley of Elah”
“It was a movie about the war, and we were just a few years into the war at that time. ... We just started when I started writing it. And I knew that America didn’t want to see this movie; I knew they didn’t want to be challenged about these things. Even liberals at that point were really supporting the war. I said it was going to be impossible for me to get Americans to empathize with the Iraqis. ‘I don’t know I’ll ever do that, but maybe they can empathize with their own men, women, the soldiers who are going over, trying to be heroes and doing the best they can and seeing what happens to them.’ So that was going to be a challenge I knew.”
“The Next Three Days”
“I had never done that kind of form before. I really loved exploring a character in the middle of a suspense thriller or a caper or whatever kind of film that is and crawling inside of that guy’s mind and asking questions: What would you do for love? How far would you go?”
“I’ve been in the situation where you try to get someone to face something, and you see if they’ll look at it, [if] they’ll change. I’ve been there when I’ve trusted someone who’s untrustworthy. I had an ex-girlfriend who used to say, ‘You only want me to open up to you. It’s just a game, and the moment [I] do, the moment I truly am vulnerable, you’ll betray me.’ I thought, ‘Wow, that’s interesting; this person with major trust issues, but maybe she’s right.’ I like writing from the point of view of people who disagree with me, who I disagree with.”
More from Haggis:
-- “I remember after I wrote ‘Million Dollar Baby’ my wife at the time wouldn’t speak to me for a week. She said, ‘You have to change the ending.’ I said, ‘I can’t.’ A week later she went, ‘Yeah, of course you can’t.’”
-- “If you hold up a mirror to somebody and say, ‘This is you, look at this! Come on, look at this, face this!’ Who’s reflected in that mirror, you or them? And does that work? Does damning someone actually work, or are you doomed to lose?”
-- “A lot of criticism I got at the time [of ‘Crash’], in fact I remember the Hollywood Reporter said at the time, ‘Oh, please. This is an old story. If this had been released 10 years ago we’d call it brave, but we don’t have these problems anymore.’ While I was reading that, there was a race riot at the Santa Monica high school. As liberals we love to think we’ve solved all the problems ‘cause we’re good people. The basic conceit of ‘Crash’ is it’s liberals who have to really look at themselves. It’s people like myself whose pride tells them we’re good people; those are the people you should watch out for. It’s not the obvious villains in life that you should be careful of; it’s the ones who think they have everything worked out.”
-- “[With ‘Crash’] I was trying to point the finger at me. All those characters are doing things that I have felt—or maybe haven’t felt but can imagine feeling. I try to challenge myself. I don’t try to challenge the audience, I try to challenge myself. Here I wanted to say, ‘OK, I’m not sure this is a good movie, but I think it’s going to be a good social experiment. I’m going to [bleep] with you here.’”
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