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Crashing with Paul Haggis: An interview with Hollywood’s new go-to drama guy.
by Greg Ursic

I’m a little nervous about my interview with Paul Haggis, veteran TV scribe, the man responsible for the screen adaptation of Million Dollar Baby and the writer/director of the just released Crash (not to be confused with David Cronenberg’s film of the same name).

I get the heebie-jeebies before any interview - but this day is proving to be something special. It starts with my printer: it has fallen victim to the dreaded “General Protection Fault” error. No biggie, I download my questions to my Palm Pilot and wander outside to catch my bus, smug in the knowledge that I’m 5 minutes early. The bus doesn’t show. However, after twenty-five minutes with no taxis in sight, my transit chariot finally shows up.

I arrive at the hotel with 10 minutes to spare and proceed to the concierge desk. I ask the smiling young woman behind the counter which suite they’re using for the interviews and she replies “I don’t know if I’m allowed to give out that information”. I then ask if she could call the publicist to get permission to release the room number. She replies “I’m not sure if I can do that”. My nervousness is now well on its way to panic. She turns to a colleague and they whisper back and forth casting the occasional furtive glance my way, then make a hushed call. Moments later I’m on the elevator to the 18th floor. Disaster avoided - or so I think.

I walk to the suite, the door of which is slightly ajar, and hearing conversation from within knock ever so slightly on the door in case there’s an interview in progress. I’m greeted with a hearty “Come in” and am greeted by Julia, a publicist I know well. We exchange pleasantries and I comment that she seems a little out of sorts. “Uh, we seem to have lost Paul” she replies. Pardon? “Yeah, I’m trying to find out where he went. Would you like some coffee, or fruit maybe?” and she pops out into the hallway, cell phone pressed to her ear. Moments later I hear the elevator doors opening followed by a relieved “Oh there you are. Thank god” and she ushers Paul into the room.

A native of London, Ontario, Paul Haggis originally wanted to be a fashion photographer, but, at the tender age of 22 decided to head to Hollywood and try his hand at writing. He quickly found work as a scribe for Diff’rent Strokes which proved to be a stepping-stone to a lengthy career as a writer for such series as The Facts of Life , Due South and Thirty Something (which he both wrote and produced). Haggis’ most ambitious effort, however, was EZ Streets, a darkly cynical series that followed an undercover cop as he struggled to deal with mobsters and a corrupt police department. A hit with critics, it had trouble finding an audience. Haggis notes that it was also his favorite; “It was a wonderful failure. Almost no one [saw it], but you have to know when you’ve done good work and know you’ve pleased yourself. And I did.”

Haggis enjoyed nearly three decades of steady work and a lucrative career, but something was missing. “I finally just got to a point with television where I just wasn’t happy with what I was doing. I mean I’d just been compromising myself and shows I really wanted to do for TV just didn’t seem to interest them [the networks].” So in 2000 he traded in a steady pay-cheque for the uncertainty of independent films.

Haggis, not content with all his eggs in one basket, opted to write two scripts on spec: the first an adaptation of the stories in FX Toole’s Rope Burns, and the other loosely based on his own carjacking experience years earlier. While both posed unique challenges, Million Dollar Baby was much more difficult to write. “…it was a puzzle - there were so many wonderful stories and I was trying to define them…there was no history with Scrap, no classic structure, [and]…some of the most climactic scenes happened in the middle of the movie. Also some of the stuff we were writing I mean we [he and Bobby Moresco, a long time friend and writing partner] would look at each other and say, “Can we say that?” By comparison, Crash was a piece of cake – well, an accidental cake.

A riveting film that boasts a talented ensemble cast and is being hailed by many as the best film of 2005 so far, Crash]/i] almost didn’t happen. “I never intended to write Crash at all,” Haggis admits, but two days after the carjacking he couldn’t get the incident out of his mind. “The ideas were haunting me – I just woke up at 2:00 in the morning and just started writing about them [the carjackers], and who they bumped into.” According to Haggis, everything just fell into place, “I thought ‘What did we do when we got home at 2:00 in the morning?’ Well, we changed the locks…I asked myself how would I have felt if the kid who came to change our locks at two in the morning was Hispanic and looked like a gangbanger, had tattoos - would I have felt safe - and I said “No”, and I thought “Wow, that’s pretty dark stuff.” But Haggis wanted more than a simple account of the fictionalized version of him and his wife; “I wondered what happened to him [the locksmith], and I just kept following these characters and they twisted and turned.” Haggis beams, “By 10:00 am I had all the stories done. I called Bobby Moresco and said ‘I have 30 or 40 pages here’ and we wrote the story in two days.”

With a working script in hand they decided to do a run through. “We got a bunch of actor friends together, we edited, we got some interesting input, then we took another couple weeks to write, and that was it, the script was finished.” While everyone they showed the script to thought it was great, the consensus was it wouldn’t sell – no one thought there was a market for films about race relations in a post 9/11 world. Haggis was no exception “We really did believe, I mean, I did, in my gut, that no one would make these [Million Dollar Baby] and Crash]. But I had no choice, this was important to me – I wanted to explore questions I didn’t have answers for. So I was just compelled to do it.” Luckily for Haggis, it appears that fortune does indeed favor the brave.

I asked Haggis if the transition from writer to director was difficult. Apparently not. “It’s much easier to direct than to write. When you direct you just have 165 people staring at you wanting to know what to do. With writing you have that blinking cursor staring at you, which is much more difficult. That’s hard work. Directing is easy. I have great respect for directors, but compared to writing, I like directing.”

So would he rather be working on the big screen or the small screen? “Whichever one I’m not doing,” he laughs. He points at the opposite side of the room and explains “You always think ‘that looks better over there.’ With TV you can take those characters and twist and turn them for about 24 episodes. It’s great fun, but after 10 or 11 episodes, you want to put a gun in your mouth - your brain is fried and you just want to put yourself out of your misery. At least with films you know it’s going to end.” He adds with a smile, “That’s why most of my series end prematurely - because I sabotage them.” (Note: we were laughing so hard at this point that this part of the exchange was extremely difficult to transcribe).

With more than half a dozen principle characters in Crash, it was a full time job just trying to keep track of everyone on the storyboards. I asked Haggis if he had a favorite character in the film. He quickly replied, “I don’t think I have any favorites…” then stopped himself mid-sentence, “No that’s not true, I loved Chris [“Ludacris” Bridges] and Larenz Tate’s characters [the carjackers], as they were just so much fun. They kept bringing levity to the plot… They’re the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the piece. If everyone wants a hero, even the villains can believe themselves to be heroes. That’s good drama. Also, you don’t want to take yourself too seriously, so as soon as a character said something serious it was the other person’s job to undercut them.”

It wasn’t all played for laughs however. Crash is not a lightweight film – it deals with some weighty issues, and is often difficult to watch – but that is what makes it stand out: there is no simple black or white, with regards to either ethnicity or morality, and every character undergoes a metamorphosis of varying degrees. As someone who works in a multicultural environment, I was struck by Haggis’ ability to move beyond simple stereotypes (with a few exceptions) in his characterizations and was curious how he achieved this. “It’s easy to do,” he said before pausing, “IF you do a lot of research. I read 20 or 30 nonfiction books [on the subject] to prepare myself and met with a lot of people. If you know all the given circumstances, it’s easy to put yourself in that person’s place, as long as you don’t judge that person.”

I asked whether he would have written this film if he still lived in Canada, and he shook his head. “No. God, no. It’s about my 28 years in Los Angeles, it’s what I’ve observed and the things that have happened to me.” However he added that it just wasn’t about LA, “I think it’s about the world around us right now. It’s the fact that we’re moving further and further from each other and we don’t feel safe. And paradoxically we only really feel safe when we’re surrounded by strangers.”

With all the fluff and the special effects laden flicks at the local multiplex, why should anyone go see a film about racism in LA written by an upper class white Canadian male? “Well they shouldn’t,” Haggis says laughing, “if somebody pitched it to me as ‘honey let’s go see this movie about racism in Los Angeles this weekend’, I’d go ‘Oh please, let’s go see this sword and sandal thing instead.’” He stops for a moment, and chooses his words carefully “It’s a story about strangers, and how we affect strangers. This isn’t about ‘the bad white people’ or anything like that– I hate those kinds of movies… Racism was just a way to demark strangers. I think because it talks about the fact that we all contain contradictions, and it’s really illuminates who we are and what we’re capable of both for good and frailty and it’s a great ride.” While he admits to being “…the most cynical optimist I know,” he’s especially thrilled with the post film dialogue Crash has generated. “When you go out and it doesn’t end, you have to ask questions, argue with your spouse about it, get together with your friends and say that’s bullshit or that’s right…”

Haggis currently has several projects in the works, which includes teaming up with Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg for an adaptation of James Bradley’s Flags of Our Fathers. So how does the former small town guy deal with the deluge of attention as the new drama-go-to-guy, and being on a first name basis with some of the biggest names in Hollywood? “I still don’t believe it now. Clint called me, and my wife said Clint’s on the phone and I’m like “Yeah, right.” Oh, it is. It’s remarkable and humbling to be in their presence.”

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originally posted: 05/11/05 12:20:24
last updated: 05/12/05 03:10:04
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