Paul Haggis: 'You have to question your beliefs'

It took time, but Paul Haggis is now one of the US's most respected directors. He talks to Cath Clarke about being serious, being stupid, and being a Scientologist

The Guardian, UK/January 6, 2011

Paul Haggis is sitting ramrod straight, like a retired boxer or an ex-soldier: at ease but unslouchy, hands resting on his knees. He looks the part, too - starched not scruffy. Maybe he's braced for the inevitable Scientology questions, which, over this last year, he has swatted away as often as not. To recap the particulars: last August he wrote an angry, eloquent letter resigning from the church, slamming its leadership for not rebuking "gay-bashing" members. In October a blogger got hold of the letter; not exactly up there with WikiLeaks, perhaps, but it did make headlines around the world. Some admirers were surprised, too: a sincere and serious-minded director such as Haggis was a Scientologist? Who would have thought it?

In Hollywood, Haggis might overlap with the radical-chic of someone like Paul Greengrass, but Haggis is more emotional, more about the little guy. His films have mostly done brisk business, too, for a man who once joked that the "liberal" tag was a bit rightwing for him. Brisk enough for the custodians of the Bond franchise to entrust him with co-writing the two most recent movies. If Haggis wasn't so sincere and serious, you might begin to suspect him of having made a little soul-trading pact along the line somewhere.

So it seems appropriate to mention Scientology. That was a pretty public breakup, wasn't it? He stiffens. "Right. Yes." Did he ever imagine it might blow up the way it did? He laughs. "Of course not. No. It was very personal." The letter was private, written to his friends, although he did get warning it was about to go public. The blogger (a former Scientologist) contacted him to verify it wasn't a fake. The day after it was published, Haggis went online. "Only two blogs had picked it up. I thought: thank God. And at the same time … only two?" When he checked again the story was wall to wall. "Six hundred of the top newspapers had it. I was like: What? I'm a writer, I'm a director."

As the world discovered, he had been a Scientologist for 35 years, though a pretty recalcitrant one, judging from his letter. It reads like a pile-up of frustrations, but his chief objection was the church's failure to rein in San Diego members backing Proposition 8 ("hate-filled legislation", Haggis called it), which banned same-sex marriage in California. He also took swipe at the denial of "disconnection": the Scientology practice whereby members are allegedly told to break off contact with their friends and families. His own wife, he wrote, was ordered to disconnect from her parents.

Did he lose friends in the wake of it? "Of course." It was a pretty brave thing to do, I suggest. "Stupid."

Actually, there is form in his family for run-ins with religious authority. He was raised Catholic and when he was 13, his mum pulled up the parish priest for buying a new Cadillac. "The priest said, 'I thought about this a lot and God wants me to have a Cadillac.' My mom told the priest that she had thought about it a lot, too, and God did not want them going to mass at his church any more. So I take that from her, I guess. No matter what your belief, you have to be able to question it."

One question is left hanging. There's no way of asking without being facetious or plain rude: wasn't he a bit of an unlikely Scientologist? Think of Scientology and it's toothy, insincere Hollywood - your Cruises and your Travoltas - that comes to mind. Maybe Haggis is waiting for the question, too. "I think there was always something in me that like being attached to a group that nobody likes. If I had to be in a group, at least it wasn't a popular one."

As a film-maker, Haggis seemed to come out of nowhere a few years ago, only hitting his stride as a writer/director in his early 50s. He was 51 when Clint Eastwood's film of his Million Dollar Baby script won best picture at the Oscars in 2005. A year later he not only wrote the best picture, Crash, he also directed it. Haggis had arrived in LA nearly 30 years earlier, aged 24, to make movies. "It took me a long time to get around to it," he says with the faintest trace of a smile. Does he ever wonder how life might have turned out if he had turned in a knockout script at 25? "You wouldn't be talking to me now. It would have gone to my head. I would have been miserable. I am miserable anyways, but at least I'm miserable and successful. Even a modicum of celebrity is hard to deal with. You see it with actors and directors all the time."

In the intervening years he slogged away in TV - his first writing job, at 26, was on Scooby-Doo. He'd grown up in Canada, spending his summers working for his dad, who ran a construction business. The old man gently put it to his son that he might not be cut out for the building trade and encouraged his artistic ambitions.

"I earned a good living as a bad writer for many years," he says. Working on sitcoms like Diff'rent Strokes before graduating to quality TV, including the late 80s relationship drama Thirtysomething, he was earning buckets of money, and won an Emmy, but nevertheless he says he was nagged by disappointment. The final straw came when he was fired from a show he'd created. Paid off for the year, he sat down and wrote Crash and Million Dollar Baby on spec.

Now that Haggis's reputation is secure, we can safely lob the suggestion that Haggis' films ladle on the sentiment far too much. But Haggis says he's always fighting it. "But we are sentimental. We watch movies. And we want sentiment. We go, 'Oh that's nice.' And then we damn the film-maker for it."

The idea for Crash, he says, had been simmering since 1991, when he was carjacked outside a video shop. He had a typical writer's response: who were those kids who pulled a gun on him? Million Dollar Baby, with its brutal, gut-wrenching ending, was adapted from short stories by FX Toole. "When my wife read that script," he says, "she wouldn't speak to me for a week. But I said, 'It's the story.'" It took another four years to sell it. He must have had a lot of faith in his work. No, he says, that was his wife, too; she even suggested selling the house. "She truly believed in me."

Within five years, in an industry that lionises youth, Haggis had become a leading film-maker. It's hard to think of another commercial director who does what he does. He makes - or he has until now - films possessed of seriousness and social responsibility, driven by issues: race in Crash, mercy-killing in Million Dollar Baby, the Iraq war in In the Valley of Elah. He says he wanted to stop the war with the latter. "I didn't do a very good job, did I?" He laughs mirthlessly.

Which brings us to his new film, The Next Three Days, which stars Russell Crowe. It's a departure from classic Haggis territory on two counts. First, it's a remake: of the 2008 French film Anything for Her. Second, there are no capital-letter issues here whatsoever, just a down-the-line procedural thriller. Crowe plays a college English teacher whose wife (Elizabeth Banks) has been convicted of murdering her boss in a fit of rage. Convinced she's innocent, he resolves to spring her out of jail. The trouble is, he doesn't have a clue how. He's a big softy, more familiar with Don Quixote than Don Corleone. When Haggis started writing, he asked himself how he would go about a crash-course in criminality. First stop, of course, is Google. Haggis found a world of handy instructional videos online. Unlock your car with a tennis ball! "I rewrote and reshot them because of copyright issues. But they're all up there."

Then there's the Russell Crowe issue. You do wonder if Crowe, notorious roughhouse as he is, is bit of a hard sell as a mild-mannered prof. Did Haggis worry about that? Yes and no, only for a minute. "His action films are iconic. But look at him in A Beautiful Mind. Look at him in The Insider - I needed a really good actor."

A quick glance at lukewarm reviews in America suggests The Next Three Days may not deliver a repeat of Oscar glories. Does he have a fear of going to prison himself? Plenty do. "I don't, but my God I should. I'm such an antsy type of person. I can't write in a room without other people around. I write in coffee shops. I'd go crazy."

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