There’s never enough time. Too true, Jean Claude van Damme in Timecop. Too true. And nowhere is it more true than when we caught up with writer-producer-director Paul Haggis to talk about his latest film, The Next Three Days.
Seven minutes is barely enough time to scratch the surface with a filmmaker who’s given us great TV (Due South), the screenplay for one of Clint Eastwood’s best films (Million Dollar Baby), and a meaner, edgier James Bond. But it’s better than six, I guess, so let’s be thankful for that.
We caught up with him at The London Film Museum (an incredible venue. Check it out at once!) to talk Russell Crowe, mainstream Hollywood and the legendary Brian Dennehy.
There’s a great image in the film of Russell Crowe staring at a wall filled with pictures, thinking about how he’s going to break his wife out of jail. I just wondered how much that’s representative of you as a filmmaker too. I imagine it must have been a daunting task making this film.
Yeah, and in fact we had those images on my wall while I was planning the piece. And they had an impact. It was overwhelming. The idea of making a movie is just as overwhelming as the idea of breaking someone out of jail. Not really, but just about. [laughs]
It’s all the particular aspects you have to keep an eye on while you’re doing it. And you have to remember the purpose of doing it, while you’ve got all that going on. And you seem to get lost in it.
And did it feel like the most difficult film you’ve made? Because it has a few big action scenes in it.
I had a good crew and I had a decent amount of time. It was not easy, but it wasn’t as hard as Crash.
Does that appeal to you, the action side of things? Would you go further than this, direct a Bond film, perhaps?
I love action, I love suspense, so I’d look forward to tackling something larger. It just has to have a good emotional core, doesn’t it, you know? You have to make people really care for the characters, and then you can go as far as you want.
And you’ve said elsewhere that for your next film you want to go a bit darker. But I thought this film was quite dark. Did you not feel that it was?
[Laughs] I did, but I guess I have a dark side, so I just keep going darker and darker.
I think it’s the light and dark, the play back and forth. It’s the hope and the betrayal. Iit’s the trust and what happens as a result. I don’t know if you’d call Crash a dark film or not, but it has dark moments, it certainly has moments of great hope and light.
You put Russell Crowe’s character through the wringer and take him to quite a low ebb. To such an extent that I began to think, “What’s he going to do? What’s going to happen next?” When you were writing it, did you feel like that? Was it a discovery for you or did you start out with a very clear ‘He’s going to do this, this and then that’?
The whole process was a discovery, right from the beginning of the film. It was based on a French film. I had to reinvent it to make it work for myself, so I had to start from the beginning. How he was going to break out? How would he think about this? I went on the Internet and started doing research from there, and going to Pittsburgh, which is where I was thinking of shooting, and wrote it for that city.
So, I started researching the prison. How would he get out? How does he escape? Well, he’d try to escape through the elevator shaft, or this, so I wrote it along those ways. And then I’d start to think, “Well, now he’s out, so what does he do?” Well, I’d run across the street and I’d walk down the stairs. Ooh, what’s this, it’s a tube station. Let’s hop on this. So, it was literally that.
And I think a lot of the questions that came up during the making of the film were a lot of questions that the original film posed, which helped me, because I just tried to dig deeper into those questions. What would you do if these were the circumstances? And what price would you pay? What would you be willing to do once you start changing into someone who could do this thing? And so, that influenced how I structured the film.
There’s a real father-son theme that comes across in all your films. In this one you’ve got a great father, Brian Dennehy.
Did he take much convincing? Because he’s got , what, two lines?
I thought Brian wouldn’t do it. I’ve always wanted to work with him. I’d seen him, obviously, in a lot of movies, but also watched him while on Broadway, and he’s one of our finest actors. And when I thought of this, trying to cast this, he was the first person I thought of.
I knew he wouldn’t do it, because, as you said, there are two lines in the dad role, but he’s in a lot of scenes and he said two lines. But I thought I’d offer it to him anyway and if he turns me down we’ll do something else. But he said, “No, I’d love to do it.” And I’m so glad he did. He brought such a depth to that character.
Was there any nervousness in approaching him? Do you have that at all, because you’ve also got Russell Crowe on board as well. Do you ever get nervous meeting actors or do you take it in your stride?
Well, I think it’s still the same kid who loved movies right from the beginning, so I see actors I really respect and was so wowed by their work and overwhelmed by what they’ve accomplished so, yeah, I still have that.
And you’ve said you would like to work with Russell Crowe again.
Yes, I would.
What was it about him? Was it a good working relationship?
It was a great relationship I was concerned about working with him because I’d heard all the stories, but it started off with real respect for each other and it blossomed from there.
It was a really good, but hard, working relationship, because there was a lot to achieve in the amount of time. And he was on set almost all the time. He’s a real workhorse. My respect for him grew through the whole process.
As a filmmaker, do you like to spend a lot of time in prep, rehearsing with the actors?
I hate prep. [laughs] I hate everything to do with it. And then, of course, I do it. People force me to do it. My producer does, and thank God. I just want to get to start shooting. But, of course, I get there and nothing’s planned out. What happened to this? And where’s this?
They say, “Well, Paul, you didn’t tell us about that stuff, did you? So …” So, I’ve learned to do a lot of prep. But I just hate it.
But you produce your films as well. That must help you get your own way?
Oh, yeah, I get my own way. [laughs] But it’s like letting everybody know what you want. And specifically, you really have to – when you write the thing you think, “There it is, just do that, guys. Get it from my head and provide these props and the setting and this colour.” Without ever having to tell them. [laughs]
So, I sometimes have to be specific.
And you’ve mentioned this is quite a mainstream film for you.
Do you still feel, even now with the films you’ve done and with the success you’ve had, that you still need to, I guess, dip your toe in that water, not to go too dark?
No, no, I like going dark. I don’t mind doing that. I like to surprise people. I like to subvert expectations. If people expect me to do one thing, I like to do something else. I’m contrary in that way.
Mr Paul Haggis, thank you very much.
The Next Three Days is released on Wednesday 5th January.
Follow Den Of Geek on Twitter right here.