Writing mostly TV episodes for years, Paul Haggis became an overnight household name with the success of his Oscar winning 2005 film, Crash. He’s the first screenwriter ever to win back-to-back, best screenplay Academy Awards when he won for his Million Dollar Baby script after Crash, and he had a hand in writing the first two James Bond scripts for Daniel Craig’s newer, but not so gentler, portrayal of 007.
Walking the line between pure dramatist and thrill provider, Haggis’ new film, Third Person, examines personal relationships through the interwoven stories of people all over the world dealing with a wide array of personal problems. We sat down for a roundtable discussion with the writer/director and delved into the thoughts of man who says every character he has ever written, is part of himself, in one way or another.
How much of this was biographical?
Paul Haggis: All of it.
No, I mean, what I do is I start out by asking questions. I start obviously with relationships I’ve had. Things that have failed. Things that have worked. Mostly failed. And I ask questions about those things, and then I will put them into stories in which people would not recognize themselves, because I wanted to explore different aspects of how “I’d failed or how I’d possibly succeed if I had done something better or if I had done something less.”
So that’s really what I did. I look at Liam Neeson character, and he does explore a lot of things that I was exploring, especially about how damn selfish we are to be writers and how other people often pay the price for that selfishness. I’ve thanked God that I have never gone through a tragedy like he goes through or other characters go through, but I can imagine myself there. Often it’s children who pay the price for our selfishness.
I was young. I moved to Hollywood when I was 22. I was married. I had a kid right away. And I had worked as a furniture mover amongst various other jobs, and I’d work eight, ten hours a day to support my family— and I’d come home and write for two hours a night or two and a half, or three hours a night. You love your kids, but—I think anyone who is pursuing a career seriously has to answer those questions. So that’s the guilt I carry. It’s a very real guilt, it’s just in a fictional form.
Julia [Mila Kunis] asks Rick [James Franco], “Why do you get to play God?” but that seems to be a question that could be asked of Michael [Liam Neeson] which in turn could be asked to you, right?
Exactly. Absolutely true. It’s a question I have as a filmmaker and also as a human being, because often—. Pride is my biggest sin; it’s the reason why it’s one of the seven deadly sins. We often think we are good. We often think we are right in a relationship. We often that we are the sensible one and whatever. I remember being in a relationship and this woman said to me, “It’s just a game, you wanting me to open up to you, that’s all it is, it’s just a game. If I’m finally completely vulnerable to you. If I open up and I trust you completely, you’ll just betray me.” And I went, wow, this is a woman with serious trust issues, but what if she’s right? And that “but/if” is how I write this movie.
I often like to write from the point of view of characters that I completely disagree with because that challenges me and that gets me to look at my own justifications, rationalizations, bullshit… And—
The God issue, but also the overcoming bad choices thing which is the other—
Yeah, yeah. It’s something that always haunts me. And playing God as a writer, but especially the person is something that haunts me.
I thought that the film title, “The Third Person,” is very interesting because everybody has a someone who could be “The Third Person,” but “The Third Person” could be an objective point of view to look at—
There are many ways to interpret it. Yes, because also, it’s exactly what you said, there’s always a third person in a relationship. You just often don’t know who that person is. You think it’s your mother-in-law, and it’s actually someone from the past that’s keeping you from moving on or keeping you from connecting with somebody. I don’t keep a journal. I love the idea that Liam’s character Michael distances himself so much from his own feelings that he actually journals from the third person. And then she picks that up, and they talk in the third person, they flirt, they have these fabulous times—and they also talk to each other incredibly cruelly that way too. They’re characters in their own lives as they are working through them, and I think that’s a fascinating psychological aspect because I did that at one point.
There’s an erratic nature to your characters. I don’t know if it’s intentional. Or is Liam Neeson writing in some things himself, changing as he goes along.
It’s both. For me, the most interesting people are ones who often work against their best interests. Bad choices. They go in directions where you go, “No no no nooo!” You push away someone who is trying to love you, you hurt someone who’s trying to get your trust, or you love someone you shouldn’t. Often another thing I was exploring in this was—we all think, “I just keep finding the wrong person in life.” At some point I thought, “What if the wrong person is really the right person? What if you need to be with the wrong person? Maybe that’s what you truly need and even want.” But in this case you see these people who are opposites, polar opposites, and all of their relationships are drawn together, pulled apart, drawn together. They’re completely wrong for each other and yet some of it works out and some of it doesn’t. I think there’s not much logic involved.
Can you share some of the memories of the funny things that happened as you were filming? The most stressful things? What the cast is like?
It’s tough, because once we start doing press, you obviously start thinking of only the positive things and all of the actual anecdotes, the things that caused you pain, just go out of your head. In fact it’s not during press, it’s after you finish— that’s why you’re in post-production, you’re trying to put it all away. There was surprisingly little friction on the set. I think once poor Liam, I put Liam into a shower, and he had to step out while she’s on the bed naked reading his journal. This is a set we built, and so I wanted there to be steam coming out of that shower. So, I put him in there and then the DP starts talking to me, with the hot water running [Laughs]. The DP starts talking to me and then an actress, somebody starts saying something, Olivia is asking me something or whatever and we’re rolling, right, and then finally Liam screams, “I’m God damned scalding in here! You’re burning [me you] son of a bitch!” “Oh, oh, sorry, action!” He was waiting very patiently in there for his action cue for way too long. When he came out he was quite red. I felt so bad because I almost fried the poor man.
One of the little pleasures in the movie is seeing Liam Neeson not have a gun in his hand.
Yeah. But he’s one of our best actors. I remember talking to him about doing a film years ago, it was about the a tragedy, and I’d wanted him to play a role in a drama that I wanted to do and I thought he’d be very good. And he really wanted to do it. It was something I hadn’t written but something I was planning to direct. So, I talked to my financiers and they’re like, “I don’t know. Liam Neeson… He’s not really worth a lot, you know, foreign value.” I said, “He’s a brilliant actor. I’m going to go meet him.” So I had lunch with him.
It was great. I realized he was perfect for the role. He’s such a lovely man as well. And then at the end of the dinner he said, “Paul, I just did this little film. I just did it for the movie. It was kind of obscure; I hope no one sees it.” And that was Taken. And then the same producers three months later came back to me and said, “Do you think we could get Liam Neeson for this role?” That’s how fickle our business is. I never ended up doing the movie, but that’s how fickle our business is.
Did you have to fight, even in your own head, because he somehow now comes with that kind of aura—an action star? Did you ever find yourself saying, “Well, do I think he could play this type of role again?”
Not for a second. I chased him from the moment I finished writing the script. No. I mean, look at the great movies he’s done, but he hasn’t had the chance to play a romantic lead. And of course I don’t tell him this is with Olivia Wilde either- oh well, that’s a different story!
And women love him, that’s the thing. The women really do like him.
Yeah they do.
Did some of the actors ad-lib or did they stick to your script?
I gave them the freedom to do that, and there were lines that changed, but not a lot. We didn’t have a lot of rehearsal time. We had very little, in fact. I often feel if an actor is skilled and can understand the scene and what your intent is, because it isn’t always obvious on the page, if they can do that then they can act it. I gave them the freedom to improvise, but most of them didn’t.
It’s kind of everyone’s nightmare to be in the hallway of a hotel naked, I’ve had that nightmare myself— [Laughs]
I wished I’d had that experience—
Tell me; was she on board with that?
Completely, and that was the great thing about working for Olivia is I told her from the beginning, “Olivia, you’re going to be buck naked in this movie. You have to be in on that from the beginning.” and she said, “Okay, I can do that for you.” She knew what the scene was too, but she knew what that scene was. And she made it so comfortable for us in a way by saying it’s not a big deal. Of course, I closed the set. Of course, it was only me, the DP, and the cameraman. That was a set, thank God, that we built, Larry Bennett, my production designer, built the Hotel—both of those Hotels. The Mercer Hotel and the Saint Jacques we built completely on a stage in Rome. So, she’s not really running down a set of stairs, the stairs go to nothing, they go to a pit, and then she comes down the next one. She just embraced it. I think she did an interview, I didn’t notice, but she said in-between takes she was standing there eating pizza completely buck naked. [Laughs] I wanted it to be joyous. I didn’t want it to be sleazy in any way. And it’s so much fun to watch her: she’s so vulnerable in that moment. As a character that hasn’t been vulnerable, who’s been quite cruel before this, you want to see that other side of her.
What was your fascination that you would make the characters somehow intertwine one way or the other?
Well, this idea was brought to me by one of the actresses, Moran Atias, when I was sitting on the set of The Next Three Days. In the last week of shooting, she came in to do a small role in there; she had two days at the beginning, a day at the end and she had a couple of days in between.
She asked if she could sit on the set and watch, and maybe she wanted to learn how to direct or something, or where the cameras were, and so I said, “Yeah, you can sit over there. She’s beautiful so the guys see her, and they all want to talk to her, so there wasn’t a problem there. At some point she started pitching ideas to me for movies, which I felt was excessively annoying; [Laughs] I’m trying to direct a movie. The first one was a holocaust movie. I’m not going to do a holocaust movie thank you very much! It’s been done too well before; I don’t know anything else I can say about it. And then she said, “You should do something about relationships [in] multi-story like what you did with Crash.” My first instincts were to reject it, and I went, “That’s interesting.”
And so we started talking, this movie wrapped and we were both heading back to New York. We started talking, and we met and I actually recorded her for 50 hours as she talked about her relationships, things with friends and things she’d seen fail, and all sorts of stories. Then she went away after a week or so. I sat there and started thinking of mine and where I had failed. How do you succeed in a relationship if you have somebody who you believe is totally untrustworthy— what if you just decided to trust them, despite all of the evidence? You’re not a stupid person; you’re a smart person. You know they’re probably lying to you, but just decide to trust them and just decide to believe in somebody who is inherently unbelievable. What happens? Is love transformative? Is that amount of acceptance transformative?
It’s a very romantic notion, and something I tried at a point in a relationship. What’s the flip side? What if you damn somebody? What if you insist on saying, “This is you. I know who you are. I know what you did, you won’t admit it— just admit it and everything can be fine.” What happens then? Do you win that way? So that became another story. And then of course, the story with Liam is that if you get what you want do you no longer want it? It’s a very cynical view. But if someone finally opens up to you, do you then inherently betray them? The story changed radically over two and a half years; what the betrayal was, who the characters were. It went back and forth and changed a lot as I let these characters take me to places, and then finally realized what I was writing about. That came to me very slowly. After about a year. “Ohhh, this is what I’m writing about!”
Can you talk about Julia [Mila Kunis] the character? It was hard to see which parent was destroying their poor little kid more.
Yes, I know. First of all, it’s better that those questions are there and you’re unsure of the answers, because at the end of that I wanted you to go in thinking one thing, “Okay, she’s a screw up but she’s never going to hurt her kid.” And then he makes it safe for her to confess, and she does. Then he betrays her and as he’s pulling her out she says, “I lied, I lied! I said it just because, just so I could see—” And if you think back— I love planting clues with humor early on. The scene where she’s making the bed with the maid and she’s talking to the fact that she used to be on a soap opera, and she goes, “Yeah, I got my job because I can cry on cue.” Is that was she’s doing there? So…
But all of the characters really do have an ambiguous ending—
Is that more to play to the idea that there is that open-sidedness to each of their stories or each of the situations? If that’s the case, is that an optimistic thing or a pessimistic thing?
No, I don’t know if the stories themselves are ambiguous. The movie is ambiguous, but the stories—you pretty much see who wins and who loses in this film. And it’s not always the same thing. There are those who trust and don’t always win. Olivia’s character trusts but doesn’t always win. You see the Gypsy and Adrien— they decide to trust each other and you see how that turns out.
Do you think of yourself more as a writer or a director? And obviously do you draw on biographical inspiration?
All my work is partly biographical. I mean, Crash was absolutely that, absolutely. But you just wouldn’t recognize me in most of those characters. But I was in every single one of those characters in Crash, because those were all fears that I had felt. Things that I had thought in my deepest, darkest heart. I just project them on other people: mostly villains. But you just wouldn’t recognize me. I always write like that. In The Next Three Days, even though it was a prison breakout movie, I was asking myself, “What would I do? How far would I go for the woman I loved? How far would I go and what would I do when the person then told me that they were guilty? Could I still believe in them?” So it was very personal. In the Valley of Elah as well. Here it’s just easier because there’s a writer in it to save me, but all of my films are written like that. And the people around me sometimes recognize themselves and sometimes don’t. Occasionally someone—my ex-wife did say that line to me, I’m sure she’ll remember it, “Don’t try to get sympathy, Paul or you shall be reading this conversation in the next draft.” And I went, “oh, that’s good” and I wrote that down. So that happens.
And that was your ex-wife?
My ex-wife is my best reader, and she’s always been my best reader. Absolutely. She always did and still remains my best friend and my best reader.
Third Person is now playing in select cities.