Paul Haggis has the distinction of having written the screenplays for consecutive best picture Oscar winners: 2004's "Million Dollar Baby" and 2005's "Crash" (which he also directed). The 61-year-old Canadian native also has had an extensive TV career, and has won multiple Emmys for writing and producing the hit series "Thirtysomething." In addition, he's been in the news lately for his very public break with the Church of Scientology, which he belonged to for more than 30 years. Haggis' latest film, "Third Person," opening next Friday, features Liam Neeson, Mila Kunis, Adrien Brody, Olivia Wilde, James Franco and Maria Bello in a series of overlapping stories about family, marriage and children. Lewis Beale interviewed the prolific writer-director by phone.
Given this and "Crash," it seems you have a thing for intertwining story lines with multiple characters.
This is actually antithetical to "Crash," because, unlike in "Crash," these folks never meet. I thought it would be intriguing so that it would be impossible for them to meet. The underlying theme is parents trying to protect their children. It also got me asking questions about how you love somebody, and I thought about what was happening with my own relationship and those of my friends.
Without giving away any spoilers, it's safe to say there's a lot going on in this film, and it's not always clear what it is.
I loved the films in the '70s, from directors like Buñuel, Antonioni, where you didn't quite understand everything, but you had an emotional reaction. Films today give us all the answers, and that's OK, but I wanted one that challenged you, but you have to figure it out.
There are still people out there who insist that "Crash" didn't deserve the Oscar, and that it was homophobia that kept "Brokeback Mountain" from winning. How do you respond to that?
Some of those critics said things like I did not know if it ["Crash"] was a good movie or not, I just wanted it to be a social experiment, and the first third of the movie I just present stereotypes. Then, I twist you around and set you spinning in another direction, and people said you're writing stereotypes. I think it's ridiculous to pit one film against the next. I couldn't vote for my own film, so it's not my fault.
You're one of the many Canadians who've come south to work in the movie and TV industries. What do you folks bring to the party, so to speak?
We look like you, we sound like you, but we don't have your history. So when we stand around and something is happening that you take for granted, you say, "It's nothing," and we say, "What was that, I think it's something?" I think we have an advantage in some ways that we're still outsiders, but we're accepted, and people just don't notice us.
You worked in TV for years, on shows like "thirtysomething," "Walker, Texas Ranger" and "The Facts of Life." What did TV teach you about writing?
How to write quickly. It tells you how to find your story before you write your script.
You had a very public break with Scientology, after they came out in favor of the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8. You also objected to their smearing of ex-members. All this is told in "Going Clear," the Scientology exposé that came out in 2013, and in which you are featured prominently. What's been the fallout from all that?
I live in New York now; if I lived in L.A., I would feel it more often. They can't go through my trash here; I'm pretty much left alone. All they do is attack me online. Wikipedia shut them down, because they were using false names to make comments on people who had posted about Scientology. They say things like "He makes crappy movies," or "I saw him out with a goat last week," and there are a few websites that attack you, but that is pretty obvious.
You've been involved with an organization called Artists for Peace and Justice, which works primarily with poor communities in Haiti. Tell me a little about that.
We've been down there for eight years now, and we saw all this relief that goes there, and a lot helps and a lot is wasted, and a lot goes into the wrong pockets. We decided we weren't going to solve Haiti's problems, the Haitians were. We found some good Haitian partners, and decided to build long-term institutions and fund them. We founded the first free high school in the history of the nation. We're there for the long haul. It's trying to give them a shot, like in "Million Dollar Baby," it's giving them a shot.