The multi-Oscar winning filmmaker talks about his adrenaline-fuelled new film, The Next Three Days.
The Academy loves him, critics tend to loath him, but whatever your thoughts about Paul Haggis it's hard to question his credentials as a maker of powerful dramatically-inclined cinema. As the first individual to have written Best Picture Oscar-winners two years running, with Million Dollar Baby in 2004 and Crash (which Haggis also directed) in 2005, the Canadian-screenwriter, producer and director has quickly cemented himself as one of Hollywood's most formidable assets. In the flesh, however, he's a lot more humble about his talent than you might expect, as LWLies found out recently when we spoke to Haggis about his new film, The Next Three Days.
LWLies: In the three years since you made In the Valley of Elah how do you think you’ve changed or evolved as a filmmaker?
Haggis: Oh gosh. I hopefully haven’t. I hate learning lessons, it usually means you’re being smacked down, you know? You’ve learned your lesson. I don’t think I have. I’ve maybe gotten a little more proficient as a filmmaker. I work with my DP and crew a little better.
The Next Three days strikes us as a much more complex shoot than Elah in terms of what you’re attempting so you obviously felt confident to step up in that way.
Yeah. I’ve always loved thrillers, I’ve always loved films like Three Days of the Condor and those ’70s movies. I’ve always wanted to make a film like that. I think we, certainly as Americans, all our movies are morality tales, and I love really playing that. I think all of my films have been like that, and this is. It’s about a man who desperately wants something and, well, he’s going to pay a desperate price, which is going to be a price that you would not normally expect in a film like this.
Do you find yourself doing homework before you write or shoot immersing yourself in thriller films?
No. I try to steer clear of that. I don’t want to… They’re already so imprinted on my brain, the films, especially the films of the ’60s and ’70s, or the classic films, the Hitchcock films, things I’ve watched many times. So it’s hard enough to step away from that imagery.
How do you get yourself in the mind set when you’re shooting the action – do you set yourself up for it in a different way or is it just another day on set?
Well you have to do so many set ups, so many shots in a day that you just try and figure out how you’re going to make it through the day. That’s all it is. It’s very technical. And then you just have to remember that if you’re working that fast you can’t forget about the emotion of the characters, that’s what you’re there to do and that’s very easy to forget, the story that you’re trying to tell when you’ve got so many bits and pieces to put together. I think there were 380 scenes or something in this movie when we started out, and I was shooting the same town as my friend Ed Zwick was shooting in and he was complaining because he had 140 scenes. Still, it’s the same page length but it means you have to hop around all over the bloody city to get this thing done. Just for that reason alone you need stamina. The best thing you can do is get some sleep.
When you come to write the screenplay, do you approach the writing in a different way? Can you flavour the script towards a given director?
I think you can. I started to do that with Clint Eastwood by the third script, the third story, and I think you do a better job that way.
How does that happen? Do you just get into his mindset?
Yeah, you know how he’s going to shoot basically. You know the way he’s going to attack the piece and you go, ‘Oh, okay’. So you try and make it work so that your style and his style merge as best as possible.
Is there a danger that you end up not pushing each other as far as you could do? There’s a comfort zone.
No, you just try to manipulate the other person all the time into doing what you want. No, what it is, it’s a matter of being able to communicate clearly as the writer what your intentions are so the director goes, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s great’ and just does it. But Clint is really good at that anyway. He certainly picked out my intention in Million Dollar Baby and the other two films, there were no massive misunderstandings.
It feels like the cliché of the writer in Hollywood is that they’re someway down the pecking order.
Is there a point at which you go beyond that? Is there a sanctity to what you write?
No. You would think so. No.
But then the other cliché is that it’s a world of egos and you need one to survive. So as a successful producer/director/writer, how do you balance that, if you’re still in a position where your script can be changed?
You just live with that as a writer, you just know that’s the case and so they pay you a little more money to compensate for it. It doesn’t. But you try. I think… It’s a delicate thing. You need to have a healthy ego in Los Angeles, just like you need a healthy ego anywhere, but you also really need to be a team player and it is a collaborative art and you need to be able to listen to other people’s points of view. Not necessarily take their ideas but at least listen to them or you’re not going to get very far or stay there very long.
Is it a rewarding place to be a writer?
Yeah, if you are also a director. Or a producer. In television, if you write and produce, you’re fine.
There’s a weird disconnect between TV, where the writer is king, and film, where they’re dirt.
Because in television they need you next week. In film, they don’t, or at least they think they don’t. I did Casino Royale in which they didn’t touch the script, then I did Quantum of Solace, which they did mass rewrites on. So go figure, you know?
Do you concern yourself these days with trying to work that out or do you just cash the cheques?
No you just try to work with people who are going to respect your work, work with directors who are going to be a good match for you.
Where you do write?
I mostly write outside. I write in coffee shops and cafes.
Can you do that unmolested?
They’re quiet and yet there’s activity, and people for the most part don’t approach me. In Hollywood, I had to stop writing in cafes because people would come up and talk to you. They say lovely things, I mean, you don’t want to stop that, it’s really nice when people come up and say, ‘I like your work’. How tough is that? But you lose your train of thought. I do like to fool myself in thinking I’m part of life, that’s why I write in places with this activity going on where you can hear voices. I was writing in a hotel room once that was right outside a café and that was great – I could hear all the commotion.
You often hear of writers who book themselves into hotel rooms. Is that the standard thing when you need to take the phone off the hook?
Yeah, you usually panic. You just panic. You just get to a certain point and you realise, ‘If I don’t work 14 hours a day I’m never going to get the damn thing done’.
Do you still just stare at the first blank page and think, ‘Shit’?
Every scene. Every scene I sit there and go, ‘I don’t know how to do this’. Every single scene.
When you made the transition to film, the awards and success came very quickly.
Well Crash was my first film, so Million Dollar Baby and Crash, yeah I was pretty lucky. It did take me four years. I wrote those on spec and walked round with them under my arms for four and a half years trying to sell them but nobody wanted them so it did take a while, but I just believed in them.
When you sit down after that to write do you feel the weight of those Oscars on your shoulder? This is the new ‘Paul Haggis’ script…
Well, I know when I’m good and I know when I’m not. I think a lot of writers do, it doesn’t matter what kind of statuettes you have. If the script is rubbish, it’s rubbish. I can write a really bad script as well as the next guy. So, you know, it’s not about the statuettes, it’s really, truly about the story and you always try and live up to what the story could be because when you first get a sense of it you go, ‘Oh, this could be great’ and you just try to reconnect with it.
When Elah came out in 2007 it was part of the Iraq War film thing. There was a lot of talk about whether people were interested.
They weren’t, were they?
Well that’s the thing – do you think that the perceived failure, financially, of those films was down to a lack of interest?
No. I think what happened was that studio executives got scared, and in our case Warner Bros really didn’t want to promote the film. They didn’t want to invest the money in promoting the film. They did and they did promote it but they did it in a half-assed way because they didn’t want to throw good money after bad in their thoughts. So it never had a chance, I felt, it never really got out there. If it exploded, if they threw it out there and it had exploded then yes they would have supported it, but it didn’t, it was a very quiet film.
It had a lot of critical friends.
I love the film. But you can’t find many folks in America who’ve seen it.
Do you remember the kind of conversations you had with Warners at the time? Was it fractious?
No, they were nice. I like those people. They’re not going to admit they didn’t do the best job they could but it was just how much the film was worth – it was worth that much promotion.
To talk about The Next Three Days specifically, we wanted to ask you about John, the everyman. Casting such a movie star in that role, were there risks involved in that?
Yes, absolutely. I was really concerned because Russell is such an iconic figure, I was concerned that people would look at him and just think, ‘Wow, Gladiator, of course he’s the hero, of course he’s a good person.’ And I really wanted someone who you could look at and go, ‘Oh, this poor fellow doesn’t have a chance’. But luckily Russell’s a really, really good actor and I think he does his best work since A Beautiful Mind. He steps onto the screen and you go, ‘Oh no, not him. Give us the other guy, that Gladiator guy – he’ll save his wife but this guy is never going to do it.’ That’s exactly what I wanted.
In the way Gladiator is the anomaly in Russell Crowe’s career. Never since then has he looked like the hero, he sort of fooled millions of women into thinking he was hot and rugged but he’s quite a doughy middle-aged bloke. We wouldn’t say that to his face…
I wouldn’t say that to his face if I were you either.
But he’s not an action hero. Do you think that people have been fooled by that Gladiator image?
Perhaps so. I just know he’s a terrific actor. I mean, that’s what you want as an actor – to fool people into thinking that’s who you are. In his case, he fools people into thinking that he’s every single character we’ve seen.
What kind of energy and impetus comes with having a movie star attached to the set?
Well, today you have to have a movie star to make a movie. Look at Crash – we had 11 name actors in the thing to get six and a half million dollars. I can’t seem to find a way to make movies without them; other directors have and I don’t know how. I guess they find investors who say, ‘Yes, do whatever you want’. But in this world that I live in, if you have a script in order to get your budget you need this level of talent, so I just go ‘Okay’, because for me, these actors, these movie stars are movie stars because they’re really, really bloody good at what they do so I don’t fight it a bit. I want to work with good actors.
Is it quite a long dance to get Russell Crowe?
No, he read the script, I flew over here to meet him because he was shooting Robin Hood and he said yes. It was very simple.
Why did you choose Pittsburgh as a place to shoot?
I did it as a writer because I wanted to find some place that really fit my story very well. It started off as a working-class town and that’s what I wanted the dad to be, a real working-class hero, and for his son to be a disappointment, his son to be a fairly educated man, so that’s what Pittsburgh is – it’s now one university after another. And I wanted a man who hadn’t truly achieved what he wanted to in life, he wasn’t teaching at university, he was teaching at community college. And I chose Pittsburgh because of its past, its steel town history.
Is it an iconic American city?
It’s not and that’s why I wanted it. I wanted a city that could really be anywhere in America and people would go, ‘Oh yes, where is that?’ It could be Milwaukee – there’s a lot of places it could be. Then I wanted to really make it of that place so I went and did the research before I wrote and I found out how to do the escape exactly, which took not too long to figure how exactly to escape from that particular jail.
How did you go about doing that?
I went to the jail first of all and asked how people had tried to escape. And they showed me, they showed me pictures and they told me. It was a new jail and so it’s pretty hard to escape from – there’ve been three escape attempts – and as it says in the movie, no one made it out alive. But I found out how they did it, they tried to get out through the elevator. That was one, another fella tried to go down the walls, and he died. So that was annoying. Then there was another one who tried to get out in the bed sheets and that really didn’t work out too well. From there I really plotted exactly how… If there’s a guy in a hospital here, where would he go? Okay, there’s a train station here, how would I get out because I’m locked in next to the train station? I drove round and I saw all these people going to Steelers games and it was just, ‘My god, what the hell’s happening?’ The streets were full of folks dressed in Steelers colours, and I thought, ‘Okay, cool, I can use that.’ I really tried to pull from the location and make it a character. It’s a town that’s incredibly beautiful now too, but it was in my day, when I was growing up, it was a rough town and it was an ugly town.
What are the day-to-day practicalities of shooting on location in a place like that? You said before about a lot of travelling…
It was another thing I had to look at. If I was shooting in Manhattan, I’d have to go, ‘My god, I’m never going to make the day,’ because I’d just be going from down in the Village to the Upper West Side, if I’m going to do that it’s going to take me three hours to move. So you want a city where you can move round it fairly easily. There’s still a lot of traffic congestion because of the bridges and tunnels, so it wasn’t quite as easy as I’d hoped. But we planned it efficiently – if you stayed on one side of the river or the other you were okay.
How invested in the local community do you become?
I like working in the local community. I like hanging out with the neighbours and the neighbourhood kids and showing them what we’re doing, and have them gather round. Same with the gang members, we did that quite a bit. I like gang members, they’re often quite interesting. Security is always trying to keep them away and I’m going, ‘No, no, come over to the monitor.’
Who or what inspires you creatively?
People. People inspire me. People who remind me of the character usually, or do something that I find incredible. That stuff is inspirational.