Speaking to Paul Haggis, a man who has been behind the camera and keyboard in both the film and TV industry for decades, proves there is often more to filmmakers than meets the eye. I discovered he is a perfectly pleasant guy and, as we’ve witnessed on a few occasions, does not shy away from expressing his personal opinion. I spoke to Haggis while he was in Canada visiting family. We discussed not only his HBO television miniseries Show Me a Hero, but we also dug into his background with Scientology, the rise of his TV career, and of course the homophobia theories surrounding his film Crash defeating Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture in 2006.
Robin Write: Hello Paul Haggis. It’s not often you get to speak to back-to-back Oscar winning Best Picture writers. That’s pretty rare.
Paul Haggis: [Laughs] I was very blessed to have good material.
RW: Let’s break the ice a little bit then. So you’re the audience now. Think about the last year. Which films and TV shows have impressed you the most? Do you have time for anything?
PH: Oh yeah. My daughter got me into watching Bloodline, which I quite love. On the second season of that, it started very slowly, but I really love it. And I finally started up on Game of Thrones. I knew I would enjoy it too much so I avoided it for many years. I just knew it would take up too much of my life. So I am just now on the second season and devouring it. It’s nice to be so far behind everyone else.
RW: What would you say is one of your proudest moments outside of your TV and film work?
PH: There’s what I do in Haiti. I’ve been doing that for nine years. I really love that – the Artist for Peace and Justice. We head down there again this week, taking a great big group of people down because were celebrating the very first graduating class of our high school. So we got 2,700 kids, and we are graduating 300 of them this year for the first time. The amazing thing is it is the only high school for the kids in slums. I am very proud of that accomplishment. And of course the Artists institute, with film school and audio engineering school. That makes me very proud. You stand on that ground we bought, you know, with Olivia Wilde and Ben Stiller. We all went down there and did it. You stand there now and watch two 2,600 kids run past. [Laughs] It’s pretty extraordinary. I can’t help but smile.Photo courtesy of Paul Schiraldi – HBO
RW: Now, I am not going to delve too deep into Scientology.
PH: Yeah, it’s been done.
RW: The question I will ask, did you receive any kind of blow-back from Going Clear in relation to future projects like the one you have just done, Show Me a Hero?
PH: No. Everything they do is gossip and rumor and stuff online, anonymous things they post to try and influence people. Like my work is not very good or whatever. Not just me but loads of people, especially celebrities or minor celebrities that end up leaving. They try to trash their reputation, but I don’t give a damn what people think of me. [Laughs]
RW: Say someone who doesn’t know you asks you “What do you do for a living?” What do you respond with? Writer? Director? Producer?
PH: I tell them I am in the film business.
RW: You don’t see yourself as one thing more than another?
PH: No, I love writing. I love directing. I especially love whatever I am not doing at that particular time. If I am writing I would dearly love to be directing. If I am directing, I would much rather be writing. But that’s just because I am a contrarian and a miserable sop. [Laughs] In this case with Show Me a Hero, I just directed and produced. I did none of the writing, which was just fabulous for me. That’s the first time I have ever done that. It was such a relief. You get an actor come to you with a question, and you say, “Oh that’s a really good question. Why don’t you talk to David about that?” [Laughs] It’s wonderful to have people to collaborate with. [Producers] David [Simon] and Nina [Kostroff-Noble] were such wonderful collaborators. We all made each other uneasy, and that’s the best thing for artists.
RW: Do you have plans to make more movies as a writer and director? Or TV?
PH: I have some TV ideas, trying to push them forward. Hoping to start shooting a movie in the UK.
RW: How did you land Million Dollar Baby and Casino Royale? Great gigs.
PH: Weren’t they great. I loved those so much. Million Dollar Baby I wrote for myself and tried to sell it, get financing for six years. As I was shooting Crash, Clint Eastwood stepped up and said he wanted to direct it. That was a decision I had to make as I owned the material and was going to direct it.
RW: Yeah you must have had to think hard about that. It is only Clint Eastwood. [Laughs]
PH: Yeah. Shit, it was Clint Eastwood, one of my favorite directors. And I got to work with him two more times.
RW: Before I let you go, we have to touch on Crash. Probably sick of it. For me, and I saw it twice on the big screen, two scenes stayed with me for a long, long time. The “crash rescue” scene and the “magic cloak” shooting scene with the little girl. Great scenes, hairs on the back of your neck scenes. That’s why we go to cinema.
PH: Thank you, thank you. I’m very proud of it.
RW: Of course Mark Isham helped.
PH: Yes, yes. Absolutely great music. Someone caught me at some premiere, the press are always trying to do this, they asked if I really thought Crash was the best film at the Oscars that year. I mean, what sort of asshole is going to say yes? [Laughs] No, there were great films that year. How fabulous it was to be on that list, and then of course it comes out and wins the Oscar. These bullshit theories with Hollywood being homophobic, oh please. Half the people we work with in Hollywood are gay. Ridiculous. Would they rather be called racist, is that more comfortable? If your favorite film loses, and I love Brokeback Mountain, and the others, beautiful films, but people are sore losers. I lost with Million Dollar Baby, and you didn’t see me saying Sideways is not a good enough script – it is a great script. People should grow up.
RW: You can’t please everyone.
PH: You want to be up there with other great films. It is the luck of the draw. These writers and directors I admired so much. That was the thrill for me – to be mentioned in the same breath as Ang Lee, Steven Spielberg, and George Clooney.
RW: So is that how you saw that whole homophobia thing and the racial thing with your film? You thought it was nonsense?
PH: It is nonsense to say Hollywood is homophobic. It’s like saying Broadway is homophobic. Just ridiculous. So much of the artists in our community are gay – and proudly so. They are a big part of our creation on every show. However, there are things that are true, like with women, it was a long time before they were included. Women directors are being recognized. More people of color are being recognized. Those are the walls. I demonstrated against Prop 8. I think you would be hard pressed to find someone on Broadway or in the film business that are homophobic.
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Directly following our conversation, I received the following email from Paul Haggis, with additional comments to his previous opinions on the supposed homophobia in Hollywood:
As a longtime proponent of gay rights, as a guy who was demonstrating in the streets of LA when our state government was trying to ban gay marriage with Prop 8, I didn’t want to give you the impression that I think there is no homophobia in Los Angeles. Of course there is. There’s homophobia everywhere, as there is hatred of minorities everywhere. You saw what happened this weekend – hateful intolerant small minded people are hateful intolerant small minded people.
What I was saying is that the gay and lesbian community is a driving creative force in Hollywood. For people outside of LA to accuse the Academy, which draws its entire membership from our creative community, of being homophobic, based on comments made by one actor, might be a tad self-serving. Do you really believe they watched Crash, which accuses liberals of harboring racist feelings, and thought “Yes, I love being accused of racism, let me vote for that one.” There were two nominated movies that year with gay protagonists [Capote; Brokeback Mountain]. If the academy is so homophobic, how did that happen?
To my mind, a much more compelling argument was made last year, when activists called for more women and people of color to in central creative and decision making positions in our industry.