After a couple of decades of writing (and occasionally directing) for such television series as “The Facts of Life,” “One Day at a Time,” “L.A. Law,” “Due South,” “Walker, Texas Ranger,” “Mister Sterling,” and “Family Law,” Paul Haggis moved into film (technically, back into film, if you include his 1993 direct-to-video feature RED HOT) in 2005 with CRASH, which won Oscars for Best Screenplay and Best Film, whether you like it or not. It was an especially contentious year, in which any of the nominees (which also included CAPOTE, MUNICH and GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK) would have been a fine choice to win Best Picture, but I think the heartfelt favorite was BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.
Regardless, Haggis’ screenwriting career took off in a big way, with additional screenwriting nominations for Clint Eastwood’s MILLION DOLLAR BABY the same year as CRASH and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA in 2006. He also had a hand in the screenplays for Eastwood’s FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS and the first two Daniel Craig James Bond films CASINO ROYALE and QUANTUM OF SOLACE. But every few years, he manages to direct one of his screenplays as well, as he did with IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH, THE NEXT THREE DAYS, and his latest work, THIRD PERSON, something of a return to multiple, interconnected storylines that find ways of converging or otherwise being woven together that are far more unusual than the devices used in CRASH.
Like CRASH, THIRD PERSON has a remarkably well-known and talented cast that includes Liam Neeson (more or less the central character of the entire film), Olivia Wilde, Mila Kunis, James Franco, Adrien Brody, Maria Bello, and Kim Basinger, many of which are involved in relationships that are either in the early honeymoon stage, deep in the middle of one, or at the painful end. The stories show how we attempt to control people and allow them to control us, and some of the connective tissue of the film is hidden in the background, forcing the viewing to really take in the entire frame and not just watch the two people who might be talking (which is especially tough in a sequence in which Wilde is stark naked, running around a palatial hotel.
Although I’d never met Haggis before his recent visit to Chicago, I’d always gotten the impression that he was an exceedingly smart man, who probably didn’t suffer fools lightly (one strike against me). But I truly was looking forward to picking his brain about THIRD PERSON, a film that took him about two-and-a-half years to write, before a single frame was shot. And with that, please enjoy my chat with Paul Haggis…
Capone: I’m sure that a lot of people have asked you, “Is the movie about this? Is the movie about that?” What I’m wondering is, when people come out of this movie, what ideas would you like them to have floating around in their heads?
Paul Haggis: I started to make a kind of movie that I loved, and that is not a type of movie we see often today. It’s the kind of movie that just turned my head around in the ’60s and ’70s as a teenager, when I was watching movies that were coming out of Europe—Buñuel, Antonioni, Godard, Fellini—people that you’d have to walk out and go to a bar or restaurant afterwards with your friends and say, “What the hell happened? What was that? Did you see that? No, I didn’t see that.” But that you had an emotional reaction to. That you felt satisfied emotionally, even if intellectually it still challenged you. So I wanted to do a little bit of a puzzle. I wanted to pretend with three love stories. I purposefully started in cities where the characters could never meet, so that when things start happening that couldn’t physically happen, you’d have to ask yourself, “Okay, if that can’t happen, then what’s happening? What’s going on here?” And I also wanted to explore issues that I was grappling with about love, but also about the creative process itself, and how selfish we are as creators and who pays the price for that selfishness.
Capone: It’s interesting, the filmmakers that you mentioned are all European.
PH: And mostly dead [laughs].
Capone: That’s true too. But aside from the fact that you shot it in various locations in Europe, there is something European about the film. I remember saying to someone, I said, “If this had been a foreign film, all in a foreign language, it would almost be easier to comprehend and accept.”
PH: Very much so, because you expect more from foreign films than American ones. I knew it was going to be a hybrid, because even though I’m Canadian, I’m basically an American filmmaker, but I’ve always thought of myself as an independent filmmaker and a huge fan of European films from that period. Of course now, you have a lot of films coming out of Europe that just ape American films, and often do it better than we do, because they’re so influenced by what we’re doing here or what our great filmmakers have done here. But yeah, I think you need to be true to what your real interests are as a filmmaker.
Capone: In my notes, one of the first things I wrote down once the film was over was, “You can’t trust your narrator in this story.”
PH: No, you can’t.
Capone: But we do trust him; we’ve been conditioned to do so. And people have tried to fool us in films before.
PH: Yeah, and I do that. I set you up, not just trusting the narrator but trusting the characters, to pre-judge them. To say, “Liam Neeson, what a great guy.” “And who is this Olivia Wilde character? My god, she’s crazy, and she has trust issues, and what are they doing together? And what is he doing with her? Sure the sex is good, and she’s young and beautiful, but still.” And then you go, “Really, who’s using who?” I like pulling the rug out from under you, and so for that reason, I think people could look at this, and can judge, for example, the female characters, and say, “They’re all terribly flawed.” Well yeah, but who’s more honest in this film? When it comes right down to it. The ones who think they’re right, like James Franco’s character, who’s certain he’s right about this—we start to believe he’s right, and maybe he is. But if he is, does that level of judgement, does that help? Did you get to the truth, the real truth, by just listening to your own voice? Or maybe you should look at it from the other person’s point of view, even if you think they were wrong.
Capone: Especially the Adrien Brody storyline, you don’t just shift our allegiance and our empathy from one character to another. You do it back and forth and back and forth sometimes.
PH: Exactly. Well, that’s what I like to do. Yougo, “She’s obviously lying, or maybe she’s telling the truth, or maybe he’s lying.” And here’s a man who desperately wants to be a hero, so much so that he’ll do something very unethical and awful in order to be a hero and save the day. And then you go, “Well look what he did.” But then he desperately still wants to be a hero. He wants to save someone. And in the end, he saves himself by saving someone else.
Capone: He’s willing to give up the money even though he thinks it’s a complete scam. It’s like “What is he thinking? What is going on in his head right now?”
PH: But that’s what love is. At the end of the day, it’s one of the ways to win. Love is trust, when you know the person is completely untrustworthy, and you say “I know it, and I’m going to trust you anyway. I’m going to believe in you even if you don’t believe in yourself,” And love is transformative that way.
Capone: You mentioned earlier that the film was also a statement about some more personal issues regarding love for you. While the film feels like a statement about the train wreck that is modern relationships in general, it also does feel very personal, in that each of these stories I’m assuming reflects some aspect of something you went through.
PH: It is very personal. Yeah, some aspect of something I’ve been grappling with. As I said before, I think everything in this movie is true, it’s just none of it happened, at least not the way that it happens on screen. But no, there are lines of dialogue in this that I’ve said to others, and others have said to me—many of them. Not necessarily in this setting or context, but they have been said.
Capone: I’ve only seen it once, and this was probably three or four weeks ago, but it screened recently again, and I just happened to poke my head in and watch a little section of it, and I noticed that there are more clues in there than I caught the very first time.
PH: There are. There are lots of clues, but they’re very subtle.
Capone: Again I’m pulling from memory, but there’s a painting that we see more than once in the film.
PH: Yes we do. We see that in one country, and then we see it in another. If you look really carefully, you’ll see a name under that painting.
Capone: Oh yeah?
PH: In the gallery window. Yes you will. Things do hop from continent to continent in this movie. I do give hints to what I’m really doing here. You should start to get an inkling very early on that things aren’t what they pretend to be.
Capone: It’s interesting, because Michael, he has an opportunity to rewrite his own story.
PH: Yes, exactly.
Capone: And we’re never quite sure which of these stories is closest to his real life. Talk about that, because that might be frustrating for some people.
PH: Well, what we’re constantly trying to do as writers is to shape and reshape our lives, and we use our characters to do that, to make sense of who we are, and often to make excuses for who we are, as Michael is accused of doing in this movie. Sometimes, however, the characters lead you to things that you don’t want to see or look at. This is a movie about denial. It’s really hard to do a movie about denial, because the characters are denying it, especially someone who is denying it all the way through. But there are hints that there is something else that these characters are revealing. You see it when he’s writing, and you hear that voice, “Watch me.” Something is happening here that he doesn’t want to look at. He’s living his life in a way that’s escapist, so he doesn’t have to think. He’s writing characters that are escaping to fabulous places and dealing with issues that perhaps aren’t his, but maybe they really are. So hopefully when you see it the second time, or when you argue about it in the bar afterwards, it’ll make sense.
Capone: I got the sense, when you realize at the end everything that’s going on, that this is somehow therapeutic for him, writing this, getting this out. Was it that way for you too?
PH: Yes, it was. It was. I did start to understand certain things, and I don’t know if I can still apply them in my life, but if you take the biggest risks, you’re more likely to win, or lose so badly that it will destroy you, and you don’t know which it’s going to be, but you have to do it.
Capone: The one thing that I noticed early on that did clue me in that something seemed almost too coincidental was that each of these relationships is at a different point.
PH: Beginning, middle and end.
Capone: Exactly, right. So I did consider that this could all be one relationship that has been divided into three.
PH: There are other things. In Bar Americana quite early on, Adrien Brody’s character looks out the door as someone enters. As an old man enters, a car passes. It’s a Mercedes. In the back seat of that is Olivia Wilde and she’s changing. But it’s only a few frames, so you don’t really get to see. You saw the painting; there are other things that are early on I plant all the way thorough. They’re in the very back. Every female character says “Watch me” at some point, one way or another. And there are other repetitions. We were talking about the fact that you have Maria Bello’s character condemning her husband [Brody] and saying, “I will never forgive you for this.” And then you have [Neeson’s] own wife [Basinger] who is forgiving him, and he can’t accept that forgiveness in his own life. Forgiveness is something that’s almost impossible to accept sometimes, just like love. It’s almost impossible to accept that we can be loved, that we’re worthy to be loved.
Capone: What were the advantages of revisiting the idea of telling multiple stories?
PH: It was a challenge for me, because I knew I wanted to do different stories, because I wanted to have them inform each other, which is a little different than CRASH, where they connected, but didn’t necessarily inform each other. This, they had to. And so it’s one of the reasons I set things in three different countries and three different styles, too. Completely three different styles of stories, which I worried about, because it has to have some integrity on it’s own as a piece, and you have moments of high drama. You also have moments of high farce in this movie, and then more realistic drama. So in the Liam Neeson-Olivia Wilde story, these characters kept repeating themselves over and over. They kept doing the same thing, and at the time when it was in the script form, people were saying, “No, no, no. They just do the same thing over and over.” “Yes that’s what they do.” [laughs] And perhaps dramatically that can be frustrating, but that’s who these characters are.
Capone: It happens over and over again to the point where I thought, “Wait a minute, this is how he likes her. Arguing and making up with her is his kink, and she’s messing with him. He feels like he deserves this for some reason.
PH: It’s a game. Who can prove to the other that they need them less? It’s this game that we play often, and we call that love, and maybe it’s addiction, and maybe it’s love. Who the hell knows? But I also came to the realization while doing this that we often find ourselves with the wrong person. Well, what if the wrong person is really the right person? What if you need to be with the wrong person, and that’s going to make you whole?
Capone: Or sometimes you need to go through the wrong person to get to the right person.
PH: Yeah, that’s often the case. But maybe you should have stayed with the wrong person.
Capone: But I firmly believe taht if she just suddenly changed right now and became adoring and loving, he would hate her in 10 seconds.
PH: It’s what happens.
Capone: That’s his wife.
PH: That’s what happens when she truly opens up to him and truly trusts him.
Capone: Are you big on rehearsal? Or do you like to capture it while you’re shooting?
PH: I never get the chance to do much, because in this case, for example, each set of actors was available to me for three weeks and only three weeks. So some I was able to, like the Adrien Brody and Moran Atias, rehearse quite a bit, and that helped a lot. Others, Liam and Olivia, I had a weekend. And others I had a day. But I really believe, for the most part, that if an actor can understand the scene, they can play the scene. You just have to make sure they really know what you’re getting at underneath.
Capone: I’ve got to admit it’s nice seeing Liam Neeson back in a role where he can dig his teeth into it the way he does here
PH: He hasn’t been in a romantic lead in over 20 years. He really loved that idea, and of course when I tell him it’s opposite from Olivia Wilde, he went, “Oh, yeah.” And even with the age difference, you see them walking on the street and you just love this couple. You want them to be together. You see them fighting and pushing each other away, and you say, “No, stop that, stop that. Please, stop.”
Capone: I’m not sure I ever got to the point of rooting for them, but I was very curious to see how that played out, because I didn’t think it would be pleasant.
PH: Well, you’re right about that.
Capone: I read somewhere that this script took you two and a half years?
PH: Two and a half years to write.
Capone: And not two and a half years with six-month breaks in the middle, but straight. What were you getting hung up on?
PH: Well, because I wrote it from the inside out. I didn’t structure it. I allowed the characters to take me where they wanted to go, and they’d take me down blind alleys, and I’d start again and I changed the characters and changed the circumstances, and just kept writing until something started to evolve. And then, only then, after a year and a half I went, “Ah, ah, I think I know what I’ve got.” Only then did I start structuring it and rewriting it, but I wanted to allow them a lot of freedom, and I wanted to allow them to do what Liam Neeson’s character’s doing. Let the characters take you where they need to take you even if you didn’t want to go there.
Capone: As I was listening to you talk about your writing process, I thought more and more that watching Michael write was watching you write.
PH: It is.
Capone: With all the frustration that comes with it.
PH: He’s just better looking when he writes.
Capone: The other thing that I think might get lost here is that, in the middle of all these emotionally devastating scenarios, there are some sweet moments and pure romance.
PH: A lot of moments. It’s sexy, there’s romance, and that’s something Dario [Marianelli, composer] really keyed into early on was not just the romance and the sex, but the moments of kindness to strangers, which he did his best to discover—moments of real kindness in here. Even in the bathroom between Mila and Loan Chabanol, it’s a moment where this woman just wants to get the hell up and out the door, but she can’t stop. She has to help, and this woman doesn’t know who she is, and just wants to be her friend, desperate to be her friend.
Capone: Another component here is the overwhelming power of guilt.
PH: Well, I think I mentioned earlier, this inability for us to forgive ourselves and things we’ve done, and the guilt certainly I have as a writer of being so selfish. Spending so much time writing and thinking and reading and ignoring my own children at times when I should have been a better human being, and maybe not as good a writer, and spent more time with them. That’s the guilt that shows itself pretty clearly in this film. But yeah, we all feel it I think. In any career we have, you have to sacrifice so much for your career if you’re going to be really successful. You have to sacrifice a lot, and it’s the people around us who pay the price for that selfishness. And also for love. You see Liam and you see this pursuit of love, and ignoring his family, ignoring everything because he needs desperately to feel love so much. It’s not just pursuing writing.
Capone: He doesn't seem to feel that guilty about that part of it.
PH: No, no he doesn't feel guilty about it, but he should.
Capone: There are certain actors that you think you know what they’re capable of and what their limits are, but there are a few here, Olivia, Liam, Mila, who go beyond where I’ve seen them go. Talk about just working with the actors, because for a lot of them, I wouldn’t have pictured them in these roles.
PH: Well, that’s how you get great actors to work with you. Everyone thinks oh, it’s because you get great performances out of them, and they win Oscars and shit like that. No, you give them a role where they’re allowed to do something they haven’t been able to do before. To challenge themselves in a way that they haven't been challenged, because too often they’re cast towards type or towards something they’ve done before. And here, a lot of these actors hadn’t played characters flawed in this particular way or this vulnerable or this cruel. Olivia’s character can be really cruel; so can James Franco’s character and Moran’s character. They all can really just destroy the person across from them, and they don’t apologize for it. These characters don’t apologize.
Capone: Is there a hopeful message in here?
PH: Of course. You see a couple that’s most likely to succeed, but through the nature of love and belief and trust, when they can actually trust each other. Even when they shouldn’t, they do, and they win. And others learn. Even James Franco’s character was able to accept love, just not from Mila.
Capone: Do you have anything else lined up next?
PH: Not yet. I’m suffering from that, and trying to figure out what I’m going to do.
Capone: Alright, well best of luck. It was really a pleasure to meet you.
PH: It was good to meet you. I appreciate your time.