Interview with filmmaker Paul Haggis

Paul Haggis wrote Crash and Million Dollar Baby: Time for the lecture circuit

Writer-director Paul Haggis wrote two of the last three Oscar winners for Best Picture—and two out of three ain’t bad. He’ll speak this week in Davis.

Hey, Paul, how’s it goin’?

I was just being told a horrific story by my partner that there’s somebody who’s using the Crash defense today in some lawsuit.


(Laughs.) My name is being used, or at least my film is being used, in such a ridiculous way. How are you?

My morning’s been less dramatic. So, is this how story ideas come to you?

I just let things start to percolate and then find out what comes up, what sticks.

I saw your last film, In the Valley of Elah, last night. Why’d you choose that story?

I was looking for something to do on the Iraq war, and I was looking for a situation and character, especially a character who embodied everything I disagreed with, but somebody who could make it as a protagonist and someone who we would all believe is a proud American. …

I think it’s too easy to tell a story from your own point of view. I look to tell a story from the point of view of people I disagree with.

Where does your motivation come from?

Wow, I don’t know. Anger—a lot of it comes from anger, especially directed at myself. Things that I see in myself and don’t like. Or that I usually spot in others first, then realize in myself; it’s much easier to see it in others at first. (Laughs.)

But I like to try and reflect on mistakes that I’m making, and therefore mistakes that we’re making, inside of something that’s compelling drama, but really entertaining. Because who the hell wants to be preached at? Just sit there and take it: “Oh, God. Oh yeah, I’m a bad person.”

How does winning some Oscars change your approach?

You know, obviously I get to do a lot more of what I want to do, and that’s great. But it’s still very hard to get a movie made. And the financial crisis is really making a big impact, but even before that it was difficult. People always want you to make something that’s already been made.

Has the economy exacerbated this mentality?

Yes, absolutely. Everybody’s looking for something incredibly safe, but of course, there’s nothing safe in this business. If we could have done that, we all would have done it a long time ago. We all would have made only safe movies. But one after another, those safe movies fail.

With your last film, it felt like you as a writer were also coming full circle, insofar as your attitude about the Iraq war.

That’s what I wanted to do. In a drama, you have to put aside your views and go along with the protagonist, because the protagonist is right. He’s the guy we’re going to follow. So you can’t be judging that character; you have to put aside all your feelings and all your political views or whatever you think about life and adopt this character’s point of view. And that’s what’s so much fun about writing and filmmaking.