Paul Haggis: Spinning reality into a web of fiction

by Giovanni Fazio

Special To The Japan Times

“Today, too often, we’ve gotten used to telling the audience things in bold, in all-caps or underlined, and solving everything for everybody.” So says Paul Haggis, the screenwriter and director who won Oscars back-to-back with “Million Dollar Baby” in 2004 and “Crash” in 2005. His new film, “Third Person,” is not told in “all caps” — it’s an intense exploration of trust and betrayal, about trying to find something real; a film built on an intricate structure of interlocking stories.

“I knew this was a risky way to tell a story, but I like the sort of films that you have to argue about with your friends on the way out of the theater. It’s a puzzle, but it’s not a Rubik’s Cube,” says Haggis in a phone interview with The Japan Times, from his home in New York City.

“Third Person” looks at lovers and ex-lovers in NYC, Paris and Rome, with Liam Neeson as Michael, a divorced alcoholic author involved in a stormy affair with a much younger writer (Olivia Wilde), Adrien Brody as a crooked businessman who may himself be getting conned by a mysterious woman (Moran Atias), and Mila Kunis as a divorced mother whose ex-husband (James Franco), a famous artist, is refusing to let her see their child, due to something she may or may not have done.

Haggis cuts between the stories fluidly, while teasing us with hints of what may tie them together — a secret he holds close until the final reel.

The story’s structure proved daunting for the director, who reportedly worked on 50 drafts of the script.

“That’s probably hyperbole, because I love hyperbole, but it took me 2 ½ years, when a script should normally take six months. I have no idea how many drafts were in there but I threw out many. I wrote and rewrote this thing … Throwing characters out, starting with new characters, all sorts of stuff. I kept trying to write one thing and the script kept trying to be something else, which was really annoying, until I finally figured out that that was the structure,” says Haggis. (Filmgoers take note: This is a major hint for understanding the film.)

With a film like this, or “Crash,” I wonder where the starting point is: from the characters, or from a desire to play with a certain theme or structure. Haggis says he really wanted to write “from the inside out.”

“I wanted to start with the questions and see where the characters led me. That’s the wrong way to write anything! But this time it turned out to be the right way, because finally they led me to the right place. I was curious about these characters, because they came from people in my own life and in the lives of friends. And there were just so many questions I had about relationships, largely because I’d failed at them for so long,” he says.

The central relationship in “Third Person” is between Michael (Neeson) — the author struggling to find his voice again — and Anna (Wilde), his much younger muse. The push-pull chemistry between them almost makes you forget their three-decades-plus age difference, though, it turns out that gap is there for a reason.

Casting a couple is one thing, but a director never really knows whether the actors will have that spark or not.

“No, you don’t, it’s a huge risk,” admits Haggis. “In the case of Liam and Olivia, I had no idea. I didn’t read (through the script with) either of them; auditions are overrated, because they’re inherently false. I knew what Liam would bring, because he’s such a skilled actor, but exactly how he would do it, I didn’t know. With Olivia, I had no idea. I’d worked with her twice before, but with characters which were nothing like this. I’ve never seen her play anything like this, and in fact, I know her quite well, and she is nothing like this character! So I was scared, but thrilled, by that.

“I was holding my breath in the first scene I shot with them. It was the two of them walking down the street in Paris, and first take there was no chemistry at all, and I thought ‘uh-oh.’ Second take, too, and I thought ‘Have I made a big mistake here?’ And the third take they just came alive and I thought ‘thank God!’ They love and admire each other, those two, and it comes out. You need that depth of love if you’re going to have that much hatred and betrayal in the film. You really wanted that couple to end up together, and that was the most important thing.”

A big part of Neeson’s Michael — and part of what drives him to drink — is his inability to live up to the work that won him a Pulitzer. I ask Haggis if his post-Oscar career was anything like this.

“When I introduced the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, I used a quote from Albert Camus, who said, ‘A guilty conscience needs to confess.’ A work of art is confession. Any thought that I had went into my characters, and many of the lines in this movie were either said to me or things I said to someone else. Of course, you always feel like you’re failing as an artist, and an Oscar sitting around is just a reminder that you used to be good and you’re not good anymore,” says Haggis with a laugh.

The director does point to one plus of winning an Oscar, though: getting to meet one of his idols, legendary director Robert Altman, whose ensemble works “Nashville” and “Short Cuts” are clear antecedents of Haggis’ style in “Third Person” and “Crash.” Haggis tells me about a time he was hanging out at Paul Thomas Anderson’s house after the 2006 Oscars, where Haggis won best picture for “Crash” and Altman received an honorary award: “It was 5 a.m., we were waiting up all night to go on a morning show together. His (Altman’s) Oscar is there in front of him, and he looks over at me and says, “Y’know, mine is bigger than yours.”