Paul Haggis provokes his audience

June 18, 2014

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Geez, you make one little movie about multiple characters with intersecting storylines – and you’re tagged as the multiple-character guy.

“Someone said to me, ‘Oh, you made another one of those?’ and I had to point out that I’d made two other films since ‘Crash’ that weren’t multiple-character stories,” Paul Haggis says, sitting in a cafe in Pelham, NY, prior to a preview screening of his newest film, “Third Person,” at the Picture House.

“Third Person,” which stars Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, Adrien Brody and Mila Kunis, among others, is yet another attempt by writer-director Haggis to subvert the expectations of the people who come to see his films. He relishes the chance to pull the rug out from under the viewer, turning the film from one thing into another.

“Third Person,” for example, seems to be a simple set of three love stories: a writer in Rome (Neeson) struggling with a new novel while having a rendezvous with a lover (Wilde); a corporate climber (Brody) on business in Rome who becomes involved with a woman (Moran Atias) who may or may not be conning him; and a New York hotel maid (Kunis) battling her ex-husband (James Franco), a successful artist who is keeping her from seeing their son.

But then … things change. That’s the point, Haggis says. If “Crash” assembled an enigmatic puzzle in a way that ultimately showed you the whole picture, “Third Person” offers viewers a similar jigsaw experience – but (to extend the puzzle metaphor) with a few missing pieces.

“At some point, I decided I wanted to do a film where an audience would have an emotional response – but not get all the answers,” Haggis says. “They don’t make movies like this anymore. I wanted to do a film like the films I grew up on in the 1960s and 1970s. When I discovered European filmmakers, it affected me so deeply. It redefined what cinema could be. I mean, ‘Blow-Up’ ends with a dead body and mimes playing tennis. What?

“There are things in this movie that you might only see on a second or third viewing. I wanted people to be thinking, ‘Wait – that can’t be happening. But if it IS happening, then what’s really happening?’ It pisses some people off.”

Haggis has made “Third Person” as a comment on the artistic process: what it costs the people who pursue it, as well as the people around them.

“I’m intrigued by the idea of how we create and what we are willing to sacrifice to create,” he says. “It’s a very selfish process. And yet artists aren’t the ones who normally pay the price for our sins.

“Who paid the price for mine? I’d say my family, my children. I was writing day and night, working 16-hour days working in television. I love my kids but I can’t say I paid much attention to them. The two most important things in life are love and art. Whatever art it is, that’s your career – now choose between them and you can only have one. Do you take the great story – or the love of your life? I hope I’d choose love, but I have a feeling I’d choose a great story.”

Haggis, 61, a Canadian native, began writing for television in the early 1980s, working on shows as diverse as “Diff’rent Strokes,” “Facts of Life” and “thirtysomething.” There is television work on his resume that he’s proud of – including a short-lived crime series called “EZ Streets” – but his deepest fear “is that my tombstone will say, ‘Creator of ‘Walker, Texas Ranger’,’” he says. In fact, he attended one meeting to pitch the series idea, got credit for originating the show and never actually worked on it.

Trying to move from TV to film, he began writing movie scripts – selling the tough-minded “Million Dollar Baby” to Clint Eastwood, shortly before finding backing to make “Crash.” The films earned him back-to-back Academy Award nominations for writing what turned out to be the best picture of the year, something no one had ever done. (He won the Oscar for writing “Crash.”)

The success of “Crash” earned him the cachet to gets his next project off the ground: “In the Valley of Elah,” an Iraq War drama based on a true story which, like most films about that war, sank at the box office. He followed that with “In Three Days’ Time,” a thriller based on a French film, with Russell Crowe playing a man trying to spring his wrongly convicted wife out of prison.

There have been other projects, including the TV series “The Black Donnellys,” two more scripts for Clint Eastwood (“Flags of Our Fathers,” “Letters from Iwo Jima”) and two James Bond screenplays (“Casino Royale,” “A Quantum of Solace”). He’s at work on a film adaptation of John Flanagan’s “Ranger’s Apprentice” children’s book series, and he’s negotiating to direct a series for HBO.

For the moment, however, he’s focused on launching “Third Person,” an arthouse film that looks like it cost a lot more than it did. Though there are location shots in Paris and New York, 90 percent of the film was shot in Rome, with a day spent in the other two cities to get the exteriors Haggis needed.

“All the actors worked for less than they usually get,” he says. “I could have made a lot more money doing other things. It took me a while to get it financed. But I spent five and a half years on this because it’s a passion project.”

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