Exclusive Interview With Paul Haggis, Honoree Of Mallorca International Film Festival
[Published at Film Inquiry]
This past week, I had an opportunity to speak with two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker, Paul Haggis, screenwriter of Million Dollar Baby, screenwriter and director of Crash, screenwriter of Flags Of Our Fathers, Casino Royale, Letters From Iwo Jima, In the Valley of Elah, and Quantum Of Solace. His new project, which he will co-direct with Dan Krauss, is an AIDs documentary about Ward 5B in San Francisco, during which a revolutionary, positive change in healthcare occurred which helped further the world’s understanding of the disease. Suffice it to say, Haggis is a rarity of a storyteller in his diversity, range, and boldness of exploration of justice.
Paul Haggis is receiving the Inaugural “Evolution Innovation Award” at the Sixth annual Evolution Mallorca International Film Festival, founded by director Sandra Seeling Lipski. This award embodies the mission statement of “Bridging Cultures – Bridging People.” What better person to give it to than Paul Haggis, whose work exemplifies unifying cultures and communities, fearlessly celebrating humanity on and off the screen.
During our conversation, Haggis and I discussed his early career as he was still an aspiring filmmaker, navigating through the industry as a young screenwriter while trying to support his family, some of the hardships but the sincere payoffs for enduring and working hard, why he’s drawn to the themes that speak to him, some of the successful humanitarian work he’s been doing in Haiti for 10 years and the education opportunities he’s providing children and young adults there, and what project he’s working on currently.
Enjoy! And don’t forget to watch Paul Haggis accept his award at the festival, his screening of Crash, and many of the other wonderful films and educational and networking events that it provides if you’re around Mallorca or Los Angeles. The beautiful thing about this festival is that it screens in two places at once across the world! Lipski is quite literally bridging cultures and people!
Alex Arabian for Film Inquiry: Congratulations are certainly in order for you for being the much-deserved inaugural recipient of the Evolution Vision Award. Congratulations!
Paul Haggis: Oh, well thank you!
Of course. How did you first come into contact with this festival? And what first drew you to it?
Paul Haggis: They reached out to me. They reached out to me, and a lot of festivals do reach out and then I usually say no to everybody. But I recently went to a festival in Kosovo which I really, really liked, and it was very small. And I saw how they were reaching out to other communities and the former Yugoslavians and former countries from Yugoslavia to sort of bind the artists together across political lines. And so, I just want to do more of that, and this festival is doing that exactly, and it’s really celebrating diversity and tolerance, and trying to reach across cultural divides, and I thought that’s very important.
I absolutely agree 100%. As far as your work, I’d say when people hear the name, “Paul Haggis,” they think “unprecedented,” “record-breaking,” “award-winning,” accoladed,” and rightfully so. But for you, it must be a little different. Did you ever envision this amount of success for yourself in your future?
Paul Haggis: (Laughs) No, of course not. Of course, I mean, when you’re a kid, you dream of making movies, but it took me a hell of a long time to get to there. I worked in the mines of television, network television, for many, many years and tried my best many times; I just kept failing to come with a decent story for a movie. And then, I finally just gave up trying and said, ‘I’m only going to write things that I really care about and I don’t care if they’re commercial. I don’t care if they ever get made.’ And so I wrote Million Dollar Baby and Crash, and you know, no one wanted those. (Laughs) And rightfully so, I mean, Million Dollar Baby is about euthanasia and girl boxing. I mean, who’s gonna watch that movie?
And Crash is about a bunch of folks running around dealing with some racism in Los Angeles where people say it doesn’t exist; (laughs) or, at least like most of the people I knew, or [that it] only existed in certain segments, et cetera. And so, no, I was thrilled that it happened, and it was nice to be able to have those awards on the shelf. That’s for sure. But, I mean, it doesn’t help me come up with a new script every week (laughs), or write this new idea, I [still] bang my head against the computer. I fail.
So you would probably say it’s safe to say nobody’s immune to writer’s block?
Paul Haggis: It’s not really writer’s block, it’s just finding something that really intrigues you, a story that moves you, or something that hasn’t been done or hasn’t been said the way that you want to do it or say it that is entertaining, and it’s hard, (laughs). And it’s very hard for me to find a good story, and then even harder for me to tell it well.
I can imagine. As you were navigating through the industry in your early days beginning in television, do you remember a specific moment that you could call, maybe, your first “big break?” What would you probably say to new and upcoming filmmakers and storytellers to be the best way to conduct yourself if you’re a newcomer?
Paul Haggis: I mean, I was working as a furniture mover for Moishe’s Movers most of the time, 10 hours a day. And then I would come home and I’d write two to three hours a night. I had a family; I had a wife and a daughter and so I had to work to support them and myself. And so, I just kept going until finally, it took me five years of being there [and] doing that to sell my first script. And it took me a long time of getting good at it. I just wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. And I did other things as well.
I had other odd jobs when there was no work for that, so it was piecemeal work. So, I worked doing other things as well, and then my wife worked at a hotel, and we just banged it out somehow. You just have to work 10 times harder than everybody else if you wanna succeed, and that’s the same in any business. I think it’s the same in yours and same in any industry position if you really want it. You gotta work 10 times harder than the next person.
Do you think of yourself more as a writer or director? When did you feel confident enough to take the helm as a director? You’ve always had a knack for it, but you’ve really sort of come into your own as a director in the last decade.
Paul Haggis: Thank you! More as a filmmaker [in general]. You know, I just got to a position in television where I could hire myself to direct. I became the writer, and then I became the producer, and then I could hire myself to direct (laughs) because no one else is going to give me the shot. And so that was the way to do it, and often the way to move forward. If you get a good script, you have a much better chance of directing it than if you walk down and tell people you’re a director and, ‘Please hire me.’ So, I wanted to direct for a long time. I always got to the theater in my teens and early 20s and I wanted to direct. I wasn’t any damn good at it, but I wanted to do it. But I wasn’t any damn good at writing either and somehow making a living at that (laughs).
It’s just do what you can when you get the opportunity. But, you know, I love directing. I love this last thing I did with David Simon. I didn’t write a word; he wrote all six hours – he and Bill Zorzi with Show me a Hero – and I love just coming in as a director and working with the actors and bringing the scene to life, that’s just joy. That’s the only time I’ve ever been able to do it.
Interpreting someone else’s material, I’m sure, is something different, in a good way.
Paul Haggis: Yeah, mm-hmm!
And speaking of directing, 5B is project you’re developing. As a San Francisco native, obviously, this is a story that speaks to me and is intriguing. How’s development coming along on that project?
Paul Haggis: I co-directed this with Dan Krauss. We’re almost finished with the cut will be done with post-production shortly, and going out to festivals after that. So, we’re very excited about it. It was a story that just hadn’t been told; you had a very heroic group of nurses in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. They’re very brave and opened the very first AIDS clinic. This was a time when doctors were wearing full hazmat suits in order to approach an AIDS patient and trays of food were going undelivered because the orderlies and the staff were afraid to go into the room because no one knew how this was transmitted. And this very heroic group of nurses stepped forward and said, ‘No, we’ll treat these people like human beings.’ And they revolutionized [the healthcare system].
Absolutely extraordinary. Speaking of essential content, I think that many storytellers and screenwriters simply just don’t have the courage to cover the material you do in the way that you do, confronting it head on. Born and raised and living in San Francisco, I can absolutely relate to the content that you so often and wonderfully produce, as San Francisco is one of the melting pots in the country, one of many [in the Unites States]. What drives you to these themes that so often recur in your films and television content?
Paul Haggis: I’m a Canadian, but I’ve lived in LA for a long time before moving to New York. I’d love investigating things that really trouble me in some way. And usually those have to do with things that I’m doing that I’m not proud of. Thoughts I harbor or fears – that’s what created Crash. Or, if I’m not doing enough when we invaded Iraq; even though people were protesting on the streets, I wasn’t doing enough to try and stop a war (laughs), or these other issues. I love popular entertainment and I love doing straight out films. But often, you just feel the responsibility to say something. (Laughs) To ask a question that isn’t being asked and then let others to make a comment and decide what it is you’re talking about or what they think about it.
In keeping with that need to act. I consider you an accomplished and humble humanitarian and active social justice advocate in your own right, on top of being a storyteller. Artists for Peace and Justice, the non-profit that you founded, is doing some amazing work.
Paul Haggis: Thank you.
Could you speak about the work that you and your filmmaker friends, who’ve joined forces with you on this project, are doing in Haiti?
Paul Haggis: Yeah, I mean, we’ve been down in Haiti for almost 10 years now. We were down there a couple years before the quake and because we just found that we were fascinated by how we could, as human beings, justify living so close to a country that was just so impoverish, and a country that we had a hand in impoverishing. Haiti is an hour from our shores by plane, and yet the poorest country in the western hemisphere by a factor of four. It’s just a poverty level there is staggering.
And so, when I saw it, when I went there and saw it, I just figured we had to do something. And, you know, at the time, there was no interest in Haiti, and people usually thought I was talking about Tahiti or something. I met this man, Father Rick Frechette, an amazing doctor who’s been there for – an American who’s been there for over 25 years, working really successfully in the slums, and he inspired me. I had to do something. And so I got some of my friends together.
We went down there, and we saw the work, and they saw how much was to do. And so we started to sponsor some schools. And then after the earthquake, we were able to become much more effective because suddenly the eyes of the world were on this. I was able to raise a lot more money and we knew how to to spend it well because we knew the players on the ground and we knew who to trust. And so we did it. The success was in empowering the Haitian people rather than coming in as neocolonialist telling them what to do.
We have amazing partners on the ground, and with them we built what I believe is the only free high school for the kids in the slums from grade 7 through grade 13. And we have, as of this year, almost 4,000 students in that school. These are all kids who mostly live in tin shacks with mush doors, and you see them running out of schools when school’s over, you stand in the yard and watch them leaving. It’s just overwhelming to see almost 4,000 kids in their uniforms, and so proud, and so happy to be learning and to be there. It’s a fabulous sight.
And then we have started our Artist Institute, which is our post-secondary school in partnership with David Belle, who created Ciné Institute. Primarily, we have a film school and an audio engineering school where we teach kids how to make a living in the arts, and kids are graduating and earning 20 times more than their parents did…in the arts! And that makes us feel pretty damn good.
We decided early on that we’d raise the money from my friends, and a lot of my celebrity friends stepped up, really stepped up big time and gave me a lot of money and trusted me. We’ve raised just about, I think, $25 million so far. And we put all that working money to work on the ground. And they trusted me to not embarrass them and that we would be accountable. So, we’re incredibly transparent. Our costs are ridiculously low, and we are just very, very effective. And we’re used to seeing too many charities, big charities go in there to places like Haiti, and, with billions of dollars, doing very little. Just takes a lot of big consultants and pats themselves on the back, tapping themselves on the back.
And we said, ‘You know, we’re gonna do the work, and then we’re gonna advertise it later,’ (laughs). So, people are finding out about it slowly now and they look at what we’ve done together and it speaks for itself.
I agree. That’s certainly the right approach rather than advertising it beforehand and showcasing it. So, do you have any new and exciting writing projects on the horizon? I know it’s a personal question to ask a writer, so anything you care to say or not say is perfect (laughs).
Paul Haggis: Yeah, I don’t like talking about them because it’s always bullshit. Everybody, in time, will tell you they have a new movie released with Leo DiCaprio going next year? (laughs) I don’t have a movie with Leo DiCaprio next year, but I have a film that I’m hoping to shoot in the spring that I just finished writing and I’m pulling together. It’s a noir piece, a film noir.
Paul Haggis: I love that genre! So it’s very odd characters, and so I hope I can pull it off. Fingers crossed!
Very wonderful. Well, It seems that you can cover just about every genre now after this one (laughs).
Paul Haggis: I LIKE it! I like doing things I haven’t done the last time. I haven’t done a crime piece since EZ Streets a long, long time ago. It was television. I love those characters, sort of those desperate characters, and especially those who are just living very mundane lives and earning less-than minimum wage (laughs), but have a need to break out and do something, even if it’s something very illegal, you know (laughs)? I love those characters, yes.
I can certainly relate to being drawn to that material as well. So, you’re flying over to Mallorca then later this month?
Paul Haggis: Yeah, I’m very excited about that. I’ve never been! Never actually been to Spain, I have to say. I’m embarrassed to say. So, I’m really excited to be coming and I’m really excited about the festival. I love the fact that they’re reaching out and trying to create a festival that celebrates diversity and reaches across cultural and political divides – and it celebrates tolerance, and I love that. I think it’ll be a lot of fun there.
I’m sure it will be an incredible experience and a lot of fun. Hopefully, more and more festivals take a cue and start embracing the core values of this one!
Paul Haggis: I was excited for that small festival in Kosovo last year. I was in the Prishtina Festival and that’s what inspired me to go to this one because I saw out there, reaching out to all the former countries in Yugoslavia, and trying to involve an artist to reach across political lines. I thought, ‘Wow, if art can do that, I wanna be a part of it.’
Film Inquiry would like to thank Paul Haggis for his time, insight, knowledge, and perspective into the film industry. Congratulations on your upcoming reception of the EMIFF Evolution Vision Award!
Paul Haggis will Accept the Evolution Vision Award at the Evolution Mallorca International Film Festival on October 26, 2017. A special screening of Crash will follow on October 29, 2017 during the festival.