After moving to California from Canada in his 20s, Paul Haggis wrote and directed TV shows such as The Tracy Ullman Show" and thirtysomething. His screenplays include Letters From Iwo Jima, and In The Valley Of Elah. He's the first screenwriter to win back-to-back Oscars for screenplays -- Million Dollar Baby and then Crash, which he also directed.
Like Crash, his latest movie, Third Person features multiple interconnecting stories. The cast features a lot of heavy hitters in the tortured love stories, including Liam Neeson as a successful author at a hotel in Paris having an affair with Olivia Wilde, who's also a writer. Adrian Brody shows up in Rome as a shady businessman there to steal designs and gets involved with a woman played by Moran Atias, in some elaborate scheme to get her daughter back. James Franco is a data processor in Columbus, Ohio. Kidding! He's an artist in New York, of course, and he's fighting for custody of his son with his ex-wife, played by Mila Kunis.
In San Francisco to promote Third Person, Haggis talked about how vulnerability can be a weapon, his involvement in Haiti and how he isn't happy unless he's miserable.
I read that you came up with this movie after conversations with Moran Atias, who suggested you do something on love and relationships. Why did that appeal to you?
I've had some terrific relationships and some very flawed ones. I think every ten years of my life I know less about love. It appealed to me because there were a lot of questions I had that I thought I could explore about how to love and how to be loved, how to allow someone to love you. That fascinated her and fascinated me.
Is this movie different than other things you've done?
It's highly personal. I mean, "Crash" was also highly personal, but it didn't appear to be so. All those characters were struggling with things I struggle with. I wasn't pointing the finger at anyone else. I was pointed it straight at me. I think this is what upset people a lot - I was talking about how liberals were racist and harbor these racist feelings. That it wasn't these people over here or down south, but how these big liberals could have these feelings and feel shame. This was not as political, but it was highly personal.
Is Michael the center of this movie?
Liam Neeson's character is central to everything that's happening. He is struggling with the same thing I struggled with trying to create this. I'm a structuralist - I know how to structure a movie, but I purposely didn't do that in this. I allowed the characters to take me kept taking me to something I didn't want to look at. Much like Michael's character. He was struggling with many of the questions I struggle with like what would I do if faced with a choice between the love of my life and a great story? Also he's an incredibly selfish man. He appears to be vulnerable and loving and happy and well balanced as I do. (Laughs.) But a lot of that the façade of vulnerability, and we use vulnerability as a weapon. Weapons aren't always the pointed sticks and the knives. Often he's unable to accept things. For example, he's unable to except forgiveness. You look at the Adrian Brody story where he's being dammed by someone for something that occurred -I think Liam's character is more comfortable with that than being forgiven and understood.
I understand usually you're a very quick writer but this took more time.
Two and a half years. I struggled. I knew what I wanted to write but didn't know how to get there. I was also fascinated by the structure of the great film artists who I admired as a teenager - the Europeans who were making such bold films ;ole Antonioni, Buñuel, Fellini, Godard, Truffaut. These were stories that at the end you felt satisfied, but you didn't necessarily understand everything that was going on. (Laughs.) You had to walk out and talk about it with your friends, and then answers would start coming to you. Working on that kind of structure, which is not the kind of film which is popular today - we love to underline everything and then put it in uppercase and bold and then say it four times. It took a while to accept this was what I was going to do.
Now that you've done it, what are you most pleased about with this film?
I love this film. It's my favorite film. I think because it's dangerous and personal. I have a favorite quote from Camus- "A guilty conscience leads to confess. A work of art is a confession." I can't claim this to be a work of art, but it's as close to a confession as you'll see from me. Everything in this movie is true, it's just none of it happened. (Laughs.) All these things I've explored, some I've seen and some I've lived. I find it exciting to put myself out on a limb - to do a movie that pretends to be three love stories, but really it's a puzzle.
I would think a lot of people want to avoid confession. Why do you want to confess?
As a writer, we're always trying to control our characters. We're trying to be vulnerable to a certain point. Sometimes the characters, though, if you let them go, will take you to darker places, things you don't want to look at. Things that make you uncomfortable. And I'm never really happy unless I'm uncomfortable. I'm happiest when I'm miserable. (Laughs happily. Or miserably.) At least as an artist. When I really challenge myself in my work, I'm the happiest.
You along with Olivia Wilde and Maria Bello who are in this movie do work in Haiti and that seems important to you.
I took them both to Haiti with me for the first time years ago. We've all become really enamored with the people of Haiti. We're working down there to make long-term change by establishing institutions like the only free high school for the children of the slums. We've got 2, 400 kids there right now, and we have a film school and an audio institute that's just opening up. We figured we're not going to save Haiti or solve Haiti's problems but given a hand, the Haitians can do that. Education is the key to that. Maybe somebody at our high school is going to be the next leader of Haiti.
Because it's the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. I've seen a lot of poverty, and then you go to the slums of Haiti - it's shocking. Also because America and France have a long and shameful history with Haiti. It's the way it is largely because of our interests and France's interests over the years in punishing them for throwing off their shackles and declaring independence. We've punished them for hundreds of years, literally. I think it's time we stepped up and gave them a hand.
How does trust play a role in this movie?
Trust is a major element in this film - being worthy of trust, projecting onto others that they're untrustworthy, and the idea of what happens when you really open up to somebody. The theory is that when you finally completely open up to somebody, they will betray you. That's why we keep our guard up. It's easier sometimes for us to vilify another rather than trust another. We see that in this film in the Mila Kunis/James Franco storyline. But also in the Adrian Brody storyline, you see a man who just decides to trust someone despite all the evidence. And I wondered, "Is that transformative?" Do people become what we imbue them with? If you believe in someone, do they rise to that? That's a very romantic notion, and I'm a romantic. (Laughs.)
Why the title?
Two reasons- I think there's always a third person in any relationship, but it's not who we think it is. We think it's our mother-in-law, but it's some long-dead lover. In every story there's that. In Michael's story, it's the characters themselves who make him face that. Also because I love the idea that Liam Neeson's character journals in the third person, distancing himself from his emotions even in his diary. How emotionally shut off do you have to be to do that? And the playfulness they have because they're both authors, talking about themselves in the third person, which they do lovingly and cruelly.
Third Person opens June 27 at the Embarcadero, AMC Metreon, Sundance Kabuki in San Francisco, and at the Shattuck in Berkeley.