‘Show Me a Hero’ director Paul Haggis on Oscars, TV, and his love of ‘The Wire’

Senior Television Writer
08.11.15 12 Comments

HBO

The very first pilot I watched on this job was for a CBS drama called “EZ Streets.” Created by Paul Haggis – then best known for creating “Due South,” but most commercially successful for having helped develop the “Walker, Texas Ranger” pilot – it was essentially an HBO drama before such a thing existed: dark, dense, ambitious, heartbreaking, and addictive. It even featured Joe Pantoliano playing a sociopath gangster years before he won an Emmy for it on “The Sopranos” (and was, to my mind, better as Jimmy Murtha than as Ralphie Ciffaretto).

It was also the first time I got my heart broken in this job. Despite rave reviews from me and my more established colleagues across the country, “EZ Streets” was DOA: CBS pulled it off the air after only two episodes had aired, and though most of the remaining episodes would air the following winter, it was just running out the string. Haggis hung around CBS a while longer, creating “Family Law” and working on the short-lived David Caruso drama “Michael Hayes,” but after that, he went off to work in the movies, becoming Clint Eastwood's go-to screenwriter for a while and winning a pair of Oscars – including one of the most controversial Best Picture wins in recent memory – for his feature directorial debut “Crash.”

And while he was largely absent from TV (save for 2007's “The Black Donnellys,” a short-lived drama he created with “EZ” writer Bobby Moresco), the medium caught up to what he had been doing with what he'd been trying to do with “EZ Streets,” with shows like “Sopranos” and “The Wire.”

Now Haggis has teamed up with “Wire” creator David Simon for “Show Me a Hero,” a new HBO miniseries (it debuts Sunday night at 8 p.m.) based on Lisa Belkin's non-fiction book about the late '80s battle in Yonkers, NY, over attempts to build affordable housing on the predominantly white side of town, starring Oscar Isaac as overwhelmed young Yonkers mayor Nick Waciscko, Alfred Molina and Winona Ryder as members of the city council, and Catherine Keener as Mary Dorman, a white resident fighting the housing ruling. Though Haggis has both an Emmy and Oscar for screenwriting, he worked strictly as a director on the project, leaving the script to Simon and “Wire” alum William F. Zorzi.

Last month, I sat down with Haggis in Manhattan for a long talk about the miniseries, the many ebbs and flows of his career, his feelings about the “Crash” Oscar win and the backlash that followed, and why he loves “The Wire” but has never seen “The Sopranos.”

Looking at what TV became within a few years after “EZ Streets,” was there a part of you that said, “Damn it, I was too soon with this,” or “I was in the wrong place with this”?   

Paul Haggis:    After that failed on CBS, we took it to HBO. It had only aired two episodes.  I remember they said, “Oh, we love this.  This is great.  It”s perfect for us.  No one”s seen it.”  Like, four people saw it on CBS after “Touched by an Angel” was the lead in.  And they said, “Great, great.  Oh, we have this script coming in this week and we”re just going to look at that.  But otherwise, if that doesn”t go, then we”d love to do this.”  That script was “The Sopranos.”  And so it”s obviously the same world and I was just so bitter I never watched “The Sopranos” the entire time it was on.

You”ve never gone back to see it?

Paul Haggis:    No I”m a small, petty man.

That”s fair.

Paul Haggis:    It was like “Oh, fuck them.”  I”m not against being ahead of my time but it”s just always like an hour ahead of what America wants to see.  

But then, somehow, this movie thing has worked out for you.  So it”s not like you”ve suffered too much.

Paul Haggis:    But then even with that, look at “In the Valley of Elah.”  People had warned me at the time.  They said, “No one wants to see an antiwar movie right now, Paul.  It”s three years into the war.  It was even popular with the liberals.  No one wants to see it.”  And then two years later then, those types of films are a lot more acceptable.

So what do you think it was about “Crash” that suddenly for once you were right on time?

Paul Haggis:    I have no idea.  Probably because it took me so damn long to make it.  Because I wrote it four and a half, five years before that.  It took me five years to make it.  And I don”t know – maybe.  I don”t think I”m ahead of the curve by any stretch.  But I don”t know.  I have no idea why I”m either too early or too late or just in the wrong place.  But I love Leslie Moonves for being brave enough to want at that time to reinvent CBS.  He really wanted to.  The CBS audience just wasn”t ready to be reinvented.

And when you did your semi-remake of “EZ Streets” with “The Black Donnellys,” even then the audience wasn”t ready for it – on NBC, at least.

Paul Haggis:    Maybe, I don”t know.  It was fun to do it though.  I actually wrote that with Bobby Moresco the year after “EZ Streets.”  It was sitting for ten years in the closet. 

It had been almost six or seven years since you had written or directed for TV when you did that.  How much did the business seem to have changed to you?

Paul Haggis:    It changed radically, didn”t it? Overnight it changed.  And while all the filmmakers were running towards television, I was running away from it. I”ve always run in the wrong direction.  I don”t know if it”s just contrarian or just stupid.  But now with this, it seemed like the right time.  There was a film that I was about to shoot got pushed, and I found myself with a year off.  And my agents called me with a list of projects that people wanted me to consider.  Most of them were films to direct this or direct that.  And they got to number three and they said, “You know, David Simon has a miniseries.”  I said, “Say yes.”  He said, “Okay, well we”ll send you the script and you can read it and we”ll discuss it.”  I said, “Say yes and then send me the script.”  I read it very quickly.  I loved it and I went to meet with David and Nina (Kostroff Noble) here and they said, “Oh great, well we”d love to work with you.  Do you want to do episode one and six or how do you want to do it?”  I said, “I want to direct them all.”  They said, “Okay.”  Because I figured if I”m going to go back to television, I wanted to do the whole thing.  It”s ridiculous to try, but others have done it.  Cary (Fukunaga) did it and did a great job with “True Detective” the year before.  But just block shooting something that takes place over so many years and with so many characters in such a quick schedule, it was fun.

How long has it been since you directed something you didn”t write?

Paul Haggis:    Never.  I”ve never directed anything I didn”t write.  This is the first thing. That was another thing I wanted to do besides work with David, who I”ve always wanted to work with.  I wanted to learn and to go back and see how as a writer/director, it”s cheating.  You go in there already knowing, you”re already feeling the characters, and you haven”t had to do the work that a director has to do to analyze a script and to figure out what to do.  Because it”s already in your bones.  In this case, I wanted to do that and just learn that craft of what just a director does.  And so David”s a wonderful writer.  David and Bill wrote the script and did a great job.  But I think HBO was a little nervous at first that I”d be coming in, and wanting to rewrite. I said, “No, no.  I”ll just direct.”  And that worked out really well because it was an open collaboration and if there was a scene that wasn”t quite working and David wasn”t quite happy with it, I”d go, “Well, let”s just try this.”  And we”d do a little work and just improvise a little bit, a tiny bit on the dialogue with the actors and make the scene come to life.  And it was like, the smallest of changes and suddenly a scene that we were worried about is working. That”s what a director”s supposed to do. Like, you”ve got this scene that”s just about exposition, and it has to be.  That”s the nature of it.  People have to get in and say all sorts of things that they already know but we don”t.  And you have to find a way to bring stakes to that, bring life to that without changing the dialogue.  And it”s fun.  And luckily I had such great incredibly skilled actors.  I mean Oscar, wow.  What an actor. Oh my God, what an actor.  How committed, as well and always came prepared.  Always knew the lines.  Always got it down, did a great take of the character and also trusted me if I wanted to push it in one direction or another.  He trusted me completely.  He was so much fun to work with.

David told me one of the reasons he wanted to bring in a big feature director like you was because it would give him access to a different class of actor than the ones who are usually willing to work on his projects.  How involved were you in the casting stage?

Paul Haggis:    Oh, yeah. I was on that project for 13 months so I started last June.  David hadn't cast anybody yet. I think he”d met with Winona Ryder and I frankly wasn”t sure if she was right for the role.  But he said, “Yeah, I think she is.”  And I”m so glad that he had met with her and that he was recommending her because wow, she was great.  She”s always been a great actress, but this time that she”s had to work on herself or whatever, it has really paid off.  It”s all over the screen.  She”s really not only a lovely person but really skilled.  And there was real chemistry between her and Oscar, as if they were old comrades there.  So when what happens happens between the two of them, they really care.  She was the only one who they”d even met with, and the rest we just put together ourselves.  

One of the things that”s always typified the look of David's stuff is the verité style.  This is more classical compositions.  What did you guys talk about in terms of the look you both wanted?

Paul Haggis:    My job is to analyze the script, and I don”t think a director should have a style.  I think the material should dictate the style and so I said, “David, look what you”ve written here.  This is not a verité piece.  I”m not going to run around. You”ve got montages, you”ve got this.  You”re cutting between eight storylines and you”re telling this tale of Americana even though it is only in 1987 through the early '90s.  You”re talking about America and something that is in the marrow of our country.  And I think that dictates the style and the style is more classic American.”  I used handheld elements as well in it, but really I did the same with “In The Valley of Elah.”  It was the same kind of idea.  You wanted it to reek of sort of the John Ford America.   And while this is a little different in that way, he said, “Yeah, you find the style.  It”s totally fine.  Great.”  So he seemed happy with it.  The trick was just in knowing that you have six hours of material and you”re probably shooting eight hours of material.  And knowing that all the clever transitions you have planned by the time you get to the editing room, the scene that you”re transitioning to will no longer be there or will be someplace else or you have to jettison because of time.  And so giving yourself ways to get in and out of scenes that can remain and have some artistry without having had plans.  So that was fun.  They had researched this very well and Lisa's book was remarkably moving and well researched.  So the truth is on the page.  My job was to make it feel real, feel true.  And so what I tried to do, especially in scenes with crowds, with people, even though there”s not a perspective camera, even though there”s not a particular point of view on those scenes, I wanted to make you feel like you were in that crowd, that you were part of the chaos.  And so I would always put things in the frame that shouldn”t be in the frame.  Because when you”re in a crowd, someone”s always standing in the wrong place in front of you and you have to look around them.  So for example, I would block my scenes so you”d have to be behind people a lot.  If the camera was moving, you”d be behind and couldn”t quite see to give the impression that you”re part of that and make it dynamic.  Also if I didn”t have that, I would put something in the way.  For example there”s a diner scene in there in which Alfred Molina is being interviewed by a New York Times reporter.  I”ve got him down in a booth, but I”d move my camera in such a place that there”s a hole right in his face, right in Alfred”s face, right there. There”s a sense of chaos but also a sense of reality.  That”s why I kept working on in every single shot to try and make it feel real.  And that”s what I told my editors when we were putting it together.  Jo Francis who edited it, and she also edited for me on “The Black Donnellys.”  I told her, “If it doesn”t feel real, it can”t be in it.  So we cut it out.  If the moment doesn”t feel real, jettison it.” 

When you're telling a story based in fact, whether with this or “Flags of Our Fathers,” does that feel any different to you versus something wholly invented?

Paul Haggis:    You go out of your way to try and use real locations. We shoot in Mary's actual house, because she died and they were just selling it and we got in there just before they sold it.  We had the right street.  Now, you can”t always do it because those buildings had been torn down or repurposed.  But for the most part, just finding the location, just finding the type of wardrobe that they actually used or the kind of things they wore – that instilled so much in the scene.  It”s like, for example, when I was doing “Crash,” I didn”t have to do a lot of rehearsal with Matt Dillon.  What I had to do was put him in the uniform and as soon as he got into the uniform and put the boots on, he understood the character.  That was it.  And that”s a lot of what it is here.  When you”re in the setting, you go, “Oh yes, my house is this small.  Oh my God.  And so I need to protect it. It is on this street and yes I see these lovely little houses.   I”ll want to protect this.”  And that will inform the character and that will inform the way you shoot it.

What was the sense you got from the people of Yonkers as you were revisiting this very difficult time in their history?

Paul Haggis:    People remembered it, certainly.  It wasn”t that long ago.  And there were a lot of kids of people who had been on both sides of the struggle.  And they came out and often they would get in touch with the actors on their Facebook or Instagram and say, “Oh, you”re playing my mother.”  I mean luckily we had (Nick's widow) Nay there and she was with us a lot.  So she had been through the struggle and she was still at City Hall and was beloved.  She paved the way for us a lot.  And introduced us to the right people and the mayor welcomed us.  Others I can”t say. This argument about why public housing shouldn”t come to these other neighborhoods, it was all as we say in the film: it was couched in terms that would allow those who objected to it to say it had nothing to do with race.  “No, it was just about property values.  It”s about people”s livelihoods.  We”re not racist.”  And you always find that.  I found that during “Crash.”  There was nobody who was going to admit to being a racist… So in this case, even those who welcomed us, you could feel some resentment underneath.  Others really were proud that we were moving ahead and they had moved on.  But you have to understand that this battle goes on right now.  I mean if you check The New York Times op-ed page from like a month ago, you”ll see that there”s the same battles happening in Westchester right now.  I think they”re about to go through what these guys went through in 1987 and that”s right there.  It”s Westchester.  So this is not something that”s a piece of the past.  It”s something that”s a part of our present.  So there”s going to be folks who well they might welcome you but not necessarily with open arms.

How much Bruce Springsteen (whose music fills the soundtrack) did you wind up having to listen to over the courses of making this?

Paul Haggis:    We just decided on that very late in.  And we were in the editing room and we decided, “He's a Springsteen fan.” We had other songs planned in there but we were trying to find a musical identity for him, something that could say who this man was.  And of course of that period.  And here Springsteen was a natural.  So we actually came upon the songs very quickly.  We found the end song right away.  And that was very powerful.  When we found that I just said to my editor, “Try that song over the end and see how it goes.”  And then I played it for Dave and he went, “Yeah, that”s great.”  And then from that point on it was pretty easy just to juggle the songs to make them fit.  His songs are cinematic.

David usually has these rules about music; it has to be diegetic.  I assume that wasn”t an issue here.

Paul Haggis:    No, no, it was very much an issue and he”ll tell you that.  That”s what he wanted to do going in, and I argued that since he”d written so many montages that was not necessarily going to be the case.  It was a matter of negotiation.  But at the end of the day, I think we found a really nice mix.  Half of it is diegetic and the score that we used is not intrusive and the songs really help.

You”re both very accomplished storytellers. David has a very strong sense of what he wants to do and you do as well.  How was that as a collaboration?

Paul Haggis:    Great, great.  Because I was such an admirer of his work with “The Wire.”  Oh my God, please. It”s one of the greatest series of all times.  And certainly my favorite.  And “Generation Kill,” wonderful. And “Tremé,” great, great work. So no, I think I admire him so much that I guess I was happy to listen to his point of view and to look at things from his perspective and learn from them.  And he was very open with me.

You have to stage a lot of near riots both in and outside of City Hall.  How difficult were those to pull off?

Paul Haggis:    Tough.  Really tough.  Because also we had many limitations.  The hours we could shoot, the extras we have.  It”s television and it”s not as – as David would say he”s the PBS of HBO.  They don”t exactly give you the kind of money if you had vampires in it.  So it was tough. But we would decide whose point of view we were shooting it from.  And finding him embattled really helped.  So rather than trying to show everything just try to do it all from his experience.  The same thing we did with the others.  Larry Bennett was my production designer and he built a lot of those tenements for me, and you”d never know.  But shooting it from their perspective made you feel like you were in those homes and living in those homes.  We shot the hallways. We shot a lot in (the Schlobohm projects) around there but it was too intrusive to be able to bring film crews in there every day.  We brought them in enough.  So, really finding a way to tell the story very personally and then hop from one person to the next and tell their story very personally, I think was the key.  

The miniseries frequently cuts away from what's happening in City Hall to show the lives of a handful of tenants hoping to move into the new housing if it ever gets built. That's straight out of the book, but the way the story is structured it takes quite a ways into the miniseries before they”re directly involved in what is going on with Nick Wasiscko.

Paul Haggis:    And that”s what I think we wanted to say: that these are the most important people here and they”re just being used as pawns.  They have no say in this.  It”s just these politicians are using them as footballs.  That”s what David really wanted to point out is the fact that the people that were most affected by this had no voice.  It”s a bunch of white guys arguing about where they”re going to be allowed to live.  And who they were and defining them.  It had to be frustrating.  So there had to be a part of the narrative even though all we shot was glimpses of what was going on in their lives.  It was just small moment until obviously it becomes a part of their lives.

How do you approach that as a director to make that feel like a vital part of the story early on?

Paul Haggis:    We did the same on “thirtysomething.”  What I learned on that is just trying to find a small moment that you can illustrate that will say, “Oh, this is what this person”s life is about and it”s just as important: this small moment of locking up the store or asking for the raise and deciding where you”re going to raise your children.” Those small moments have huge decisions attached.  So trying to give them the same weight as the decisions that are being made at City Hall.

“Crash” won you the Oscars, but you”re well aware there was some level of backlash to it and to its portrayal of race relations.  You”re now going into this where race is again a big subject.  Was there any part of you that said, “I don”t need that headache again”?

Paul Haggis:    Oh, no. The opposite. Dealing with the issues of race and class again, I knew there would be those who think, “Why is he doing this again?”  I like being scared.  If I”m not scared I”m not happy.  This is an important story. It happened right there.  It happened 30 minutes from here and a few years ago.  And it”s happening right now.  And if we don”t tell the story who will?  

That”s a movie you”re obviously very proud of, but was there anything in the criticism that came up after that made you say, “Okay, maybe they have a point,” or do you just disagree with what was being said?

Paul Haggis:    I”ll give you an example.  On “Crash,” what I decided to do early on was present stereotypes for the first 30 minutes.  And then reinforce those stereotypes.  And make you feel uncomfortable, then representing it to make you feel very comfortable because I say, “Shh, we”re in the dark.  It”s fine, you can think these things.  You can laugh at these people. We all know Hispanics park their cars on a lawn, and we all know that Asians can”t drive in the dark.  I know you're a big liberal, but it's okay, nobody's going to see you laugh.” As soon as I made you feel comfortable, I could very slowly start turning you around in the seat so I left you spinning as you walked out of the movie theater.  That was the intent.  Now if you saw “EZ Streets,” you know that I don”t usually write stereotypes.  But that was what I decided to do.  So when the criticism came later – “Oh my God, it”s full of stereotypes” – I went went, “Oh my God, you”re a genius.  Really?  Wow! That”s remarkable, really!  I should have corrected that.”  No.  So when you”re doing something that”s different I think people are always going to say things, but it amused me more than anything. 

Was it the best film of the year?  I don”t think so. There were great films that year.  “Good Nigh and Good Luck,” amazing film.  “Capote,” terrific film.  Ang Lee”s “Brokeback Mountain,” great film.  And Spielberg”s “Munich.”  I mean please, what a year.  “Crash” for some reason affected people, it touched people.  And you can”t judge these films like that.  I”m very glad to have those Oscars.  They”re lovely things.  But you shouldn”t ask me what the best film of the year was because I wouldn”t be voting for “Crash,” only because I saw the artistry that was in the other films.  Now however, for some reason that”s the film that touched people the most that year.  So I guess that”s what they voted for, something that really touched them.  And I”m very proud of the fact that “Crash” does touch you.  People still come up to me more than any of my films and say, “That film just changed my life.”  I”ve heard that dozens and dozens and dozens of times.  So it did its job there.  I mean I knew it was the social experiment that I wanted, so I think it”s a really good social experiment.  Is it a great film?  I don”t know.

What involvement, if any, did you have in Starz's “Crash” series?

Paul Haggis:    None.  Well, not none. I helped find the showrunner and I gave them advice on the casting.  And then I helped them with the editing when they were finished shooting.

Any thoughts on why it didn't work?

Paul Haggis:    No. I wasn”t that close to it.  I thought there were really good performances.  There was some really good writing.

Do you still get “Walker, Texas Ranger” residuals at this point?

Paul Haggis:    Like ten bucks here and there, yeah.  But it does prove that the less I have to do with a TV series, the more successful it is.  I was involved with that for a total of two weeks.  I rewrote the pilot.  I handed it in.  Two weeks later I walked away and ten years it was on the air.  So…

This is your first significant TV thing in seven, eight years now. How did it feel overall?  Did it make you interested in revisiting the medium some more?

Paul Haggis:    Oh yeah.  I loved being able to explore the characters for six hours.  It”s so great to watch. I wouldn”t be able to get to do that in film.  I wouldn”t be able to find all those moments. Just seeing the actors evolve over those six hours and what they do with their characters and the nuance that they bring.  That was so enjoyable.  And I like working fast.  You have to work really, really fast. In a film, you shoot two to three pages a day.  I was shooting between six and nine pages every day.  And I like it.  I like making decisions quickly and committing.  So I would do it again.  I really enjoyed it.

Now you're become part of the HBO family. And you have a lot of clout from what you”ve done in film.  If you wanted to take something there, I”d imagine they would at a minimum take a meeting and probably quite a lot more than that.

Paul Haggis:    To me, it”s all about finding a project that really touches me.  Is that a reason to spend a year, two years, three years of my life on it?  So this one yeah, I said yes.  A year of my life for this? Absolutely.  But finding that storyline, finding those characters, finding that subject matter that you want to dedicate your life to is always the hardest thing for me.

Now in terms of moving fast, you'd directed a few episodes of TV before you made “Crash,” but having worked a few times with Clint Eastwood, what did you pick up from him?

Paul Haggis:    There was so much that I learned from Clint Eastwood”s films and how to run a set and how to see the bigger picture because he truly is a master of watching something and going, “I know exactly what I have. It's not perfect. It doesn”t need to be perfect.  I”ll get perfect later on the next shot.”  He embraces the mistakes and he embraces the rough nature of filmmaking and imperfections, and so I tried to do that as well.

What was the James Bond experience like for you? That”s a very different sort of character and writing than you had been doing up to that point.

Paul Haggis:    I thought they were complete fools to hire me to do it.  I told my agent, “Do they understand that if I do Bond I will ruin it for everyone forever?”  And I think they knew who they were talking to.  But I loved that.  I loved working with Barbara (Broccoli) and Michael (G. Wilson) and with Martin (Campbell) on “Casino Royale.”  I thought it was a wonderful experience.  And the next one (“Quantum of Solace”) was a little less successful, but I still enjoyed the experience.  

But this franchise has existed since the 60s.  There has been a formula to it.  You were getting a clean start coming in with the Daniel Craig version of it.  And you”re dealing with a lot of corporate masters. As the guy trying to put this together what was that all like for you?

Paul Haggis:    Barbara and Michael and Martin, they gave me complete freedom just to try things and to go out there. I loved the Bond stories and always had.  And so I loved turning all those things on their head and yet finding the truth as who Bond truly was.  And I approached Bond like an assassin.  I don”t think you shoot a laser from the moon and say a smart line.  I don”t think that's what assassins are. think you kill somebody up close and you get blood on your hands and that seeps through the armor that you have on to try to protect your soul and it affects you.  Even if you think it doesn”t.  Questions like that that, I really got to ask and play out and they accepted it.  It was wonderful.  I was so thrilled to be a part of that.

I want to go back to even before “thirtysomething” to the “Facts of Life” days.  Back then when you were in the sitcom trenches, what ambitions did you have for your career?  Obviously you couldn”t have seen all of this coming, but what did you want to do when you were still a young guy?

Paul Haggis:   I just wanted to tell a good story.  It”s the same thing I do now.  I want to be able to find a way to find a good story and tell it well.  And that continues to be my challenge every time I sit down, every time I come up with an idea or every time I sign on like in this case: How do I tell the story well?  I”ve got to do my job so that we actually get what”s important on the page onto the screen and it communicates with the viewers in some way.  I don”t really care if it”s popular, but I care that it says something.  It doesn”t have to say something political.  It doesn”t have to say something important, but it has to speak in some way to someone who”s watching it – that personal connection.  And it can be to a portion of the audience, it doesn”t have to be the full audience.  I mean, in the last movie, it spoke to maybe 20 percent of those who saw it and then those who loved it, and the other 80 percent hated it.  That was fine.  But it”s not an easy thing to do to tell a story and to tell it well.  Define something you want to say and find the story you want to explore.  Something a question that you don”t have the answer for.  And gnaw at that question for a while until you seen to think that you”ve got through the bone and it”s the marrow of it and you can say okay, okay.  There”s something in here to explore.  That”s all I”ve ever wanted to do and all I continue to want to do.

But when you”re on a multicam show like “Facts” or  “The City,” how would you go about finding that story, finding that connection?

Paul Haggis:    I didn”t.  Because I was a very bad writer at that time, but I made a very good living as a bad writer for an awfully long time.  It wasn”t until “thirtysomething” that I actually started to learn why someone writes.  That was an epiphany.  It”s like the thing that I should have learned when I was 13 years old but I had to be in my mid 30s to figure out I”m just not that fucking smart.  So it took me a long time.  But once it did hit me, I had to dig into myself and ask myself questions and then put those questions on the screen.  I stuck with that.

How did you get that “thirtysomething” job? 

Paul Haggis:    I met with Ed (Zwick) and Marshall (Herskowitz).  They read all my work and they believed in me.  And I thought they were crazy.  They were mad.  Because I”m a sitcom writer.  But they”d read some of my long form pieces, spec scripts and things and thought there was really something there.  And I went, “Really, you think there is?  Okay, well it”s your money.  I”d love to do this.” And I had the best time, but that was the year that really formed me, that really took me from being a comedy writer to starting to write about things that meant something to me.  I used them as a school.  I can”t say I served them that well but I certainly learned a lot.

What are some of the things that you remember learning?

Paul Haggis:    I don”t remember exactly.  I remember Marshall and Ed, when I turned my first script in they came and talked to me.  I can”t remember whether it was Marshall or Ed but one of them said, “Really good script Paul.  What”s it about?” I said, “It”s about this clever plot turning up and this character doing his thing and that.”  He said, “No, no, no.  It”s really clever.  It”s really good but what”s it about? Where does it come from within you?”  Fuck, it”s supposed to do that?  That was the first thing I went home with.  Jesus Christ. I gave them a nice clever story and it was. It just had nothing underneath.  And that”s when I started asking questions right there and that was the big thing I learned that year.  I also learned how to shoot a master watching them – how to move a camera so you hit the important notes.

I remember the brief period when you were consulting on (short-lived CBS drama) “Michael Hayes.”  I talked to you after I had seen the revised pilot and said, “This is really good, Paul.” And you told me, “No it isn't!”

Paul Haggis:  (laughs)  You have to be honest.  It”s good enough.  And I thought it was good enough to move on, because often you do the best you can and then the next week you do a little better and the next week a little better and it is television. After a while, you sort of might get it right.  

That was David Caruso post-“NYPD Blue,” pre-“CSI.”  How was he behaving at that point?

Paul Haggis:    Badly.  Very badly.  

For example?

Paul Haggis:   (laughs) No examples. But I liked working with him. But I think you have a psychological makeup that drives you into the business.  I don”t think you lose that.  It”s like something we shape and that”s who you are.

You had that run on CBS in the '90s.  How do you then make the transition from that into the feature career that you got?

Paul Haggis:    You don”t.  You give up everything and you risk it. I got fired from “Family Law” and they had to pay me off for the rest of the year.  So I found the book of short stories, “Rope Burns,” in which “Million-Dollar Baby” was.  And I optioned that with Al Ruddy, who was the other producer.  We both put up half the money and I optioned.  I decided to write that.  And at the end of the year nobody wanted it.  I mean it”s a movie about a girl boxing and euthanasia.  Who”s going to watch this movie?  So at that point I had the choice of going back and doing more television or to follow my dream in doing movies which I”d always wanted to do and become films.  And my wife at the time, Deborah Rennard, said, “You know that TV idea that you had that no one wanted?  You should make it into a movie.”  It was “Crash.”  And I said okay.  So I pulled that out.  I was tired of sitting in my room alone.  I already had a long outline for it and I wrote another one with 25 pages.  And I called up my friend Bobby Moresco and said, “Bobby, do you want to write this with me? Because I”m tired of sitting in my little room alone.”  It took me a year to write “Million Dollar Baby.”  And he read it and said, “It”s not a movie.”  I said, “I think it is.”  He said, “Well okay, let”s do it anyway.”  So we did.  We wrote it in a couple of weeks. Did a reading, did a rewrite in a couple of weeks and that was it.  And then, again, no one wanted that.  But I wouldn”t take a job in television, not because I don”t like television, but because they make you commit for three to five years for a show.  And if I did a pilot, I couldn”t do anything else.  So I took a lot of odd jobs in writing and rewriting various films or doing assignments.  And it took me four and a half years of doing that.  I just mortgaged my house and mortgaged my house and mortgaged my house.  I was about to lose it when I got a little bit of money to make “Crash” and sold “Million Dollar Baby.”

I want to go back to “EZ Street,” just because I”ve never been able to quite let that show go.

Paul Haggis:    I know, me too.  I love it.

That broke my heart.

Paul Haggis:   Me too.  It was the best thing I”d ever done at that point. I think one of the best things I”ve ever written, period.

That”s what I was going to ask:  Where do you think that still sits in the Haggis ouevre?

Paul Haggis:    I love it.  I”ve always liked it.  In fact I”m toying with a movie right now in the same sort of genre.  I haven”t done something like that for a while so I”m trying to… I really hated to have to close that series down.  I would have done that forever.

The show was ahead of its time, but even for today, some of the storytelling demanded so much attention, where clues to the mystery were conveyed in quick looks or nods that if you looked away from the screen at the wrong second, you were pretty much done with making sense of the season.

Paul Haggis:    Exactly.  I know. I like to write up to the audience.  I like to give them challenges and I know that we shouldn”t do that.  I know we should do it in small ways but it”s like my last movie.  I loved the films that changed my life when I was growing up and those are the films of the French New Wave.  Those are the Italians because of the folks that were just redefining what movies were.  And if you saw an Antonioni movie or Passolini, any of these guys, you go, “Oh my God.  You can tell a story that way?”  You don”t have to underline everything. So I decided to do that even though the last thing America wants right now – they didn”t even want them back then – I was going to make one of those movies.  And I got the same response that I expected.  But I like doing that.  Who wants to tell the same story as all the other filmmakers?  They do it really well.  I love their films.  But I don”t want to make films the same way they do.  They don”t want to make films the way I do.

But if you look at the stuff David”s done or what Vince Gilligan did with “Breaking Bad” and some of these other shows, there is some kind of audience that is willing to pay that much attention.  

Paul Haggis:    Yes, but you look at “The Wire.”  “The Wire” was really unpopular when it was first out.  Nobody watched it.  Only later on did people come to it.  I was there.  I think it was genius.  Sometimes people come to the thing and sometimes they don”t.  I like writing for smart people.  I like challenging folks, and I don”t think that”s arrogant.  I just like to see things that I would want to watch.  And it comes back to the British miniseries that I used to watch when I was growing up.  They were so subtle in so many of those.  And so nuanced.  I loved them.  I guess I was influenced by the wrong things early on.  The French new wave and the British miniseries.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com
 

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