Paul Haggis directed and co-wrote “Crash,” named best picture at the Academy Awards in 2006, and scripted “Million Dollar Baby,” honored as best picture the previous year. Winner of a screenplay Oscar for “Crash,” Haggis also was nominated for “Baby” and “Letters From Iwo Jima.”
All of this would seem to render him uniquely qualified to offer advice to young people.
“I think I am qualified to tell people what not to do,” Haggis, 56, said with a laugh. “They can look at my career and say, ‘We should be smarter than that.’”
He’s being modest, of course, but he did take a circuitous route to becoming one of the most sought-after screenwriters and directors in Hollywood. For much of his career, Haggis worked in television — on cartoons, sitcoms, dramas and however you choose to classify “Walker, Texas Ranger,” the long-running Chuck Norris series co-created by Haggis.
But apart from a few years in the 1970s when he paid rent by working as a furniture mover, Haggis has found fairly steady employment in the entertainment field since arriving in Los Angeles from his native Ontario, Canada. That itself is a feat — and one that requires a willingness to subsume one’s ego.
“Television is a constant compromise,” Haggis said. “You have to find a way to take your voice and put it into the voice of the show. There was a great craft and art in that. I didn’t mind it. I got a chance to work on some really wonderful shows.”
A veteran of the Norman Lear-produced sitcoms “The Facts of Life” and “Diff’rent Strokes” — “he took all the good (shows) for himself,” Haggis joked about Lear – Haggis eventually assumed more creative control by becoming a producer himself, reaching a creative high point with the critically beloved but little-watched crime drama “EZ Streets.”
After “EZ Streets” ended, and after working on a subsequent television project that “was just eating a little piece of my soul every day,” Haggis turned his attention toward screenplay writing.
Transitioning from network television to Academy Award-caliber films “was easy — it was a snap,” jokes Haggis, who during a phone conversation is as affable and breezy as his best-known work is serious and issue-driven.
What that transition offered in reality was a few years of unemployment, cushioned somewhat by money still coming in from a TV contract. It also marked a change in Haggis’ outlook.
“I stopped worrying about what would sell and what was commercial,” he said.
“Crash,” which integrates themes of racial disharmony and emotional discord within the stories of several Los Angelenos, and “Baby,” which touches on the world of women’s boxing while exploring bigger concepts of life and death, didn’t necessarily seem like money makers at the script stage.
But “Baby” had Clint Eastwood behind it, and the low-budget “Crash” counted Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle and Matt Dillon among its ensemble cast. The Oscars helped, as well.
Haggis’ penchant for what he calls “passion projects” still can present some challenges in getting pictures made. Haggis’ 2007 Iraq-themed directing effort “In the Valley of Elah,” for example, got off the ground thanks to its big-name cast: “I was fortunate to get Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron to sign on for nothing,” Haggis said.
But screenwriting opportunities have abounded since “Baby,” which he adapted from short stories by F.X. Toole, and “Crash,” which he wrote with Bobby Moresco. Haggis co-wrote Eastwood’s “Iwo Jima” and “Flags of Our Fathers” as well as the James Bond films “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace.”
“It becomes ridiculous,” Haggis said with a laugh about the offers he receives. “They want you to write or fix anything.”
But the paydays for high-profile scripts buy him time to work on projects he is developing.
Films that influenced Haggis include Akira Kurosawa’s multiple-perspective classic “Rashomon,” which Haggis lauds for its character complexity; Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” whose revolutionary use of jump cuts transfixed Haggis as a young man; and Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon,” which Haggis calls “brilliant on every level ... (with) characters who are so unique.”
Exactly how these films influenced him is difficult to quantify, Haggis says. But all exceeded his standards for artistic achievement.
A film “has to entertain, it has to hold our attention, and then it has to explore a theme in a unique way, in some way we wouldn’t have expected, and give us insight into ourselves,” Haggis said. “And that is true whether it is ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ or a Jerry Bruckheimer film.”