ADTV talks to Oscar-winner Paul Haggis about his HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero
Speaking to Paul Haggis, a man who has been behind the camera and keyboard in both the film and TV industry for decades, proves there is often more to filmmakers than meets the eye. I discovered he is a perfectly pleasant guy and, as we’ve witnessed on a few occasions, does not shy away from expressing his personal opinion.
I spoke to Paul Haggis while he was in Canada visiting family. We discussed not only his HBO television miniseries Show Me a Hero, but we also dug into his background with Scientology, the rise of his TV career, and of course the homophobia theories surrounding his film Crash defeating Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture in 2006.
AwardsDaily TV: Hello Paul Haggis. It’s not often you get to speak to back-to-back Oscar winning Best Picture writers. That’s pretty rare.
Paul Haggis: [Laughs] I was very blessed to have good material.
ADTV: Let’s break the ice a little bit then. So you’re the audience now. Think about the last year. Which films and TV shows have impressed you the most? Do you have time for anything?
PH: Oh yeah. My daughter got me into watching Bloodline, which I quite love. On the second season of that, it started very slowly, but I really love it. And I finally started up on Game of Thrones. I knew I would enjoy it too much so I avoided it for many years. I just knew it would take up too much of my life. So I am just now on the second season and devouring it. It’s nice to be so far behind everyone else.
ADTV: What would you say is one of your proudest moments outside of your TV and film work?
PH: There’s what I do in Haiti. I’ve been doing that for nine years. I really love that – the Artist for Peace and Justice. We head down there again this week, taking a great big group of people down because were celebrating the very first graduating class of our high school. So we got 2,700 kids, and we are graduating 300 of them this year for the first time. The amazing thing is it is the only high school for the kids in slums. I am very proud of that accomplishment. And of course the Artists institute, with film school and audio engineering school. That makes me very proud. You stand on that ground we bought, you know, with Olivia Wilde and Ben Stiller. We all went down there and did it. You stand there now and watch two 2,600 kids run past. [Laughs] It’s pretty extraordinary. I can’t help but smile.
ADTV: Now, I am not going to delve too deep into Scientology.
PH: Yeah, it’s been done.
ADTV: The question I will ask, did you receive any kind of blow-back from Going Clear in relation to future projects like the one you have just done, Show Me a Hero?
PH: No. Everything they do is gossip and rumor and stuff online, anonymous things they post to try and influence people. Like my work is not very good or whatever. Not just me but loads of people, especially celebrities or minor celebrities that end up leaving. They try to trash their reputation, but I don’t give a damn what people think of me. [Laughs]
ADTV: Say someone who doesn’t know you asks you “What do you do for a living?” What do you respond with? Writer? Director? Producer?
PH: I tell them I am in the film business.
ADTV: You don’t see yourself as one thing more than another?
PH: No, I love writing. I love directing. I especially love whatever I am not doing at that particular time. If I am writing I would dearly love to be directing. If I am directing, I would much rather be writing. But that’s just because I am a contrarian and a miserable sop. [Laughs] In this case with Show Me a Hero, I just directed and produced. I did none of the writing, which was just fabulous for me. That’s the first time I have ever done that. It was such a relief. You get an actor come to you with a question, and you say, “Oh that’s a really good question. Why don’t you talk to David about that?” [Laughs] It’s wonderful to have people to collaborate with. [Producers] David [Simon] and Nina [Kostroff-Noble] were such wonderful collaborators. We all made each other uneasy, and that’s the best thing for artists.
ADTV: So thinking about TV. You’ve worked on popular shows like Due South and L.A. Law, shows I watched when I was a teenager. And you have already grabbed two Emmys for writing and producing Thirtysomething. What do you remember about the success of that show? And that time.
PH: Oh yeah, I was in my early thirties and working with two terrific filmmakers in Marshal Herskovitz and Ed Zwick. I’d only written comedy, I had never written drama in my life, other than some failed screenplays I had attempted. They were so generous to me. They really allowed me to find my voice and prodded me to look inside and find dilemmas, find questions, that I could not answer myself. That went with me through my career, so I am eternally grateful to them.
ADTV: Earlier this year I know Oscar Isaac won the Golden Globe for his performance as Nick Wasicsko in Show Me a Hero. Are you feeling the award buzz for this show going into Emmy voting?
PH: I don’t really pay much attention to the Golden Globes to be honest. It’s more of a show than anything else. They are lovely, but I don’t really take to awards shows. I got one, really like them. I know it is a shitty thing to say this, but I don’t take them that seriously. I think when you get rewarded from your peers you take them more seriously, like the Emmys or the Oscars. Though you get the serious press like the New York Film Critics, I have never got one but I appreciate it. Even the Gotham Awards I like. I liked the fact Oscar [Isaac] won, and I would like to win another one. I am as shallow as the next person. Perhaps they are getting more legit. What do you think?
ADTV: I think it’s really tricky now with TV. Five years ago with something like Limited Series Emmys you could maybe predict it, “Oh there’s only two that can win it.” Now people are talking about the Limited Series because there are so many now that the competition is ridiculous. And if you get in you’re lucky, I think. Your show is there or thereabouts.
PH: Yeah, yeah, we’d be very lucky to be on the shortlist. I would be thrilled, but it’s not why we do things. It does bring attention to the work of of others. The actors we had – Catherine Keener, James Belushi, Jon Bernthal, Alfred Molina, Oscar [Isaac] – amazing work. I would love to see them recognized.
ADTV: It’s a fine series. Well acted and well executed on a very consistent level too. Many six parters can dip. For example, episodes four and five were not as good, but Show Me a Hero was consistent all the way through. So congratulations on the show.
PH: Thank you. That really is the collaboration with David. He brought out the best in us.
ADTV: Did the series turn out how you envisioned it?
PH: Well I was very happy. The thing I was most scared of, we had to shoot this on a schedule and a budget, much smaller and faster than most of us had ever done before. I was shooting six to ten pages a day on five or six locations in different time periods. And also shooting riots with a thousand people, a hundred, fifty, so finding a way to make it feel like you are in a crowd like you were under attack, bombarded with hatred. That was that was my biggest fear but my biggest success.
ADTV: Does your directing style alter when shooting the six-hour series to, say, a TV episode or a feature film?
PH: First of all I don’t have a style, so that helps. Directors shouldn’t have a style. I know some that do, but I think the style should be dictated by the piece and the story itself ought to tell you how it will be shot. And you better listen, if you don’t you might be forcing it into something it is not. I was happy with the way Show Me a Hero turned out. If you look at Crash and In The Valley of Elah, those are two different styles of films, visually. In one the camera never moves, and has short lenses, in the other it’s handheld or Steadicam and probably moving.
I let the story dictate, and you have to have humility to do that. I don’t know how much I have. You can’t be the guy going “Look at me, look at me, I am the director.” We should disappear. The director should disappear. That’s what I loved about Spotlight this year, he [Tom McCarthy] just disappeared. He just served the piece. And yes there are some really flashy directors out there, and they do things that leave us in awe, thinking “What a cool shot.” I mean I love cool shots, love doing them, but you have to fight the ego. All the time. What’s the best way for this story to be told? It’s to put the camera down and do a close up you idiot. [Laughs]
ADTV: Looking at the surface of it from the outside, if that is possible, do you think the political subject matter, the knowledge of public housing, and class affairs in the 80’s and 90’s could have been a tough sell? What made this compelling to you as a potential directing project?
PH: Oh yeah, I would never buy that show. Thank God we have HBO. I mean, a 6-hour miniseries about zoning and public housing – come on! I loved the minutiae of the storytelling. The same thing we did with Thirtysomething, finding the drama in the small moments and decisions and portrayals. Hoping for someone to have your back, and they don’t omit the pettiness of life, the real drama. It is hard to do, but if we celebrate who we are as human beings… The wonderful thing about Oscar, he just dove in. Didn’t care if I made him look bad, knowing that it would make the character all the more heroic.
ADTV: Do you have plans to make more movies as a writer and director? Or TV?
PH: I have some TV ideas, trying to push them forward. Hoping to start shooting a movie in the UK.
ADTV: How did you land Million Dollar Baby and Casino Royale? Great gigs.
PH: Weren’t they great. I loved those so much. Million Dollar Baby I wrote for myself and tried to sell it, get financing for six years. As I was shooting Crash, Clint Eastwood stepped up and said he wanted to direct it. That was a decision I had to make as I owned the material and was going to direct it.
ADTV: Yeah you must have had to think hard about that. It is only Clint Eastwood. [Laughs]
PH: Yeah. Shit, it was Clint Eastwood, one of my favorite directors. And I got to work with him two more times.
ADTV: Before I let you go, we have to touch on Crash. Probably sick of it. For me, and I saw it twice on the big screen, two scenes stayed with me for a long, long time. The “crash rescue” scene and the “magic cloak” shooting scene with the little girl. Great scenes, hairs on the back of your neck scenes. That’s why we go to cinema.
PH: Thank you, thank you. I’m very proud of it.
ADTV: Of course Mark Isham helped.
PH: Yes, yes. Absolutely great music. Someone caught me at some premiere, the press are always trying to do this, they asked if I really thought Crash was the best film at the Oscars that year. I mean, what sort of asshole is going to say yes? [Laughs] No, there were great films that year. How fabulous it was to be on that list, and then of course it comes out and wins the Oscar. These bullshit theories with Hollywood being homophobic, oh please. Half the people we work with in Hollywood are gay. Ridiculous. Would they rather be called racist, is that more comfortable? If your favorite film loses, and I love Brokeback Mountain, and the others, beautiful films, but people are sore losers. I lost with Million Dollar Baby, and you didn’t see me saying Sideways is not a good enough script – it is a great script. People should grow up.
ADTV: You can’t please everyone.
PH: You want to be up there with other great films. It is the luck of the draw. These writers and directors I admired so much. That was the thrill for me – to be mentioned in the same breath as Ang Lee, Steven Spielberg, and George Clooney.
ADTV: So is that how you saw that whole homophobia thing and the racial thing with your film? You thought it was nonsense?
PH: It is nonsense to say Hollywood is homophobic. It’s like saying Broadway is homophobic. Just ridiculous. So much of the artists in our community are gay – and proudly so. They are a big part of our creation on every show. However, there are things that are true, like with women, it was a long time before they were included. Women directors are being recognized. More people of color are being recognized. Those are the walls. I demonstrated against Prop 8. I think you would be hard pressed to find someone on Broadway or in the film business that are homophobic.
ADTV: Okay. Are you going to the Emmys this year?
PH: I am not big on awards shows or film festivals. I go, and am very happy if I am nominated, to go and represent the picture. I haven’t been to the Emmys in a long time. I live in New York now. The awards seasons are a bit distant to me.
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Directly following our conversation, I received the following email from Paul Haggis, with additional comments to his previous opinions on the supposed homophobia in Hollywood:
As a longtime proponent of gay rights, as a guy who was demonstrating in the streets of LA when our state government was trying to ban gay marriage with Prop 8, I didn’t want to give you the impression that I think there is no homophobia in Los Angeles. Of course there is. There’s homophobia everywhere, as there is hatred of minorities everywhere. You saw what happened this weekend – hateful intolerant small minded people are hateful intolerant small minded people.
What I was saying is that the gay and lesbian community is a driving creative force in Hollywood. For people outside of LA to accuse the Academy, which draws its entire membership from our creative community, of being homophobic, based on comments made by one actor, might be a tad self-serving. Do you really believe they watched Crash, which accuses liberals of harboring racist feelings, and thought “Yes, I love being accused of racism, let me vote for that one.” There were two nominated movies that year with gay protagonists. If the academy is so homophobic, how did that happen?
To my mind, a much more compelling argument was made last year, when activists called for more women and people of color to in central creative and decision making positions in our industry.