Paul Haggis won back-to-back Oscars for writing the movies "Million Dollar Baby" (2004) and "Crash" (2005). The Canadian writer/director's newest star-stuffed movie, "Third Person," opened in Chicago theaters last weekend. It tells three interlocking stories set in Rome, France and New York.
I met Haggis recently at Chicago's Waldorf Astoria Hotel where I hit him with a few questions.
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Q. Most filmmakers are known to open veins to make their movies. I think you opened an artery for this one.
A. Yeah, usually I open veins for my movies, but for this one I really did open an artery. I wanted to make a film like the films that I loved from the 1960s and 1970s. Godard. Bunuel. Antonioni. Films that left you with an emotional reaction at the end. You didn't necessarily have all the answers.
It's all about how much we use others to succeed. And how we escape into characters who sometimes lead us kicking and screaming into things you don't want to look at.
Q. How much good stuff did you leave on the metaphorical editing room floor?
A. The original cut of this movie was three hours, and I didn't want to cut a single minute of it. I had to cut it down to two and a half hours and I had no idea how I was going to get it down to that. There was so much, just small scenes between Olivia (Wilde) and Liam (Neeson), just lovely, beautiful scenes. There were songs the characters sang, for God's sake! A lot of stuff I didn't want to lose.
But people will sit in a theater only for so long. It's not just the audience. Theater owners need to get in a couple of screenings a night or they can't make money. You're not going to get into those theaters with a three-hour movie. So I had to keep it at that magic number: two hours and 20 minutes. It was hard.
Q. We certainly see a lot more of Olivia Wilde in your movie than we've ever seen before. How did that work?
A. I told her from the very beginning, "Olivia, you're going to be buck naked!" She went, "Great!" She approached it with such ease. She just accepted it and that put us all at ease. Once we had pizza delivered and, between shots, she stood there buck naked eating pizza. In that way, it's delightful. It's charming. It's sexy .... It's a seduction, but there's such joy in it.
Q. Are you a romantic fatalist? A pessimistic romanticist?
A. I'm a cynical optimist. There are characters who win in this movie. They live pretty happily at the end of this. James Franco's character has a woman who accepts him for who he is. Of course, there are characters who betray each other. And sometimes those are the nicest characters.
Q. Are you aware that you saved the James Bond movies when you wrote "Casino Royale" for Daniel Craig?
A. (Producers) Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli trusted me with the script. I thought they were crazy. When I heard they wanted me to start the Bond series all over, I asked my agent, "Do they know who they're giving this to? Do they know that if they give this to me, I'll ruin James Bond for everyone, forever?"
He told me they wanted me. OK. So I really wanted to get under his skin. I loved James Bond. Let's treat him as a real human being. Take him as an archetype, but then what makes him the way he is? Why is he such a womanizer? What breaks his heart?
What makes him fall in love? The answer: for someone to see him through all his armor and all his defenses. To see him and accept him. The key to Bond is that he's a poker player. Good poker players don't play their hand, they play their opponents.
Q. What keeps you coming back for the next movie?
A. I love witnessing the characters coming to life. I love finding moments that surprise me, characters taking me places I didn't expect them to. Then, watching as the actors take me to other places that I didn't expect them to go, either.