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Paul Haggis on "Third Person," "Crash," Scientology and Truth

"Third Person" is the perfect title for Paul Haggis’s fourth directorial feature. It suggests the comforting barrier writers place between themselves and the characters they create, many of which embody aspects of their author. Instead of "myself" making bad choices, it’s "he" or "she." In three interlocking narratives, Haggis delves into the frustrated minds of characters harboring a crippling sense of guilt while furiously pursuing love. Liam Neeson plays a writer romancing his young lover (Olivia Wilde) in Paris, Adrian Brody plays a businessman who falls for a Gypsy woman (Moran Atias) in Rome and Mila Kunis plays a New Yorker engaged in a vicious custody battle with her ex (James Franco). This script by the two-time Oscar-winner just may his most ambitious and revealing to date.

In a delightful interview, Haggis spoke with RogerEbert.com about his approach to balancing intersecting story threads, how he identifies with his own characters and the contradictions that led him to remain a Scientologist for 35 years.

There’s a scene you created that ranks among my favorite moments in cinema. It’s the moment in "Crash" when Michael Peña’s daughter jumps in front of the gun to protect him with her "impenetrable cloak." It’s the sort of scene that could so easily become melodramatic or over-the-top.

PAUL HAGGIS: I often get accused of that. In that case, the scene needed a sense of inevitability. I knew how it was going to happen as soon as I wrote the words "impenetrable cloak." You can’t have an impenetrable cloak and not have it tested. You can’t put a gun in a scene and not end up using it somehow. Children always try to protect their parents. It is a highly emotionally charged moment that is still the stuff of life. It isn’t the weeping telenovela stuff.

With "In the Valley of Elah," I almost always chose to cut away from the scenes or not even write the scenes that could be highly emotionally charged because I wanted you to distance yourself enough to truly see the horror that is so banal. When Tommy Lee Jones calls his wife to tell her that their son has been brutally murdered, you don’t see that conversation. You see her sitting on the floor talking  and only after that do I cut to a high angle and you see that the tables are knocked over, indicating that she fell on the floor about a half hour ago.

So you balance it. You identify the theme and style of the piece and decide what you want to show. In "Third Person," I have a couple highly charged moments, but I was more interested in getting inside the characters’ heads and the horror that resides there, that sense of not being worthy and that they cannot love. That was more interesting to me than showing emotionally charged moments of that sort. But then again, you have moments like the one where Olivia Wilde bursts through the door asking, "Why do you love me?" She’s just been forgiven for something that she can’t forgive herself.

You see that with Liam’s character too. There’s a moment towards the end where you realize that two characters are almost identical: the ones played by Maria Bello and Kim Basinger. When a man begs her for forgiveness, Maria says that she will never forgive him, whereas Liam’s character isn’t asking for forgiveness and Kim, his wife, is insisting on forgiving him. He can’t handle that and that’s why he can’t go home. In life, we are often working against our own best interests. If we want someone to come towards us, we push them away. [laughs] It’s all those contradictory things that intrigue me.

I think you’ve always been burrowing inside your characters’ heads. What’s most effective is what you remove from scenes. In "Crash," you don’t hear Peña’s scream and the music has a lulling quality that expresses the psyche of the child.

Yes. What you take out is often more important than what you leave in. It’s what Polanski taught us so well.

What are the dangers of writing autobiographically, thus inviting the assumptions of others?

We have to be willing to let people think that we are the characters that we  create. People will think that I am the Liam Neeson character, and there is certainly a lot of me in him. But there’s just as much of me in Mila Kunis or James Franco or Adrian Brody’s characters. They’re all struggling with something that I have struggled with in a relationship and they are all trying somehow to get love and not necessarily give it. [laughs] There are many things Liam’s character struggles with that I, as a writer, also struggle with, such as how a story gets away from you. Maybe it is true that I only feel through the characters I create. I don’t write my journal in the third person, but that’s probably because I don’t write a journal. [laughs] You have to look at the things that other people say about you and wonder if they’re true or not. You don’t have to necessarily agree with them at the end of the day, but you have to explore them.

I was reminded of Frank Perry’s 1968 film "The Swimmer" during the scene where Neeson chases the apparitions of women who have faded from his life.

Yes, that’s a great correlation. I’ll have to watch that one again. I don’t remember the ending.

Neeson has such a haunting—and haunted—face that often remains underutilized in his action vehicles.

He has an inherent strength when you meet him, and yet he also has a true vulnerability, and that’s what I wanted to see here, that balance. His character doesn’t always win and he often loses an argument. The woman who he loves just destroys him and he takes it. And you go, "Why? Be a man! Stand up for yourself!" and he chooses not to, because that’s the way she needs to be loved. He needs to let her abuse him until she eventually decides to put away her daggers and begin to trust him.

There have been many films in the past that seem to have been penned by a self-loathing writer who makes himself a punching bag for his characters. You avoid that by externalizing so many conflicting shades of Neeson’s personality.

The one line Liam didn’t want to say is when he’s at the elevator with Olivia and he turns to the guy and says, "It’s only two floors, you lazy bastard, take the stairs!" His character has that kind of temper but rather than unleash it on Olivia, whom he’s begging to stay, he turns [to a bystander].

That line got a big laugh at the press screening.

Whenever I stage a scene at a location, I’m always thinking, "We’re not on a soundstage, people will naturally walk by." I’ve often staged scenes in doorways where people will be pushing through.

When you are constructing a mosaic of interconnected narratives, do you write each story individually or all at once?

I’ve done both. "Crash" was very different because one set of characters literally led you to the next. You followed a character until he or she bumped into someone else and then you followed that person. That was the construct, it was a la ronde. I was initially going to show you stereotypes and I was going to reinforce them until you believed them. We all secretly think things like that, and as soon as I reinforced them and you felt comfortable enough to laugh in the dark of the theater, then I could turn you around in your seat. I’ve been accused of writing stereotypes, but in that case, that was my intention.

But in "Third Person," I started with Liam and Olivia’s story because I really wanted to explore what it was like to be a writer. That’s where I started, and once I had something there that sort of worked, then I moved on to the others. I had thought about the story involving the Gypsy and the American years ago when I was in Italy and saw how Gypsies were treated. They were hated and vilified and I wondered what it would be like to be someone who was judged the minute they walked into a room. The three stories somewhat resemble the beginning, middle and end of a relationship, though I didn’t want to put a stamp on them. I wrote each story individually before putting them together and then I rewrote them over and over. That’s not the way I usually do things.

How involved are you in the editing room?

The editor and I always work closely. There are things that I shoot that I know will connect with something else. When Olivia’s character is getting out of bed and she picks up her clothing, I knew that I would cut to Mila Kunis picking up clothing in the very next shot. When someone is pulling off their shirt, I knew someone would be pulling on their’s in the next shot. If someone is moving from left to right in one shot, the next shot will show someone walking from right to left. Some of these things I knew would happen going in, and other things I worked through with my editor for a long time to find the transitions. This is my third film working with Jo Francis, and she’s just great. She’ll try anything, and I’ll often push her to try things that she normally wouldn’t. Either these [narratives] work as a continuous story or they are colliding with one another. Some of it you plan, some of it you find.

One thing that distinguishes your work is its honesty and when you’re talking that honestly about contentious issues, some people are going to feel uncomfortable.

I remember when "Crash" came out and it got a couple really bad reviews. The New York Times and The LA Times hated it. I remember that The Hollywood Reporter said, "Oh please, if this movie had been made ten years ago, then it would’ve been relevant. But we don’t even have these problems anymore." That same week there was a race riot in a Santa Monica high school. As liberals, as "good people," we like to pretend that we fixed everything, that everything is fine. The same is true of relationships. What resides underneath all those justifications and excuses?

You were also strikingly honest about your reasons for leaving the Church of Scientology in your New Yorker interview.

Larry Wright did a great job on that piece. I told him that I would do one interview and trusted him to do it, and he did it right. His book "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief" was amazing too. I hadn’t had the chance to read [the interview] until just before it was done and my jaw was on the floor. I was proofing it for factual errors, I had no say in what he was going to write, and so I just decided to put myself out on a limb and go, "People are going to judge me for being stupid and that’s because I have been stupid. There’s no sense pretending that I was smart."

In my case, I was purposely blind. It was a point of pride because I had supported underdogs all my life and had viewed Scientology as an underdog. I was very protective of it and did not read any attacks against it. I figured there were bigots everywhere. It wasn’t until I had experienced things that made me really uncomfortable that I decided to investigate the religion for myself. They encourage you to close yourself off and you don’t realize that it’s happening. I know many really smart people, some of them friends for twenty-five years, who are still in there and they hate my guts.

They can’t possibly understand how I can say these terrible things about the religion, but each thing I’ve said is provably true. And yet they just don’t get it. These are smart people, artists, people I’ve worked with. I’ve been asked whether the religion enhanced my career in any way, and I don’t think it did. The people in that church thought in simplistic terms and encourage you to think in simplistic terms. That’s always where I had problems with it. I don’t think that way, though I was able to do that in one section of my life. How was I able to justify those two things in my mind?

In "Leaves of Grass," Walt Whitman writes, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large—I contain multitudes." We contradict ourselves constantly. That’s why I love writing characters. We can be the hero and the villain in our own life.

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