Filmmaker Paul Haggis Turns Tropic Spotlight Onto Screenwriters
By Shirrel Rhoades
Cooke Communications film Critic
For a big-deal super-duper Hollywood double-Oscar-winner, Paul Haggis comes across like a regular joe. Sipping on a cup of coffee, his MacBook Pro open on a nearby table, relaxing there in Toronto’s Ritz Carlton, he was looking over his itinerary: Key West, Haiti, back home to New York. A big balding man with a stubbly chin, he’s fairly recognizable. But he was checked into the hotel under his own name. And when asked, he handed out his personal email address as if it were no big deal.
Pausing, he chatted easily about his upcoming trip to Key West, part of the Tropic Cinema’s Screenwriters’ Spotlight. A highlight of the second annual Key West Film Festival, it will feature writer-directors Paul Haggis and Terry George, along with several of their films followed by a director’s Q & A.
The series kicks off on November 14th with Terry George presenting Jim Sheridan’s “In the Name of the Father,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis in a real-life story about the IRA, adapted for the screen by George.
Then on November 15th Paul Haggis presents “Crash,” his powerful film about racism and cultural breakdown in America. The film stars Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Thandie Newton, Terrence Howard, Brendan Fraser, and Ryan Phillippe. “Crash” won Haggis Oscars for both Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.
On November 16th Haggis gives us “In the Valley of Elah,” an Iraq War epic starring Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon.
And November 17th offers a double feature, with Haggis’ "The Next Three days," a vigilante thriller starring Russell Crowe, and George’s “Hotel Rwanda,” a look at war-torn Africa starring Don Cheadle.
Paul Haggis is excited about his first trip to Key West. “My friend Terry George asked me to do it, so how could I say no?”
The Screenwriters’ Spotlight appeals to him. “I like to see writers get more credit,” he says. “They spend months or years shaping a script. Sometimes it’s on spec. A movie may become successful, but the writers are quickly forgotten. It’s nice to see them finally get some attention.”
Although Paul Haggis has both directed and produced films, he mostly thinks of himself as a screenwriter. “I loved telling stories from the time I was a child,” he laughs, “although that’s not always a good thing. But in my case it was. My parents encouraged me to do so.”
“I always wanted to make movies,” he says. Sounding like a kid who finally got to go to Disneyland. Now he’s at the top of his game.
But it wasn’t always that way.
“I grew up in Canada. My parents owned Gallery Theater. I wrote plays while working with my dad in construction. They encouraged me to go to Hollywood and try writing movie scripts.”
So he moved there at age 22. His parents sent him $100 a week for the first year to help him survive. “I worked as a furniture mover, all kinds of jobs,” he recalls. “But I kept hammering away at my writing. After four or five years I got my first television assignment.”
He labored on sitcoms ranging from “Different Strokes” to “One Day at a Time” to “Facts of Life.” As he puts it, “I earned a very good living as a very bad writer.”
But his craft improved. He credits work on TV’s “thirtysomething” in the ‘80s as a changing point. “Working with Marshal Herskovitz forced me to up my game. I became a better writer.”
He became a better person too. Famously breaking away from his church to support gay marriage, he’s also stepped up to the plate on other social causes. Sponsoring schools in Haiti, helping people in El Salvador and Chile.
“I don’t know how we turn out how we turn out,” he shrugs off any praise. “You do what you can.”
He thinks about it. “If anything, I’d credit America in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The Chicago Seven, Kent State. I wanted to be a part of all that. Just watching it in many ways formed me.”
He heard of a doctor working in the slums of Haiti. “I went to find him, stayed with him a while. It changed my life.”
As founder of Artists for Peace and Justice, he helped found Haiti’s first high school. It now has 2,000 students. Lionel Ritchie and Quincy Jones offered “We Are the World” money in support.
“We absorbed a film school,” says Haggis. “Graduating film students are actually getting work. We’ve booked over a million dollars so far.”
While Haggis’ films often have a moral center, (“Crash” deals with race and class) he says the intent is “to look into my own life.”
“First you have to tell a good story,” he points out. “But making people think is a good thing too.”
As for his work as a scriptwriter -- Oscars, Emmys, and all that -- he says, “I’ve been very lucky to have my work recognized.”
Indeed, it has. That’s the very reason he’ll be at the Tropic.