Writer/director Paul Haggis puts himself behind the camera once again for Third Person, an unraveling ball of yarn that tells of a writer (Liam Neeson) who becomes involved with his protege (Olivia Wilde) in Paris, a New York artist (James Franco) and the mother of his son (Mila Kunis), and an American (Adrien Brody) who becomes involved in the plight of an Italian woman (Moran Atias). The international drama is like his previous Crash, but takes a less literal route in finding common ground behind these diverse stories.
In 2004 Haggis received two Oscars for Crash, his second directed film, including the award for “Best Picture.” After that success he wrote films for Clint Eastwood (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima) and the first two James Bond films from the Daniel Craig era, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. Haggis most recently directed The Next Three Days in 2010 with Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks.
I sat down with Haggis in an exclusive interview to discuss his film, walking a storyteller’s line between obtuse and obvious, his first draft scripts for Eastwood, and more.
Third Person opens in Chicago on June 27.
What hasn’t changed about your writing process since when you first started writing screenplays?
That I use a keyboard [laughs] I started with a typewriter, btu then I got an IBM Selectric, which was revolutionary because I could actually go back over changes, and correct them. But almost everything has changed. I used to be a very clever writer. As you see in the movie, that’s not necessarily a good thing, it’s limiting. It has taken me a long time to understand that you have to dig inside yourself, and see what was there within the shadows. In my twenties and early thirties, I was doing situatuon comedies adn things like that, and I was a stylist, I loved style. I was writing thrillers and those kinds of things, but they didn’t really dig in deep. Not until “Thirtysomething,” did I start to really look inside myself and see what questions I couldn’t answer.
When it comes to starting with pivotal questions and then addressing them in your work, like with this film, do you start with the idea in the middle of the story, or do you start from the beginning?
For Third Person I was fascianted by questions about love and relationships, especially love. This idea came from Moran Atias, who is an actress that I worked with on my last film. She suggested I write something about love and the impossibility through a multi-character plot line way, and I thought that was a particularly good idea.
Where did the title came from?
Two things. First of all, something that drives this picture is that there is always a third person in the relationship, and often you don’t know who it is. You might think in Liam Neeson’s story it is his wife, but it’s not. Every single one of these relationships has someone. But also I loved the fact that this writer distances himself so much from his own feelings that he journals in the third person, and when they start calling each other “He” and “She” in clever, funny flirting ways, and also in cruel ways, that’s also where it came from.
I can appreciate a good title.
People said I should have called it “Watch Me,” which I could have, but it sort of hits you on the head, for me. That line repeats itself so often. You also hear that every actress says it in one way or the other, but they’re all so good in how they say it, you don’t put it together.
Your film is also reminder of the presence of phones within modern cinematic storytelling. If movies want to be genuine to reality, then most of their conversations would happen over a phone.
How many fights have you had over text with a loved one? I mean, please, you get together over it, you meet people over it, and you break up over it.
What is your take on that, with regards to your interest about making a film about people connecting?
You have to embrace who we are today when you’re writing a film on how we communicate. In this case, some of it is not very visual to do it that way, but you can’t ignore it. You have a cell phone, and you use it.
When you’re filming all of these different parts, say for example Mila Kunis’ story, are you thinking about everything else happening within the puzzle at the same time, or are you just focusing on one part? Which way helps better?
I am sort of a downhill skier on a triple black diamond. I only really think about the moment in front of me. But, at the same time, you have to be aware as to how it will fit into the rest of the puzzle, and that’s what this movie is at its heart, it’s a puzzle. And so you have to be thinking, oh, when Olivia Wilde gets out of bed she’ll be reaching for her clothes with her right hand, and that’s the same hand that we’ll start with for Mila Kunis picking up the note from the floor. You plan some of those transitions and those moments, you shoot the characters from left-to-right, and then they start left-to-right in the next scene. You do plan some of that stuff, you have it ahead of time, and then you have to let it go.
In terms of screenwriting, how much of that is within the film itself?
Those ideas came when I was planning how to direct it.
Were you storyboarding this film?
No, I don’t storyboard. I do if I have to, if there is a complex scene that everyone has to understand what you are doing. I remember with The Next Three Days and the car spinout, we had to storyboard that very carefully. But with someithng like this, you let the actors take you where they want to go, and block the scene to be completely naturally. I do picture the movie when I write, and so often I will design the sets as to what I picture, and I will tell my designer exactly how the room should look. He’ll change things slightly but I’ll know the relationships between the living room and the bedroom, and the eyeline there. So there are some things that are very carefully planned out when you are in that preproduction stage.
And then for post-production with this film, was that mostly cutting it down, or were there pieces of the puzzle that had to be changed?
This cut started at three hours, and it had to be cut down. There were so many scenes that I loved that we had to lose.
Will you salvage them at all?
I’d like to do a longer cut at some point.
What contributions did Liam Neeson make to his character?
If ever he didn’t feel that a scene was natural he’d say so, but usually he works from the structure, and likes to find the truth in the dialogue. Very little changed.
With your mentioning of ‘The Next Three Days’ I have to say that Elizabeth Banks was a very striking choice in that movie.
And again, she’s an actress who surprised me in the role. It’s how you get good actors in movies, you allow them to do roles that really kind of surprise them.
You’ve worked previously with Clint Eastwood, a director who famously doesn’t change the work of his actors. What was your experience like working as a screenwriter for Eastwood?
I love working with Clint, I wish I could collaborate with him more often. Million Dollar Baby i wrote, and we sent it to him to act in, and he wanted to direct. At which point I said, “Let him find his own goddamn script.” And then I thought, “Hold on, if Clint Eastwood directs this movie, it will be pretty darn good.” Besides, I was already directing Crash. I remember talking to him after he had read the script, and he offered me soemthing else to write. And i said, “Well, that’s all very goo,d but we should get together to talk about the first draft, and see what your thoguhts are.” And he said, “My thoughts are, the script’s good.” He didn’t change a word, not a word. And he did that with all of my scripts, he loved the first drafts.
Eastwood has such a specific style, and yet he’s absolutely not a writer.
He trusts you. He’s works with good people, good actors, and some great writers, and just trusts them.
Let’s talk about your involvement with the James Bond franchise. I’m curious, given where you came in on he franchise, and where franchises are now in terms of popularity, were you interested in stepping away from that, or have other franchise opportunities come up since then?
I’d love that, I had a great time. I haven’t been offered any others. It’s as long as I can dig deep into the character. I love doing big franchise pictures, but I have to find something in the middle that really fascinates me. The character of Bond, and who he really was, I didn’t feel had been truly explored. So with that, I had a great time working and digging underneath the surface of this character, and to bring some of what Ian Fleming had written in his books. But also, to have some really hard question about who he was, as an asassin, as a man, as a lover, all of those things.
How did you become involved with the franchise, given your previous inclinations towards drama and TV?
[The producers] came to me and said they watned to reinvent it. They got scared when they saw some of the things I was writing, but god bless them they supported me, and Martin [Campbell] didn’t change a word of my script. It was great.
Was it more intimidating to follow up ‘Crash’ or to make a Bond movie?
Equally. Well, with Bond I thought they were really stupid to come to me to do it, I remember saying to my agent, “Have they seen my movies? Do they realize that if I do Bond, I will ruin it for everyone forever?” And I had freedom, and went exactly where I wanted to go, and they were incredibly supportive of me. Crash was terrifying because it’s a movie that can be interpreted and misinterpreted. And with [Third Person], I am terrified of the reception of this film. Not because I need to be universally loved, btu because you want people to get it. And it’s a film that challenges people that a lot aren’t going to get. So, they’ll just think it’s dumb, or too obvious. Or too obtuse.
It’s interesting, that balance of too obvious or too obtuse.
You walk that line in editing especially. “Am I telling too much or am I telling too little?” My producing partner would always argue that I am telling too little, and I would go, “I don’t know, I think people are smart, I think people will get it.”
Especially when you’re making a film like this, are you trying to imagine what audiences are thinking, getting in their minds, picturing John Smith eating popcorn at the movie theater?
Yes. There are so many obvious lines in this film. The little boy in one story says “Watch me,” and then you see Liam next stop typing and pull away, and I thought, “Right there, everyone knows it.” There’s another thing with a car going by in Adrien Brody’s story, and it’s Olivia Wilde in the car. But it goes by so quickly, and people aren’t used to looking for that. They think it’s just a car passing. Or Liam Neeson is standing in Paris looking at a painting, and if you look closely it says Richard Rice, and that’s the exact painting from his loft a couple scenes later. It can’t happen. I wanted to say to you, if this can’t happen, then what’s happening? It will make people think, some maybe annoyed, or maybe just all annoyed.
What films in particular have influenced your interest in these multi-character stories?
You go back to some of those films from the 60s and 70s, like Blow-Up. There’s a murder mystery, and the solution is that there is no solution, and it ends with an intense game between mimes. Truffaut, Godard, Bunuel, all of these people who wrote stories in just astonishing ways. They were puzzle masters.
Quick Questions with Paul Haggis
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Last CD you downloaded?
The most recent Arcade Fire album. I also love alternative music [like] The National.
Age of first kiss?