Paul Haggis (Profile)

Paul Haggis comes across as a regular Canadian - congenial, down-to-earth, self-deprecating.

Haggis, Paul (Profile)

Paul Haggis comes across as a regular Canadian - congenial, down-to-earth, self-deprecating. He doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would subscribe to a secretive religion founded on the notion that we've all been implanted with the souls of space aliens who were flown to earth 75 million years ago and vaporized by hydrogen bombs detonated in volcanoes. Yes, Haggis is a Scientologist. Unlike Tom Cruise, he doesn't want to talk about it. But he's happy to talk about a creation story that seems only slightly less miraculous: that of a high school dropout from London, Ont., who has become the hottest writer-director in Hollywood after 25 years of churning out TV scripts. Haggis, 53, still can't get over it himself. "You have to be really careful it doesn't go to your head," he says. "Because it does. Every single day it could and does. You start to believe you're as good as you say you are and you're not."

There are those who would be all too quick to agree. Many critics felt that Crash, Haggis's directorial debut, did not deserve its upset victory over Brokeback Mountain at the Oscars - and that its unsubtle script, flipping irony out of intolerance, smacked of TV writing. But there's no disputing his Midas touch. Haggis is the first person in history to write back-to-back best picture winners. The first two FILMS he wrote, Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby (2004) and Crash (2005), won a total of seven Academy Awards. And this week marks the release of another film he scripted for Eastwood that has Oscar written all over it: Flags of Our Fathers is the first of two movies Eastwood has produced with Steven Spielberg about the 1945 battle of Iwo Jima in the Second World War. (Letters from Iwo Jima, due out in February, explores the battle from the Japanese point of view.)

Haggis has a knack for arming character dramas with controversial issues. In Million Dollar Baby, it was euthanasia. Crash reshuffled a full deck of racial stereotypes. Flags of Our Fathers is a withering assault on American jingoism that has acute contemporary resonance in a country at war: it shows how the American flag was debased as a counterfeit currency in a propaganda campaign designed to boost waning support for troops fighting overseas. With the next film he's set to direct, The Valley of Elah, Haggis will attack the Iraq war head-on - again with a hand from Eastwood, who, despite being a Republican, helped him get financing. He's also planning to shoot a film based on Against All Enemies, Richard A. Clarke's exposé of White House bungling in the war on terror.

Scientologist, left-wing activist and maverick protegé of a conservative icon - Haggis is a walking contradiction. And just when you think you've got him pegged, he knocks off The Last Kiss, a flirty remake of an Italian love story, then scripts next month's Casino Royale, an attempt to give the 007 franchise a jolt of Viagra. When the Bond producers approached him, "I thought they were out of their f--king minds," says Haggis. "Why would they want me? I thought I'd either reinvigorate this franchise or destroy it forever. So it's a crapshoot. I approached it like everything else and asked questions of the protagonist. Like, what's with Bond and women?"

Sitting in a hotel suite during the Toronto International Film Festival, Haggis is speaking in a strangely conspiratorial whisper. He has lost his voice. "This is weird, I don't usually get sick," he says. Of course not. Scientologists believe most illnesses are psychosomatic. Haggis has a warm, engaging manner, and blue eyes that beam confidence and clarity. But he still seems to cherish the self-doubt that comes with his Canadian birthright, and his métier. "The lovely thing about being a writer," he says, "is the page tells you you're not that good. No matter what I did last year, or the year before, this sucks."

For Eastwood, however, Haggis can do no wrong. In 2004, the director gave him Flags of Our Fathers, the bestseller by James Bradley and Ron Powers. "I was overwhelmed by the book," Haggis recalls. "I didn't know what the hell to do with it. It took me a long time to figure out why I should write a war movie in a time of war. But Clint didn't want a bullshit John Wayne movie. He didn't use the word 'bullshit'; he doesn't swear. But he didn't want a flag-waving, chest-pounding kind of movie."

Iwo Jima was a vicious battle that left 26,000 Americans and 22,000 Japanese dead on a barren island a third the size of Manhattan. It was immortalized by Joe Rosenthal's photograph of six U.S. soldiers raising a flag on a conquered hilltop only five days into a month-long seige. Flags tells the story of the three surviving flag-raisers - Doc Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) - who were brought home to tour as poster boys in a desperate drive to sell war bonds.

Crosscutting between the horrors of battle and the hypocrisy of propaganda, the movie offers harsh evidence that the first (and last) casualty of war is truth. The moment in the photograph was a sham: the flag was raised to replace one that was taken down after a high-ranking officer demanded it as a souvenir. The three men cast as official heroes felt fraudulent. And after their blitz of celebrity, two ended up as discards of the American Dream - most famously Hayes, who died of exposure in 1955, a sad caricature of a drunken Indian.

The movie is about "the cost of war and the cost of fame," says Haggis. "These were boys - 18-, 19-, 20-year-old boys. And that's what's happening in Iraq." His script performs double duty: while stripping away the myths of heroism, it honours heroic sacrifice on the battlefield. Flags ends with a montage of actual photographs from Iwo Jima - which arrive like freeze-frames of moments we've just seen dramatized in Eastwood's stark, desaturated footage. The movie delivers a strong statement about the power of an image. "Photographs can change the world," says Haggis, arguing that war is more spin-controlled than ever. "We're not being shown photographs of dead Americans in Iraq. What the f--k is that? What would have happened if we didn't see the picture of the little girl covered in napalm running down the street, or the Viet Cong being assassinated with a pistol?"

With his next movie, In the Valley of Elah, Haggis seems determined to conjure those absent images of Iraq. Starring Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron, it's about a father looking for his son, a young American soldier who goes AWOL in his first week home from Baghdad. Haggis shopped the project around to the studios, but no one would touch it. "I sent it to Clint," Haggis explains. "He said, 'That's tough material.' I said, 'But it's the truth of what's happening there.' And he said, 'Yeah, we should tell it.' Clint took it to the head of Warner Bros. He said, 'The kid's got something he wants to do that he's really passionate about.' "

When Eastwood went to bat for him, Haggis had yet to strike Oscar gold with Million Dollar Baby. "I was a nobody director," he says. "With Crash, it was detrimental to attach my name to the project. Now my name is worth something. I don't know how much, but something." Yet no matter who you are, Hollywood is reluctant to make character dramas. "Studios are more comfortable spending $150 million on a big action piece and losing their shirts. And you have to really push to get a movie made that is critical of the current administration."

For In the Valley of Elah, a fictionalized version of a true story, Haggis will use flashbacks from footage the missing soldier shot with a cellphone in Iraq. "The phone got fried in the desert," he explains. "So they're piecing the degraded images back together. I've framed it as a mystery, but the mystery at the end will be that there's no mystery. I don't know if people are going to be pissed off."

If that sounds reminiscent of Blow-Up, it's no accident. Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 mystery about a fashion photographer who snaps evidence of a murder in a park had a deep influence on Haggis. After dropping out of high school, he moved to London, England, hoping to become a fashion photographer. Returning broke to his hometown, he studied cinematography at Fanshawe College and worked in his father's construction business. He also wrote some disastrous plays for a theatre owned by his father, who sponsored his move to Los Angeles. There, he gradually built a career writing for TV, on shows such as Facts of Life, Due South, thirtysomething and EZ Streets. Father to four children, aged eight to 28, he now lives with his second wife, Deborah, in Santa Monica, Calif., and turns out screenplays at a prolific rate.

Paul Gross, who worked with Haggis on Due South, says, he's "single-minded, tireless and ruthless about his own work - and that's combined with this prodigious natural ability. He has almost limitless courage in writing. And he's quite nutty. He's loopy. He's got this dark streak, which I like."

After all those years of writing TV for hire, and his sudden flush of Oscar glory, Haggis may still be searching for that elusive glimmer of existential magic he saw in Blow-Up, a movie that seems far removed from his own unambigious style of screenwriting. But there's one puzzle that's still as unresolved as the mystery in Blow-Up. How can Haggis be a dissident thinker while conforming to the doctrines of Scientology? "I don't easily conform to any set of beliefs," he replies. "I have my own. If someone asks if I'm a Scientologist, I say yes. Anything other than that, no. You don't hear me proselytizing. I'm rather uncomfortable talking about it."

So what's most unfashionable in Hollywood, being a leftist or a Scientologist? Haggis laughs. "I don't care about the label anyone puts on me. In Hollywood you can be a member of the craziest, wackiest thing and walk around stark naked with a fig leaf, but if you make money for a corporation, they're going to say the nicest things about you."

Maclean's October 30, 2006