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Paul Haggis writes, directs the multi-layered drama 'Third Person'

Paul Haggis wrote and directs the multiple storyline drama "Third Person."
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Paul Haggis has established himself as one of the most successful and in-demand screenwriters in town. He was the first screenwriter to win Oscars two years in a row with 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby,” directed by Clint Eastwood, and 2005’s “Crash,” which he directed himself.

Having subsequently written the World War II companion pieces “Flags of our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima,” both directed by Eastwood, the Canadian-born Haggis subsequently wrote, directed and produced the Tommy Lee Jones starrer “In the Valley of Elah,” and most recently, “The Next Three Days,” starring Russell Crowe and Liam Neeson. He also penned the remake of “Casino Royale,” and he’s even written for the “Call of Duty” videogame franchise. He’s also written for TV, having created the short-lived NBC series “The Black Donnellys.”

He returns to the multi-strand storyline for “Third Person,” a format he previously used with “Crash.” Also, like that Academy Award-winning film, “Third Person” boasts an ensemble cast of top-flight actors.

The main story centers on a successful novelist (Neeson, again) who has holed himself up in a suite to complete his latest book. Having recently left his wife (Kim Basinger) and is having a tempestuous affair with an aspiring young writer (“House’s” Olivia Wilde). Meantime, two other story lines—one involving a shady American businessman who meets a gypsy in Italy, and another involving a former actress struggling to regain custody of her young son from her wealthy, unyielding ex-husband. Adrien Brody, James Franco, Mila Kunis and Maria Bello also star. The stories converge in a way that only Haggis can design.

The 61-year-old filmmaker sits down to talk in a Beverly Hills hotel suite about his latest project, one that he feels closest to. He, in fact, dedicated the film to his 90-year-old father, who encouraged him to pursue his dream of becoming a storyteller when he was a young man.

Q: Your movie is about people who have to make choices between career and family. But you don’t have to choose, right?

Haggis: You don’t have to, but Liam’s character had to. He had to choose between a great story and the love of his life. It’s about the selfish nature of being a writer and being a filmmaker. The choices you could have made differently, but it’s who we are, and the women in my life.

Q: You struggled with the story and did more rewriting than you usually do. What remains in the movie from the original draft?

Haggis: I’d have to go back and read the original draft. I wrote each of the characters in pieces and then I strung them together. Olivia (Wilde’s) character totally changed. The betrayal totally changed. Her motivations changed. Liam’s character charged—what he did. I sketched some of these stories in my head ahead of time. Moran (Atlas, the co-producer) during rehearsals for (my last film) “The Next Few Days,” and said you should write a multiple-character story about relationships. I started thinking about it. I interviewed her and her and her failed attempts at love, and I thought about my experiences and my friends’ experiences. So it morphed so much over those two-and-a-half years of writing it.

Q: “Third Person” has a very classic European vibe to it. What film or films influenced you?

Haggis: Look at “Blow Up,” one of my favorite films of all time, is ostensibly a murder-mystery, which ends with a tennis game between mimes. That’s the answer. And yet, it is, because it’s not really about murder. It’s about materialism, a lot of different things. So the form terrified me because we’re not used to watching movies like this. We like them to be upper case, bold and underlined.

Q: Adrien Brody and Moran Atias play con artist have that to learn to trust each other. What were you trying to say with their storyline?

Haggis: If you force people to look at things from your point of view, look in this mirror and tell me you’re as bad as I think you are, what happens then? What’s the result? What do you get out of that? The creative process itself also fascinated me. We talked about how much we deny, how selfish we are as writers and artists, and who pays the price for that. It’s often our children. We’re working 12 hours a day, and we love our kids but we don’t have time for them. What are the two most important things in my life besides my kids: love and whatever we call art. So which would you choose if you could only have one? I hate that question.

Q: Your movie is about people who have to make choices between career and family. But you don’t have to choose, right?

Haggis: You don’t have to, but Liam’s character had to. He had to choose between a great story and the love of his life.

Q: You shot most of this in Italy, right? Isn’t it expensive to shoot there?

Haggis: We got a tax credit, but also it just became too expensive to move (the production to London, Paris and New York, where various parts of the story are told). The challenge was for my production designer and (director of photography) to create the other cities (visually). We took one street and kept redressing it. We had one street in Rome that had the right colors to (pass) for France. Trying to shoot the scenes set in New York, even the interiors, the lofts, the offices, was tough because a everything was different, the scale, the hardware. Everything was different.

Q: Are you an actor’s director?

Haggis: I love actors. I love to figure out what they need from me, because I don’t think it’s my job to push them here and there. It’s my job is to pull something out of them if they think they can’t give it, and guide them a little bit. But if you cast a movie well, that’s the most important part of the job. Whether they’re new actors or prose, I like to give them a chance to play something they haven’t played before.

Q: Who’s your “third person?”

Haggis: My children.

Q: How old are they?

Haggis: My youngest, James, is 16, and my eldest, Alyssa, is 35. Two marriages. I actually have three daughters.

Q: Will your kids be at the premiere?

Haggis: Two of my daughters, who live in Los Angeles, will be there. My other daughter lives in Detroit. My son, James, saw it at the Tribeca (Film Festival) screening.

Q: You must have had your oldest daughter when you were pretty young?

Haggis: I was married at 21.