Return of an Oscar-laden fave son

Banff fest to fete Haggis with Distinction kudos

When writer-director Paul Haggis had a heart attack in the midst of shooting “Crash,” the 53-year-old Canadian-born writer-director got his wake-up call.

“They put the little stents in your heart and so that opens things up and so I’m just trying to keep them open,” he explains, chatting by phone while at work on his next big project, the new NBC fall drama “The Black Donnellys.” Haggis, who won back-to-back Oscars for screenplay (“Million Dollar Baby,” “Crash”) and best picture (“Crash”), is returning to television, the place where his career began back in the 1970s. Also, he’s returning to Canada to receive the NBC Universal Canada Award of Distinction at the Banff World Television Festival on June 12. He left his native land at age 22 to take a writing job in Los Angeles.

“I wrote a ‘Love Boat’ segment with a guy named Michael Maurer, and we had to pitch it,” he recalls. “I think that they gave it to us just out of pity and, of course, on ‘Love Boat’ there were, I think, five segments, but you only wrote one segment, and so it was like seven pages long. And we were so grateful to get that, because we had families to support. Then I think the next thing that I wrote was ‘Three’s Company,’ and I knew I had made it!”

It’s a long way from Suzanne Somers to Banff 2006, and the honor of being “an individual who exemplifies achievement and advancement in the Canadian entertainment industry.”

Haggis can only laugh at the distance between “The Love Boat” and, not to mention the big “Crash” win, creating, writing and directing the TV series “Due South,” “Walker, Texas Ranger” and “Family Law.” It’s funny, but not that funny.

“It’s sad, actually, that I’m the guy carrying the Canadian standard. Well, that’s a sad fact — Jim Carrey and I representing Canada.”

Having been an Angeleno for 30 years means that most of Haggis’ work is based in America, including “The Black Donnellys,” which he describes as “a show set in Manhattan where all the protagonists are low-life criminals.” It was conceived in 1996. “At the time people just weren’t interested in stuff where the protagonists were low-life criminals. It’s a story told by a compulsive liar, and so the alibi changes when he’s caught in a lie.”

Despite its Gotham milieu, the concept for “The Black Donnellys” came from Canada. “A family called the Black Donnellys lived in northwestern Ontario, and there was a famous massacre,” says Haggis. “The town had had enough of these Irish-American horse thieves, and they decided to massacre them all. I took the themes of that and set them into this fictional Manhattan neighborhood.”

The TV series has turned into more work than Haggis expected. “I thought that it was going to be easy. I thought that I would just do the pilot and then turn it over to some really good writers. But of course that’s never the way. You want to be involved because it has your name on it, and it’s something that you’re passionate about, and it’s not as easy to turn over your passions.”

Besides new show coming up, the prolific writer-director also has the films “Flags of Our Fathers” (written by Haggis and directed by Clint Eastwood) and “Casino Royale,” the latest James Bond film, which he also scripted, plus two additional films he scripted and plans to direct: an Iraq war drama called “Death and Dishonor” and a dark comedy titled “Honeymoon With Harry.”

Despite all the movie work, Haggis says he “loves” television. “You can just twist and turn your characters for 20 episodes a year, 20 hours a year,” he says. “You can’t do that in film. I’m just going through this now, too. I’m turning in a screenplay to Warner Bros. that I’m hoping to be shooting soon, and I have to tell the story in two hours. The character’s journey has to be succinct, and I need like four or five hours to tell the story I’d really like to.”

Which is why Haggis will probably keep roots in two or more media. “If I find myself the least bit successful in one area,” he says, “I try to get out as soon as possible and go to something else.”

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