Toronto: Paul Haggis On Why the Reception to ‘Third Person’ Might Echo ‘Crash’

Romancer premiered Monday night at the Elgin

Paul Haggis Third Person Toronto
Michael Tran/FilmMagic

Oscar winner Paul Haggis isn’t pulling his punches about the anticipated reaction to his romancer “Third Person,” which premiered Monday night at the Toronto Film Festival.

“People are going to either love it or hate it, like ‘Crash,'” Haggis told Variety. “A lot of people want their movies to be easily understood, underlined and in bold. I want people to talk about this movie afterwards. As an industry, we need to respect the audience more.”

The premiere at the Elgin evoked sustained applause for the complex drama of three intertwined relationships:  James Franco and Mila Kunis in New York; Liam Neeson and Olivia Wilde in Paris; and Adrien Brody and Moran Atias in Rome.

Haggis began writing the film after completing work on “The Next Three Days,” drawing largely from his own life with an emphasis on the themes of denial, loss and love. He began shooting in January with a 45-day shoot, adding, “It was a healthy budget for an indie but a little uncomfortable.”

He said that keeping the storyline complex was spurred partly by the ambiguity in such films as Michaelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” — particularly the ending, in which David Hemmings realizes that he may not have actually witnessed a murder.

“I like films that make you think,” Haggis adds.

Haggis directed from his own script and produced “Third Person” with Paul Bruels of the Belgian financier Corsan, which is selling the film at Toronto. “I’m not under the gun because we’re not dealing with paying back a bank,” he noted. “We’re just looking for who will handle the film best.”

It’s the third time that Haggis has premiered a film at Toronto. “Crash” screened at the Elgin in 2004 and “In the Valley of Elah” opened there in 2007.

Haggis was nominated for screenwriting Oscars for three straight years for “Million Dollar Baby,” “Crash,” and “Letters From Iwo Jima.” He won screenplay and picture Oscars for “Crash.”

Haggis approached the challenge of writing three stories by doing them one at a time and then mixing and matching the components — with much of that work done in the editing process and in small screenings earlier this year.

He was fullsome in his praise for the actors noting that Israel-born Atias learned to speak Albanian for the part of a gypsy and that Franco had offered to do whichever part Haggis wanted. “He told me, ‘I don’t care, you choose,” Haggis recalled.

Bruels came on board in May 2012 when Neeson and Wilde were attached.

“I think that Paul Haggis is such a great writer that good cast is automatically attracted. And who does not like shooting in Rome?” he said. “When you have Paul, you are the master of your own destiny.”

Corsan got 50% of the funding through the Belgian tax credits, which require spending money on Belgian elements like development, crew and post-production. “Having that is a formidable cornerstone for the rest of your financing,’ Breuls added.

Haggis noted that “Third Person” was not as difficult to complete as “Crash.”

“Nobody knew who I was so I couldn’t get anyone to do it until Don Cheadle came on. I only had 35 days and I pretty much had to use what I had shot.”