MARRAKECH, Morocco — The first screenwriter to pen two consecutive best picture Academy Award winners – “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash” – Canadian Paul Haggis visited the 16th Marrakech Film Festival to provide a masterclass. Dividing his time between New York and Los Angeles, Haggis begun his career in TV, in the early 1980s. His career has breadth: Think Videogame “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3”, “007: Quantum of Solace” and “007: Casino Royale,” “72 Horas” and “In the Valley of Elah.”
That said, his works often include elements of social and political criticism, such as his jaundiced view of the Iraq war in “In the Valley of Elah,” starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, James Franco and Susan Sarandon, and criticism of stereotypical racist attitudes in “Crash.” Haggis is the founder of Artists for Peace and Justice, that has united artists to build schools and medical clinics in Haiti. At Marrakech, Haggis also talked to journalists about his recent projects.
What was the impact on your career of winning back-to-back Academy Awards?
It doesn’t hurt your career, but since coming up with a good story is so tough, there’s no point thinking about awards.
How do you find stories?
It’s an almost impossible task. I am always on the lookout. I am writing two just now, as well as a TV show. I often have to find something that really troubles me. It can be in a James Bond film, a drama, a comedy. Some question I am struggling with. It has to be intriguing enough to keep my interest. I just wrote two spec scripts last year, but I ended up putting them in the drawer. It’s hard to get great stories.
Do you prefer working on studio pics or independent films?
I turned down almost all studio pics for many years. I like my independence. I don’t do well creating by committee. But the studios are doing great work. I love films about superheroes and comic books. You can do great jobs with them. I think studios are getting a lot better in terms of listening to ideas.
What are you working on at present?
I will be directing a project I optioned with my business partner Michael Nozik, called the “Ranger’s Apprentice,” to be produced by Dick Cook Studios. It’s based on a series of twelve books by John Flanagan that I read to my son when he was eight. I’m also working on another ambitious project called “Ship Breaker”, budgeted at over $100 million, to be produced by a new production company called Far East.
It’s based on a dystopian novel set after the full onset of global warming, by American science fiction author Paolo Bacigalupi. It could be set anywhere, perhaps off the coast of Nigeria. It’s a straight adventure film.
What’s it like working with Clint Eastwood?
I have a great co-operation with Clint Eastwood, which started with “Million Dollar Baby,” I just love him. He’s the most interesting man. Everyone say they think they know who he is. But they’re normally wrong. He is a brilliant collaborator. He trusts you completely, whether you’re the writer or an actor. He likes mistakes and rough edges, which I have learned to love. He doesn’t want everything to be polished. He wants it more lifelike. He trusts his instinct and he’s almost always right. On the set he never says “action.” No-one has any idea when we are actually shooting or just rehearsing. He talks through his takes. he doesn’t care if there are background noises. But he cares deeply about cinema. He loves the unexpected. The parts of life that get into the scenes by accident.
Once Clint gets involved in a project, like when we worked on “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” he immerses himself in it. He did all the research. He is insatiable. I was a bit daunted by “Iwo Jima” at first but he gave me extensive notes. His intellect is staggering. He is so humble and self-effacing. When my ego gets out of control I think about him. He’s been a really influential figure on my life and career.
He championed my second film, “In the Valley of Elah,”. The studio didn’t want to do it. No one wanted it. It was the last film made by Warner Independent Pictures. He defended it. It is very critical of the Iraq war, which at the time was still very popular. Clint championed it. He went to Warners and said you have to make it.
Does being a Canadian give you a different perspective on projects?
Without a doubt. I couldn’t have written “Crash” if I was American. That film came from living in LA and seeing things differently because I’m Canadian. People normally mistake Canadians for Americans. But we are just one step back from everyone else. We can notice things that Americans take for granted, just like when Americans go to Canada and see things we don’t see. Being an outsider in America is a good thing.
How did you get the idea for “Crash”?
The basic story came to me in a dream. I woke up and between 2 am and 10 am I wrote it all down. The starting point was L.A. itself. Los Angeles looks like a single unified city from the outside – with all the palm trees and everything. But it’s very segregated. There are emotional and psychological walls. The idea for the film came from a central question and theme: We all connected to each other, even though we don’t want to be. Strangers affect each other without knowing it. For example, you’re driving down the street and someone cuts you off and they yell at you, but perhaps straight afterwards they save someone’s life. The core idea was about how we intersect and affect each other. Once I got that idea it all came naturally. It was remarkably easy to write.
Describe your experience on the two James Bond films?
I was very happy with “Casino Royale,” I worked closely with the director Martin Campbell. He loved the script and didn’t change a line of dialogue. I wasn’t so happy with the second pic really. It was written just before the Writer’s Guild strike. They made a lot of changes. But I can’t blame them.
How has the industry changed since you first started out in the late 1980s?
Obviously, technology has changed everything. As independent filmmakers, we can conceive of larger stories than we could before. I wrote a story 20 years ago, that’s set in the early twentieth century, you have to recreate an entire city. Every year we get closer to being able to make this happen in an independent film. Hollywood is also increasingly risk-adverse. In the golden era of the studios, the studio heads would say “I like it, let’s do it.” Now you have to do loads of research tests and studies and bank on what has been successful before. Market studies are destroying creativity
Is that why you prefer independent filmmaking?
Yes, it’s the closest thing we have to the 1970s or 1960s when studios had to trust vision of directors and writers. A pic either worked or it didn’t. That’s much better than doing it by committee and finding something that ten people can agree on.
What’s your connection with Marrakech?
I first came here because part of “In the Valley of Elah” was shot in Marrakech. We turned Marrakech into a war zone. I love Morocco and Marrakech. I fell in love with it the first time I came. Half my apartment is furnished with things I found here. They’ve invited me to the festival several times but I was shooting. But I was aching to come.
Is it difficult to survive in the film industry with such outspoken views?
Sometimes it’s been hard. It’s easier now. I get invited to wonderful places. I say “no” to a lot of movies. I think I’m the one who makes my own life hard. I need to struggle. When things gets too easy, I start to question what I’m doing. As filmmakers we can sometimes suffer emotionally, but it’s not really that hard – compared to the situation of the vast majority of people in the world.