Interview: Paul Haggis on following his characters to write ‘Third Person’

Oscar-winning filmmaker Paul Haggis' latest is the three-story drama "Third Person." Credit: Getty Images
Oscar-winning filmmaker Paul Haggis’ latest is the three-story drama “Third Person.”
Credit: Getty Images

Paul Haggis has already written two Best Picture winners — and back to back: “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash” — but he’s hard to peg down. He has extensive, diverse television experience, and all five of the films he’s directed — including the Iraq War drama “In the Valley of Elah” and the thriller “The Next Three Days” — are vastly different. For “Third Person,” starring Liam Neeson as star of one of three stories about love, he returned to the multiple tales of “Crash,” but that’s where the similarities end.

What inspired you to return to the multiple story format?

It was an actress on my last set [for “The Next Three Days”], Moran Atias, who plays the gypsy [Monica] in this movie. She suggested I do a piece on multiple stories to investigate love and relationships. She had been thinking of ideas to pitch me because she wanted to be in a movie again. Which I found really annoying. [Laughs]

What struck you about exploring love?

I like to write about things I don’t understand. Relationships are right at the top of that. It took me a long time to develop it and thinking about it and have it kick around my head. It took 2 ½ years to write this damn thing. That not 2 ½ years of going to Tahiti and having an espresso then coming back. It was six days a week, six to eight hours a day, getting it wrong, getting it wrong, getting wrong, until I let the characters take me where they wanted to go. They took me to blind alleys and places that were really uncomfortable. I was fascinated not only by the idea of love but by the creative process itself, and how selfish we are as creators. Often other people pay the price for creative work.

Not only the subject matter but the style of the film is very different from “Crash.” It’s more playful and even experimental.

That came from the films of the ’60s and ’70s I love so much — the French and the Italians, the New Wave, who redefined cinema. I watched them in awe back then, amazed that you can make films that ask more questions than answer them. We don’t like to think any more at movies. Even in our dramas. We want to be moved and manipulated but we don’t like to think. Those filmmakers really trusted you. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to leave you so you go out in the street and you argue with your friends about the meaning of this and that.

Some of those films, though, you can’t solve. There’s no answer to “Last Year at Marienbad” or “Blow-Up.”

If you think of [“Blow-Up”] as a murder mystery, you can’t solve it. But if you think of it as a film as materialism, then it makes perfect sense. You have to be misled by saying you’re being told a story about this but you’re being told a story about something else.

Novelist Liam Neeson (with Olivia Wilde) gets to play dramatic, even comedic for a change in "Third Person."
Novelist Liam Neeson (with Olivia Wilde) gets to play dramatic, even comedic for a change in “Third Person.”
Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Each of the three stories is a different genre. What were the challenges of editing it together?

One of the biggest challenges was getting it down to length. I had three hours of great stuff. I don’t mean my writing was great. I mean the actors just really delivered. Adrien Brody did this monologue in the beginning that was just beautiful and scathing. He compares what he’s doing [working in the knock-off clothes business] to Occupy Wall Street. He thinks he’s part of the 99 percent because he’s stealing these designs and giving them, like Robin Hood, to the people. He’s really just selling them to sweat shops. He was just great.

You shot some of this in Cinecitta, the legendary studio in Rome.

I was standing where Fellini had his coffee and having mine. It was surreal. It’s a shame that they haven’t been able to keep that studio up. It’s almost in ruins. OK, it’s not; you can shoot there. But a lot of it is dysfunctional. But I loved shooting there.

All the films you’ve directed are very different in style.

I don’t think filmmakers should have a style. I think film should have a style. And that style should come from the story. You can find similar themes in my work, but not in the way I shoot them. You look at the greats — John Ford, John Huston — their style you don’t know. You have to be told it’s them. But then you can sense it in their work.

This is a rare chance these days for Liam Neeson to not beat people up.

He’s making a good living for his family and that’s what he should be doing. But he loves this kind of film. He hasn’t played a romantic lead in 20 years. And he gets to go to some very dark places.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge



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