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Paul Haggis failed his way to film success

Paul Haggis jokes that after more than two decades of failing his way to success in television, he finally reached his true destination: the big screen.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Paul Haggis jokes that after more than two decades of failing his way to success in television, he finally reached his true destination: the big screen.

There has been little resembling failure for him there.

The first two films Haggis wrote, “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash,” won back-to-back best-picture Academy Awards. He earned a best-director nomination for “Crash,” his first time as a filmmaker, and that ensemble drama became the upset winner for 2005’s top Oscar over the heavily favored “Brokeback Mountain.”

Haggis earned a third-straight writing Oscar nomination for last year’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” — his third collaboration with director Clint Eastwood following “Million Dollar Baby” and “Flags of Our Fathers.”

It took longer than he liked, but at 54, Haggis has become one of Hollywood’s hottest new directors.

Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah,” a murder mystery set among U.S. soldiers recently home from Iraq, has powerful performances from Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon. And Haggis’ sharp, provocative dialogue could put him back in Oscar contention for the fourth year in a row.

‘I just failed for 30 years’While building TV credits on such series as “Walker, Texas Ranger,” “thirtysomething,” “The Tracey Ullman Show” and the acclaimed, short-lived crime drama “EZ Streets,” Haggis wrote furiously but futilely as he tried to move into theatrical films.

“I just failed for 30 years. It’s no great secret. It wasn’t, ‘You know what? I’m going to wait until my late 40s to break into films,”’ Haggis told The Associated Press. “I was writing spec scripts, I was pitching stories, but I was doing it all wrong. I was trying to do stories I thought people would want to make into movies. I was writing suspense thrillers, trying to do things I thought I could sell.

“Finally, I got so fed up and got so frustrated, I thought, I’m just going to write things I feel passionately about. I know they won’t ever sell. I know they won’t ever get made.”

So he wrote “Crash” with collaborator Bobby Moresco, which earned them both Oscars for original screenplay, and he wrote “Million Dollar Baby,” which brought Haggis a nomination for adapted screenplay.

“Crash,” a culture-clash tale with a huge cast of characters colliding over a tumultuous day and a half in Los Angeles, emerged from the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival to become a surprise hit the next year.

“Million Dollar Baby,” the gloomy saga of a female boxer and a gruff trainer forced to make an agonizing decision over assisted suicide, earned Eastwood his second best-directing Oscar along with acting awards for Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman. It went on to become a $100 million hit.

Not bad for a couple of scripts Haggis figured would never see the light of the projection booth.

“I had them under my arm for four and a half years trying to get them made but knowing in my heart these were not commercial films,” Haggis said. “And if they did get made, they would get made for a buck and a half, and no one would see them.”

Similarly, Haggis struggled to line up financing for “In the Valley of Elah,” which stars Jones and Sarandon as parents of an American soldier slain near his military base. Theron plays a local police detective who helps Jones’ character look into the case.

Even as they filmed, the writer in Haggis could not let the story rest, Theron said.

“I don’t think there was one day that I showed up for work where there wasn’t new pages in my trailer,” Theron said. “He’s obsessive about it. He writes every single night, and he’ll go through every possible angle, which is great, to know you have somebody trying to see it from every angle.”

“His ear for dialogue is pretty good and also quite original,” Jones said of Haggis. “He’s not afraid to write a real long speech, and he’s not afraid to take a short speech and cut it in half. Those are both good qualities.”

Studios weren’t clamoring to make ‘Elah’The movie was based on a true story, which Haggis combined with another real-life tale along with fictionalized elements.

It was not a film that studios were clamoring to make, given the disturbing themes it raises about the toll the Iraq war is taking on both Americans at home and the troops thrown into the chaos of urban warfare.

“I took it to my agents. They said, ‘Oh, it’s wonderful. It’ll never get financed. It’ll never get made,”’ Haggis said. “This was the beginning of 2004, when we were driving around with flags on our cars. Our vice president had just finished restating that it was unpatriotic to question what we were doing in Iraq.”

Realizing he was not going to find backers, he sent the script to Eastwood, who called top brass at Warner Bros., saying, “The kid’s got something he feels passionate about,” Haggis said.

Warner Independent, the studio’s art-house banner, wound up taking on “In the Valley of Elah.”

Having Eastwood in his corner has helped Haggis establish his film career, which also includes co-writing last year’s James Bond hit “Casino Royale” and its upcoming follow-up.

During his decades in television, Haggis toiled on his own, gaining a co-creator credit for the briefest of work on “Walker, Texas Ranger” but seeing shows he poured his soul into vanish quickly.

“I failed my way upward in television. I really did,” Haggis said. “I didn’t do any particularly big series. The one that stayed longest, ‘Walker, Texas Ranger,’ that one I only had seven days worth of work on. I rewrote the pilot, and they didn’t even use what I wrote. But I got my name on it forever. So the less I had to do with something in television, the more successful it was. The ones I really loved, like ‘EZ Streets,’ no one saw, no one cared about. It aired for a week and a half and it was gone.

“I’m not resentful. I just didn’t figure out how to do it. It took me a long time. Some guys take longer than others. I wasn’t a very good writer or director in my 20s and 30s, so I would have made bad movies and be gone and having a second career in real estate or something. Thank God, it worked out well for me in the end.”