INTERVIEW: Paul Haggis
At TVSF Berlin, Mark Dreesen interviews screenwriter and director Paul Haggis about the lessons learned in his award winning career.
What makes a good storyteller?
Somebody who finds a unique story and tells it truthfully. Even an old story - but with a new point of view. It is somebody who finds a way to show us something that we haven't seen before and to make us feel something - perhaps in an unexpected way.
What made you to say 'yes' to David Simon who wrote the script for 'Show Me A Hero?
David Simon is an incredible writer and I've admired his work for so long - through 'Wire' and 'Treme'. He takes really tough subjects and he takes an unflinching look at those subjects. He loves the minutiae, the moment-to-moment of drama that other writers would skip over. He finds the drama in the interpersonal relationships, in something that surprises us. He finds enlightenment without preaching.
What project are you most proud of?
I have a really hard time looking at my own films and tv series. I love them and I certainly love the work that actors do. I'm proud of them but it is really hard to watch them.
You have worked very successfully in both, film & tv. What do you enjoy more - doing television for a longer period of time or just working on a feature film?
The great thing about television - and especially television series - is that you can explore the characters over many hours. That's always fun because you get to twist them and show how they mutate. At the same time you can't change them too much because the dynamic of the original conflict has to stay the same. Let's say the conflict between two protagonist has to work throughout the entire series. But it's fun to test their edge and continuously push their boundaries. You can see that in some of the best television that is done today - you just keep pushing them further and further. In film you only have 2 hours and that is very difficult to test them and retest them. But I really enjoy whatever process I'm in. I just love to carry the characters along and live with them. In features you sometimes as a writer don't know where you failed. In a tv series you hopefully get it right in the pilot so that you can then extrapolate from those characters and keep twisting and turning them .
You once said in an interview 'Style is overrated' ... would you mind explaining?
I love stylish films but you have to have the substance first, you have to have a great story. That's the most important - and to tell that story honestly. If you can zing that camera around and tell that story in a very flashy way which also serves the story - then great. I love those kind of filmmakers who can visually excite me at the same time as the story excites me. But if you fail - better fail on the style side, don't fail on the story side. Make sure the story is strong and well told. And sometimes zinging that camera around is just distracting. It's just the director saying - 'Look at me, I'm the director'. Then you failed.
You once told me you wrote 'Casino Royale' in six weeks ...
Yes, 'Casino Royale' took me about 6 weeks for the first draft.
'Third Person' 2 1/2 years ...
Yes, 'Third Person' 2 1/2 years ...
Why that difference?
Sometimes you find the story easier. And with 'Casino Royale' I figured out what it was immediately and what the ending was, and that is everything. As soon as you figure what the ending is... and I had a lot of help in that and a lot of clues in the script that I was working from and from the underlining material ... so I didn't just pull it out, there was a lot of help getting there and I had great collaborators. But that just happened to click. Sometimes it clicks and sometimes it doesn't. I wish I could figure out why that is.
Does the 'shit' have to come out first and you fill 100 pages and then rewrite it?
No, 'Casino Royale' came out pretty perfectly. I did a second draft, but I was really happy with the first. I had a great character obviously in Bond and what to do with it and him, and my producer and director gave me really clear marching orders. So I could just push those boundaries.
Where do you see the future of entertainment? Gaming, Interactivity, VR. Does that interest you?
I'm not the person to talk about the future of entertainment. That's some young hotshot who knows where things are going. We always need a good story. From the times we scratched it into the walls of caves to now with VR and everything else we do. It's a cliché but the truth. You have to be moved emotionally. Film is an emotional medium. Storytelling is an emotional medium. You have to move the audience emotionally and that's the hardest thing - to find new and fresh ways to do that and find insights to areas where we think we already know everything about.
What role does a soundtrack play in your world?
I almost never think of music when I'm writing. I let things take their time and their place. It's like I don't think of casting when I'm writing. I like to write the project and then cast and then figure out how to shoot it. I like to do things in order. There is a reason for it. And if you get ahead of that, if you are filling it with a song first it might mean your story isn't strong enough. The song will help you, the music will help you, but you shouldn't let that influence the writing.
You are teaching a seminar here in Berlin. What has been the most surprising thing in working with young actors here?
I love working with young actors and I love learning from them. There are these moments where actors are just miss a scene - and how could I help them get there. And they often surprise me. Today I just moved a book ... and knowing that the staging would change and why I changed it, just a simple thing without giving any direction ... and that changed the entire performance. And when you do that and you don't have to find a thousand words, sometimes it's just picking up and moving a prop ... and I have to keep learning that.
And finally, name 3 things how an actor can convince you of his talent. What makes the difference?
Great actors allow you in. You look into their eyes and you see so much, you see that moment. You see that thought that shouldn't be there but it is and what that does to the conflicting emotions ... they allow you to see in there. They are very very brave to be that vulnerable in that moment with all that cameras on and all those people standing around and they just reveal themselves through their eyes and their pores and you just sit back in awe. And that is the difference, they aren't acting. They know the characters, they've don the work and they are just letting the character out and letting us in through their eyes.