Paul Haggis’ characters twist in torment. Denial is their armor, cruelty their weapon. They skitter through plotlines, deceiving, tricking and spooling out acidic self-reflection, such as the remark an adulterous writer mumbles about his protagonist on a Paris street: “a man who can only feel through the characters he creates.
That line is uttered early in Haggis’ new film, “Third Person,” which offers no universal redemption, no tidy denouements. Life seldom does, either, and for Haggis that is the grist of filmmaking. He writes characters he morally opposes to test his own beliefs, and he is at home in the gray places that strain crafted veneers, play havoc with motivations and desires, and imperil relationships.
“We’re very selfish things,” he said of writers. “We dedicate our life and time to a particular pursuit that we think is higher than everyone else’s. You try to make it in this town, you work 10, 12, 14 hours a day. That’s how much I used to write. But there’s always somebody who pays the price for our selfishness. It’s never us. In my case it was my kids because I just didn’t have the time to spend with them. We’re all very close now. But it doesn’t matter. I still carry that guilt. But I wouldn’t change a damn thing, which makes me more sick.”
Such assessments — many arose during breakfast with the director at the Chateau Marmont — were followed by a wry laugh, as if Haggis was standing on the cracking ice of a lake. He has been criticized for artistic conceits and cinematic indulgences and for being both self-conscious and obvious. But Haggis, who wrote and directed the Academy Award-winning “Crash” and was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar for “Million Dollar Baby,” is a gifted filmmaker, unafraid, if at times maniacally driven, to make the audience “purposely confused for a while.”
Like “Crash,” “Third Person,” which opens June 20, follows multiple story lines that cut across emotional, sexual and psychological planes. The central narrative is that of a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer (Michael) played by Liam Neeson who is torn by the guilt of a family tragedy. Adrien Brody’s shady businessman (Scott) becomes entangled in the second story with Monika (Moran Atias), a woman trying to buy her daughter back from a smuggler. And in the third motif, Mila Kunis plays an ex-soap-opera actress (Julia) fighting for custody of her son.
The tales, which connect through varying strands, are studies in love, infidelity, forgiveness, trust and the inability to accept truth. Each is tinged with the fate of a child, which runs like an eerie hymn through falling-apart lives. Michael doesn’t believe he deserves redemption, writing his ever-perplexing novel while he and his mistress (Olivia Wilde) trade in carnal desires and existential asides, which given their Paris locale, seem de rigueur. Scott decides his passion is stronger than the con played against him in Rome; and Julia in New York is shattered by her own failings and the condemnation of her ex-husband Rick (James Franco).
“It’s a movie about denial,” said Haggis, who in 2010 split from his wife, actress Deborah Rennard, after he had an affair. He added that Michael “is using these characters to try and write and rewrite his own life, to explain and explore his own life, and he’s failing at it.... We try to be God. We try to make our characters do what we want them to do and shuffle them around and have them and fit into neat plots, [but] they keep rebelling.” He paused. “There are things that gnaw at you. That keep you saying, ‘Just go away.’ These pesky things that haunt you.”
Another wry laugh over a breakfast burrito at the hotel where the echoes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker linger. Blue eyes framed by glasses and wearing a black pullover, Haggis, 61, whose face was flecked by gray stubble, sat on the patio with a copy of J.M. Coetzee’s “Disgraced,” a novel of a South African literature teacher brought low by sexual sins and transgressions.
The patio was nearly empty; the morning sky, gray. The traffic on Sunset Boulevard was muffled, and a man, legs crossed, sat in the dim light near the front desk, looking up occasionally, as if waiting for a paramour or a dossier. Haggis sipped his coffee and stepped through a curtain to a smoker’s area, narrow and decorated by plants. He has had much success but, temperamentally and aesthetically, seems at the fringe of Hollywood. He spoke about himself as if holding one of his characters up to the light.
In 2009, Haggis had an acrimonious break with the Church of Scientology, which he belonged to for more than three decades. The split was precipitated after the filmmaker, who has two gay daughters, was angered that the church did not denounce a staff member in San Diego for supporting Proposition 8, which stated that California would recognize only marriages between a man and a woman. In a lengthy 2011 article in the New Yorker by Lawrence Wright, titled “The Apostate,” Haggis, who listed other complaints against the church, said: “I was in a cult for 34 years. Everyone else could see it. I don’t know why I couldn’t.”
When asked about the ordeal, Haggis said he had put it behind him. He noted of Scientology: “It helped me with relationships in the beginning.... It’s sort of like, in my poor estimation, putting a Band-Aid on a very deep wound. But initially it’s good. It helps. Later the arm falls off.” He added that around the time of the controversy he felt the need to leave Los Angeles for the more crowded rhythms of New York. “I was missing rubbing up against strangers, and I just didn’t want to go to the Third Street Promenade to do it.”
The movie he made after departing Scientology, “The Next Three Days,” was the story of a professor (Russell Crowe) determined to bust his wife (Elizabeth Banks) out of prison. Art appeared to be imitating life, but the film was not well received by critics. The New York Times said “all the emphasis on technique starves the drama of psychological intensity.”
The Times’ Betsy Sharkey called the film a “mess. The filmmaker behind the Oscar-winning ‘Crash,’ with its powerfully salient interlocking stories of race and life in L.A., has totaled this one. Yes, ‘The Next Three Days’ is really that bad.... Haggis seems obsessed with making sure we ‘get it’ in every scene. You can almost feel the hammer poised right above your head to pound the point home.”
Haggis’ résumé reads as if a magpie collected trinkets from fields of high and low art. Raised in Ontario, Canada, where he showed French New Wave and Bergman films in a small theater, he began his Hollywood career as an aspiring writer on sitcoms, such as “The Love Boat” and “Diff’rent Strokes.” But his filmmaking often explores intelligent and dark themes with unflinching rigor, including “In the Valley of Elah,” which he wrote, produced and directed, about the moral costs of war and the grisly demise of a soldier returning from Iraq.
“He is in a constant creative state of mind,” actress Atias said of Haggis. “He’s very quiet and caring, but he won’t move on unless he’s happy about a shot. If it takes 40 takes, he’ll do it. He makes everyone feel important, the set designer, the cameraman, the girl who brings the water.... He treated his actors to wonderful Italian dinners and great wines.”
Among Haggis’ favorite directors are Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford, Godard and Antonioni. He said he was a “great lover of traditional storytelling.” But his films can be more circuitous than linear and, like European directors, he doesn’t mind the blurriness of life. He said of Michael in “Third Person”: “What’s happening inside him is more important than the resolution of all these stories.”
Haggis, whose new movie is largely financed by the Belgian production company Corsan, does not come across as a blockbuster kind of guy, even if his screenwriting credits include two James Bond films: “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace.” But he understands how this town balances its fiscal cravings against the unconventional. .
“Hollywood’s pretty smart, and they see we all grew up on comic books. I loved them,” he said. “We’re comfortable with those kinds of heroes and villains. You can have a hero who’s pretty flawed, and you have a villain who has some redeeming qualities. But there are limits to that. I think we’re worried about testing those boundaries. For folks who invest in movies and spend a couple hundred million dollars to do something, I would imagine it would make you pretty nervous to test the boundaries of humanity.”
A waiter passed.
“We have become inured by the kind of storytelling that is now common,” said Haggis. “I loved that last ‘X-Men.’ I’m there. But if that’s all we have, we’ve lost a lot.”
Yet he doesn’t know if “Third Person,” with his flawed characters and emotional demons, will resonate with audiences, adding that he struggles with the line between “what you feel you want to make and what the American public is ready to see. I don’t know if they’ll want to see this movie or not. We’ll find out.”
The table was cleared, the crumbs brushed away. Haggis was asked — after making such a film — what he thought was humanity’s saving grace: “To believe in someone who doesn’t believe in themselves and to forgive someone who believes they’re unforgivable,” he said. “Our ability to feel compassion.”