Thank you kindly, Paul Haggis’s Journey from the Canadian outback to MI6.

December 3, 2008 by  
Filed under Features

What do James Bond, Walker, Texas Ranger and a Canadian Mountie have in common? It sounds like a gag although actually screenwriter Paul Haggis is the man behind their successes, but how many people know his name? Sam Lane investigates one of Hollywood’s most mysterious and talented men.

In 1994, a polite, well-mannered handsome man in a red suit and a strange hat stepped on to our television screens. On the trail of the man who killed his father, Constable Benton Frasier of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police found himself in Chicago partnered with a badly dressed Chicago Police detective solving crimes no one else could.  Due South became a strange TV programme in its viewing figures.  Cancelled by networks twice it was incredibly popular at its original airing date competing against Friends no less, but its fame did not last in the same way.  Paul Haggis, the shows creator / writer / director, had managed to manufacture both a great show and a cult classic in one vehicle.

There is a certain difficulty in being a screenwriter, in terms of recognition, when your work will so often be remembered for the actors who spoke your words rather than the language itself.  Perhaps that is why certain writers took to placing their own name in the title of their works.  There are instances of writers gaining fame from their first bounce onto the big screen.  Consider the amount of coverage and from it, notoriety and respect, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck received from Good Will Hunting.   The same often happens when an actor makes his directorial debut.  Clint Eastwood has now earned equal if not more critical acclaim as a director.  His 2004 work saw Million Dollar Baby win both best director and best picture Oscars, critical acclaim worth being praised for, but guess who wrote the screenplay.

Paul Haggis was born in 1953 in Ontario, Canada.  He moved to Los Angeles at the age of twenty to seek success as a Television writer.  Back home in Canada, he had begun writing and directing plays for his local theatre during the winter months, the summer ones spent working construction with his father.  Haggis claims that it was the reviews he received for his comedy review OW Canada at this theatre that resulted in him being asked to leave the country.  In Los Angeles it reportedly took him three years, two months and 10 days to sell his first TV script but from this first sell it seemed that little would stop him from this point on in his career.

His first break came in a fortunate meeting with the writer of Different Strokes who had just lost his writing partner.  Haggis was given an armchair that had been bought from the Salvation Army instead of cash for his help on an episode, a chair that still sits in his house as a reminder of how he got started. He soon got a call from the show’s producers who had been impressed by his work and asked him to write more for the show.  From here he moved on to greater success as a writer and producer for Thirty Something where he also won numerous television awards.  By some coincidence, he shares the same birthday as action hero Chuck Norris and also wrote the pilot and following episodes of Walker, Texas RangerHaggis is not exactly proud of this credit and said that the fear of being remembered for that show alone motivated him to writer better things. In Due South Haggis appeared to finally emerge from the background, as a recognised name in Television, but he still hadn’t been able to work with the freedom to write about his subjects and in his style.

Things changed in 2004 with the release of Million Dollar Baby. Helmed by Clint Eastwood and starring Hillary Swank and Morgan Freeman the film swept the Oscars board. The story of a female boxer and her trainer, on the surface what appeared to be a typical sporting cliche- underdog lives dream- instead became a story of atonement, forgiveness and hardship. It garnered Haggis his first Oscar.

However it was in 2005 that Paul Haggis really stepped away from his slightly inauspicious beginning and straight into the golden glow of Oscar nominations. He wrote, directed and produced Crash, and adaptation of a JG Ballard novel. Suddenly Haggis was propelled into the lime light as Hollywood went crazy for the film. A dark, taut story of racial prejudice and relationships, Crash had critics falling over themselves with acclaim. This time, rather than the unknown screenwriter, Haggis was also the director and producer.

Ironically, at this time of creative freedom, it was during production on Crash that Haggis suffered a heart attack. He refused to let anyone else complete the film and was back on set within weeks to continue directing. The passion behind this decision is revealed in a statement he once made in an interview: “the worst thing you can do to a filmmaker is to walk out of his film and go, ‘That was a nice movie.’ ”  Haggis instead always aims to “cause people to walk out and then argue about the film on the sidewalk.?

On its release Crash immediately gained recognition from the critical film world and after its debut at the Toronto Film Festival it was picked up by Lionsgate films for $3 million and distributed worldwide.  At the Oscars, it was clear that Paul Haggis had long left behind his days of Walker Texas Ranger, becoming the first person ever to write two consecutive Best Picture Oscar winners.

Haggis is a writer first and foremost.  A writer who refuses to compromise on the story he wants to tell and the way he wants to tell it.  There seems to be a myth, one that is certainly heralded by the young, struggling screenwriter, that every person has one great script in them.  Every person has one Citizen Kane or Good Will Hunting in them.  When Crash stole the show in 2004, perhaps some thought that they had witnessed Paul Haggis’s one great story. What seems to be forgotten by many are his quieter writing credits, as the creator of Due South and In The Valley of Ellah, his adaptations for the screen of Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima directed by Clint Eastwood.  His most recent writing credits coming from his involvement in the re-birth of Bond in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. Widely acclaimed as the best Bond movie in a decade, Casino Royale was a deftly managed piece of Hollywood script staple, giving Bond a darker, grittier edge than audiences had ever seen.

(Left: Crash, 2005)

Today Haggis remains a strangely unknown name amongst audiences, given his hand in some of the best films in the last five years.  A writer and director of such skill that you should be wondering with anticipation, what will he produce next?

Several of Haggis’ films will be showing on TV over the Christmas period:

Flags of Our Fathers – Sky Movies Action Thriller  Alert Me

Casino  Royal – Sky movie Modern Greats Alert Me
-Sky Movies Drama Alert Me

Letters from Iwo Jima – Sky Movies Indie Alert Me

By Sam Lane

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