Haggis These Days
An interview with Paul Haggis
Films remade for American audiences are controversial to say the least. “I figured if Scorcese could do it, so could I,” quips Canadian born film director, Paul Haggis, referring to his third directorial effort, THE NEXT THREE DAYS, a remake of the 2008 French film, POUR ELLE. It’s a bold statement to put yourself on the same plain as an American film master like Martin Scorcese, especially when you’re a London, Ontario native who has only been making films for seven years now. When you consider that Haggis has been nominated for five Academy Awards and won two in that little time though, both for his breakout debut, CRASH, it doesn’t seem like such a stretch anymore. Incidentally, that’s one more Oscar than Scorcese has.
“There had to be questions that I wanted to ask on the nature of love and the nature of belief.” These questions would become the justification for the remake and how Haggis would make the film very much his own. They’re not the only reason he wanted to make this movie though. “I had always wanted to do a thriller, always wanted to do a caper movie.” His eyes light up when he says this. Boys will always be boys.
THE NEXT THREE DAYS is based on the central premise of POUR ELLE, where a teacher must take desperate action when his life has reached a seemingly impossible crossroads. His wife is in prison for murder and despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he never falters in his belief of her innocence. When her last appeal fails, he sees her lose interest in living and he sees their son heading down the same path. If he doesn’t do something, he will lose what matters most to him in his life, his family.
The solution is to break his wife out of a maximum-security prison and then disappear. Now, that might not be what you or I would do, but if anyone were going to sell this as the only viable solution, it would be Oscar winner, Russell Crowe. Crowe signed on to the project early on and played a heavy hand in shaping his character, John Brennan, a man who isn’t remarkable for anything other than his conviction and commitment. “As soon as he read the script, he knew what I was going for,” Haggis shares when we meet in Toronto the day before THE NEXT THREE DAYS opens in theatres. Despite Crowe’s reputation for being difficult, Haggis insists they explored the internal and complicated nature of John Brennan at length and openly. “We talked a lot. I like when an actor is secure enough to ask questions and challenge you and the director is secure enough to listen and isn’t threatened by that.”
Not only is Haggis able to foster a healthy relationship with a man reputed for unhealthy working relationships, he also pulls an impressive and unexpected performance from his female lead, Elizabeth Banks. “I like taking actors and putting them in roles that surprise you,” says Haggis. “I think if you see actors playing the same roles over and over again, there is no sense in going to the theatre.” And you’ve never seen Banks like this before. As a convicted but potentially innocent killer, she never lets on whether she did or didn’t do what she’s accused of and she does that with great poise. Haggis definitely thinks people will be surprised to see her. “It’s a great gift for an audience to say, ‘Oh, look at her do that.’”
Of course, beyond its solid performances, including brief appearances by Liam Neeson, RZA, Daniel Stern, Brian Dennehy and Olivia Wilde, THE NEXT THREE DAYS is as sharp and as tense as it is because of Haggis’ incredibly grounded screenplay. Haggis, who writes more often than he directs, took an extreme hands on approach to writing this particular caper. He actually placed himself in the position of a prison escapee to plot just how John Brennan would do it. “I just googled how to break out of prison,” Haggis explains, fully serious. Having access to the Pittsburgh prison that is a central setting in the film, Haggis put his internal con man to work. “I got outside the jail and then said, ‘What if I got out? What do I do now?’ And then, ‘Oh look, a train. Will they be waiting at the next station?’” Whether his plan would actually work or not is not the issue. It’s the geographical and circumstantial reality of his plan that makes it believable. “I guess I’m enough of a con to figure it out myself.”
THE NEXT THREE DAYS is Haggis’ third film as director and his first thriller. His approach to direction is still the same though despite the genre change. “I try not to watch any movies when I’m making my own,” he confides. I understand this approach; I don’t read other reviews until mine is written. Who needs outside influence when you’re trying to create? “I really try to stay in that world and let the film find its own imagery and its own voice.”
The voice found in THE NEXT THREE DAYS is a complex one. It is a particularly adult voice and one that Haggis hopes will be heard. “I believe in this kind of a movie. I think there is an audience for it. I think people like to be challenged and I think they like to be entertained.”
Any audience that sees THE NEXT THREE DAYS will see a thriller that is as taut as they come but that still somehow honours love in its purest form, without ever feeling forced or far fetched. “It’s a love story,” Haggis asserts without hesitation. “There is something transformative about believing in somebody that much, even when they can’t believe in themselves.”
Escape from prison, run from the law, risk your life, I guess none of that matters when the reason you’re doing it is love. And after sitting with Haggis for just a half hour, it is pretty clear that he makes movies for the exact same reason.
Author's Note: Mr. Haggis was an excellent interview. I could have easily gone on about our conversation for another 1000 words. Maybe one day, I will.
I want to give a big thanks to the fantastic team at Maple Pictures for making this interview possible. I genuinely appreciate it.
For further Paul Haggis reading, here are past Black Sheep reviews for his films:
(click to read.)