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Paul Haggis in Toronto on Nov. 18, 2010. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Paul Haggis in Toronto on Nov. 18, 2010. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Movies

Paul Haggis ponders the extremes of love Add to ...

"Love is madness," says Paul Haggis, the Oscar-winning writer of Crash and Million Dollar Baby.

And it's precisely the unfathomable nature of love - and the extremes it will drive people to - that the Canadian director seeks to explore in his latest jail-break thriller, The Next Three Days, starring Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks.

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"What you'd do for love. Whether you can believe in someone even when all the evidence is stacked definitively against them. All of that, I find fascinating," explains Haggis, who dropped into Toronto last week.

"I think a love that strong can exist. In fact, I think we all strive for it - to love that much. But it's rare," he adds.

Haggis - the first screenwriter to write two back-to-back Oscar winners for best film - says he felt compelled to write and direct his new film after seeing Fred Cavayé's 2008 French thriller Pour Elle, in which Vince London plots to bust Diane Kruger out of jail.

In Haggis's take on that plot, Crowe and Banks play a married couple, Lara and John Brennan, whose lives are turned upside down when she is accused of murdering her boss. After all appeals fail, and Lara attempts suicide, her husband commits to busting her out of jail - three days before she is to be sent to a high-security prison.

"I couldn't help but wonder, would I go to those extremes for the one I love? Would my partner do it for me? It's the quandary that intrigues me," says Haggis. "It's something I hope audiences also grapple with. I think this movie could break up a lot of relationships," he says, chuckling.

Haggis, 57, speaks with the clipped, rapid-fire authority of a man born to give direction, and clearly loves spirited debate. Still, he's candid about his hesitation over casting Crowe, the notoriously headstrong Aussie, in the lead.

What changed his mind was a simple barbeque in Crowe's backyard. Within the first 15 minutes, Haggis says, it was clear Crowe has the conviction of purpose to match his own.

"I'd heard everything about him, so there was a bit of trepidation," says Haggis. "But I've also been known to be difficult. No one can get between me and a good movie. If you're there to support it, and do it, and question it. Great. But if you try to stop it? [here, Haggis raises an eyebrow]Then, you're going to be in a hard place.

"Russell and I realized we could trust each other. He questioned me, sure. But I like to be challenged. At the end of the day he told me, 'It will always be your decision, Paul.' And it always was. We'd argue something out. And he'd say 'Why? Why are you going to do this?' And I'd go, 'I don't know. It just feels right.'"

Haggis sees himself as an instinctual filmmaker who relies on gut over logic. In the case of The Next Three Days, logic would dictate that a frumpy school teacher, with a squeaky clean past could not possibly figure out - via the Internet - how to bust his wife out of prison. But Haggis believed that even an ordinary guy might be able to pull off an extraordinary feat in the right circumstances. So on impulse he Googled prison breaks - and found step-by-step instructions on how to use, say, a tennis ball to break into a car. From there, he became obsessed with showing how a regular guy could (possibly) pull off a jail break.

"I'd always wanted to do a thriller - especially one that suspends disbelief. And the original movie had great bones ," says Haggis. "It hit at questions that I could really dig into, and make my own."

He says he's made a career out of taking a genre and then bending it. "I like to honour the rules of a genre, but then subvert them somehow." Here, the twist he feels he's brought to a conventional caper flick is to create "a long, slow burn up to the last 60 minutes of the movie."

"To get there, I had to be patient," he says. "So I grew to trust my audience, to trust people to be invested in these characters, and hope through that, the drama and the emotion would pull through."

The worldwide success of Crash - which was made for $6.5-million (U.S.), premiered with a bang at the Toronto International Film Festival, and then went on to reap more than $98-million at the box office - gained Haggis entry into the Hollywood elite. But after 30 years in the business, Haggis says he still hasn't figured out why one film resonates with audiences, and another does not.

"I first wrote Crash as a TV thing, and then couldn't sell it. So I went back and did more research over a year, and wrote the screenplay quickly. I never thought it would take off the way it did, and I'm not sure why [audiences]connected with Crash, but didn't with In The Valley of Elah," he says. "The only thing that dictates what work I do is I have to feel passionate about the emotional beliefs at the heart of the story. Film is not logic. It is emotion."

Haggis's next project is a case in point. Called Third Party, it's a Crash-like story of three people whose lives intertwine and impact one another - "just maybe not in the way you might think."

"I like to write about things I don't understand, and I've always been intrigued by how people affect each others' lives," says Haggis.

As for the impact of place: Although he's lived in Los Angeles the past several decades, and rarely gets home to London, Ont., any more (his dad, Ted, is flying down to California for American Thanksgiving), Haggis insists where he comes from informs his work.

"I think being a Canadian has given me a great deal of humility. I always know I'm as guilty as the next guy. Hopefully that sensibility has added a depth to my writing that might not otherwise have been there."

 

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