The Fabulist: Paul Haggis Reflects on His Career

His scenario of how a middle-aged sitcom veteran became one of Hollywood’s most sought-after writer-directors may be the unlikeliest tale he’s ever told

The vehicle carrying Paul Haggis to his Friday-morning interview on CNN is a latter-day Hollywood cliche, a chauffeur-driven Prius that puts all the stretch Lexuses and Lincolns on the road to shame. The box of recycled-paper tissues at his elbow offers an Iroquois quotation on sustainability; instead of The Wall Street Journal, there’s a copy of the Yogi Times for him to thumb through. In the muted sun, Haggis’s round face fills with pockets of shadow. The bald head is ruddy; the nose is broken; the blue eyes are at once confident and vulnerable. The scraggly bronze beard and mustache frame a smile that suffers no fools. At 54, Haggis bears a striking resemblance to one of Rembrandt’s moodier self-portraits.

He’s back in town after spending the last few weeks hopping about Europe, the East Coast, and Canada to promote In the Valley of Elah. Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon, and Charlize Theron star in the saga about a returning American soldier murdered by the grunts who served with him in Iraq. Haggis’s second film as a writer-director, Elah is so remorseless and bleak that Crash, his Oscar-winning drama about race and collision in Los Angeles, seems uplifting by comparison. The press tour for the movie has left him somewhat traumatized, and not only because of the disturbing stories he keeps hearing from the Iraq vets who’ve attended his screenings.

“What haunts me,” he says, in a voice quiet but so well modulated that it clears all the static from the listener’s mind, “is that I’m getting too earnest. I just hate earnest people, and the thought of turning into one…” A sad shake of the head. “I don’t know, man. I read this article about myself in some magazine, and I came off as this earnest, serious person that thinks deep thoughts. Wow! Did I say that stuff? I sound like a complete asshole.” It also disturbs him when the press takes too lightly his jeremiads about the Iraq war. “I was talking to People magazine,” he says, “and I was going on this rant about how we’re betraying our veterans, how we’re making them face these impossible situations and these hellish things that they have to deal with. And they said, ‘Give us something about Charlize so we can actually print it.’ They were quite honest. They didn’t care about these veterans or the children who were dying. So I gave them something about how Charlize played Deal or No Deal in the trailer, and that they printed. Wow! I should have told them to go fuck themselves, but no, you’re trying to get people into the theater, so I’m not trying to alienate them.”

During the quarter century Haggis worked as a TV writer, The Globe and Mail of his native Canada was just about the only publication interested in conveying anything he had to say. Even established screenwriters aren’t sought out by the media, but Haggis is a major filmmaker now, one of Hollywood’s most spectacular late-blooming successes. With his victory at the 2006 Academy Awards, he became the only screenwriter to compose back-to-back Oscar winners for Best Picture. He accomplished this feat with his first two scripts to reach theaters—Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby and then Crash. He’s since written or cowritten five films that have made it to the multiplexes: Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, a pair of World War II epics for Eastwood; the romantic comedy The Last Kiss; Casino Royale, which reimagined the young James Bond as a murderous, conflicted brute and shook the franchise of its cobwebs; and most recently Elah. Over the last few years, Haggis has been invited to chat with Charlie Rose, Tavis Smiley, and Craig Ferguson, he’s guest starred as himself on HBO’s Entourage, and he has arisen as the film industry’s leading far-left activist, more prominent than Ed Asner or even Martin Sheen.

The Prius reaches its destination, and the driver opens the door. Haggis has never appeared on the all-news network, but he’s acquainted with the smoked-glass CNN building. “I’ve picketed outside CNN against this war, for their coverage, or in some cases the lack thereof,” he says. “In the first months after the invasion we’d have big demonstrations on Hollywood Boulevard, and there’d be no one to cover it.”

This morning Haggis is ushered into a studio and given ample airtime. “I think as citizens,” he says to his CNN interviewer, “we weren’t getting the information that we needed to make a good decision about whether this was a good war or a corrupt war. We were just being sold it, and we had a president who told us not to question him, that even to question him was unpatriotic, that we were in league with Bin Laden if we criticized it. And I think artists in general don’t like to be told that, and certainly American citizens don’t like to be told that. Our Constitution is very precious to us.” Having veered into dangerously earnest territory, he pounces on the opportunity to conclude on a less sanctimonious note: “You don’t have to listen to guys like me,” he tells the audience. “I’m a little to the left of Mao. Forget me! Dismiss me! Listen to the troops.”

On the way back home to Santa Monica, Haggis is holding forth when the driver, trying to get out of the turn lane, backs into an SUV that’s nosed up behind. The Prius’s rear bumper is sagging like a pouty lower lip, but the woman at the wheel of the truck doesn’t want to exchange insurance information.

“Well,” Haggis says to the driver, “if you need to tell somebody what happened, that she came up fast on you, let me know.”

“I apologize to you, sir. That’s my first ever.”

Hoping to diffuse the tension inside the Prius, I suggest to the driver that at least he can say he got into his first fender bender driving the guy who brought us Crash. “That’s hysterical,” Haggis says. “It was really my fault then, I guess.”

It took some doing for Haggis to on a name for his new film production company. He was fond of the Anarchist Club, which had the advantages of being both incendiary and an oxymoron, but he dismissed it as too much of a hassle. “You know” he says, “people were going to ask me each time they interviewed me, ‘Are you an anarchist?’ And I don’t want to answer that over and over again, even though it’s probably true.” He’s decided to go with Highway 61 productions. Delta blues man Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil along that route—which perhaps Haggis also did writing sitcoms all those years. But just as important, “Highway 61 Revisited” is the title track of one of his favorite Bob Dylan albums.

It’s inevitable when you’re researching an article on a Hollywood success story that you’ll be assured time and again by those closest to the subject that the fame, adulation, and mountains of cash haven’t changed him or her one iota. Haggis’s best friend, Stephen Nathan, the executive producer of the TV show Bones, obliges, up to a point. “Somebody was asking me, ‘Well, has Paul gotten, you know, a big head because of all the awards?’” Nathan recalls. “And I said, ‘No, his head has always been this size. It can’t get any larger.’ But he wears it well. His neck can support a very large head.”

Nathan, in fact, talks about two outsize Haggises who have little to do with each other. One of them is an idealist “open to the world, not self-protective,” and “utterly, utterly devoted” to causes and comrades, whether he’s protesting the Iraq war on Hollywood Boulevard a day after winning his Academy Awards or befriending Dennis Kucinich and signing on as a leading backer of the Ohio congressman’s longshot presidential campaign.

But this Haggis is in perpetual conflict with the other one Nathan knows, who’s “an imposing person,” “a contrarian” “a very ornery man”—an artist who “likes to be an irritant, to prod and poke an audience” “Sometimes,” Nathan says, “I think he enjoys pissing people off.” This is the Haggis who has occasionally enraged TV executives, confounded viewers, and roiled film crews. “I think he’s embraced this kind of outlaw mentality, you know,” says the actor Josh Brolin, another close friend of Haggis’s. “I think he likes it. He’s a Canadian, man. He needs some character.”

As a teen growing up in London, Ontario, Haggis became as much a part of the counterculture as a marooned Canadian could. “Christ,” he says, “the Democratic Convention in Chicago was just across the border. We had draft dodgers coming up here. I couldn’t go demonstrate—I couldn’t do anything. I was in Canada. Everything was fine. Everything was nice.”

He got lousy grades and picked fights. Not long after his nose was broken by his best friend, Haggis’s parents sent him off for a year to a private school with a junior officer program. It was kind of ideal—a military-industrial complex in miniature to rail against. He flouted the drills and sneaked in the latest issues of the radical American political journal Ramparts. “I had a fabulous education,” Haggis says, “not in what they thought they were teaching me, but I learned how to subvert any system. It required a lot of the characteristics of a criminal mind.”

After high school, he drifted into the family construction business. One day his sister came home in tears because the amateur drama troupe that she belonged to was facing eviction. So their father, Ted Haggis, bought an abandoned church and put Paul in charge of turning it into a theater. Haggis wrote a couple of plays for the venue that flopped and launched a European film revival series there. Coming out of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up one evening, he seized upon a new career: not to be a director or a screenwriter but to live the life of the main character, a swinging British fashion photographer.

In 1974, he flew to England, got his father to invest in a photography business, and snapped photos of British models. “It wasn’t a good plan,” Haggis says, “but, boy, I had fun doing it.” In ten months, he was out of money. Before returning home, he made a detour with his mother to Moscow. Haggis rebelled there, too, distributing contraband rock music that he’d smuggled in and exploring his talents as a con artist. “He was with my mom,” his sister, Jo Francis, says, “and they’re on some tour bus, and Paul decided to give an American guy a tour. He had no idea what he was talking about and made up all this shit about where they were going and what they were doing. The guy just sat there in awe of him, thinking that he knew everything, and it was just hilarious. He can make up so much crap, and you believe it, you know? But being his sister, of course, I don’t believe a word he says now.”

Back in Ontario, Haggis gave up photography in favor of becoming a writer-director. He took a class in cinematography at th e local community college. “Someone had told me about this crazy cult,” he says, “and you’re always looking for subjects for documentaries, so it was just one of those things that are planted in your mind.” Weeks later, a young man accosted him on the street and asked him if he’d like to buy a book. “I opened up the cover,” Haggis says, “and it said ‘Church of Scientology.’” Haggis wound up visiting the tiny mission, which was above a Woolworth’s. “I was having problems with my girlfriend. We were living together, and I read this stuff and I said, ‘Oh, maybe this will help,’ and I dragged her down there. We took a course together, and it did seem to have some positive effects.” Thirty years later, he’s still a practicing Scientologist.

Mention the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq or CIA interrogation techniques or global warming, and Haggis leaves no doubt about his views. Bring up Scientology, and a floodgate is lowered, halting the usual free flow of thoughts and observations. He says the religion simply doesn’t drive him the way politics does. His faith, to the extent he explains it, is hard to pigeonhole, let alone grasp: He’s not only a Scientologist but an atheist who lately has become infatuated with Christ’s beatitudes as interpreted by the Catholic Left. Though he won’t offer many specifics on his religion, he will say that being a member of an often savaged group has its advantages. “One thing that I’ve drawn from it over the years,” Haggis says, “is perhaps the ability to empathize with others a little better, because I see how people would view me.”

Haggis got engaged to his girlfriend, Diane, when he was 24, and on his father’s advice, the couple left for Los Angeles in 1977. They soon had the first of three daughters and were squeezing into a house in Glendale with two other couples and his brother-in-law. Between odd jobs Haggis wrote screenplays inspired by Hitchcock and the European new wave. After a couple of years, TV work began trickling in—some Saturday-morning episodes of Scooby-Doo and Richie Rich for Hanna-Barbera—and he also started writing jokes for comedian Jackie Kahane. It was Kahane, a fellow Canadian, who sent several of Haggis’s spec sitcoms and dramatic film scripts to his agent, Mark Harris. “Believe it or not, I read all of them,” says Harris, who’d represented Dustin Hoffman and Butt Lancaster.” And I said, ‘Holy shit, who is this guy? He can write both things. He was terrific, even then.” When a classmate who was working on an episode of the comedy One Day at a Time complained that his writing partner had gone AWOL, Haggis jumped in, offering to help for free.

He turned out to have a talent for the facile, and the assignment led to steady employment with Norman Lear’s production company, writing for Diff’rent Strokes and a spin-off of Who’s the Boss? “After you’ve come to this town and had a child right away and a family,” Haggis says, “just to support yourself writing is such a miracle. Yes, you get depressed when you’re writing ‘What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis?’ over and over again, but then you sit up in the bleachers and it’s show time and you hear people laugh at your jokes.” He did such a fine job generating fresh dilemmas and snappy comebacks for The Facts of Life, an NBC sitcom about an all-girls prep school, that he was put in charge of the show at the start of its eighth season. During his first staff meeting, Haggis made an announcement. “I want to do something different with Facts of Life this year,” he recalls saying. “I want to make it funny.” The executives who’d just promoted him weren’t amused, and he was bumped off after a few episodes.

In 1987, Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick hired Haggis as supervising producer for their new genre-bending drama thirtysomething. “We don’t really look at resumes, we look at writing,” Herskovitz says. “When he came in and sat with us, he was, I think, looking for a challenge in his life and looking for an opportunity to push himself beyond where he had gone before as a writer.” Haggis remembers the reception his first script got. “They said, ‘Paul, it’s really good. What’s it about?’ I said, ‘What do you mean’ They said, ‘Where does it come from within you?’ And I said, ‘It’s supposed to do that?’” Haggis began to find his voice, in one scenario he wrote, three hairy dwarves named Fear, Dread, and Anxiety hound a neurotic ad exec; another was a send-up of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Haggis won two Emmys for thirtysomething, but after the first season he landed a deal with MTM Enterprises, Mary Tyler Moore’s company, to produce and write his own shows.

Successful TV creators are able to tap into, for lack of a better word, the zeitgeist. The Facts of Life rode The Official Preppy Handbook craze of the early ’80s the same way that thirtysomething probed the anxieties of yuppie strivers. Haggis’s 1990 debut, City, which starred Valerie Harper as an exasperated city manager, drew on nothing but the creator’s own absurdist tendencies. Working with his friend Stephen Nathan, he made the Virgin Mary appear in a pile of paper clips at City Hall, had one of the characters sneak a talking toy bear into Cuba, brought in Zsa Zsa Gabor as a cosmetics mogul whose tanker runs aground, leaking thousands of gallons of hair oil and pomading the wildlife. “I had so much fun for 12 episodes or whatever it was until the network said, ‘What are you doing?’ It’s this perverse nature in me that whenever I’m given any sort of power, I’ll do my best to do something counterproductive with it—at least counterproductive to my financial goals.”

Late one night Haggis and his wife were driving home from the premiere of The Silence of the Lambs in his Porsche convertible. They dashed into a Blockbuster in Mid Wilshire to pick up a Scandinavian film as a nightcap. When they got back into the car, two young African American men holding guns rushed up to either side. One of the carjackers told them to walk toward a dark alley. “I thought that a poor choice. So I put my wife in front of me and walked toward Wilshire,” Haggis says. Lest he say too much on his own behalf, he adds: “I would have used her as a shield, but she wasn’t that big.” They’d gone about 20 feet when Haggis heard the sound of rapid footsteps and felt the muzzle of a Saturday night special in the small of his back. The couple froze, and one of the carjackers yanked the video from Diane, who was still clutching it. The thieves jumped in the Porsche and roared away. When a pair of LAPD officers arrived, Haggis, in the rented tux he wore to the premiere, offered them his theory of the crime. “I think you’ll discover,” he remembers telling them, “that these men have been here quite often, looking for that video, and it was never in. And they saw us coming out with it, and it was just too much to take. So they grabbed the video and had to take the car just to make a getaway.”

Though it seems borderline preposterous that he would have had the presence of mind to make such a quip after having his car stolen and a gun shoved into his back, Haggis has a ready explanation. “I was shaken to the core,” he says. “That’s the way I reacted, I used humor as a defense.” The story leaves me feeling like the hoodwinked American tourist Haggis once guided through the sights of Moscow. Some weeks later I ask him if he indeed said such a thing. “I don’t remember,” he says. “I think I did. I’ve told it so many times, I don’t remember.”

“But I read over your quote,” I tell him, “and it’s a delightful quote, but it seems like I’m reading the script of a Jean-Luc Godard movie.”

“Absolutely,” Haggis says, unoffended. “No, I think it’s two things. It sounds exactly like something I would do, and it sounds so improbable, I’d never do it. So you just take your choice.”

The carjacking, which occurred in the winter of 1991, would usher in a decade of setbacks. MTM Enterprises was sold to a British conglomerate for its back catalog and ceased producing new shows. Haggis traveled to Latvia to shoot Red Hot, a film he’d cowritten about banned rock and roll in ’50s Russia. But the production company began bouncing checks, then cut the film without him and dumped it on the video market.

Finances became a problem. Haggis has always been better at earning money than at holding on to it. “He makes and loses a fortune,” Nathan says, “the way other people lose socks in the dryer.” Haggis had loaned money to several people he knew—struggling musicians, songwriters, directors. “As an investment,” he explains, “but also because they were my friends. I helped them buy their first homes.” Haggis covered the down payments for about seven houses. “Then the real estate market tanked,” Haggis says, “and to a man, all the people walked away from their mortgages.”

He and Diane divorced, and Haggis soon married Deborah Rennard, who had played J.R. Ewing’s secretary on the TV show Dallas. Despite the bad real estate investments, the alimony payments, and the child support for his three daughters, Haggis bought a $3 million house in Pacific Palisades. On January 17, 1994, the Northridge earthquake liquefied the hillside underneath and destroyed the home. He still owns the unbuildable vacant lot.

Television offered him plenty of opportunities for recovery. He was second in command for L.A. Law through its final season, launched a comedy called Due South, even rewrote the pilot for one of George W. Bush’s favorite shows, Walker, Texas Rangier. In 1996, Haggis threw himself into creating EZ Streets. At once despairing and baroque, the show presented a landscape of urban decay in which the mayor was a drug addict, Mom was either shooting up or turning tricks, and the hero cop was a prize jerk who was far less appealing than the mobster he was pursuing. “Paul said to me, ‘I don’t know why CBS is doing this series,’” Deborah Haggis remembers. “‘I mean, I told them what I’m going to do. It’s almost like they weren’t listening, because I actually intend to do it.’”

For his cowriter on the series Haggis recruited Bobby Moresco, a Hell’s Kitchen-born playwright with no television experience. Moresco was surprised to find himself collaborating with someone who had more focus and stamina than he had. “Anybody who challenges you to do great work by virtue of the fact that he’s willing to work harder than you are,” says Moresco, “or work longer than you are and commit to the idea that you began with—that’s somebody you want to work with, and that’s what Paul does. I’ve never seen Paul make a decision in the writing room that was ever about ego or whether it was his idea or my idea. It’s always about ‘Does this idea make the work better?’”

The New York Times lauded the fiercely dark vision of EZ Streets; one critic hailed Haggis as “the Percy Bysshe Shelley of contemporary TV drama.” But CBS scheduled Haggis’s two-hour pilot to follow the Christian family show Touched by an Angel, and the Nielsens were abysmal. It returned the following spring, albeit only for a month. Haggis begged his production company to let him complete the season, but the plug was pulled. “It was like we were all in shock for years,” Deborah says, “trying to recover from it.”

One morning in his study, Haggis is telling me about a dream he had in 2001, soon after being fired from a relatively tame TV show he’d created called Family Law. A bulletin board leaning against the wall has note cards tacked onto it that map out the next installment of James Bond. His two Oscars glimmer from the shelves. A young Fellini, in a framed black-and-white poster, looks on skeptically as Haggis describes his nightmare.

“I woke up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat,” he says. “I still remember my sheets were wet, the long sheet under my body, because I pictured my tombstone and it said ‘Paul Haggis, Creator, Walker, Texas Rangier.’ I had to do something to erase that image. So I left television and wrote Crash and Million Dollar Baby.” He even offers a few notes on set design. “It looked like a Vincent Price movie,” he says. “I think it was probably black and white, too—I can’t recall. It was desolate. The wind was blowing.”

It’s a great story—striking just the right dramatic effect, carving a neat dividing line between the old Haggis and the new. Yet, like other scenarios Haggis has sketched for me in other conversations, it’s a little too great, too metaphorically spot-on. This time around, he doesn’t wait for an objection before voicing his own doubts. “You know, I’ve told that story so many times, I don’t know if it’s true or not,” he says, looking not in the least disturbed about it. “I think it’s true! I think it’s true! But I just asked myself, ‘Is that true?’ And I went, ‘Oh shit! I don’t know.’”

“Do you truly not know,” I ask him, “if you had the Walker, Texas Rangier dream?”

“I truly don’t know,” Haggis says. “I think I did! But after you tell something a dozen times, you have no idea if you did or not. I think that’s the way memory works. I could be wrong, but you remember the last memory, and that’s how kids remember things from when they’re four years old. They don’t remember that incident. They remember their morn reminding them about that incident.”

“But this,” I say, “was not earliest childhood, right?”

“Now, I could have Alzheimer’s—that could just be it …”

Haggis is almost gleeful about the notion that he may have fabricated or at least punched up the pivotal scene of his life and may now be fooling everyone, including himself. “That, I guess, fascinates me—that I don’t know myself well enough,” he says. “The hell with knowing someone else or looking into someone else’s soul! I can’t even look into my own and know what’s true and what’s not. I guess we all try to know ourselves somehow, and at the same time we’re all trying to fool ourselves. We’re trying to package ourselves into something that others will like, or others will admire, even when we’re pretending not to.”

“And that,” I ask him, “is what’s going on in this conversation?”

“Of course it is,” Haggis says. “It always is—isn’t it?—when two people are sitting across from each other. You want me to like you, and I want you to like me. Now, you can go away and write a scathing, horrible article, but in this moment you want to give me the impression that you’re a good guy and you like me, right? And I want to give you that impression. Luckily, it’s true, but we’re always lying to each other.” His blue eyes are never so piercing, the grin is never so open, the tone of his soft voice never rings with such clarity as when Haggis acknowledges the essential fraud not only of this journalistic enterprise but of all human relations.

How swiftly and decisively Haggis liberated himself from the dream’s grim promise might also strain credulity if there weren’t such an abundance of proof to back it up. Most screenwriters are grateful if they can get a single script produced in a decade. In the last four years Haggis has written or cowritten seven scripts that have made it into the theaters. Collectively, they’ve grossed more than $1 billion worldwide at the box office. His one failure amid this success was The Black Donnellys, a TV series about young Irish American mobsters that premiered last year and foundered as fast as EZ Streets did.

Not long before Haggis says he had the Walker dream, he was listening to NPR on his car radio when he heard a former corner man named F.X. Toole talking about his book of short stories that revolve around a woman boxer. Haggis optioned the book and turned it into Million Dollar Baby, which Clint Eastwood would star in and direct. In addition to its Best Picture Oscar, the movie won Academy Awards for Eastwood as director and for Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman. In 2006, Haggis collaborated on both of Eastwood’s films about the battle for Iwo Jima. Eastwood says that Haggis was hesitant at first when asked to adapt Flags of Our Fathers. “He said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to be able to do this. It really would be a challenge.’ Then he said, ‘Let me think about it,’” Eastwood remembers.” And then a couple of weeks later he called me and said, ‘I have a first draft.’” The script portrays the soldiers in the famous photograph as pawns used by the government to sell war bonds to a country weary of war. For Letters from Iwo Jima Haggis recruited first-time Japanese American screenwriter Iris Yamashita to help tell the story from the Japanese perspective. Haggis and Yamashita received Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay and Eastwood for Best Director and Best Picture.

Haggis likes to call himself “the guy who turned Clint Eastwood into a communist.” “I thought I moved him a little bit toward socialism,” he says, “but apparently I made him into a commie.”

“Maybe he’s just being facetious,” Eastwood says, laughing, when he hears that Haggis line. “I think he just wanted to see the expression on your face.” It’s true, though, that Letters is perhaps the most compassionate portrayal ever realized of a foreign enemy bent on slaughtering U.S. service-men—at least by an American filmmaker.

The idea for Crash, the movie that would make Haggis into a writer-director, came in a late-night epiphany. “I woke up wondering about these kids who had jacked my car,” Haggis recalls. “I said, ‘I should go back to sleep, but if I go back to sleep, I’ll forget the idea, right?’ So I dragged myself into the study and started writing. I just kept asking myself questions.” By 10 in the morning he had a 35-page outline. He’d later call in Bobby Moresco to turn it into a screenplay.

Plenty of critics would grumble about the heavy-handedness of Crash and the implausibility of the plot, but Haggis was only giving his inner fabulist free rein. While his L.A. parable may be impossible in its coincidences and compression, it does reveal central Haggis verities—that good people are made ugly by calamity and despicable human beings can ennoble themselves in crisis; that the masks human beings wear tend to disintegrate when they lose control. Made for about $6.5 million, Crash grossed almost $100 million, and its success would lead to lawsuits among its producers. Real estate investor turned film financier Bob Yari sued the Academy and the Producers Guild for keeping his name off the credits and depriving him of an Oscar. In November Haggis and Moresco, another uncredited producer, lodged a lawsuit against Yari for $4.7 million in withheld profits.

“I really regret having to file it,” Haggis says. “I really hoped that you could have financial partners who, when you bring obvious errors to their attention, would say, ‘Oh Jesus, I’m sorry, we made a mistake, and we’ll pay you what you deserve,’ and wouldn’t try to hide money. But I guess it’s just endemic in Hollywood that that’s what people do, and they expect that you have to sue to get what you’re owed.” Yari, for his part, contends that the money in dispute was properly paid to other investors under the terms of the original contract and that his film company has paid out $10 million of the roughly $15 million in profits it has taken in from Crash. “Unfortunately,” Yari says, “Mr. Haggis’s actions reinforce the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished.”

In television, Haggis’s high concepts have gone nowhere. In film, he’s had a better time parsing his personality into characters who are upright and ridiculous, repulsive and compelling, who erode the audience’s power of judgment and prove their humanity by the many ways they fail. There’s a lot of Haggis in Hilary Swank’s boxer, entering the ring at an age far too late, the odds as heavy against her as they were against the 50-year-old screenwriter. In his urge to take a hammer to all orthodoxies—including his own—Haggis, too, is Casino Royale’s James Bond, who’s asked by a bartender if he likes his martini shaken or stirred and sneers, “Do I look like I give a damn?”

The Haggis who began shopping around Crash in 2002 was a character who would have fit well in that film—another Angeleno skirting oblivion’s edge. Even though he’d quit television, he still treated his finances with habitual disregard. He’d recently added a second story to his Santa Monica home and put in $100,000 worth of landscaping. He and Deborah and their three-year-old son, James, were living on loans, and Million Dollar Baby hadn’t yet sold (it would take more than a year). His wife encouraged him to press on with Crash anyway. “We had a beautiful house when the earthquake hit,” Deborah remembers telling him, “and then we had to start over again. Now, I’d prefer not to lose this one, but it’s not what’s important. What’s important is what you need to do as an artist.”

The script went nowhere until Don Cheadle got a copy. “It was just very in-your-face,” Cheadle says. “I thought it was very funny and I thought it was really touching, and I hadn’t been moved like that reading a script in a long time.” Cheadle agreed to play Crash‘s ambivalent detective. He also became a producer, serving as a salesman of sorts for actors like Ryan Phillippe, Larenz Tate, and Matt Dillon. “Because the material was risky and Paul was an unknown,” Cheadle says, “they wanted to know how I felt.” Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock signed on as well for a fraction of their usual salaries.

Cheadle came to the project with an image of Haggis as being “this manic person, very driven and passionate about his piece.” Haggis didn’t disappoint. “He was very intense and very high-strung a lot of times. I found myself saying, ‘Paul, you’ve got to calm down. There are things out there we can’t change.’”

“Poor Don was working Crash during those first two weeks,” Haggis says, “when l was riding my cinematographer, Jimmy Muro, like a pack mule.” Haggis was chainsmoking, eating whatever, tightly wound. “I needed ten more days than I got to shoot, two more hours a day than I had, and I needed another 3 million dollars. You find yourself making compromises every hour.”

Filming a climactic sequence in Chinatown, Haggis had a heart attack. The shoot was shut down for nearly two weeks as he underwent two surgeries. His doctor broke it to him that he couldn’t work for four months, that going back would put too much stress on his heart. “How much stress do you think it would be on my heart,” he says he told the doctor, “sitting at home while another director finishes my fucking film?” Haggis was back on the set the next Monday, with a nurse in tow to check his vital signs every 15 minutes.

One evening early into the Writers Guild strike, Haggis is slumped over a scarred table at the 18th Street Coffee House in Santa Monica, ragged after a day’s picketing Sony Pictures Studios. His neck, his nose, and his bald head have all been scorched by the sun. He sips his tea and pops hunks of banana bread into his mouth. In the coming weeks he’ll emerge as among the most unyielding foot soldiers of the strike, walking the lines every day he’s in town with other Oscar winners and TV veterans from his sitcom years. “It’s not a matter of budging room on our side,” he says. “You can’t even budge when the studios say, ‘We’re going to give you nothing.’ What, we’re going to take less than nothing?”

Haggis had finished one of his last polishes of the Bond follow-up right before the strike hit. With his partner at Highway 61, Syriana producer Michael Nozik, he had optioned a series of children’s fantasy books called The Ranger’s Apprentice, about a medieval boy spy. He plans to cowrite the first installment with his eldest daughter, Alissa. For now, Haggis has shut himself down as both a writer and a director. “I told my agent I won’t direct during the strike,” he says, “even if he sent me a script that’s perfect.”

All the press attention the writers are getting makes Haggis uneasy. “Anyone can be brave when the cameras are rolling,” he says, “because they know it’s going to be recorded somehow and they’re going to look good. Janitors who strike when they know that CBS isn’t going to be there, hotel workers who put their jobs on the line when they can be replaced like this—“ Haggis snaps his fingers, which make barely a sound. “But still they strike … This is ridiculous. I sound like I’m on a tear here.” He goes on anyway. “But now we’re at war. We have people losing their sons and daughters, and they are out there, trying to influence public opinion so that other people don’t lose their sons and daughters. Those are brave people, and they pay the price.” He winces. “My nose,” he says, “is so damned burnt.”

In the Valley of Elah, his attempt to tell the tragedy, fared poorly at the box office, as did the rest of last year’s flurry of Iraq war films. Even critics who began their reviews by reiterating how much they loathed Crash couldn’t help praising his meditation on the toll the war has taken on the warriors. The positive notices didn’t help. Haggis is disappointed by how the movie has done but isn’t willing to second-guess Warner Independent’s marketing campaign. “I’m such a control freak,” he says, “that I’m already managing the film, literally every frame of it, every color on that frame, every sound on that frame, the grain, and manipulating each one many times. If I do that with the marketing, I’ll be a complete monster instead of three-quarters of one.”

Certainly, Haggis’s lengthy, often gruesome discourses on post-traumatic stress disorder during his press tour weren’t the best form of promotion, nor was his decision, during the L.A. junket for the film, to grant the most interview time to the correspondent from Al Jazeera. Reporters preferred when he got personal, and Haggis had to accommodate. “I tell this story about Deborah,” Haggis says. “It was after Million Dollar Baby or Crash, when I was starting In the Valley of Elah. She said, ‘You know, sweetie, sooner or later you’ve got to deal with comedy, because what will happen is people are going to open the paper on Friday nights and say, “Look, a new Paul Haggis movie! Should we spend ten dollars or slit our wrists right now?’” And I told that story and people laughed and people took it up, and then she said, ‘You know, Paul, I never actually said that. I said, “Sooner or later you should make a comedy.” That’s what I said.’”

Haggis was only doing for his wife what he’s done for Clint Eastwood and for James Bond, disregarding the limitations of reality for something more engaging, a trifle more profound. “She did say it,” Haggis says, “but l embellished the rest because it’s a better story.” It’s not something he’s prepared to offer an apology for, and besides, his wife didn’t ask for one—in fact, quite the opposite. “She thanked me,” Haggis says, grinning, “for rewriting her.”