Paul Haggis, best known for the Oscar Best Picture–winning film Crash, speaks at a rapid clip, rattling off thoughts on whatever you might ask him, even as he's checking his phone for the messages that buzz in. In some other life, he might have been a big Hollywood mogul, spouting thoughts at a moment's notice, but with his genial, soft-spoken voice (with hints of the accent of his native Canada), he never comes off as anything but quick-witted and thoughtful.
He's an eclectic figure, with many different interests, but the theme that unites his films and TV series is an interest in people pushed to their limits by inhospitable systems, be they political or corporate. That makes his latest work, the HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero (written by Wire creator David Simon and William F. Zorzi), particularly interesting. The story of the battle for housing desegregation in Yonkers, New York, debuts Sunday, August 16, and follows dozens of people as they struggle to find new ways to define themselves in a town that has become deeply, politically polarized.
It's a terrific miniseries, and much of that is thanks to how Haggis shoots the story — like a scripted documentary just happening to unfold in front of his camera. I recently caught up with Haggis to talk about his history in television, why the film industry would never make Show Me a Hero, and his memories of his Oscar-winning night with Crash. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
On the differences between working in film and TV
Todd VanDerWerff: You worked in television before you made films like Crash, on series like Thirtysomething and EZ Streets [a one-season 1996 crime series]. How do you think television has shifted since you worked in it in the '80s and '90s?
Paul Haggis: I would love to be doing EZ Streets now. Even five years later, even on HBO. CBS at the time, though, the big hit was Touched by an Angel. I always felt that I was a little out of time in my television work. It made sense to me to run away from television when everyone was running toward it. Now to come back to it, the thing is, I can't think of any other place that would tell a story like this, other than HBO. A lot of it is just the story and where you get to tell it. I love film. I love television. But if you can find a way to explore characters for six hours, that's television.
TV: Do you feel like film has become inhospitable to stories like this?
PH: Yes, completely. It's very hard to get things like this financed. I'm lucky enough, you win the Oscars, and I find they tend to want to finance your films. I have always been fierce in wanting my independence. My last film [Third Person] was a nod to the great filmmakers who influenced me growing up, the French new wave, and the Italians. No one wants to see a film like that anymore, films that ask more questions than they answer, but I always love to do that. If I can do that in television or I can do that in film, it doesn't really matter to me.
TV: We're almost 10 years out from when you won the Oscar for Crash. Looking back on it now, do you have reflections on that moment? Why you think that that film resonated so much?
PH: I don't know how good a film it is. I didn't know at the time. It was a good script. I didn't know it was a good movie, but I knew it touched people, and that's what I wanted to do. I knew it made people question long-held beliefs.
If you look at EZ Streets, you'd be hard-pressed to say there's a stereotype in there, but I decided to present stereotypes in the beginning [of Crash] and for the first half hour, reinforce every stereotype you've ever believed, so that I could twist you around in the seat by the time you left and make you question your beliefs. If I hadn't done that, if I hadn't reinforced at the beginning and made you comfortable, then I wasn't going to challenge you. It's in the dark, it's okay no one's going to see you laughing at the Hispanics or the Asian drivers, and then, once I made you comfortable, I could twist you around and leave you spinning.
It does that still. I've had people who've just come into it now, say, "My god, I walked up thinking something completely different." That makes me feel really good. Have I done better films? Yeah. In the Valley of Elah is a much better film, but it didn't have the impact. I was trying to stop a war there. Didn't succeed, did I?
On capturing authenticity with the project
TV: Authenticity sounds like a watchword for Show Me a Hero, but actors need freedom of their own interpretations of their characters. How did you approach that question of giving them freedom, while also keeping them close to the real figures?
PH: The actors really did a lot of research, without me even asking to, because a lot of these people were in the public eye. There's video of them. There were photographs. Some of them were living. They [the actors] really educated themselves. They came to this, often, with a really good understanding of who that person was. For that reason, every single person feels unique in this, because they've done that research. They know their tics. Alfred Molina, if you watch the video of the fellow he's playing, [Henry] Spallone, he used to hit his microphone after he spoke each time. I said, "Alfred, just hit the microphone."
TV: So you actually filmed this in Yonkers. What did that add?
PH: To be able to shoot something where it actually occurred — we struggled to do that wherever we possibly could. City Hall is City Hall. The Chamber, we had to rebuild some of it, so we went next door and built the mayor's office and a couple other city councilmen's offices, but the Great Room is the Great Room. Things happened where things actually happened. That was important.
Mary Dorman's house is Mary Dorman's house. She died a couple of years ago, but the kids hadn't sold the house yet. Shooting in something that small, other directors would've gone, "Oh, no, no. This is way too small to put a crew in." I said, "Great, it's perfect," because it's going to feel claustrophobic. You're going to say, "Her life was very similar to the lives of these people who she's trying to keep out of her neighborhood." I shot it that way specifically, so it would echo each other. You understand these are working people fighting for their homes. Their fear, the fear of others that's been instilled in them by the politicians, is real. They have to open their eyes and realize that there's nothing really to be afraid of.
David and Bill brought me a script that was based completely on truth. It was Lisa [Belkin's] book, and she'd done a lot of research, and Bill had done even more. My job, I felt, was to make it feel real, to make you feel like you were there and experiencing that. That's how I chose to shoot every scene, especially the crowd scenes — to put you behind those people so that you had to look around other people, and you sensed that you were there. Even the close-ups, I'd put a microphone into the shot. I'd bend things into the shot, so that everything was imperfect. I can't always do that, but whenever I could make a frame imperfect, I would.
TV: That adds to the feeling everyone in the miniseries has of being boxed in by a large series of mostly bad choices. How were you making it clear how few good options these people had?
PH: Again, it's just where you put your camera and how you block your actors in that way. Whenever I could, I'd find a way to make the camera feel like the circumstances were dwarfing our characters, and that they were fighting off things that were much larger that they couldn't control. It was just a choice, moment to moment.
In film, you shoot two to three pages of script a day. We shot seven to 10 pages a day. You had to move really quickly, and there was always something had gone wrong. The street that you had planned to shoot on, they hadn't cleared the cars, and so we couldn't shoot on that street. The actor was an hour and a half late that day. She missed her bus or something. The crane that was supposed to come up went up to a different location. You can't possibly prepare for six hours of shooting. It's just too big. With all that, we then had to go every day and say, "How do we do something terrific?"
TV: The writer tends to have a lot of power in television, compared with film, where the director does. How did you find returning to TV as just a director and not a writer, as well as working with David Simon?
PH: I came just because of David. I was such a huge fan of his, and that's why I came to this project. I always wanted to work with him. I've loved his television. I've always respected the writer. I am one. I think he found he relaxed into that quite quickly, and that I was there to direct.
As a director, yes, you're going to influence the scene. Yes, you're going to influence the writing, but you've also got to respect it. We had a great relationship that way. Both of us have very strong opinions. We are both A-type personalities, but that worked, because we both cared very much for every frame of this film.
On political divisions in the United States
TV: Both this and Crash have stories about racial divides at their centers. What keeps taking you back to that theme? How do you think these two stories approach those questions differently?
PH: Very differently. One's a fable, and the other is the story of events. It's not documentary, but the scenes are the scenes. They have actually occurred. I just want to tell stories that are about who we are, and race and class in America continues to be at the center of our story. I don't want to avoid it.
TV: This is also really about how issues become polarized.
PH: Yes. Common sense has no place in politics. It's all about the fear of the other, and manipulating people's baser instincts in order to get elected, and to get whatever interest group that you represent whatever it is they want. It's really cynical, what's happened to this country.
TV: So what do you think we can learn, if anything, from these events about how to deal with that polarization?
PH: We just present it, and then hope that folks will identify with the characters, and where they've been manipulated into believing things that perhaps aren't in their best interests.
It happens all the time in this country. How many people think that public health care is a terrible thing, even though their wife needs an operation, or the kids need to get their teeth fixed? We somehow have convinced them that they should identify themselves with a group that thinks that's the worst think we could possibly have in this country. How? That's against their own best interest, but somehow, we've been able to convince a great deal of the country that they should vote against their own best interest.
TV: The episode blossoms out from Mayor Nick Wasicsko to become the story of just about everybody involved in this. What was it like managing that?
PH: We changed a lot of things in editing, and we moved a lot of things around as we discovered the balance of the stories, but from the beginning David and Bill really wanted to say, "These are the players, and these are the pawns." The pawns had nothing to do with what this group of white people was deciding up there in that building on the hill.
Somebody says, "Why is it all the people talking about this are white?" and it's true. That's what politics in Yonkers was. That's often what politics in America is. It's not just white, though. It's the privileged. If you want to drive Americans nuts, tell them it's a race problem. If you want to see them go apoplectic, tell them there's a class problem in this country. We thought we left that behind. We didn't. It's right here.
Show Me a Hero debuts Sunday, August 16, at 8 pm Eastern on HBO. It will air over three weeks.