Paul Haggis: interview

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’In the Valley of Elah‘ is the latest film from Paul Haggis, the Oscar-winning scriptwriter (’Million Dollar Baby‘) and director (’Crash‘), and is a suspense drama describing the ordeal of Deerfield, an ex-soldier father (Tommy Lee Jones) who investigates the disappearance of his son following his return from a tour of duty in Iraq

Paul Haggis: interview
Haggis explains the rules to Charlize Theron

You worked on the screenplay with Mark Boal who wrote the original Playboy piece about the similar experiences of Lanny Davis.

‘Mark and I took a long while trying to figure out how to tell the story. Early on, I came up with the idea of telling it as a murder mystery. I knew I wanted to hide whatever I was saying inside a piece of popular entertainment. I’ll take the form, then I’ll subvert it. Where you’d normally put the red herring, I’ll put the truth. It goes from being a murder mystery to being a moral mystery.’

It’s a very different script structure from ‘Crash’.

‘I know movie structures quite well and I knew I was going to break one of the cardinal rules of screenwriting, which is you never, ever take the crisis out of the protagonist’s hands. So what happens in this movie is that people start rushing to Tommy Lee’s character with information, to hand him clues. People start killing themselves and other people confess because it’s not really a murder mystery. It’s a story of a blind man slowly opening his eyes.’

Did you have a particular actor in mind to play Deerfield?

‘No, no, I didn’t. Clint [Eastwood] was the one who championed this film and, of course, I wanted him. But he told me right off that he wasn’t going to do it.’

Did you have to offer Tommy Lee Jones much advice?

‘He was great. He didn’t need a lot of help. None of the actors did. He’s a very smart man. With Tommy Lee, it was just a matter of not judging the character. He understood that one of Deerfield’s flaws was pride. An excess of pride creates blindness.’

How important is the role of Charlize Theron’s character, the police inspector who Tommy Lee ends up working with?

‘So much of what I do oozes out of me, and only later on do I work out why I’ve done something. She seemed to fit. I thought it was important that I had a character that was trying to fit into a male world – who was just trying to get through the day. Just like our men in Iraq. She didn’t want particularly to solve this case, she just wanted to earn her cheque and go home to her son. I like that we often make the right decisions for all the wrong reasons.’

Has the process of directing affected the way you set about writing your scripts?

‘No. I started as a photographer, so I’ve always been very, very comfortable with knowing what the emotional impact of a lens is. I always thought I would be a filmmaker at some point, and would write and direct. When it is a passion piece – like this – I’m very comfortable.’

How do you feel about the response you’ve had so far in America?

‘A lot of the critics who didn’t like “Crash” came forward and like and support this one. Like AO Scott of the New York Times and others. It has been a mixed response, but I like that. I don’t think it’s a good thing to have everybody patting you on the back. I like to upset people.’

Do you feel the movie will appeal to British audiences?

‘I’m particular anxious about how it will play. Here, you’re much closer to America. You have a similar history, not least in your involvement in Iraq. So, I think it will be closer to the bone here. I’m anxious to see how it does.’

Do you have any more passion pieces in the drawer?

‘Honestly, I don’t know what I’m going to do next. I’m on strike, right now. So, I’m not going to work. I’m picketing.’In the Valley of Elah’ opens on January 25

Author: Wally Hammond


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