Inside Scientology's Big Defection

What led Crash director Paul Haggis to leave the church after 35 years? Kim Masters reports on how Scientology aided his career—and then tried to milk his success.

Maybe Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige had a premonition. Or maybe he’s not much of a talent spotter.

But a few years back, Miscavige apparently wasn’t keen on using writer-director Paul Haggis for a series of films based on treatments by the late Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. This was before Haggis, who made news recently with his angry renunciation of Scientology had back-to-back turns as an Oscar magnet in 2005 and 2006. (Haggis wrote and directed Crash and adapted the screenplay for Million Dollar Baby. Both won Best Picture.)

“I was told he was not to be approached because he was a crappy TV writer who did Facts of Life and Diff’rent Strokes,” Headley recalls.

Marc Headley worked in Scientology’s film-production studio from 1989 until 2005, when part of the mission was to come up with scripts for movies intended to introduce newcomers—“raw meat,” in church parlance—to the teachings of Scientology. Headley says his instructions were not to pursue Haggis as a writer.

“I was told he was not to be approached because he was a crappy TV writer who did Facts of Life and Diff’rent Strokes,” Headley recalls. “The only other person I heard that about was Jenna Elfman.” Elfman is now the star of the CBS sitcom Accidentally on Purpose but this was before she had established her career on Dharma and Greg. “David Miscavige kept rejecting her because he thought she looked like Linda Blair,” Headley says. “Who wants to see The Exorcist in a Scientology movie?”

Plus: Read Kim Masters on Scientology’s New Face Headley has fallen away from the church—he recently published Blown for Good about his own defection—and is now suing the organization. His account is disputed by Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis, who says he’s confident Miscavige would never disparage a church member like that. (Other former Scientologists have accused Miscavige of physical abuse and other misconduct; he has vehemently denied those allegations.)

Haggis is still not talking about his departure from Scientology. In a letter to Davis that made its way onto the Internet, Haggis listed several reasons for his disillusionment after 35 years, including the church’s failure to denounce California’s anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 and the church’s policy of “disconnection”—requiring members to cease contact with friends and family members who run afoul of Scientology or its policies.

According to former Scientologists who know or knew Haggis, he became involved with Scientology after he and his sister Kathy moved from Canada to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s. Kathy was the first to enter the church’s doors; she became committed enough to join the Sea Org, Scientology’s demanding management operation, and worked in the church’s Celebrity Centre. (Kathy Haggis did not respond to a request for comment.) It seems clear that she could not have remained in the Sea Org since it demands round-the-clock dedication and she has a number of writing credits that would be incompatible with that level of commitment. Among those credits are many in collaboration with her brother. In the 1990s, for example, she worked as a writer-producer on Due South, a Canadian police comedy-drama series created by Paul.

According to a former Scientologist who worked in the Celebrity Centre, in the early days Paul Haggis was committed enough to rise relatively rapidly to the level of OT 3, or Operating Thetan 3. (An operating thetan is a relatively high-level Scientologist.) According to this former insider, Haggis spent a great deal of money—largely at the urging of his then-wife—on the church’s courses.

Skip Press is another former Scientologist who worked in the Celebrity Centre in the ‘70s and who finally left the church in 1996. Early in Haggis’s career, he says, Haggis was eking out money writing animation scripts in collaboration with some fellow Scientologists (Haggis wrote for Hanna-Barbera and Ruby-Spears on shows like Richie Rich and Heathcliff.)

In those lean years, Press says, Haggis got a break when a church member--a strawberry farmer from Canada—turned up with an interest in making a film based on L. Ron Hubbard’s life. The farmer advanced Haggis a much-needed $15,000 with the plan, ultimately, to get that movie made, Press says. The money gave Haggis some breathing room as he pursued his career. Press says eventually he repaid the money without writing the Hubbard project.

During those early days, Press says, he and Haggis launched a writers’ workshop for Scientologists with Hollywood aspirations. “When The Facts of Life happened, the little Scientology vultures started closing in on him,” Press says. “All these acolytes of Paul—I don’t think he paid a lot of attention to it, [but] it got to the point where I couldn’t just call Paul.” Press says he could only reach Haggis by going through his Scientologist assistants.

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Though Haggis said in his letter of resignation that he had not been an active member “for many years,” Press is skeptical. “He says he’s been distanced from Scientology,” Press says, “but he wasn’t making it very well known.”

According to another former Scientologist, the church involved itself in Haggis’s personal affairs. At one point in the early ‘90s, a former Scientology insider says that Haggis—then married to his first wife—had a brief relationship with an employee on the Due South series. The employee was also a Scientologist and the church decided that she had to leave her job. (Such interventions—called a “chaplain’s court”—are not uncommon in Scientology.)

In 1994, Haggis’s marriage dissolved. Three years later, he married actress Deborah Rennard. Like his first wife, she was also a devoted Scientologist. (For a decade, she played Sly Lovegren, secretary to J.R. Ewing, on Dallas. She also appeared in several episodes of Due South.) According to a former Scientologist, Deborah persuaded Haggis to take the church’s costly KTL, or “Key to Life” course.

Despite his first wife’s enthusiasm for Scientology, Haggis told an associate while he was working on Crash that he wasn’t especially committed to the organization. “Afterward, a couple of people on the crew and one of the actors joined the church,” this source says. “So I had the sense that there was more going on than I knew.”

But apparently Haggis had lost interest in writing movies for the church. Fallen-away Scientologist Steve Hall took the helm of Scientology’s script-writing department in the late ‘90s. When he looked through the files, he says, he saw that Haggis had in the past “put quite some effort” into scripts for Scientology films. Apparently that sort of work was lucrative, but none of the Haggis scripts had been produced. Hall asked his staff to inquire whether Haggis would be interested in resuming work. Haggis never responded.

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Kim Masters covers the entertainment business for The Daily Beast. She is also the host of The Business, public radio's weekly program about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.