There was a time when Paul Haggis was considered the hottest filmmaker in Hollywood. The one-two punch of Million Dollar Baby and Crash gave the mild-mannered Canadian the distinction of being the only person to have penned consecutive Best Picture Oscar winners.
Since then, the 62-year-old has become one of the world’s most prominent anti-Scientology crusaders, having defected from the controversial church after 35 years and detailed the cycle of abuse suffered by him and his family in an eye-opening feature in The New Yorker.
Social justice has always been near and dear to Haggis’s heart, which is perhaps why his latest project, the six-part HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero, marks an impressive return to form. Created by David Simon (The Wire) and with all six episodes directed by Haggis, the timely drama chronicles newly elected Yonkers Mayor Nick Wasicsko’s (Oscar Isaac) fight to convince both his constituents and fellow politicians that erecting a federally-mandated public housing development in their city—and finally addressing years of segregated housing—is the right thing to do. Though it spans the years 1987-1993, its thorough examination of race, segregation, housing, and municipal politics couldn’t be more relevant today.
According to Haggis, he became fascinated with the issue of race relations in America after witnessing several disturbing incidents during his early TV days.“I remember one instance where I was working with a black director and I was executive producer and there were two other producers on the show,” he recalls. “I noticed a conversation taking place on the studio lot and as I was walking towards them, I noticed the producer was telling a joke to the black director. And as I got really close, I realized it was a racist joke—as if to say, ‘See? We can do this now. We’re all the same.’ And I saw the director, and in television directors are guns for hire, slap the guy on the shoulder like ‘Oh, that’s funny’ and walk back to the stage. And I thought to myself, ‘What piece of that man’s soul did he just give away to keep his job?’
He adds, “So often I realize that the so-called liberals are the ones whose vision is most clouded.”
The Daily Beast sat down with Haggis to discuss his powerful new show and much more.
I covered the documentary Going Clear quite a bit, and around the time of its release, there was quite a bit of chatter about the evils of Scientology. Now, we’re not hearing about it as much. It seems as though that conversation has petered out, and a Tom Cruise film is now killing it at the box office.
We forgive anybody anything if they’re a movie star, I guess!
And Cruise didn’t even address Going Clear or Scientology during the press tour for Rogue Nation.
Well, that’s not his fault. His PR people are very smart. But I don’t know how journalists can continue to call themselves journalists if they aren’t brave enough to ask a question. I mean, how big does the elephant in the room have to be before you ask about it?
Right. It’s been reported that, in order to land an interview with Cruise, programs and outlets had agreed to not ask Cruise Scientology questions during the press tour.
Yeah, because then they can’t get the interview. Well, fine, but there are things called journalistic integrity, and there are things more important than promoting a movie sometimes. It was so glaringly obvious. There was this huge elephant there, and every journalist agreed not to address it. Why? You’re just a PR person at that point. Shame on you.
How did David Simon convince you to come on board for Show Me a Hero?
Oh, he didn’t have to convince me. I pursued him. I had a project that pushed due to actor availability, so my agents at CAA said there were a few features available for me, and then the third project was Simon’s. They said, “Oh, we’ll send you the script.” And I said, “No. Say yes, and then send me the script.” They laughed, and I said, “No. I’m serious.” The Wire is my favorite television series ever. I had never directed anybody else’s words. This is my first time and if it was going to be somebody, I wanted it to be David.
It really is a boon to have one director at the helm for an entire miniseries. Look at the first season of True Detective.
Cary [Fukunaga] did a great job on that, but look at this year. I mean, please. Look at the result. I’ve been trying to watch it, and… let’s just say I was a big fan of the first one.
You’ve always had a fascination with race in America. There was of course Crash, but one of your earliest gigs was as a writer for Diff’rent Strokes in the early ’90s. Where does this fascination come from?
It’s true. Coming to America from Canada—or being an outsider in general in any community—I think is a good thing because you get to be one step back from everybody else and notice things that other people might take for granted. I came here at 21, and there were things I noticed where I thought, “That’s odd.” My friends would go, “Oh, that’s not odd,” and I’d say, “Oh, I’m pretty sure it is!” That developed over the years as I saw more and more, and then that’s why I decided to write Crash, because after years of seeing things that my liberal friends just took for granted, I thought there was something going on here. And with Show Me a Hero, this series is set from 1987 to 1993, but these things are still going on right now.
You’ve said you wrote Crash to “bust liberals.” Liberals do always like to hold themselves up as champions for change and social justice, but often don’t look inward and reflect on their own prejudices.
Yes, and it annoys the hell out of everybody else! And rightfully so. The folks who are on all sides of this issue had a good point—even Hank Spallone, who was trying to make everyone scared of all the black and Hispanic people coming to the white side of town. He went over and looked at Schlobohm and in those days you would not want that on your street—I wouldn’t—but those folks conveniently leave out certain pieces of information.
It doesn’t seem to help much to erect one large housing project, put everyone there, and let it be. The argument Oscar Newman makes seems so much more sensible, which is to spread it out with eight units here, ten units there, so that they fit in more organically.
That’s what the federal government’s been doing ever since there has been public housing, and it’s been a failure, and it’s cheap. People like Oscar Newman are the real heroes of this, the people who redesigned public housing, because they said, “Let’s just apply some common sense.” Common sense is not something we value in America. It just isn’t. We like dividing people, ruling by fear, and being governed by fear, because we react well to that. But common sense? That doesn’t happen in America. There’s no money in it, and politics is about money and power.
The same week that Show Me a Hero premiered, riots flared up again in Ferguson. A series like this tackling race, segregation, and poverty in America seems more relevant than ever.
We made this before Ferguson. I started at the beginning last June, and it was gestating long before that.
Crash came out ten years ago. How have you seen race relations improve in America in the decade since? Or have they?
I remember a review when Crash came out and it said, “You know what? If this movie came out ten years ago, we’d call it brave and timely, but we don’t have these problems anymore.” Honest to God. That day I was reading it, there was a race riot in Santa Monica. As liberals, we love to think we’ve solved problems because we’re good people, and we wouldn’t let these things exist. All we do is throw enough money at them and a little bit of attention to make them go away so we can’t see them right now, and then we feel better going about our lives and going off and doing our shopping and daily routines. That’s what Crash was about. It was the people who thought they were “good” people who paid the biggest price, and the people who were closer to understanding it were the folks who were the racists, who were bigoted. They were wrong—dead wrong—but at least they were engaged in the conversation instead of living in denial. I don’t know which one is better, but denial doesn’t solve anything. But liberals are having the conversation, aren’t they? If you looked at the first round of GOP debates, there was all of forty seconds dedicated to discussing race in America. It was all “scare” topics—ISIS, immigration, abortion, etc.
That’s all it is. It’s all politics of fear. Immigration? They believe people with different-colored skin will come in and take your job, and steal your wife, and date your sister, or they’ll come in with big knives and guns and kill you. That’s their politics right now, really. Those topics you mentioned are all problems we should be discussing, but there are so many more here in front of us that are being ignored.