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Screenwriter/Director Paul Haggis Gives Masterclass at Beaune Festival: "Reach Inside the Soul and Twist"

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Writer/director Paul Haggis, known for award-winning films such as Million Dollar Baby, In the Valley of Elah and Crash, sat before us at the Beaune International Thriller Festival, casually dressed in black, and explained with ease his view that confronting one's soul is a part of the writing process.

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First he discussed his trajectory as a writer/director. A high school drop out, he convinced his girlfriend to move to California with him when he was 21, so he "could marry her and become a director." She agreed, got pregnant immediately, and Haggis soon had the "good fortune" to get a job writing cartoons, a passion he had had since a boy. But a year and a half of doing well with cartoons, he realized he had to quit or he would end up a cartoon writer for life.

From there, he moved to TV writing:

"I made a very good living as a bad writer. I wrote a lot of comedies, Diff'rent Strokes, Facts of Life, while all my friends were doing the good shows, like Cheers,, but I loved it because I got to be a working writer in Hollywood."

At age thirty-four, his approach to writing changed: it was then that he discovered the concept of the writer's "soul".

"I wrote an episode for thirtysomething, and a producer said 'that's really good but what is it about? What does it say about you? What questions are you asking yourself?' I had never thought about that. This comment changed who I was, because it made me look at my own soul, the dark corners in my soul, and accept that dark side."

Looking at the dark side and accepting it became a working mantra for Haggis:

TV writing taught me many things: it taught me how to really dig into a character, how to empathize with the worst of humanity. Most writers and many actors make this one mistake, that they love this character to play, but they can't really empathize with that character. So they judge the character. When you judge the character, you can't write or act it. Instead, you have to see what is inside of you that is inside that character. Their point of view is the only point of view. You must see it as the 'right' view. As soon as you do that, you realize that here are no villains in life, there are people who do villainous things, who do evil things, and they are not much different than you are.

The movie Crash, which Haggis both wrote and directed, put this theory in practice:

Crash came from personal experience. I saw things inside me from living in LA that made me uncomfortable. I saw horrible things in people and saw terrible things in myself. I saw a black director completely humiliated but the three people around me just thought it was funny. No, I said, that is selling your soul. Being a lapsed Catholic, I could not keep selling my soul.

Following Crash came Million Dollar Baby, again a script based on personal experience, Haggis informed us, as well as questions of the soul: "I found Million Dollar Baby in a book of short stories. I had to pull the plug on my very best friend since I was sixteen and that stuck with me forever. People die horribly when you pull the plug. I watched my friend for eleven hours while he fought for life."

This issue becomes central in Million Dollar Baby, as a man, Frankie, must decide whether he must refuse to "lose his soul" by letting his loved one die, as she wishes, or show his love, by following her command. It is the kind of complicated issue with no easy answers that Haggis is drawn to for his scripts: "I like to write about things that truly haunt me," he told us. "For example, relationships, I have no idea about that! I like finding really tough questions in myself and making the characters answer them."

This approach is what makes for good drama, Haggis informed us, with a jovial wave of his hand:

"You have to make things impossible for your character. In Million Dollar Baby, [a priest tells Frankie] that he has an immortal soul. If Frankie helps this woman die, he will be damned for ever. He will lose himself. You choose between the woman you love, helping her to die---and losing who you are, losing your soul. Now I got a movie. You have to be very cold as a scriptwriter, you have to make things worse and worse and worse for your protagonist."

It all came down to touching his audience.

"Even in a comedy you have to make people feel," he later added. "You have to put your hand inside their soul and twist out their heart."

As for the soul of his characters--whether there was hope for them--Haggis responded with a laugh: "They get to where they need to go."

Haggis did not hesitate to make it clear to his listeners that ultimately "soul" connects to politics. Throughout this hour-long masterclass, before a packed house of mostly French cinephiles, Haggis was upfront with noting that several of his scripts were critical of the United States: notably, Crash and In the Valley of Elah: "Crash is more about class than race. If you want to see Americans go crazy, tell them there is a race problem. But tell them there is a problem of class, they will go insane."

As for In the Valley of Elah, a film about a father whose son dies in the war on Iraq, Haggis noted he felt responsible to make a film critical of US policy. "It is an artist's responsibility to speak up at times of war, at times of crisis. We can't just make war films that just pretend that we are criticizing what is going on." In the Valley of Elah begins, Haggis informed us, with "a proud American who believes in the American flag, and has to correct the flag [when it is upside down]. But, then he finds out what really happened to his son in Iraq, that it is his fault, as he sent his son to be a hero, and instilled certain values in his son which led him to go there." Then the father has another reaction to that flag.

Haggis chose such a story because it seemed the best venue to get an American public interested in the issue. "There is no way I can get America to sympathize with the Iraqis, who look so different, with veils [etc]. We are xenophobic, we don't care about other people in the world, and our media plays on this. I thought: I cannot make Americans sympathize with those people, but maybe I can make them sympathize with their own sons. I wanted to show what happens when people go to Iraq thinking they are David, and finding out they are Goliath; that instead of heroes they are the villain."

The masterclass ended with Haggis affably welcoming questions about his approach to writing and criticism, during which he affirmed that he was a non-stop worker who constantly re-writes his scripts. He is so dedicated to his work, he confided, that he feels guilty even when he is at a film festival, taking him away from his writing.

He shared a powerful story with us:

"My grandfather was a great man, a janitor, British working class, and my dad took me to see him when he was dying, and he left us alone. My grandfather opened his eyes and saw me. He said: "I wasted my life. Don't waste yours."

"Twelve years old, that fucks you up. I am driven by that [experience]. I have to work all the time, if I don't create, if I don't work, I don't feel like like I am worth [something]."