Chris Matthews Interviews Paul Haggis on Nantucket

07/05/2011 04:40 pm ET | Updated Sep 04, 2011

In his interview last week with Chris Matthews at the Nantucket Film Festival, director and screenwriter Paul Haggis interrupted the lovefest with the audience just once. How, Matthews asked, did all those women James Bond screwed -- especially in Casino Royale, which Haggis helped write -- avoid getting pregnant? "They've usually been killed before. We have villains to kill the women before they get annoying," Haggis said. Ouch.

For the rest of the interview, which celebrated Haggis' career, Matthews and the reverential crowd got along famously with the star. It's hard not to be impressed by Haggis' resume. He has created or written episodes for two dozen TV series, ranging from The Love Boat to thirtysomething to EZ Streets. He has written, produced, directed and/or adapted 11 films, many of them admired by critics and popular with audiences: Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Valley of Elah, and Casino Royale. He received Best Picture and Best Screenwriter awards at the 2005 Academy Awards for Crash, which Haggis directed and produced from the screenplay he wrote -- just a year after Million Dollar Baby, which he'd adapted from a short story, had won the Oscar for Best Picture.

Haggis spent most of the 45-minute interview explaining how he creates and develops characters. He figured out how to write screenplays in Hollywood when he stopped listening to friends' advice about how to succeed. "I never wrote from the inside," he said. Now he writes from his soul, disregarding what he thinks an audience might like. "I have a huge ego! If it's interesting to me, it must be interesting to others," he said. By understanding characters from the inside out, and then sharing that complexity in his screenplays, he makes the characters sympathetic even when they're superficially repugnant. Officer John Ryan in Crash, for example, played by Matt Dillon, comes off as an odious racist until we understand the personal history that drives his reactions. By the movie's end, we see him as fully human. "You have to have empathy, knowledge and compassion for your characters if you're a writer," Haggis said.

In spite of his writing success, Haggis loathes the craft. He forces himself to sit in the chair for eight hours a day, but still struggles to meet deadlines. "There's nothing more painful than writing," he said. What's harder, writing for a TV show or for film? "That's like asking would you rather be nailed to a cross or strung up with barbed wire," he said. The process might be equally demanding, but Haggis left television for film, he said, because TV "was eating a piece of my soul." He misbehaved in order to be fired. Still, he'd go back to serious TV if they'd have him; HBO rejected his most recent pitch. "I'm always in the wrong place at the wrong time," Haggis said.

Between meatier questions, Matthews and the crowd sought a little gossip. "Do all Hollywood celebrities hate their families?" Matthews asked, after alluding to the family leeches and parasites that cling to paralyzed boxer Maggie, played by Hilary Swank, in Million Dollar Baby. Haggis dodged that one. How was working with Clint Eastwood, who directed several films from screenplays Haggis wrote? "It's really annoying. He works so fast, he does two films a year," Haggis said with mock disgust. "He makes us all look bad."

Though happy to share the secrets of his writing routine, Haggis was less expansive when asked about his ugly public break from the Church of Scientology, which Lawrence Wright documented this year in the New Yorker. "I get a lot of hate mail. A lot of people won't work with me. It's no big deal," Haggis said, not very convincingly. Coming from a man whose artistic gift comes from his ability to understand and humanize those we're inclined to reject -- a courageous Japanese solider, an angry and hateful cop -- his answer here felt defensive and disingenuous. It was the one false note of the morning.