The first movie he wrote, last year's "Million Dollar Baby," stormed the Academy Awards, bringing home best picture, best director, best actress and best supporting actor wins along with a best screenplay nomination.
The 52-year-old Canadian also wrote "Crash," which was inspired by his harrowing experience as a carjack victim on the streets of Los Angeles. The ensemble film revolves around several characters of different racial backgrounds in the City of Angels whose lives are intertwined during a 24-hour period.
Clearly, Haggis has a ready-made knack for crafting films that resonate with viewers and voters. Credit his years as a writer for acclaimed series such as "L.A. Law," "The Tracey Ullman Show" and "thirtysomething."
And there's more on the way from Haggis, including "Flags of Our Fathers," scripted by Haggis and recently filmed by Clint Eastwood. Haggis has written two other scripts he will direct ("Honeymoon with Harry" and "Death and Dishonor") and recently completed a pilot for an NBC drama series, "The Black Donnellys."
Here, Haggis sits down to discuss making films, surviving a heart attack and trying to enjoy the awards experience.
Q: What was the awards' season experience like for you with "Million Dollar Baby?"
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A: It was overwhelming. It was really lovely. I had no idea that this many people would want to talk to you or ask you questions. It's not like with the actors, of course. You don't come out on the red carpet and people scream, "The writer is here." But it's crazy and you try to keep your head in the middle of it. Of course, I insisted on working through the whole thing.
Q: If you get on the awards roller coaster again with "Crash," will you do anything differently? Will you be more prepared?
A: I think I will complain more — no! You complain like heck when people want a piece of your time, and just watch next year when nobody wants a piece of your time and you're sulking because of that.
Q: You've worked at major studios and in the independent world. What do you like about indie films?
A: Well, in my mind, I have only worked in the indie world. Both of these scripts ["Million Dollar Baby," "Crash"] were spec scripts, and selling "Million Dollar Baby" to Clint is basically like doing an indie film. You write the script, you give it to him and he shoots it.
Q: So how will you handle it when you finally do a film that's a big studio production?
A: I don't know how I am ever going to fit into the studio system. Coming from television, you kind of get spoiled because the writer-producers are the ones running the show and making the decisions. You don't really have to take the input of studios if you don't want to.
Q: Even with all those name actors, "Crash" was really a small-budget project. How do you pull a film like that together with limited resources?
A: You have to get really inventive when you do things on these budgets. There are several scenes in "Crash" that if I told you how they were shot you would be completely shocked. Like the fact that Matt Dillon's room is the same as Thandie Newton's room — I just shot at different angles because you have to because you can't afford the time. Also you shoot so inefficiently other times because you have to schedule around your casts. You have to go back to locations several times. The cast is everything in these things, since you are not giving them any money. In "Crash" we shot 35 days, but we shot them over five months.
Q: That has to be a challenge
A: And I had the heart attack, so that knocked us down for a couple of weeks.
Q: Wait, you had a heart attack?
A: While shooting, yeah! I was out for two weeks. They did the operation — they put the stents in my heart — I was fine. My doctor didn't want me to go back to work because of too much stress, but I would be much more stressed watching another director finish my film.
Q: Wasn't "Crash" originally supposed to be released before "Million Dollar Baby"?
A: "Crash" was supposed to come out before "Million Dollar Baby" because I started it first. "Million Dollar Baby" was supposed to come out in May, but Clint finished it early and said, "I think I'll bring it out now." We had to take ["Crash"] to the [Toronto Film] festival and sell it. We were supposed to come out last December, but we couldn't get publicity in time. Nobody knew who I was, so you couldn't rush it out and say "Paul Haggis' new film."
Q: Were you surprised at the success of "Crash" at the box office?
A: I was stunned. The movie cost me a hard $6 and a half million. I think it made $55 or $56 million. I thought it would come out and six people would see it and four of those would be my family members and that would be it. We opened the same weekend as "Kingdom of Heaven" and I thought, me, given the choice of seeing a really cool sword-and-sandal piece and seeing something about race relations, I am going to the sword-and-sandal piece. But I guess it hit at the right time with people who were interested in seeing something that was challenging.
Q: What do you think the film's chances are for Oscars?
A: I would love to see the actors get [nominations], and other departments that deserve it, like sound. But as far as I'm concerned, I got to do a movie that I really wanted to make and that's the only gift I need. I'm happy.