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Things I’ve Learned: Paul Haggis

Things I’ve Learned: Paul Haggis


Today, on Wisdom Wednesday, Academy Award-winning writer/director Paul Haggis stopped by to share a whopping 55 critical moviemaking lessons he’s learned (our most ever!).

Inspired by the works of Hitchcock and Godard, London, Ontario native Paul Haggis immersed himself early on in art, fashion photography, and eventually film studies at Fanshawe College. After graduating, he relocated to Los Angeles, where he began a successful career as a television writer of such hit shows as The Love Boat, Diff’rent Strokes, and The Facts of Life. And even created series like Walker, Texas Ranger, Family Law, and Due South.

As a moviemaker, it was his adaptation of F.X. Toole’s Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner that solidified his status as a big Hollywood contender. The result was Million Dollar Baby, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Hilary Swank. The film took home the Oscar for Best Picture (2004) and earned him a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Then, as an encore, his gripping tale of racial and social tension in Crash (2005) would send him back to the red carpet for more. Not only did he receive the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, but he became the first individual to write back-to-back Oscar Best Picture winners.


Since then, Haggis has continued his award winning ways, writing such works as Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, and Casino Royale. And directing In the Valley of Elah, The Next Three Days, and his most recent, Third Person, a romantic drama that continues many of the themes from Crash in an interwoven tale of love across continents. Here are his most valuable lessons.

  1. If you aren’t writing, you aren’t a writer. Write.
  2. If the idea doesn’t terrify you, if you aren’t fairly certain you will fail, it probably isn’t good enough.
  3. Same goes for directing. If the script doesn’t scare you, if you know how to do it because you’ve done it before, find another script.
  4. Know the beginning and end of your story before you start writing. If you don’t, you will waste a long time writing great scenes that don’t add up to anything, and you will likely quit halfway through.
  5. The ending you came up with in the beginning probably isn’t good enough, but at least you thought it was, and that got you to write. Find a better one.
  6. Be really cruel to your characters. When you imagine something terrible they have to face, make it worse. When you are satisfied that is the worst thing that could happen to your protagonist, make it worse.
  7. You can’t write characters that you judge. See the world and their actions only through their eyes. Then, do the same for the character who is in conflict with them, and every other character in the scene – even a minor character who walks into the scene just to give exposition.
  8. Actors can’t play characters if they are judging them. As a director, you need your actors to understand how their characters are completely right, even when doing heinous or unforgivable things. Have them explore situations where others have thought them wrong – and coax them into seeing those contrary points of view.
  9. Don’t let your actors cast their characters in a negative light. I once had an actor who thought his character was stupid and planned to play him as such. I suggested that, in fact, the character was really smart, but was blinded by pride. So, the result was stupidity. He gave an Oscar-worthy performance.

    Liam Neeson and Olivia Wilde share a moment in Third Person

    Liam Neeson and Olivia Wilde share a moment in Third Person

  10. Make your characters rich – the best person can do the worse thing. The worst person can do the best. That’s what makes us human.  There is no such thing as a villain or a hero; just people doing villainous or heroic things. Heroes are often scared, frail, prideful or untrustworthy, and have to fight against their instincts to flee. Villains can have well-reasoned or lofty rationales for their despicable actions. It’s only deep down that people think that they may be wrong.
  11. Characters don’t need to know what motivates them.  You do. It’s rare that anyone in life can explain why he or she does something and be right about it.
  12. Have your actors talk faster than they think they should.  This doesn’t mean they should rush. Have them watch His Girl Friday: not one beat is dropped or hurried, not one moment is missed, and yet, they talk at breakneck speeds.
  13. Actors used to doing TV will often rush a moment, as they know that if they take too much time, their performance will be cut down in editing. Have them slow down and take their time. And then talk fast.
  14. Sometimes characters should talk really slowly, wait too long to reply, or take way too much time to do something. It will annoy the others in the scene who are talking quickly and that friction will create tension in the scene.
  15. You don’t need to know the theme of your movie before you start writing, but you better figure it out before you finish – even if someone else has to tell you. Once you know, rewrite.
  16. When directing, let the actors think they have all the time in the world, even when you are under intense pressure to get through the scene. You will get the scene done faster and better if they feel safe to explore.
  17. Know when your writing sucks. Never be afraid to throw it all out and start over.
  18. Find only one or two people to read your script or watch your rough cut. Listen to them, but don’t necessarily do what they suggest. Their job isn’t to know how to fix it; their job will be to tell you if something isn’t working. They will almost always try to tell you how to fix it.
  19. Know when you’ve written or made something terrific. Don’t change it. But you had better be right – so know the difference between ego and talent. Nine times out of 10, it is ego. Or laziness. Know that you can always write a better scene. Know that the scene you love above all others perhaps shouldn’t be in the movie.
  20. Know that everything I say contradicts something else that I say. Life is complex; deal with it.
  21. As a director, you should be confident enough to listen to and seriously consider anyone’s ideas – whether it comes from the studio or the prop person. You also need to be confident enough to reject all the very best advice. Know the difference between confidence and arrogance.
  22. Don’t be paralyzed by the idea that you have to write the perfect story. Start. It will get better with each draft.
  23. Never say that you will write when you have time, when you get a cottage, when your day job gets easier or when you have a little more money. Carve out a little time every day and write – no matter how busy you are or how wrong your current situation is. An hour a day and you will have a story or script a lot faster than if you wait – and once you start, you will make the time. If you don’t, you aren’t a writer. So, spend that time doing something else you would rather do.
  24. When you stop writing for the day, don’t finish the scene. Make quick notes about what you plan to do with it, maybe snatches of dialogue, and then force yourself to turn off your computer. It will give you something to start with in the morning – and once you start, it is easier to keep going. See: Laws of Physics. The hardest thing to do is to start the day with a blank page.
  25. Directing is easy; writing is hard. Neither is as hard as real work. So, never complain. No one will give you any sympathy anyway.

    Mila Kunis in Third Person

    Mila Kunis in Third Person

  26. When writing, sometimes characters will want to do things that go against even their own best interests.    Don’t just dismiss them, listen to them. Ask yourself why.
  27. Sometimes you will need characters to do things that apparently make no sense – the plot just necessitates it.  Never just try and cover this over and think the audience won’t notice. Every action a character takes needs to be motivated. Ask yourself why a person would possibly to do such a thing – and answers may come that surprise you. You will go back and lay those answers into your story or their back story. People often do things that to others appear to make no sense. These people have secrets they aren’t revealing to you or perhaps even to themselves. Secrets are wonderful things.
  28. Embrace mistakes. Never cut when something happens in a scene that shouldn’t happen – someone knocks something over or trips or whatever. If you are working with good actors, they will use that mistake and perhaps make the scene richer and more the stuff of life.
  29. Many directors think they can write. Or they say they can’t write, but insist on rewriting you anyway. Try to avoid working with them.
  30. Many writers think they can direct. You will soon find out if you get the chance; hope that you are right.
  31. Some directors truly appreciate writers. We refer to them as geniuses. Same with writers who appreciate the craft of directing and understand that directors need to shape scenes with the actors.
  32. Most bloggers are not critics – most are guys who can afford a laptop. Take them as seriously as that, even if they love you. Especially if they love you.
  33. Some bloggers are frigging geniuses and can see things you should have before you made the movie. Learn from your mistakes.
  34. A lot of critics are not qualified to be critics, no matter which paper hired them. Susan Sontag is missed. Many critics are just guardians of normalcy. If Bergman, Bunuel, Fellini, Antonioni or any of the filmmakers who changed the face of cinema were working today, these same critics would be mocking them.
  35. Some critics are frigging geniuses. You aren’t Bergman, Bunuel, Fellini or Antonioni. Neither am I.
  36. Box-office success is not an indication of quality. Some great films make a lot of money. Some disappear. According to the box office, Vertigo was Hitchcock’s worst movie. It was also panned by most critics. Movies are around for a long time and are sometimes only valued after years.
  37. Directors shouldn’t have styles. If they do, they shouldn’t know what they are. A movie should have a style and the director’s job is to figure out what that is and then try and do it well.
  38. Above all else, find a good story and struggle to tell it well – all we do is tell stories.
  39. As a director, your most important job is to try and figure out how to talk to actors so that you can give them what they need. Many actors need different things. Many just need to know that you love them.
  40. Do not over-praise an actor. Most times, they know when they have done good work and when they could have done better. Tell them that an OK take was great and you will lose their trust. Trust is all you have.


    Adrien Brody in Third Person.

  41. If an actor tells you they don’t need a line, they probably don’t. Let them act it rather than say it.
  42. If an actor tells you they don’t need a line, they just might be afraid of saying it.
  43. Never fear a movie star; they want your direction and your approval. Give them the respect that they have earned, but if you don’t have the scene, keep going – despite what the actor thinks and no matter how many times the producer looks at his or her watch. That said, know when you got it on the first take, even if you didn’t notice it at the time.
  44. Never be cruel or capricious. You do no one a favor by being the nicest person on the set or wrapping early if you haven’t got the scene. The actors and the crew will love you, or at least forgive you, if you make a good movie – that is why they are there, i.e. to be part of something of which they can be proud. Your job is to not let them down.
  45. When you have blocked out the scene and know exactly how you are going to shoot it, take a quiet moment to look at it from the other side of the room. Sometimes a performance needs to be on the actor’s face – sometimes it is stronger on their backs.
  46. Know what your next shot is before the current take is done. Make decisions quickly; go with your gut. While you are standing around thinking, nothing is being shot.
  47. Don’t rush off from the set the moment you finish your day. Think about your first scene tomorrow and walk it through with your AD, DP and whoever else is interested.
  48. Treat everyone on the set as what they are: artists. Give them that respect and they will do their best work for you. If you talk to the stand-by set painter as if he is just some guy with a brush, you won’t be happy with the results.
  49. Don’t expect anyone on the set to know why you are doing another take. You can explain it if you like, but don’t expect them to see what you see.
  50. Count to five before you call cut. Something might happen – and your editor could make good use of it later. (Don’t count out-loud.)
  51. When your editor tells you that it can’t be done, have patience and ask them to try it anyway. Show him or her what you mean. Maybe it can’t be done – or maybe it can if you just ignore some silly rule.
  52. Be grateful, in failure or success.
  53. Be brave. If we aren’t brave, we aren’t artists. And whether we are artists or not, that’s what we should strive to be.
  54. You are never the smartest person in the room; just the luckiest.
  55. Ignore everything I’ve written, especially if it sounds like a rule. Make your own rules and live them. MM

Third Person opens in theaters nationwide on June 20, 2014.

Photo credits: Sony Pictures Classics.

Don’t forget to visit us next week for more movie knowledge! Previous Wisdom Wednesdays have shared the expertise of Atom Egoyan, Thelma SchoonmakerCrispin GloverAlexander PaynePaul W.S. AndersonMcG, Ethan HawkeGavin HoodJohn SaylesMike NewellBarry SonnenfeldWilliam FrakerRobert RodriguezJoe EszterhasSeth MacFarlaneMarc Forster,  Billy Bob ThorntonErrol MorrisBrian De PalmaJulie TaymorKevin SmithChris WeitzDanny BoyleSteve BuscemiJim JarmuschZack Snyder, Gus Van SantNeil JordanJohn WatersEli RothNeal McDonoughRandall Emmett and Wim Wenders.

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