Ask screenwriter Paul Haggis how he likes being Hollywood's current "it" boy, and a red carpet cliché first springs to the mind of the only screenwriter ever to pen consecutive Oscar winners for Best Picture ("Million Dollar Baby" in 2005 and "Crash" in 2006). The fashion police couldn't fault his middle-aged legs in a pair of short shorts, he offers. But then he quickly undercuts the suggestion: "However, you really wouldn't want to see me on a pedestal."
For the moment, though, that's just where this Canadian-born scribe appears to be, with three of his screenplays being released as films this fall. "The Last Kiss," a current release starring Zach Braff, is Haggis's rewrite of a frothy Italian comedy. Haggis also did the final rewrite on "Casino Royale," the coming 21st installment of the 007 franchise. Clint Eastwood's World War II epic, "Flags of Our Fathers" (see review), was written by Haggis (though another writer is also credited for work on an earlier draft).
Though he now breathes rarified air as one of a handful of celebrity screenwriters, the reality is that Haggis's ascent is the culmination of years of toil. All three of his current releases were, in fact, penned long before he found himself hoisting Oscar statues for "Crash." This dichotomy between perception and reality mirrors one of the underlying themes and preoccupations of Haggis's work.
"I like to subvert the expectations an audience has of the characters," he says.
He points to an example of such a character in "Flags of Our Fathers," a story about the real lives of the soldiers immortalized in the indelible photo of the Stars and Stripes being hoisted on Iwo Jima. In the movie, a loathsome government official pushes the battle-scarred soldiers to trade on their brief celebrity to help raise money for the war.
"You want to hate this guy," observes Haggis. "But then you give him the most compelling speech in the movie – the reason why they have to do all this – and it changes everything."
Haggis embraces epic images or ideas that have helped form the national psyche: race relations in "Crash," Hollywood-type heroes in time of war in "Flags," a classic rags-to-riches Rocky Balboa-like story in "Million Dollar Baby." Then he inserts his own twist on them. "Million Dollar Baby," also directed by Eastwood, upended the formula of a boxing movie by exploring the ethics of euthanasia. "Flags of Our Fathers" burrows into the stories of three young men who are reluctant to be heralded as heroes by their fellow Americans.
"He takes these uniquely American situations or characters and deconstructs them by making us see them in a new way," says Emanuel Levy, a critic and film professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. "When people say American movies are about nothing," adds Mr. Levy, "they cannot include Haggis's."
This attraction to the razor-thin line between cliché and insight cuts both ways. His detractors suggest that he hasn't quite outgrown the stereotypes that some TV writers are known to use. In his review of "Crash," Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr complained that "the characters come straight from the assembly line of screenwriting stereotypes."
Haggis may yet surprise his critics by transforming James Bond, one of cinema's most stereotypical figures, into a fully fleshed-out, believable character.
"Casino Royale" stars Daniel Craig, a relatively unknown actor who made his name doing bleak roles in dark, indie films, in the role of the British secret agent. Haggis says he had his way with the Bond persona, retooling it to fit the leaner, meaner trained killer that Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, intended. "I treated him like any other character," says Haggis, asking basic questions such as: "What's with Bond and his women? Why does he treat them this way?"
In order to illuminate the emotional toll of killing for a living, Haggis says he wanted to make death more intimate. "What's with a laser gun that kills 28 people at a time?" says Haggis. "So I put a knife in his hand, let him kill people that way and see what it does to him. [He's] really a different, very hard-edged assassin."
"Flags of Our Fathers," too, is unflinching in its depiction of violence. But ask Haggis about the messages that the film conveys about war, be it a current or historical conflict, and he sidesteps the question, adding that he hopes his films don't try to give answers. A good film, he says, just helps you ask the right questions.