Screenwriter and television writer
Born Paul Edward Haggis, March 10, 1953, in London, ON; son of Edward H. (a road-construction company executive) and Mary Yvonne (Metcalf) Haggis; married Diane Christine Gattas, April 9, 1977 (divorced, 1994); married Deborah Rennard (an actress and singer), June 21, 1997; children: three daughters (from first marriage), one son (from second marriage). Education: Studied cinematography at Fanshawe College.
Addresses: Agent —Becsey/Wisdom/Kalajian, 9200 Sunset Blvd., Ste. 820, Los Angeles, CA 90069.
Television writer for shows, including: Diff'rent Strokes , NBC; One Day at a Time , CBS; The Facts of Life NBC, 1984-86; thirtysomething , ABC, 1987-91; City , 1990; L.A. Law , NBC, 1994; Walker, Texas Ranger (also creator), CBS, 1993-2001; Due South , 1994; EZ Streets , CBS, 1996-97; Michael Hayes (also creator), CBS, 1997; Family Law , CBS, 1999-2001. Author of screenplays, including: Million Dollar Baby , 2004; Crash (also director and producer), 2005; Flags of Our Fathers , 2006; Honeymoon with Harry , 2006; Casino Royale , 2006.
Awards: Emmy Award for outstanding drama series, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, for thirtysomething , 1988; Emmy Award for outstanding writing in a dramatic series, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, for thirtysomething , 1988; program of the year, Television Critics Association, for EZ Streets , 1997; Academy Award for best motion
Paul Haggis, a relatively unknown Hollywood writer who had spent much of his career in television, made Academy Award history in 2006 when he became the first person to write two consecutive Academy Award-winners for Best Picture. His first screenplay was the 2004 Clint Eastwood-Hilary Swank drama Million Dollar Baby , which won an Oscar, and his next project, Crash , took the best picture honor as well as best screenplay at the 2006 Academy Awards. The inspiration for Crash and its interwoven tales of racial intolerance in Los Angeles came from Haggis' own brush with crime in the early 1990s, when he and his first wife were carjacked. "I wanted to look at my fears, my intolerances, not those bad people over there—yet I needed to be far enough away to see what most affluent people in L.A. will tell you doesn't really exist, " he told Richard Corliss in an interview that appeared in the Canadian edition of Time.
Haggis has admitted that he was a heavy television watcher as a kid. Born in 1953 in London, Ontario, he spent his high-school summers working for his father's road-construction company, and wrote plays in his spare time. His father also owned a local theater, and the venue staged Haggis' earliest works. These included some notable bombs, such as an adaptation of The Chronicles of Narnia and a comedy-review called Oh! Canada. Eager to explore a more glamorous world, he headed to England for a time, and spent an impoverished year in London before returning to its namesake, his hometown, back in Ontario.
After studying cinematography at Fanshawe College, Haggis was again ready to leave Ontario. Though he was now married with a young family, he decided to move the household to Los Angeles in 1979, with the encouragement and financial support of his father. It took some years for him to break into the entertainment business, and he made ends meet by taking jobs that included furniture mover and department-store photographer. After taking some classes in the craft, he managed to land a screenwriting job back home, for a Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) sitcom pilot. Though the job failed to bring in any new work, he had made some friends in the industry by then, and one was a writer for a top-rated NBC sitcom called Diff'rent Strokes. When the friend experienced trouble finishing a script at the last minute, Haggis helped him finish it, and accepted a trade of a secondhand chair for his own living room. The same piece of furniture, reupholstered, still sat in Haggis' home years later, as a reminder of his early struggles.
Diff'rent Strokes was produced by Emmy Award-winning Norman Lear, who learned of Haggis' work and hired him as one of the show's team of writers. Lear also gave him a second job on another sitcom, One Day at a Time. That led to another assignment, this one on the boarding-school-set NBC sitcom The Facts of Life. When he made a suggestion that what the show needed was to actually be funny, instead of earnest, he was promptly fired.
Haggis fared better when he was hired for a new ABC drama about two middle-class American couples, thirtysomething. The show debuted in the 1987 fall line-up, and focused on the marital and career woes of the quartet and their relatives and friends. Equally loathed and loved by critics and the general public alike, the series nevertheless gained a cult following and won Haggis his first Emmy Awards during the first season, the first shared with executive producers Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz for outstanding drama series, and the second with Herskovitz for outstanding writing in a drama series.
Haggis's career in television seemed to be well underway, but the next decade was marked by a long list of cancelled shows for him. These included City , a CBS series starring Valerie Harper that never made it past the first season; Due South , a joint venture with a Canadian network that centered around a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer working the streets of Chicago; and EZ Streets , a gritty police drama that People called "an instant classic" in a review whose writer named Haggis the "new TV genius on the block."
EZ Streets starred Ken Olin, who played the likable advertising executive on thirtysomething , as a disgraced cop working undercover in his old neighborhood to root out underworld crime. The New York Times later described it as the forerunner to the hit HBO drama The Sopranos , and it even won Haggis an award from the Television Critics Association for program of the year in 1997. Reviewing it for the San Francisco Chronicle , John Carman asserted that Haggis' series "evokes a dream state with its languid depiction of a bleak urban landscape.… As a crime series with special resonance, EZ Streets is right up there with NYPD Blue and Homicide: Life on the Streets. With luck, it could become the richest of that select bunch, and finally propel Paul Haggis to the front lines of TV's thin creative legion."
The show was cancelled after just one season, however, as was another crime drama Haggis created, Michael Hayes , by CBS. As the millennium approached, and his fiftieth birthday neared, Haggis experienced a career crisis of sorts. "I got very tired of doing television, " he told Time 's Coeli Carr. "It was sort of eating a hole in my soul." After reading a collection of stories about boxing called Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner , he decided to option the book, which necessitated taking out a second mortgage on the Santa Monica home he shared with his second wife, Deborah Rennard.
Haggis was particularly interested in author F.X. Toole's tale of a female boxer and her steely hearted manager, and this story evolved into Haggis' first feature film, Million Dollar Baby , which won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2004. The movie was made thanks to the support of Hollywood heavyweight Clint Eastwood, who liked Haggis' screenplay so much that he signed on to produce, direct, and star in it. Eastwood also won the Academy Award for Best Director, and his co-star Hilary Swank won in the Best Actress category. Haggis was nominated as well, for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Haggis' next project came from a script he had written a few years earlier with his friend, Bobby Moresco, which was partly inspired by the 1992 Los Angeles riots. A year before that, Haggis and his first wife had been carjacked. "We pulled over to get a movie at Blockbuster, " he recounted for Denver Post journalist Steven Rosen, "and when we came out two guys with guns said, 'We'll take your car.' I said, 'Absolutely, you will.' We never found the car, and the people were never identified." Happy to have escaped unharmed, Haggis changed the locks on his house later that night, and tried to put the incident behind him. But as he told Carr in the Time interview, it bothered him for years. "I really wondered who they were, " he said. "I felt driven to write about them from their point of view." One night, after waking up at 2 a.m., he hammered out an outline of the screenplay that would become Crash in just eight hours.
The Crash screenplay made the rounds in Hollywood and, once again, lured some influential names. Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Larenz Tate, Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser, Thandie Newton, and Ryan Phillippe all agreed to work for scale, or the minimum fee their Screen Actors Guild union membership guaranteed, in order to help Haggis complete the project on a budget of just $6.5 million. Cheadle and Haggis were part of the team of producers, which numbered 14 in all, and the picture also marked Haggis' directorial debut for the big screen. The story begins with the murder of a young African-American man, and follows a series of interwoven subplots from there that touch upon the racial tensions harbored by the contemporary Los Angeles characters.
Haggis made Crash over several months between 2003 and 2004, and suffered a mild heart attack midway through, which forced him to halt shooting for two weeks. When his doctor seemed reluctant to let him return to work, warning him that further stress could worsen his health issues, Haggis replied, "'I totally understand, '" he recalled in the interview with Carr for Time. "'So how much stress do you think it'll be for me to be sitting at home while, say, another director finishes my film?'" Haggis returned to the set, but a nurse also tagged along every day to keep an eye on his vital signs.
Crash premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2004, and was picked up by Lion's Gate, an independent distributor. Released in May of 2005, just a few months after Million Dollar Baby swept the Oscars, Haggis' directorial debut was a controversial movie, with critics either panning it altogether as liberal-guilt-driven dreck or heralding it as one of the best pictures of year. "The stunning, must-see drama Crash is proof that words have not lost the ability to shock in our anesthetized society, " declared Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum. "White folks, black folks, Hispanics, and Asians—nobody gets by in this amazingly tough, at times unexpectedly funny, and always humane movie without getting dented."
David Denby, film critic for the New Yorker , also delivered praise in superlative terms. "Apart from a few brave scenes in Spike Lee's work, Crash is the first movie I know of to acknowledge not only that the intolerant are also human but, further, that something like white fear of black street crime, or black fear of white cops, isn't always irrational, " Denby asserted. As for the wrap-up of the multiple storylines, which seemed a bit forced to others, Denby noted this may "strike some viewers as over-wrought. But hasn't Haggis earned the tears? He has laid the groundwork for emotional release by writing some of the toughest talk ever heard in American movies. Some things may be better left unsaid, but the exuberant frankness of this movie burns through embarrassment and chagrin and produces its own kind of exhilaration."
Crash gave Haggis the chance to step up to the podium and collect his first Academy Award himself. In fact, he won two that night in 2006: one with producer Cathy Schulman for Best Motion Picture of the Year, and another with Moresco for Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. By then, Haggis was already immersed in his next projects, a screenplay for a World War II tale to be directed by Eastwood, Flags of Our Fathers , and another the adaptation of Casino Royale , one of the first tales in Ian Fleming's James Bond series. Both were slated for 2006 release.
After reaching the pinnacle of success in Hollywood, Haggis did admit that he wrote Crash to atone in part for his earlier work, particularly Walker, Texas Ranger , a Chuck Norris action series he created that ran from 1993 to 2001 on CBS and then lived on via syndicated reruns. It proved to be his longest-running television series, after scores of failed pilots and cancelled shows. "I had to do something to erase that, " he told Joshua Rich in Entertainment Weekly. "I wanted to find something that scared me. I had written too many things that didn't ask questions about who I am."
Denver Post , May 22, 2005, p. F1.
Entertainment Weekly , May 13, 2005, p. 65; May 20, 2005, p. 38.
Newsweek , February 6, 2006, p. 58.
New Yorker , May 2, 2005, p. 110.
People , October 28, 1996, p. 20.
San Francisco Chronicle , October 25, 1996, p. C1.
Time , April 3, 2006, p. A14.
Time Canada , March 6, 2006, p. 50.
— Carol Brennan