A native of London, Ontario, Paul Haggis has gone from building roadways upon which people can travel, to creating new worlds with words.
As a child, Haggis was intrigued by the entertainment medium. He loved movies, television, anything which told a fascinating story. Living in Canada afforded him the best of both worlds, as he could see both U.S. and Canadian productions. He became a fan of directors Alfred Hitchcock and Jean-Luc Godard, and his fascination with the art of storytelling soon grew into the love of writing.
Haggis went to art school and studied photography. Influenced by Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 movie, Blow Up, Haggis moved to England for a year with the idea of becoming a fashion photographer. Instead, he went broke, then returned to Canada and attended film school.
He spent summers working with his father's road construction business, and the winters plying his writing skills in local theatre. At age 19, he wrote his first play, which he based on C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles. His sister Kathy, then an actress, portrayed the witch. Haggis recalls the reviews as being "not kind." His second play went on to be what he felt was one of the worst experiences in theatrical history. OW Canada was a 'comedy' review that was supposed to last 90 minutes, but ran over three hours, with disasters abounding, such as actors falling off the stage. The plan was for it to preview for a week, then run for eight more weeks, but instead it previewed for six weeks, and ran for two weeks. Shortly after the reviews came in, he jokes, "I was asked to leave the country."
When he was 22 years old, he decided to head west to tackle his dream of writing. His father in fact urged him to do so, as Haggis' talents did not lay in the construction field, and even helped subsidize his son during the first few lean years.
As a young man trying to make his mark in Hollywood, Haggis found himself doing what he had to in order to pay the rent for himself and then-wife Diane. This included working as a furniture mover for Moishe Movers and being an in-store photographer for at a L.A. department store. At night, he took courses and wrote scripts.
His first bite came not from L.A. producers, but from his home country of Canada. CBC's Jack Humphrey asked him to write the pilot for the Canadian sitcom Hangin' In. A succession of ten more episodes followed, which helped pay the bills, but did not help his reputation in Hollywood.
It was producer Norman Lear who gave Haggis his first real job after three years of struggling. Haggis ran into a writer for the series Diff'rent Strokes. The man's writing partner had quit on him, leaving the man with a script that had to be written by the next day. Haggis offered to help, even if there was no money with which to pay him. Instead, Haggis took home a large, overstuffed chair that the other writer had picked up from the Salvation Army. That chair, now reupholstered and refurbished, sits in his bedroom, a reminder of the turning point in his career.
The script he'd help write proved quite popular with the producers, and soon he was invited to work on the series. He landed the job of story editor, then moved on to One Day at a Time. He kept writing scripts for that series during the day, and at night would pen dark thrillers with friends.
TV shows come and go, and One Day at a Time was no exception. It was cancelled and Haggis had to find new work. He was offered a job on the series Facts of Life, a show he detested, but bills needed to be paid. After a couple of years, he was promoted to Executive Producer - and promptly fired - perhaps because he suggested that they make the show funny. However, he does not regret the experience. In the time spent on the series, he learned how to edit, to produce, to work with writers; in essence, how to put all the elements together to create a TV series. In total, Haggis spent five years working for Norman Lear on successful and not-so-successful series, including the Dana Delaney series Sweet Surrender.
In 1987, Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz asked if Haggis would be the supervising producer and write for their new ABC series thirtysomething. Haggis wasn't sure if he could do the producer job, and told them that, but they hired him anyway. He then went on to earn several awards for his participation in that series, including two Emmys, a Humanitas Prize, a Golden Globe Award, a Monitor Award, and a Writer's Guild Award nomination.
The success of this series made Haggis a sought-after name in Hollywood and he was given the offer to create and write his own series.
Haggis signed with MTM Productions and created the Valerie Harper CBS series City in 1990. It was a dark series, a political satire, which took place in a corrupt City Hall. The viewing audience was looking for lighter and less controversial fare, and the show was removed from the schedule after 13 weeks.
A difficult part of working in the entertainment industry is compromise, a beast which Paul Haggis knows very well. A writer may pour his heart and soul into a creation of emotion and text, but it can easily be changed into an unfamiliar quality by network executives and producers. At a 1996 VQT conference, Haggis discussed this challenge, "There are times when you're having to make decisions and you know it's going to affect the quality of the work, because of the money or because of the schedule, or because whatever the reason, and it eats at you," he said. "And after you get enough of those, it's tough to keep pulling yourself up and saying 'go back out there and do something to the best of my ability.'" 1
Haggis encountered such a challenge earlier in his career while working, albeit briefly, on the Tracey Ullman Show. He wrote what he says is the one skit that was actually banned by the Fox network - "P.S. Your Wife is in Hell," about a man returning from the funeral of his late wife. The priest must explain that he faked last rites and the man's wife is in Hell. The censors didn't let it go through.
Although he spent a vast amount of time working on sitcoms, he much prefers mixing comedy with pathos, which was evident in Due South, where he could insert a roaming reindeer in the police station, in a plot otherwise thick with robbery, murder and betrayals. And it worked.
When asked - over which project did he maintain the greatest creative control? - the answer was easy: "EZ Streets. No question, hands down."
"I wanted to create anonymosity between countries
In 1993, Canadian producer Robert Lantos and then CBS President Jeff Sagansky put together an idea - "a series about a Mountie or a trapper or somebody who comes from way up north to big city USA." Haggis was understandably skeptical when approached to pen the pilot for this new series; it sounded suspiciously like the highly successful movie Crocodile Dundee.
Haggis decided to run with the idea, seeing a unique opportunity to tweak and twist the stereotypes that Americans have of Canadians. The premise of a Mountie - replete with stereotype of this Mountie being handsome, virtuous and polite - fighting crime in the Windy City of Chicago - was created. Balancing out the Mountie's inherent decency was the loud, streetwise detective who finds himself saddled with a real-life version of Dudley Do-Right... or so he thinks.
The difficult part came with the casting. When presented with a demo tape of Paul Gross from a period piece that the Canadian actor had done, Haggis simply turned to his casting director and uttered "He's chubby - and he can't act!" However, CBS persisted and Gross arrived for an interview. Within minutes, Haggis knew he had found the actor to play Constable Benton Fraser, a Mountie whose good manners and adherence to the law shine like a beacon in the night sky. At the opposite extreme, he knew that David Marciano was Det. Ray Vecchio, the sarcastic and streetwise partner to the Mountie. Marciano couldn't see himself in such a role, but Haggis persisted and Marciano took on the role.
Haggis prolifically wrote many of the first season's stories, including "Gift of the Wheelman," an episode which introduced a certain supernatural bent to the series which remained with the series to the end. Haggis had enjoyed working with Gordon Pinsent on the Pilot movie for the series, but alas, Pinsent's character (Fraser's father) was murdered in the first act. Due South was a series in which Haggis felt they could set up their own reality and violate it, so the late Fraser Sr. returned as a ghost. If Fraser thought living under the shadow of his father's legendary prowess was difficult, he would soon find out it was worse if that ghost was around to offer unwanted advice.
One of the most talked-about and dramatic episodes of the series was written by Paul Haggis in just five short days. Both Haggis and series lead Paul Gross bandied about an idea of why Fraser seemed so gun-shy with the opposite sex, and the script "Victoria's Secret" was written. In Fraser's past lurked Victoria Metcalf, a woman with whom he fell in love, but had to turn in to the law for her participation in a bank robbery. In this two-hour script, the 'black widow' comes back to extract revenge against the Mountie.
Due South went on to be a huge success in Canada, garnering many Gemini awards, but the reception south of the border was lukewarm. Although fans were loyal to the series, the rating numbers were unsatisfactory to CBS, who then cancelled the series after one year.
CTV wasn't willing to let the show slide away that easily, and decided to produce the show on its own. Lacking the money normally provided by the American networks, CTV had to scale back its budget. Although money was a large part of taking Haggis's role as executive producer and changing him to a creative consultant, it was also a more or less mutual decision. It had always been his intention to hand over the reins to Kathy Slevin, his sister (who became an executive producer on second season). When CBS's 1995 fall schedule failed, they ordered more episodes of the series however, they cancelled the series once more in 1996.
With Due South again a casualty of the ratings wars, Haggis found himself creating another series for CBS - EZ Streets, a dark, ambiguous Mob tale which would severely 'push the envelope' of conventional television series.
Haggis spent several months, and hundreds of hours, researching in public libraries, court houses and police departments in Detroit, New York and Chicago, researching police corruption to develop his script.
EZ Streets was an intricately devised tale of police corruption and Irish mob members in a fictional city located near the Canadian border, although it was shot in Los Angeles, Detroit and Chicago. Police detective Cameron Quinn (Ken Olin) had to work his way through layer after layer of corruption to ascertain the truth about his murdered partner, while on the opposite end of the spectrum, criminal Jimmy Murthra (Joe Pantonliano) controlled his neighborhood through violence and death. Danny Rooney (Jason Gedrick) was a young man who took the fall for Murthra and was out of jail, trying to go straight, but teetering precariously on the murky line between good and evil.
EZ was a complex series in which each episode contained several plots, many of which would be resolved within that hour, but some which would continue as a common thread throughout the series. Music played an integral part of the series, and Haggis frequently chose haunting Celtic scores by artists such as Loreena McKennitt.
The show was pitched to CBS, "very badly," admits Haggis. Despite the fact that it was a very dark, mob-oriented show, CBS Entertainment head Les Moonves bought the pilot three days later. The show was received as a critical success, and earned a small and loyal fan following, but the Nielsen numbers were never good enough. Cancellation came after the sporadic airing of just 10 episodes. Fans often wonder what became of Quinn and the other characters, and Haggis has resolved that issue, but it is not for public distribution. He won't tell a soul, humorously quipping that "it's just my perverse nature" not to divulge the end of the series.
An interesting note: With Due South gone, Paul Haggis wanted to work with actor Paul Gross again, but when the Mountie series was resurrected, Gross had to make a decision and opted for another season of portraying Benton Fraser. Haggis did not forget his Due South connection, for the name 'B. Fraser' was seen in one episode of EZ Streets.
When Alliance and foreign allies decided to revive Due South for a third time, Paul Haggis offered his service as consultant again, but was turned down. However, CBS was still interested in Haggis' considerable talents. CBS Entertainment President Les Moonves asked Haggis to come aboard to help produce and write the new David Caruso series, Michael Hayes, an opportunity Haggis did not pass up as he wanted to work with both John Ramano and David Caruso. He helped produce and write the first 13 episodes of that series.
Following the demise of that series, he went with a 'blind deal' with New Regency Productions to write and direct a feature film. Another screenplay project is about "best friends, fathers and sons, set against the backdrop of union corruption in Detroit." He also co-wrote the Richard Gere film, Autumn in New York, a romantic comedy of sorts.
He worked on the CBS series Family Law, about a lawyer (Kathleen Quinlan) who had to rebuild her law practice after her ex-husband, and former partner, stole half the clients. The series ran from 1999-2002. During that time period he received the 2001 Valetine Davies Award from the Writers Guild of America. This award is given to "writers who have contributed to the entertainment industry as well as the community at large, and who have brought dignity and honor to the profession of writing everywhere." He then worked on the NBC series Mr. Sterling, a political drama which starred Josh Brolin.
Lately, Paul has concentrated on writing screenplays. Some of his projects include "Million Dollar Baby" (for which he received an Academy Award nomination), "Crash" (which won 2 Academy Awards), "Flags of Our Fathers," a story about the brave men who raised the American flag at the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima, and "In the Valley of Elah," which is about a soldier who is reported as AWOL but whose father believes was murdered.
"Crash," starring an all-star cast including Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Tony Danza, and Matt Dillon, is about "the discovery of a man's brutally murdered body on the side of the road and tracks the previous 24 hours in the lives of the eight people connected with the killing." Paul won an Academy Award Oscar for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay in 2006 for the film. In 2003, Paul shared a sample of the screenplay with us and gave us permission to share it with the fans. Please note that this screenplay is copyrighted by Bull's Eye Productions and may not be reproduced anywhere else. Also, the sample contains some adult language. The Crash Sample Screenplay is in PDF format which requires Adobe Reader to view.
More Information on Paul
Paul has a new television series in development now called "The Black Donnellys." The series is set to run during the 2006-2007 television season on NBC in the United States and is about four young Irish brothers who are caught up in the world of organized crime.
Although Canadian by birth and citizenship, Haggis lives in Santa Monica, California. He is happily married to second wife Deborah Rennard (who played Sly on Dallas, and was co-producer of EZ Streets, among other things) and has three daughters - Alissa, Lauren, and Katy - from his first marriage. They welcomed son James Haggis into the world in mid-1998.
To keep abreast of the latest projects that Paul Haggis is working on, you can check the Internet Movie Database via the link to the right and/or join the all-news mailing list, The Due South Informer.
The following is a brief bibliography of sources quoted.
1 - VQT Conference on Quality Television, September 28, 1996
Born: March 10, 1953
Hair: Light brown
DUE SOUTH ROLE
Internet Movie Database
HOW TO CONTACT
Paul Haggis Productions
9200 Sunset Blvd., Ste. 820
Los Angeles, CA 90069