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Million Dollar Writer

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

SANTA MONICA, CALIF.

From the outside, Paul Haggis's house looks comfortable but ordinary -- a two-storeyed, wood-shingled affair, with a picket fence on a corner lot in Santa Monica. By the garish standards of Beverly Hills or Bel-Air, it's nothing special. Only inside are the home's full dimensions, its tasteful but pricey appointments, slowly revealed.

"I like things that are deceptive," says Haggis, climbing the front staircase to his wood-panelled office. He shares the home with his wife, actress Deborah Rennard, three daughters from a first marriage and his son James, 6, from the second.

Of course, Haggis, 52, is also a little deceptive. Quiet and self-deprecating, with thinning hair, he looks more like the Sears photographer he once was than Hollywood's hottest writing and directing property.

But hot he is, largely on the strength of Million Dollar Baby, the much-celebrated, Oscar-nominated Clint Eastwood film about a scrappy female boxer and her crusty manager.

The script was adapted from F.X. Toole's collection of short stories, Rope Burns.

Haggis isn't expecting to win Sunday night -- he's up against Alexander Payne's Sideways, among others -- but the mere nomination (for best screenplay based on another work) has given the London, Ont.-born Haggis the sort of cachet he once only dreamed about.

He now has half a dozen high-profile projects on the go. There's Flags of Our Fathers, another project with Eastwood and filmdom deity Steven Spielberg in development, about the six soldiers who raised the flag at Iwo Jima in the Second World War. It'll be shot this summer, with unknown actors. There's another about the aftermath of the Iraq war that will star Eastwood; Haggis will direct. And there's a third "mystery" project he can't talk about that emanates from Spielberg, which Haggis is co-writing and will direct.

"It took me a while to get used to not saying 'Mr. Eastwood' and 'Mr. Spielberg,' " he said with a laugh last month over lunch at Montana's, a few blocks from his home. "Just to get to the point of saying: 'Thank you, Steven.' I still can't say it without grinning. And I taped our meeting. Steven talked about the first time he met Fellini. Clint talked about meeting Orson Welles. The icons have icons."

And then there's Crash, his searing 36 hours in the life of multicultural L.A, starring Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock Matt Dillon and Thandie Newton. An independent film shot for less than $8-million (U.S.), it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year to critical acclaim and was originally scheduled for release next month.

But on the waves of positive buzz, Crash is now expected to be held back until the fall, and the next Oscar-nomination season. Haggis directed, produced and wrote it (with Bobby Moresco).

It's taken a while for all of this newfound status to sink in, he allows. "Somebody referred to me in print recently as the Oscar-nominated screenwriter and I went: 'Who are they talking about?'. . . Oh, shit. That's me!' "

It was one morning four years ago, while driving to his office at Sony Studios, that Haggis heard F.X. Toole being interviewed on National Public Radio. "And I just loved his voice, the way he spoke about boxing. I felt the sweat and I smelled the stink. He really had the soul of a poet. So I immediately got the book, read it the next day and then optioned the rights," for $25,000 a year.

Determined to leave a successful career in television behind (he'd already won a few Emmys for his work on thirtysomething) and break into feature films, Haggis spent most of 2001 on his first draft, trying to cram four or five of Toole's disconnected stories into one screenplay. "It was a mess," he said, laughing. "I was trying to be really clever and hip." Finally, he summoned Moresco, who helped him refocus it on three main characters. He wrote the final script with the three principals -- Eastwood, Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman -- in mind.

A continuing mystery in the film is the cause of Frankie Dunn's (Dunn is the Eastwood character) guilt about his absent daughter. "I wanted to construct a character who simply could not forgive himself," Haggis says, "and since we all have those things we're ashamed of in our lives, and no one knows what they are, I thought I shouldn't tell the audience. Because I love films that let me participate in some way, and you come out talking about it, like Mulholland Falls. So, the only person I told what my conjecture was about Frankie and the daughter was Clint."

Originally, Haggis had planned to direct the film as well, but by the time Eastwood read the script, production was about to begin on Crash. "Clint had said he was retired from acting, but then he said no, he wanted to both act and direct and he could do it sooner. I struggled with the decision for a couple of weeks. But as I told my wife, when am I going to get a chance to work with Clint Eastwood again? He'll do a better job of the movie than I will."

Haggis developed his love for the dramatic arts early. His father, who owned a small construction company, had built a small professional theatre in London, Ont. Haggis spent summers working for his father, and winters managing the theatre. He even wrote and staged a few plays there. "Very, very bad plays," he says now. "Really atrociously written."

One day, when Haggis was in his early 20s, his father said to him: "Construction -- you're no damn good at it, are you?" Haggis agreed that he wasn't. "You really want to be a writer, and be in the movie business," his father said. "So go to Hollywood and give it a try. I'll support you as long as I can."

So knowing nobody, Haggis moved with his first wife, Diane, to Los Angeles, rented an apartment with three other couples in Glendale, took odd jobs -- shooting photographs for Sears, church and school groups, and moving furniture -- and started writing. None of his early scripts were ever sold. In fact, it took him three years to get an agent. Ironically, his first TV writing job was for a CBC sitcom, Hangin' In. That led to work on Three's Company, The Love Boat, The Facts of Life, Different Strokes and other shows. "I think they gave me the work just to get rid of me."

Eventually, promoted to executive producer of The Facts of Life, he told his boss that he "wanted to do something different with the show . . . I'd like to make it funny. I was only half-joking." His innovations didn't work and so Haggis was fired, and finally segued into TV drama, working as supervising producer on thirtysomething.

It was the show's executive producers, Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, he says, who really taught him to write. "I had made a good career out of being a bad writer, but they taught me to write stuff that came from my own experience, that came from inside, from who I was, and actually meant something to me."

In the years between then and now, his talents have been variously attached to L.A. Law, Cit (with Valerie Harper), a short-lived show about corruption in urban politics; Due South, the surprise Canadian hit (with Paul Gross); and EZ Streets, an acclaimed but also short-lived police drama. Haggis calls it the favourite thing he's done.

In EZ Streets, his technique was to take familiar stereotypes and subvert them. "In America, we love a white hat on one person and a black hat on another," he says. "So I show you the white hat and the black hat, and when you're real comfortable with that, I keep switching it back and switching it back."

He does this in Crash, too, a complex tale that grew out of a single event: Some years ago, Haggis and his first wife were mugged on the streets of Los Angeles. Seamlessly interweaving six or seven separate plot lines, the film explores themes of racial intolerance. Most of its characters trace a narrative arc that ends 180 degrees from where they began. The issue of race is omnipresent in L.A., but Haggis says the roots of the script go deeper. "I can remember telling my mother I wished there were more Roman Catholics like us in London, because all the Christians wanted to do was beat me up."

Nobody is beating him up today. After Spielberg watched Crash, he called Haggis to talk about their projects together. As he often does, Haggis said he wasn't sure he could bring the scripts off. "I'm in safe hands," he said Spielberg told him. "You can do what you like."

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