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From Ontario to Oscar

An interview with writer and director Paul Haggis.

Paul Haggis

Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Paul Haggis poses during a portrait session at the Soho Hotel in London.

The Next Three Days stars Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks as a husband and wife whose simple, happy life is turned upside down when she is arrested for a murder she says she didn't commit. Desperate to get his wife back, Russell Crowe's character determines to break her out of prison. This requires him to completely transform himself from nice-guy junior college literature professor to a tough-as-nails criminal mastermind.

The Next Three Days was written and directed by Paul Haggis, 57, a man who knows a thing or two about personal transformation and what it takes to reinvent a career. Haggis was born in London, Ontario, Canada, where he worked in construction while dreaming of a career in entertainment, eventually going on to win an Academy Award for the script of Million Dollar Baby. AARP spoke with him about the risks and rewards of reinvention.

Q: You are such an original thinker, yet The Next Three Days is actually a remake of a French film. Why not just work on one of your own stories?

A: I've always wanted to do a thriller. I grew up loving films like North by Northwest, Three Days of the Condor — films that are full of suspense but also have wonderfully complicated relationships. So when my producing partners brought me this lovely little French film, Pour Elle, I was immediately taken with how I could make it my own, make it even darker, dig deeper.

The central question is: Would you save the woman that you loved even if it meant to do so would require you to change yourself into a man that she may not be able to love? This poor guy has to completely transform himself. He's totally ill-equipped for the job. Then, assuming he can get his wife out of prison, what if she doesn't want to go?

Q: You're a filmmaker, not a jail breaker.

A: That was a delightful aspect of taking this film on and one that I wanted to literally carry through to the screen. How do you break out of jail? Of course, I had no idea. I wanted the Russell Crowe character to come at the challenge with the same bewilderment I felt. I literally just started poking around the Internet.

Q: Your editor, Jo Francis, is also your sister. Do you enjoy working with her?

A: This is her second film with me. The first was In the Valley of Elah. I love working with my sister because we have a certain shorthand and she's dead honest with me. You always want an editor who, when you're depressed, will pick you up. I said to her, "It's not very good" and she said "No it's not. But don't worry, we'll get there."

Q: This is your ninth feature film but you actually started out writing for television.

A: The very first script I sold was for an episode of Love Boat. I then wrote for Norman Lear on One Day at a Time. That led to the series, Facts of Life. But I actually got fired during the first episode. Well, the first time I got fired.

Q: The first time you got fired?

A: Yeah, I created the television series Family Law. To be honest, I know a lot of it had to do with my ego. Anyway, I got fired — from a show I created. Boy, that hurt. It was crushing at the time but I look back and realize that getting fired was the best thing that could have happened to me. I had no choice but to examine my life, redouble my efforts. I took a year and wrote two spec scripts, one was Million Dollar Baby, the other was Crash.

Q: You won two Emmys for your work on Thirtysomething. Did that help in making the transition to feature films?

A: No! It was incredibly difficult. It was my hope to direct both films but at the time the film community responded with comments like, "Oh, you'll just make a movie of the week."

Q: Million Dollar Baby took the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2004 and in 2006 Crash won Best Picture.  Did you feel vindicated?

A: I felt grateful.

Q: Of your four children, are any writers?

A: Alissa is writing and working on a screenplay with me right now. Lauren is a painter and Katey is very happily in music. James, my son, is 12.

Q: You devote considerable time and effort to the organization Artists for Peace and Justice ( Tell us about that.

A: Some time ago I met Father Rick Frechette who was working in Haiti and doing wonderful things so I went to Haiti to see for myself. There is something about seeing a child with only one article of clothing on, let's say a shirt, nothing else, and they're standing in sewage. You can't, or I couldn't, bear witness to that and not do something to help. This is where winning Oscars is of service. I called my A-list friends and we started this organization to build a school in Port-au-Prince. If you live in the slums of Haiti, education is a luxury. Yet it's an easily solvable problem. We have completed a primary school and are starting to expand. Eventually we will have 1,400 students and take them through high school.

Q: You have lived in the United States for over 30 years. Do you still feel like a Canadian?

A: I recently moved (from Santa Monica, Calif.) to New York so just now I'm feeling very much like a New Yorker. When I'm in Haiti, I'm Haitian. But of course, no matter where I am, I'm always Canadian.