'Show Me a Hero' director Paul Haggis on Oscars, TV, and his love of 'The Wire'
The very first pilot I watched on this job was for a CBS drama called "EZ Streets." Created by Paul Haggis — then best known for creating "Due South," but most commercially successful for having helped develop the "Walker, Texas Ranger" pilot — it was essentially an HBO drama before such a thing existed: dark, dense, ambitious, heartbreaking, and addictive. It even featured Joe Pantoliano playing a sociopath gangster years before he won an Emmy for it on "The Sopranos" (and was, to my mind, better as Jimmy Murtha than as Ralphie Ciffaretto).
It was also the first time I got my heart broken in this job. Despite rave reviews from me and my more established colleagues across the country, "EZ Streets" was DOA: CBS pulled it off the air after only two episodes had aired, and though most of the remaining episodes would air the following winter, it was just running out the string. Haggis hung around CBS a while longer, creating "Family Law" and working on the short-lived David Caruso drama "Michael Hayes," but after that, he went off to work in the movies, becoming Clint Eastwood's go-to screenwriter for a while and winning a pair of Oscars — including one of the most controversial Best Picture wins in recent memory — for his feature directorial debut "Crash."
And while he was largely absent from TV (save for 2007's "The Black Donnellys," a short-lived drama he created with "EZ" writer Bobby Moresco), the medium caught up to what he had been doing with what he'd been trying to do with "EZ Streets," with shows like "Sopranos" and "The Wire."
Now Haggis has teamed up with "Wire" creator David Simon for "Show Me a Hero," a new HBO miniseries (it debuts Sunday night at 8 p.m.) based on Lisa Belkin's non-fiction book about the late '80s battle in Yonkers, NY, over attempts to build affordable housing on the predominantly white side of town, starring Oscar Isaac as overwhelmed young Yonkers mayor Nick Waciscko, Alfred Molina and Winona Ryder as members of the city council, and Catherine Keener as Mary Dorman, a white resident fighting the housing ruling. Though Haggis has both an Emmy and Oscar for screenwriting, he worked strictly as a director on the project, leaving the script to Simon and "Wire" alum William F. Zorzi.
Last month, I sat down with Haggis in Manhattan for a long talk about the miniseries, the many ebbs and flows of his career, his feelings about the "Crash" Oscar win and the backlash that followed, and why he loves "The Wire" but has never seen "The Sopranos."
Looking at what TV became within a few years after “EZ Streets,” was there a part of you that said, “Damn it, I was too soon with this,” or “I was in the wrong place with this”?
Paul Haggis: After that failed on CBS, we took it to HBO. It had only aired two episodes. I remember they said, "Oh, we love this. This is great. It’s perfect for us. No one’s seen it." Like, four people saw it on CBS after "Touched by an Angel" was the lead in. And they said, "Great, great. Oh, we have this script coming in this week and we’re just going to look at that. But otherwise, if that doesn’t go, then we’d love to do this." That script was "The Sopranos." And so it’s obviously the same world and I was just so bitter I never watched "The Sopranos" the entire time it was on.
You’ve never gone back to see it?
Paul Haggis: No I’m a small, petty man.
Paul Haggis: It was like "Oh, fuck them." I’m not against being ahead of my time but it’s just always like an hour ahead of what America wants to see.
But then, somehow, this movie thing has worked out for you. So it’s not like you’ve suffered too much.
Paul Haggis: But then even with that, look at "In the Valley of Elah." People had warned me at the time. They said, "No one wants to see an antiwar movie right now, Paul. It’s three years into the war. It was even popular with the liberals. No one wants to see it." And then two years later then, those types of films are a lot more acceptable.
So what do you think it was about "Crash" that suddenly for once you were right on time?
Paul Haggis: I have no idea. Probably because it took me so damn long to make it. Because I wrote it four and a half, five years before that. It took me five years to make it. And I don’t know — maybe. I don’t think I’m ahead of the curve by any stretch. But I don’t know. I have no idea why I’m either too early or too late or just in the wrong place. But I love Leslie Moonves for being brave enough to want at that time to reinvent CBS. He really wanted to. The CBS audience just wasn’t ready to be reinvented.
And when you did your semi-remake of "EZ Streets" with "The Black Donnellys," even then the audience wasn’t ready for it — on NBC, at least.
Paul Haggis: Maybe, I don’t know. It was fun to do it though. I actually wrote that with Bobby Moresco the year after "EZ Streets." It was sitting for ten years in the closet.
It had been almost six or seven years since you had written or directed for TV when you did that. How much did the business seem to have changed to you?
Paul Haggis: It changed radically, didn’t it? Overnight it changed. And while all the filmmakers were running towards television, I was running away from it. I’ve always run in the wrong direction. I don’t know if it’s just contrarian or just stupid. But now with this, it seemed like the right time. There was a film that I was about to shoot got pushed, and I found myself with a year off. And my agents called me with a list of projects that people wanted me to consider. Most of them were films to direct this or direct that. And they got to number three and they said, "You know, David Simon has a miniseries." I said, "Say yes." He said, "Okay, well we’ll send you the script and you can read it and we’ll discuss it." I said, "Say yes and then send me the script." I read it very quickly. I loved it and I went to meet with David and Nina (Kostroff Noble) here and they said, "Oh great, well we’d love to work with you. Do you want to do episode one and six or how do you want to do it?" I said, "I want to direct them all." They said, "Okay." Because I figured if I’m going to go back to television, I wanted to do the whole thing. It’s ridiculous to try, but others have done it. Cary (Fukunaga) did it and did a great job with "True Detective" the year before. But just block shooting something that takes place over so many years and with so many characters in such a quick schedule, it was fun.
How long has it been since you directed something you didn’t write?
Paul Haggis: Never. I’ve never directed anything I didn’t write. This is the first thing. That was another thing I wanted to do besides work with David, who I’ve always wanted to work with. I wanted to learn and to go back and see how as a writer/director, it’s cheating. You go in there already knowing, you’re already feeling the characters, and you haven’t had to do the work that a director has to do to analyze a script and to figure out what to do. Because it’s already in your bones. In this case, I wanted to do that and just learn that craft of what just a director does. And so David’s a wonderful writer. David and Bill wrote the script and did a great job. But I think HBO was a little nervous at first that I’d be coming in, and wanting to rewrite. I said, "No, no. I’ll just direct." And that worked out really well because it was an open collaboration and if there was a scene that wasn’t quite working and David wasn’t quite happy with it, I’d go, "Well, let’s just try this." And we’d do a little work and just improvise a little bit, a tiny bit on the dialogue with the actors and make the scene come to life. And it was like, the smallest of changes and suddenly a scene that we were worried about is working. That’s what a director’s supposed to do. Like, you’ve got this scene that’s just about exposition, and it has to be. That’s the nature of it. People have to get in and say all sorts of things that they already know but we don’t. And you have to find a way to bring stakes to that, bring life to that without changing the dialogue. And it’s fun. And luckily I had such great incredibly skilled actors. I mean Oscar, wow. What an actor. Oh my God, what an actor. How committed, as well and always came prepared. Always knew the lines. Always got it down, did a great take of the character and also trusted me if I wanted to push it in one direction or another. He trusted me completely. He was so much fun to work with.