By Brendan Christie
This article was originally published in 2010
Although Paul Haggis holds the unique distinction of being the only screenwriter in history to pen back-to-back Best Film Oscar winners – with Million Dollar Baby in 2004 and Crash in 2005 – it would be a mistake to try to categorize him. After all, he also produced both films, and was nominated for a best director Oscar for his work on Crash.
In fact, this multiple Oscar, Emmy and Gemini winner has thrived in every creative role he’s played, on both small and big screens. And, at the same time, he’s played a leadership role in several arts, environmental and social efforts.
Born in London, Ontario in 1953, Haggis studied cinematography at London’s Fanshawe College before moving to California in his early 20s.
Once there, he soon began working as a writer in TV, landing gigs on the Love Boat and various children’s animation projects before securing work on hits like Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life. It was on Facts that he also began to establish himself as a producer, steering 22 episodes during the ’85/’86 season.
The late ’80s proved to be a period of creative growth for Haggis. A writing stint on The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987 led into a supervising producer role on thirtysomething, and credits on numerous other projects.
But it was when Haggis returned to Canada (on behalf of CBS) that he established one of the true hallmark credits of his career.
Due South, which began airing in 1994, cemented Haggis’ reputation as an A-list creative. From ’94 to ’96, and including the ’97 season, Haggis penned numerous episodes, as well as exec producing and directing others. The series spawned an international cult following, and was nominated for a remarkable 53 Gemini Awards, of which it won 15. Six of those statuettes have Haggis’ name on them – two for writing, two for best dramatic series, one for best TV movie and one Chrysler Canada’s Choice Award.
During 1996, Haggis took a step back from the series to pen and produce a nine episode run of EZ Streets for CBS. Though short-lived (a victim of network vagaries), the series stunned critics. “A blood relative of The Godfather… [and] Goodfellas,” observed Salon, EZ Streets is “noir-ish and densely plotted and driven by great reams of jazzed dialogue. Created, written and produced by Paul Haggis, it’s a juicy, twisted crime-drama-junkie’s dream.”
The New York Times named it one of the most influential series of all time, and said “without EZ Streets, there would be no Sopranos.”
Haggis returned for another season of Due South, and worked on other projects before finding his next muse – Chuck Norris, working on Walker, Texas Ranger for CBS. The action/drama lasted nine campy seasons, high-kicking off in 1993 before riding into the sunset in 2001.
Having already established himself as a force on the small screen throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Haggis turned his attention to a bigger canvas early in the new millennium. What followed can only be described as a remarkable stretch of creativity.
It began with Crash (pictured, main) in 2004, a challenging film which Haggis produced, directed and wrote (with Bobby Moresco). Made for a reported US$7.5 million, the racially charged feature attracted the participation of stars such as Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Ludacris and Matt Dillon – all of whom took scale minimum in order to be involved in the project.
Debuting at TIFF in 2004, the film was a critical success and was quickly picked up by Lionsgate, going on to gross almost US$100 million worldwide.
Crash led to Million Dollar Baby. Haggis wrote the film and split production credits with director Clint Eastwood. The film with a surprise ending was also a surprise at box office, raking in an eventual US$220 million worldwide after a relatively quiet US$12 million opening weekend Stateside.
Now firmly established as a Hollywood heavyweight, Haggis tackled the screenplay for Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers and Bond revival Casino Royale. In 2006, he penned the story for Letters from Iwo Jima with Iris Yamashita, completing Eastwood’s examination of that aspect of World War II. Haggis also served as executive producer on the film.
In 2007, Haggis wrote, produced and directed In the Valley of Elah, the hard-hitting Tommy Lee Jones starrer which reflected on a country that had lost its way – a film which poignantly culminates on a shot of an inverted U.S. flag, the signal for distress.
That year he also returned to the small screen to pen and exec produce another short-lived but widely acclaimed drama for NBC, The Black Donnellys. Next came writing credits on Bond flick Quantum of Solace and a television series based on Crash for Starz Entertainment.
Remarkably, throughout this period of explosive creativity, Haggis has also maintained a leadership role in several arts, environmental and social efforts, and in 2009, Haggis founded the Artists for Peace and Justice, a fundraising effort that aims to “encourages peace and social justice and addresses issues of poverty and enfranchisement in communities around the world.”
APJ was almost immediately put to work, addressing needs created by the disaster in Haiti – raising money to rebuild schools, provide the basics of life and help offer medical treatments. Haggis has mobilized a remarkable number of artists for the cause, both for fundraisers and for touch points such as apjnow.org.
In the immediate future, Haggis is wrapping up directing and writing The Next Three Days, a feature starring Olivia Wilde, Russell Crowe (both of whom are active in APJ), Liam Neeson and Elizabeth Banks.