PAUL Haggis doesn’t shy away from controversial topics. In a glittering Hollywood career, the Oscar-winning screenwriter/ director has taken aim at racism (Crash), the Iraq War (In the Valley of Elah) and euthanasia (Million Dollar Baby). Going Clear, a 2015 documentary, examined his break from Scientology.
Speaking from a sunny Palma Hotel Cort terrace, the morning after receiving the inaugural Evolution Mallorca International Film Festival Vision Award, Haggis squares up to Donald Trump.
“When the film [Crash] first came out a review said: ‘I’d like to say this film is relevant. But it’s not. Because we don’t have these problems any more’,” says Haggis, 64.
“Ten years later, it’s even worse. Actually, I don’t think it’s worse, it’s coming to the surface. Certainly Trump is really helping it come to the surface. He’s allowing us to see how truly racist our society is by championing many of those racists.”
He adds: “It’s an odd way to think of it, but perhaps it’s good because we actually get to face what’s there rather than pretending it’s not. That’s the only good thing you’ll ever hear me say about Trump.”
Twelve years after Crash landed Academy Awards for Best Picture and Screenplay, it’s central theme, racial tension, rages on in the US. On Sunday, Crash will be screened as part of the EMIFF.
But while Trump rides roughshod over all norms of presidential behaviour, Hollywood continues to be convulsed by one of its gravest scandals. Allegations against Harvey Weinstein have broadened from sexual harassment and assault to rape. More than 60 women now accuse the ex-Miramax producer of sexual misconduct against them.
Haggis attacks Weinstein’s ‘vile behaviour’ as ‘the lowest form of humanity’, but claims Hollywood ‘is no different than any place else’.
“Do you women experience that in your lives and careers here? I bet the answer’s yes. It’s just in Hollywood everything is writ large,” he says.
“But it took 30 years for this to come out. That tells you something about power. One thing that makes it particularly vile is that in this case one was being asked to give up your integrity in order to get your dreams.
“To take that sacred dream and defile it, it’s pretty fxxxxx up.”
The Canadian upped sticks for New York after 40 years in LA, tired of the Hollywood movie monorail. Today, he’s dressed smart but casual in black jeans and jacket. An unassuming, everyman star who blends in with the crowd. He likes to write in cafes, around day-to-day people.
“That’s what I was doing all day yesterday, I was writing in the cafe here,” he says.
The same sense of social concern that drew Haggis to found the non-profit organisation Artists for Peace and Justice permeates his films. A new documentary, Ward 5B, is the story of a group of LA nurses who tended patients in the early 1980s AIDS epidemic.
“This was a time of great fear. Nobody knew how AIDS was being spread,” says Haggis. “Doctors were wearing full hazard suits to treat patients. Trays of food were being left undelivered because people were afraid to go into the room and breathe the same air.
“It’s about the importance of reaching out and touching people when they are at their lowest.”
Tracing our common humanity is an overarching theme of Haggis’s work. Think Matt Dillon’s racist LA cop caring for his dying father and redeeming himself with his heroism in Crash. Or the shared horrors of Japanese and US soldiers in Flags of Our Fathers/ Letters From Iwo Jima.
“We should focus on what unites us, not what divides us. I think it’s easier to find differences than similarities,” says Haggis.
While he admits the Catalan crisis is something he knows little about, the current need to delineate rather than embrace cultural differences, to build political walls and barriers, is one his work appears at odds with.
“We are looking at ways to pull ourselves apart from others. To say, ‘I’m me, I’m not you’. That’s not just in Spain, that’s in America right now,” he says.
“That’s too easy, often. My movies certainly speak to that. I think you can infer from that what I think.”
Nevertheless, Haggis is reluctant to explain his films’ meanings. Admitting he never watches them, the movies can speak for themselves, he says.
“I think filmmakers who do that make a big mistake. If it asks the right questions still, if it moves you, it does its job,” he adds.
Despite the honours and the accolades, he retains a hunger to learn, for the new. Surprisingly, Haggis, the first man to pen Best Picture Oscar-winning films in consecutive years, admits he still goes to writing school. The chance to talk with new, and learn from, new filmmakers in Palma attracted him to the festival, he says.
“After Crash, I got a phone call from Oliver Stone. He called me and said, ‘Can I have dinner with you?’ I said, ‘Of course you can, you’re Olive Stone’.
“I had dinner with him and he spent two hours asking me questions. This is one of our greatest film makers and he’s asking me questions?
“That level of humility and curiosity is one of the things I value most. If you lose that, you stop being an artist.”
Crash will be screened at Cineciutat on Sunday, October 29