TSC 2017 – Panel Report: Paul Haggis on Success, Sacrifice, and Getting Fired

By May 4, 2017Main

More from the Toronto Screenwriting Conference; a two-day weekend event that brought together screen-based industry professionals for development and networking opportunities. This year’s conference took place on April 22 and 23.

Today, we’ll be ending our coverage with a report on the Master Class with Paul Haggis. Talk about a big kahuna! And before he’s even introduced what does he do? He takes the time to thank the volunteers. Gotta love this super talented Canadian — that’s right, he’s one of us, in case you didn’t know! Moderator Elan Mastai, writer of the F-Word, brilliantly handled his duties playing off Paul’s sense of humour.

Elan felt it important for Paul to hit the ground running with ONE important tip off the top of his head. Why? – well in case there was a fire alarm or someone had a heart attack, or for some reason the session got cancelled. This way no matter what happens, the audience will at least have gotten ONE tip from the session. 

So the first question for Paul: share a practical craft tip, a go to, a trick, something you learned over the years that would help writers.

Haggis saw this as a question on career advice and responded with: as soon as you possibly can – win a couple of Oscars.

His response got a huge laugh and set the tone for the rest of the Master Class. 

As for his next tip? when things are going badly, get fired. Haggis was fired twice, and states that in both cases, it was justifiable.

On his first firing: after an initial wave of success, Haggis found himself writing for a number of TV shows. On one show in particular, one disagreement led to another, which resulted in his termination. But then he found work in dramatic TV. This is where he believes he really began to learn how to write. Here’s why: upon turning in a script and receiving a heap of positive feedback, he was asked where it came from? At first Haggis didn’t really understand the question. The question was asked again — what’s it about, where is this coming from? It’s at that point when Haggis realized, this is what writing is about – where does the writing come from? It comes from within you. Haggis states emphatically that this is when he started to really become a writer. 

The second time he was fired (following an argument with an actor), he decided to stop writing what everybody else wanted him to write. From now on, he was going to write for himself. Incidentally, this is how Million Dollar Baby came about. (Interesting note: people liked the script but told him that it would never get made.) Haggis still wasn’t feeling up to signing a contract for another stint on TV, which, to make a long story short, directly resulted in the massive success of Crash and Million Dollar Baby. 

On writing:

  • Haggis mentioned he doesn’t necessarily know the theme while he’s writing. He’s more of a seat of the pants guy.
  • He sees images — that’s why he chose film over novels.
  • While he loves dialogue and could write it all day, a scene with no dialogue is a perfect way to find the action.
  • Haggis doesn’t always think about his stories in terms of a 3 act structure. He tries to let the material itself dictate the appropriate structure.
  • His writing process is always fluid, and ever-changing. Sometimes he’ll even invert structure, writing act 3 first, then 2, and finally 1.
  • He feels that if you write the beginning and the end, what comes in-between tends to work itself out.
  • It’s ok to break some conventions.
  • Fall in love with the POV of the scene.
  • He outlines a lot – all of writing is in the story, which means you need to know what the story is.
  • Once he gets it right, it’s wrong, and he starts all over again.
  • He feels strongly that you should know your ending from the start. That way, all the disparate parts will twist and turn into one cohesive whole. 

This next nugget is one I’m sure I’ll hang on to forever!  It truly gives me hope, especially on those particularly dour days when I just can’t seem to write anything that’s even worth a re-write. Paul mentioned that people find it hard to believe that, even when writers achieve a certain level of success, they still struggle every day. They don’t have all the answers. They toil and ruminate over the same things you do (pointing at the audience). Later in the evening Paul revealed that he spent about a year and a half on a spec – only for it to ultimately end up the garbage. “It wasn’t good enough.”  

On his process: 

Before Paul talked about process he offered the following advice: do not go into this business unless you’re willing to sacrifice everything. When Paul started out, he was a furniture mover with three kids. He came home at night and wrote for 3 hours. As a result, people suffered. He feels that unless you’re prepared to make the sacrifice, you’re not going to be a writer. “Writers are selfish pricks”. 

With that out of the way, he quickly went over his daily writing process, which is typically about a 6 hour day. If he’s on a roll and the characters are in his head – he might be up all night wrestling with the characters – so sometimes a 12 -15 hours a day. And from there, it was straight on to…

The Q and A: 

(please note: what follows is a synopsis and NOT a transcript of the Q and A session)

Q. In Crash how did you make an ensemble cast work so well?

A. Structure was integral to the story. I presented the audience with 2 people in crisis. I show you that crisis and follow these people until they bump into somebody else. Then I follow that person into their own crisis and then watch where that person goes from there, and on it goes. I just followed them. In fact I don’t know if Crash has an Act 1 or an 3 – it really only has an Act 2.

I wanted to start in a crisis and end as soon as people got a glimpse of themselves. I didn’t want to see Sandra Bullock glimpse herself as a horrible person and then suddenly in Act 3, see her transformed turns into a good person. I wanted people to see who they truly were, and then leave it at that.

NOTE: Crash was based on a true experience about 2 kids who stole Paul’s car. He got to thinking, “who did those two kids bump into after they jacked my ride?”

Q. For Casino Royale, you famously performed re-write duties before the film went into production – what were some of the problems or weakness with the script?

A. The writers were good and stayed true to the book. But I felt that the ending didn’t work, so I changed it. I knew it had to end in the collapsing house – so I used all the same elements.  Bond needed to destroy the thing he loved and that thing destroys itself.

Q. How do you re-write? How do you tear a scene apart?

A. I’m not a writing teacher, but I look back into the story and make things worse. For example, in Crash it started out with the two kids driving and just talking. I knew they had to do something. So I went back into the script and had a woman run into their car. It was convenient for the story that she smashed into them – but why? I had to make sense of this. I thought she must be really upset. What could it be? Was her husband in the hospital? Was he run over? Oh, he’s smuggling illegal aliens. I just keep looking back for things that don’t work.

Q. How do you know when a script is done?

A. That’s hard. Let it sit. Ask what’s wrong with it?  It has to be good enough to shoot the first draft. If you can’t shoot a first draft, don’t turn it in

Paul would have gladly entertained questions all night long. But there was a plane to catch. So it goes. Paul’s currently working on adapting a short story. I’m looking forward to seeing what this particular selfish prick (his words not mine) writes next.