From writer/director Paul Haggis (Crash), Third Person tells three stories of love, passion, trust and betrayal, and plays out in New York, Paris and Rome, across three couples. A prize-winning fiction author named Michael (Liam Neeson) has left his wife (Kim Basinger) because of an affair with an ambitious young journalist named Anna (Olivia Wilde). Meanwhile, Scott (Adrien Brody) meets a beautiful and mysterious Roma woman named Monika (Moran Atias), who needs money to be reunited with her young daughter. And ex-soap opera actress Julia (Mila Kunis) is caught in a custody battle for her son with her famous ex-husband (James Franco).
At the film’s press day, director Paul Haggis spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about where the idea for this film started, why he wanted to tell this story with multiple characters, how he put this cast together, the most challenging locations to shoot in, why the editing process was so difficult, that his first cut was three hours long, how he’d like to do an extended version someday, who he screens his films for, and that he’s searching for an idea for the next thing to do. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
PAUL HAGGIS: I often start with questions I can’t answer, like the nature of relationships and love. Every 10 years, I know less about love and relationships. The smarter I get, the less I know. So, this started when Moran Atias, who was in my last film, suggested this idea. I usually don’t take suggestions, but I had been toying with one or two of these stories and didn’t know what to do with them. I thought, “Multiple characters. Okay. All right.” And then, I started asking myself a lot of questions. As I thought of my friends and of my own life and relationships that had succeeded or failed, I thought about how and why.
Liam Neeson’s story is pivotal to this, and the question about how selfish we are, as artists and writers, and who pays the price for that, was interesting. Olivia Wilde’s character refuses to open up. She wants to punish and push away. Anytime someone tries to love her, they end up on the end of a baseball bat. Was she right to protect herself? If she actually opens up to somebody, will they betray her? That’s a cynical point of view, but it’s possible.
If you’re in a relationship and you try to trust somebody who’s completely untrustworthy, when trust is the basis of any relationship and everyone else says not to trust, is love transformative. Do people sometimes become what we imbue them with, for good or for ill? The romantic side of me said, “Yeah.” Love is transformative. If you believe in someone enough, and you just don’t stop believing in them, mo matter what, no matter how much they push you away, and no matter how often they prove they’re only there to use you. Those are some of the questions that I was toying with.
Was this always the structure you were looking to do this in?
HAGGIS: I did want to do multiple characters because I wanted one to reflect onto another. I wanted it to pretend to be one thing, and then actually be something else. I like doing that. I like taking genres and subverting them. I did that with In the Valley of Elah. I said, “Okay, this is just a murder mystery. Relax.” And then, two thirds of the way through, I broke every convention of a murder mystery. In this case, I wanted it to pretend to be three love stories. And then, very quickly, things start happening that cannot happening. That’s why I set it in three different countries, so that people couldn’t across, and yet they start meeting. If what I showed you can’t happen, then what’s happening? I like to really respect the audience and let them come through on answers.
Because of the structure of the story, how difficult was it to assemble this film together?
HAGGIS: It all came together in the script, eventually. When I started to allow the characters to go where they wanted to go, I just had to follow. I was on Liam’s journey. I wanted to write this and control my characters in three neat stories, but other characters kept wanting to come in and other questions came up. I had to just allow the characters to take me where they wanted to go, and that became Liam’s arc. The character’s literally lead him to something he doesn’t want to face.
HAGGIS: No, because the first cut, which I loved, was three hours long. There were some things I shot knowing they would cut together. Olivia’s character gets out of bed and reaches over to pick up something, and I knew I was going to cut to Mila picking up something. There were many transitions like that, that I planned. Other things, as we cut the story down, we had to juxtapose. We took a long time editing this.
If you had to edit that much out, were there any storylines you had to lose?
HAGGIS: No, but there was a lot of stuff from those stories that I had to cut out, and I had to find ways to balance them. It was stuff I just loved. I hope someday to be able to make an extended version.
Is that something you’d like to do for the DVD?
HAGGIS: Yeah, but probably not for the first DVD. I would love to do it. It depends on what the financiers will allow me to do. It depends on how successful the movie is. If it’s not successful, you don’t do shit.
When you put a film together, are there people that you trust that you always screen it for?
HAGGIS: Yes, but I don’t always do what they say. There’s my partner, Michael Nozik, and my ex-wife, Deborah Rennard. On this, Moran [Atias] was a co-producer and she gave us really some good ideas, and my editor, Jo Francis. When I showed it in Toronto, I’d actually taken people’s advice and cut stuff out of the ending because they thought it was going to be confusing. But, I watched it in Toronto, and then I put those confusing things back in, and I think it made it better. You have to be careful of the advice you take. It was all well-meaning, but in making it less “confusing,” It took away the emotional punch. So, I put the stuff back in and I’m very happy with it.
HAGGIS: Yes, the square in Rome, where we shot the ending. That was tough, just because of the amount of crowd control. That was hard. And the streets in Rome because the paparazzi were everywhere. They would literally step into the shot. Liam and Olivia were walking down the street, and the paparazzi stepped right into my shot, taking photographs. It was throwing the actors off, and they were literally in the shot.
Where did you start, when it came to the casting and putting this great cast together?
HAGGIS: I try not to think of actors as I’m writing because I think you do them a disservice by writing for things they’ve already done. I think it was Liam [Neeson] and Olivia [Wilde] that I went to first, and they both said yes. Then, I think it was James Franco and Mila [Kunis]. And then, it was Adrien [Brody] and, finally, Moran [Atias]. There was a period where I was hoping Penelope Cruz was going to be able to do that role, and then she got pregnant and wasn’t able to. But, Moran is a great choice and I love her in it. And then, it was Maria [Bello] and Kim [Basinger]. They’re all actors I’ve always wanted to work with, and some I’ve worked with multiple times.
What finally sold you on Mila Kunis?
HAGGIS: I thought she was too beautiful. I asked her to meet because I was trying to convince her to do Anna, at the time, and Olivia had fallen out for a short period. But she was so drawn to the Julia character, and I didn’t think she could d it. It’s not a role you normally think of for Mila Kunis. I didn’t know if it would be believable. But, it turns out that good actors can make anything believable. It was pretty cool that she could play this.
What made you want Liam Neeson to center this story around?
HAGGIS: Liam is great because I wanted him to be a character that you automatically sympathize with. Here’s a guy who’s cheating on his way, which is already a strike against him. I wanted him to have this relationship with this woman that’s just a tortured relationship where you’re feeling for this guy and thinking, “What the hell is he doing with this woman?!” And then, you wonder who’s using who and who’s the one who’s trustworthy. I don’t know if you sympathize with him, in the end. You do and you don’t. I don’t think he’s redeemed. I think he’ll be haunted, forever.
HAGGIS: Yeah, when I cast Mila, that’s when I decided her character was a soap actor. We needed a backstory that worked for her. Why would that person choose that life? If you used to be a little bit in the public eye, you’d probably want to hide. You wouldn’t want to be the shop girl, in the front. Plus, there’s all the humiliation of this being all over the internet because she was married to a famous guy. All of her friends have left her because people either think she’s guilty or they’re tired of hearing her talk about it. So, that character changed slightly, which was great. With the rest of the characters, I didn’t have to change anything. As you rehearse, things change and adapt, but that’s it.
You clearly like to be very collaborative with your actors. Is that just how you’ve always been, or is that something you’ve learned throughout your career?
HAGGIS: I just love actors, and I’ve always loved actors. I empathize with their job. Everyone thinks it’s easy, and it ain’t. To be that vulnerable and brave on camera is tough. The more they reveal themselves, the more we love them, but there’s a lot of truth in what they’re showing?
Do you already have something written that you’ll direct next, or are you writing anything now?
HAGGIS: I’m searching for an idea for the next thing to do. It takes me awhile to find something that I’m passionate about. I’m reading a lot and thinking a lot, and torturing myself a lot because I’m feeling really guilty for not writing something today.
You write more projects than you direct. What gets you to decide to direct something yourself?
HAGGIS: If there are questions in it that I can’t answer. You’ve gotta say, “This is something that I want to be involved with for three, four or five years.” That’s a lot of your life, so it better be something that really intrigues you. T
Third Person opens in theaters on June 20th.