Albuquerque — MOST screenwriters prefer working in a quiet office. Some seek out coffee shops, while others hole up in hotel rooms. Paul Haggis didn't have the time for any of that -- he was typing on a laptop in the passenger seat of a van bounding down Interstate 25 at 70 mph.
The creative voice behind the last two best picture winners -- he wrote "Million Dollar Baby" and co-wrote and directed "Crash" -- Haggis also shares screenplay credit on Oscar contender "Flags of Our Fathers" and the new James Bond entry, "Casino Royale." On weekends, he supervises the final editing on "The Black Donnellys," an upcoming NBC series he co-created with "Crash" collaborator Bobby Moresco.
But on this recent New Mexico morning, all of Haggis' focus rested on "In the Valley of Elah," a troubling drama about an Iraq war veteran's repatriation.
Haggis was hurriedly rewriting his "Valley of Elah" script to beef up a part for Susan Sarandon as he drove around Albuquerque scouting locations. Filming was set to begin in less than three weeks, and while Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron had committed to star, more than half the roles had not been cast, and Sarandon was on the fence.
Actors may have a good time working with the convivial filmmaker, but "Valley of Elah" is hardly a feel-good film. When the 53-year-old Haggis showed the script to his wife, actress Deborah Rennard, she said the response might be: "Oh, look honey, it's another Paul Haggis movie. Should we pay our 10 bucks and go see it, or just go home and slit our wrists?"
Haggis clearly excels at crafting disturbing narratives. "Million Dollar Baby" ends in euthanasia, "Crash" is anchored by senseless violence, and "Flags of Our Fathers" is less interested in the bravery of Iwo Jima's heroic soldiers than in their exploitation selling war bonds. When the producers of "Casino Royale" called Haggis for a last-minute rewrite, the orders were concise: "They just wanted darker," Haggis says.
In adapting Ron Powers and James Bradley's book "Flags of Our Fathers" for director Clint Eastwood (who also made "Million Dollar Baby"), Haggis chose to dwell on the real and emotional fog of war. "I wanted the audience to have a feeling of what it was actually like in Iwo Jima -- you never knew what was going on, or where the bullets were coming from," he says.
He also wanted moviegoers to share in the confusion felt by the three survivors of the battle's iconographic flag raising once they returned home. "Is this a good thing to be selling these bonds? Or a bad thing?" Haggis says.
"I really am a one-trick pony," he says over lunch, as he figures out when to visit an Albuquerque morgue that could be a "Valley of Elah" location. "I tell the same story over and over again: the contradictions in the things we think we know."
He's selling himself short, and has the Oscars to prove it. And just as his scripts attract awards, they also lure top actors. As Haggis prepared to leave New Mexico for L.A., where he'll dive back into "The Black Donnellys," his cellphone rang.
Sarandon's agents from International Creative Management were on the phone. Their client loved Haggis' new pages, and she was in. Haggis yelled the good news throughout the production office, and dashed to the airport.