Third Person fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. Written, produced, and directed by Paul Haggis (who won back-to-back Best Screenplay Oscars for Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby and Crash, which he directed), it opens this Friday in New York City. Because the film has a twist that changes our perspective on everything we’ve seen earlier in the film, I will avoid revealing too much by safely sticking to the Synopsis in the press notes: “Third Person tells three stories of love, passion, trust and betrayal, in a multi-strand story line reminiscent of Paul Haggis’s earlier Oscar-winning film Crash. The tales play out n New York, Paris and Rome: three couples who appear to have nothing related but share deep commonalities: lovers and estranged spouses, children lost and found…Michael (Liam Neeson) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has holed himself up in a hotel suite in Paris to finish his latest book. He recently left his wife, Elaine (Kim Basinger) and is having a tempestuous affair with Anna (Olivia Wilde), an ambitious young journalist who wants to write and publish fiction. At the same time, Scott (Adrien Brody), a shady American businessman, is in Italy to steal designs from fashion houses…There he meets Monika (Moran Atias), a beautiful Roma woman, who is about to be reunited with her young daughter. When the money she has saved to pay her daughter’s smuggler is stolen, Scott feels compelled to help…Scott starts to suspect that he is the patsy in an elaborate con game. Julia (Mila Kunis), an ex-soap opera actress, is caught in a custody battle for her six-year-old son with her ex-husband Rick (James Franco), a famous New York artist…Julia is reduced to working as a maid in the same upscale boutique hotel where she was once a frequent guest. Julia’s lawyer, Theresa (Maria Bello) has secured Julia one final chance to change the court’s mind and be reunited with the child she loves. Rick’s girlfriend Sam (Loan Chabanol) is a compassionate onlooker.” This synopsis leaves out…pretty much everything. I took part in this following roundtable with Haggis on Tuesday about his intriguingly enigmatic film. I note my questions. After it, is my quick exchange with Atias and Chabanol.
Q: What inspired you to make this film?
Paul Haggis: This idea was brought to me by Moran Atias. When I was sitting on the set of The Next Three Days, in the last week of shooting, she came in for two days to do a small role. She asked if she could sit on the set and watch because she wanted to learn how to direct or something and take a look at the cameras. So I said yes, just be quiet. Moran is beautiful woman so everyone wanted to talk to her. At some point, she started pitching ideas to me for movies, which I thought excessively annoying. I was trying to direct a movie! I think the first one she pitched was a Holocaust movie, and I said, I’m not going to do a Holocaust movie, thank you very much, it’s been done too well before, and I don’t know what I would say about it. Then she said I should do something about relationships. My first instincts were to reject that idea, but I then went, “Oh, that’s interesting.” That movie wrapped, and we both headed back to New York. We met and I actually recorded her for fifteen hours as she talked about her relationships, her friends, her failings in relationships, all sorts of stories. She went away after a week or so, and I sat there and started thinking where I’d failed in relationships, and what intrigued me were several questions: How can you succeed in a relationship if you have somebody across from you who you believe is totally untrustworthy?” What if you just decide to trust them, despite all the evidence that they are not trustworthy? You’re a smart person and you know that person is probably lying to you, but what happens if you just decide to trust and believe in that person? Is love transformative? Is that kind of acceptance transformative? What if you insist on saying, “I know who you are, I know what you did, just admit it and everything can be fine”? Do you admit it? And if you get what you want, do you no longer want it? It’s a very cynical view, but if that person finally opens up to you–will you betray him, or her? It’s better that those questions don’t go away than if you have the answers.
Q: So if this started out as Moran Atias’s idea, how much of it could be autobiographical?
PH: All of it! Not really. [laughter]. All my work is partly autobiographical, Crash was, absolutely. You wouldn’t recognize me in those characters in Crash, but I was in every single one of them. Those were fears that I had felt, things that I had thought in my heart– I just projected them onto other people. You just wouldn’t recognize me, but I’m also in the characters in The Next Three Days, in which Russell Crowe’s wife Elizabeth Banks is arrested for murder. It was a prison breakout movie, and I was asking myself, “What would I do in his place? How far would I go for the woman I loved? And what would I do if she told me that she was guilty? Could I still believe in her?” It was very personal. So was In the Valley of Elah [about a man, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who tries to find how about the death of his soldier son]. On Third Person it’s easier to see because it’s about a writer, but all my films are like that.
Q: So how did you instill yourself into the story?
PH: I started by asking myself questions. Obviously in my relationships, things have worked, mostly things have failed. And I asked questions about those things. I wanted to explore different aspects of how I’d failed or how I could possibly have succeed if I’d done something better or did something less. Then I put my answers into stories in which the real people I’m writing about will mostly not recognize themselves. That’s really what I did. I explored a lot of things, especially about how damn selfish we writers are and how other people often pay the price for that selfishness. I thank God I have never gone through a tragedy like Michael or the other characters go through, but I can imagine myself there. Because often it’s children who pay the price for our selfishness. I moved to Hollywood when I was 22, I was married and we had a kid right away. I worked as a furniture mover and at various other jobs eight-to-ten hours a day, trying to support my family. Then I’d come home and write for two or three hours every night. You love your kids, but…It’s a very real guilt I carry, now it’s just [here] in fictional form.
Danny Peary: When her rich ex-husband Rick, played by James Franco, breaks a promise and refuses to let her see their son, Mila Kunis’s Julia asks, “Why do you get to play God?” But that seems to be a question that could be asked to the writer Michael (Liam Neeson), who creates and manipulates all his characters. And in turn, that question can be asked to you as the writer of the movie and creator of the characters, including Michael.
PH: Exactly, absolutely true. It’s a question, I think, that I have as a filmmaker and also as a human being. Playing God as a writer and especially as a person is something that haunts me. I write about what haunts me. There’s a reason pride is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Because we’re prideful, we think in our relationships that we’re good, we’re right, we’re the sensible one, whatever. I remember being in a relationship where this woman said to me, “Your asking me to open up to you is just a game. If I’m finally completely vulnerable to you and trust you completely, and open up to you, you’ll just betray me.” I went, “Wow, this is a woman with serious trust issues…but what if she’s right?” That if is how I approached this. I often like to write from the point of view of characters that I completely disagree with. That challenges me, and gets me to look at my own justifications, rationalizations, bullshit.
DP: The writer-as-God theme is probably the most important theme in this film, but your movie is also about overcoming bad choices.
PH: The most interesting characters, the most interesting people, are ones who often work against their own best interests. Bad choices. They go in directions where you’re like, “What? No, no, no, no!” They push away someone who’s trying to love them, they push away someone who’s trying to get their trust, they love someone they shouldn’t love. Another thing I was exploring is the idea that while we think we keep finding the wrong person in life, at some point we might ask ourselves, “What if the wrong person is really the right person?” In this movie polar opposites are drawn together into relationships, and then pulled apart, and then drawn together. They’re completely wrong for each other but though some of it doesn’t work, some of it does. I don’t think there’s much logic involved.
DP: There’s an erratic nature to your characters, and I don’t know if it’s deliberate or unintentional. Maybe their erratic because their creator, Michael, is experiencing erratic emotions.
Q: It’s both for me.
Q: So it’s legitimate to assume that maybe all these characters are in Michael’s mind?
PH: It’s very legitimate. At some point or other, they are. How much is he trying to rewrite his own life? How much is he trying to explain his life, or explore his life? But then how much is he trying to avoid by doing that That’s what I explored.
END SPOILER ALERT
DP: In the press notes, it says that you usually are a quick writer but this script took you many, many drafts. Was it because it was so personal and you were exploring the same things Michael was?
PH: It took me so long to write because I allowed the characters to lead me along. That was totally the wrong thing to do. We writers should structure things and force our characters to do what we want them to do. And that’s what I almost always do, playing God. But this time I let them take me to places, and they took me to blind alleys or off a cliff or to bridge of no return; or they would wander off into the desert and get lost. They took me to see the things I didn’t want to really look at. That’s exactly what’s happening to Michael with his characters. It’s easier to live with drama than with responsibility for what you’ve done. The storyline and who the characters are changed radically over the last two-and-a-half years. I finally just realized what I was writing about – and that came to me very slowly. After a year, I went “Oh, this is what I’ll write about.”
Q: Beyond personal stories of your own, were there other inspirations for your film? I saw comparisons between this and The Singing Detective, maybe because of the idea of a writer stuck in a room.
PH: You know, that’s a great analogy. It was a brilliant TV series. It wasn’t conscious of it in any way while writing the script, but the problem with watching anything good is that it will stick in your mind forever. That’s why I try to not watch movies while I’m either writing or directing. That’s hard, because this movie took me five-and-a-half years!
DP: Are you a fan of American Graffiti?
PH: I was, why?
DP: The intertwining stories. That was one of the first films to try that and it left such an impression on everybody.
PH: You’re right, I hadn’t thought of that. I always think of Robert Altman, of course, but he came later.
Q: Talk about the film’s title. Is it about writing in the third person or about a third person in each of the relationships?
PH: There are different ways to interpret it. It can be exactly what you said, that there’s always a third person in the relationships, although you often don’t know who that person is. It might be someone from the past who is keeping you from moving on or keeping you from connecting with somebody. I don’t keep a journal, but I love the idea that Michael distances himself so much from his own feelings that he actually writes in his journal in the third person. Anna and Michael talk in the third person–they flirt, they say fabulous things to each other, they also can be incredibly cruel.
Q: Talk about casting Liam Neeson in a part where he types rather than shoots a gun.
PH: Liam is one of our best actors. I remember talking to him about doing a film years ago, before his personal tragedy. I wanted him to a play a role in a drama, and I thought he would be very good. It was something I hadn’t written but was planning to direct, He really wanted to do it, but when I talked to my financiers, they said, “Liam Neeson is not really worth a lot at the box office. I said, “He’s a brilliant actor.” I dined with him and thought he was perfect for the role and was a lovely, lovely man.” At the end of dinner he said, “Paul, I did this little film that’s coming out soon. I hope no one sees it.” That was Taken. Three months later, those same producers came back to me and said, “Do you think you can get Liam Neeson for this role?” That’s how our fickle business is. I didn’t end up doing that movie but I chased him from the moment I finished writing this script. I didn’t worry that he made so many action films. He’d made a lot of great movies, but told me that he hadn’t had the chance to play a romantic lead in something like twenty years. And women like him.
Q: Did some of the actors adlib or did they stick to your script?
PH: We had very little rehearsal time, but I feel that if an actor is skilled and can understand the scene and what my intent is although it’s not always obvious on the page, then they can act it. I gave them the freedom to improvise and most of them didn’t. There were lines that changed, but not a lot.
Q: It is everyone’s nightmare to be in a hotel hallway naked, like Anna is in one scene.
PH: I wish I’d lived that experience!
Q: Was Olivia Wilde on board with doing that, and then running naked down a flight of stairs?
PH: Completely. That was the great thing about working with Olivia. I told her from the beginning, “Olivia, you’re going to be butt-naked in this movie.” and she said, “Okay, I can do that for you.” She knew what the scene was. And she made it so comfortable for us, making us feel that it was not a big deal. Of course I closed the set, and it was just me, the DP, and the camera. No one could see monitors. That was a set, thank God, that we built. Both of the hotels, the Mercer Hotel and the St. Jacques, we built completely on a soundstage in Rome. She didn’t really run down the stairs from one floor to the next. The stairs went into a pit. And then she came down what was supposed to be the next level of stairs. Olivia did an interview in which she said that between takes she was eating pizza, and forgot she was walking around butt-naked. I wanted that scene to be joyous, not sleazy in any way. It was just so much fun to watch her. She’s so vulnerable in that moment playing a character who hasn’t been vulnerable and has been quite cruel to others–we want to see that other side of her.
Q: What was the funniest thing that happened during shooting?
PH: Liam’s character, Michael, was supposed to step out of the shower and see Olivia Wilde, Anna, lying naked on his bed and reading his journal. This took place on a set we built, and I wanted steam to be coming out of that shower. So I put Liam in the shower with the hot water running and then the DP started talking to me, and then Olivia asked me a question. Finally, Liam screams, “I’m goddamn scalding in here!” The hot water was burning that poor son of a bitch. He was waiting very patiently for his action cue for way too long. So he came out and was quite red. And not from anger, red because I almost fried the poor man.
DP: One thing I find really interesting in this movie is your emphasis on first impressions. You immediately identify a character or situation by showing us revealing props–or Olivia Wilde’s legs–or you have sharp first lines said whenever characters enter a scene.
PH: I do like to try to set up characters and let you think you know them. Judge them completely and say, “This is who this person is.” I like doing that, so that I can then subvert those expectations. That’s true with Michael and Anna. I wanted to say, Here’s Michael, he’s a great guy; well, okay he’s cheating on his wife, oh he’s left her. So he’s a flawed man, but a good man; what the hell is he doing with Anna, who’s a crackpot and so volatile that she’s cold one minute and hot the next. Maybe the sex is good, but please, Michael, grow a pair of balls, what are you doing? Who’s using whom? In relationships, you often think, “Oh, this is the good person and the other is the devil.” Then when you really get inside of a relationship you realize it’s maybe not that way.
DP: Michael tells Anna that her short story is cold and impersonal. Was that part of your problem writing this, not making it personal enough?
PH: No, I think what Michael says earlier to her is my problem. He says, “It’s very clever.” She goes, “Ooh, clever, thanks.” I used to be a clever writer. I was for years. But once I realized how you’re supposed to write, the last thing I wanted to be was clever. There are very few people like Oscar Wilde who can be really clever and also reveal themselves. It’s easier to be clever as a defensive mechanism, so that you don’t have to reveal yourself on paper.
DP: Is Michael talking about himself when he says Anna’s writing is cold and impersonal and clever?
PH: We often project our own frustrations, and when Michael criticizes her short story he was obviously having a problem with his own book. His characters were protecting themselves, They were all making excuses for his life. (I fear that.)
Q: Talk about Mila Kunis’s character Julia. It is hard to tell whether she or her ex-husband Rick, played by James, is damaging their little son more.
PH: I want you to go in thinking she’s irresponsible but is not going to hurt her kid. But she cries and confesses to Rick about something she did. He breaks his promise to her, and she cries that she lied to him. I love planting clues with humor early on, and if you think back there’s a scene where she saying that she used to be in a soap opera and got that job because she could cry on cue. So is that what she’s doing now?
Q: All the characters have ambiguous, open-endings.
PH: I don’t know if the stories themselves are ambiguous. The movie itself is ambiguous, but in the stories, you pretty much see who wins and who loses. Those who trust, like Anna, don’t always win. Scott trusts Monika, so he risks everything because she insists she has a daughter. That story is about belief, and I want the audience to see it’s about what you believe, not what the facts are.
DP: What’s the reason you set Third Person in three different cities?
PH: One reason is that it would make it physically impossible for my characters to meet. So when things start happening, you’d have to go, “Okay, that impossible. And if that can’t really happen, then what is happening? And why?” Also, who doesn’t want to shoot in Rome and Paris and New York? They’re the most romantic cities in the world. I spent a lot of time in Italy shooting this, which was fabulous. And since it was going to be a really complex story, I really wanted to celebrate it and have it be joyous, and convey that visually. What better cities to film this than Paris, Rome, and New York?
Q: Do you think of yourself more as a writer or director?
PH: That’s a hard question to answer. I see myself as a filmmaker, and sometimes I get the chance to write or direct, and sometimes I get to do it all, like with Third Person.
Q: You’ve been making films for than a decade. Have you considered writing a play?
PH: That’s how I started out. My plays were so bad that I was chased out of Canada. I would absolutely like to go back to it but I haven’t found a story that tells itself best on the stage yet.
Q: What are you working on right now?
PH: Nothing, absolutely nothing. I spent eight weeks here over Christmas. Usually I spend three months here editing my movies, but this time I didn’t go away. I said, I’m a New Yorker, I’ve had a place here for ten years; my youngest son goes to school here; my best friend and best reader, my ex-wife is a terrific playwright who loves it here; I like to write here; I’m staying. It’s brutally cold but it’s the perfect weather to be miserable and write. So that’s what I did, spending eight weeks writing a brand new story. Then I read it through and threw it out. So I’ve got nothing.
Q: A couple of years ago, you were going to make a film about Scientology.
PH: I was never going to make a film about Scientology. There was just the book. It’s not that I shy away from it, but I just haven’t found a good story to tell. I’d have to find something that really intrigues me.
DP: This film is really hard to talk to you about because we can’t reveal the ending. But, do you think people will like this better on the second viewing?
PH: I think so, yes. I think they’ll enjoy it more because they’ll be in on it. Hopefully they won’t run around telling everybody what happens. There are lots of clues that I plant quite early in Third Person. which people probably don’t notice the first time around. But next time you notice. In Rome, Adrian Brody’s character Scott turns and looks up as a Mercedes passes, and in the back seat is Anna, who is in Paris. This was an impossibility but I was being quite literal.
A Quick Exchange with Loan Chabanol and Moran Atias
Danny Peary: Is Loan a name other people have, do you know other Loans?
Loan Chabanol: I do, in Vietnam. It’s a Vietnamese name, and my grandmother is Vietnamese. So it’s a very common name. In France we have a lot of Julies.
DP: Do people call you Loan, pronouncing it like the word for borrowing?
LC: All the time. I make it cool, I’m like, “No problem, call me any name you want.”
DP: Moran, you spent a couple of years talking with Paul Haggis about relationships, all leading up to Third Person. So is this film anything like your original concept?
Moran Atias: Oh, yeah, there are so many things I see myself in, including the other characters. That was a first-time experience for me as a writer. As actors we get to hide. We can change our hair or use an accent, and all of a sudden it’s not you anymore. But it’s always you, I feel; you always bring yourself, but these tricks are like masks. As a writer, even though they’re speaking in third person, it’s really yourself and your fears and doubts. I felt extremely exposed for the first time, and I was truly mesmerized by the whole outcome.
DP: Was that a surprise?
MA: Yes, because I did not expect the film to happen. Because I think back to when I was sitting in a hotel room with an idea and then an Oscar-winning filmmaker wants to do it, and then there’s money to make it, and then brilliant actors like Liam Neeson sign on…None of this felt real to me, I was living in a bubble. And then there were moments when it didn’t happen, because we lost financing, and then Liam had to go off and do Taken 14, and we were like, “Okay, what happens now?” So I yelled with joy and had moments of sobbing throughout the years. Now the film is exactly what I hoped, everything I dreamed of.
DP: Loan, I kind of see your character, Sam, as the calm in the eye of a hurricane. Everyone else is experiencing turmoil and she’s so composed. She’s the observer of the film, as I see it. How do you see her and how does she fit into the whole thing?
LC: I think she’s a fly on the wall. I think she’s on the wall and everything is happening and she just watches it. She does not judge anyone, and that’s a big strength. When you don’t have any bad thoughts about anyone, you just see what’s going on. I think she feels a lot, she doesn’t really show her feelings, but she tries to help anyone who needs it. She could just pass by when Julia is on the bathroom floor crying, but she doesn’t because she’s curious and cares and has good instincts. I think she’s looking for the truth. For me, when I read it, she represented love, and on the purest level that you can imagine. She is just true, unconditional love.
DP: Do you think Sam is responsible for Rick making the friendly phone call to Julia about their son?
LC: I think she’s a great help with that, yeah. She could judge Rick, she could be mad at him, she could leave, she could just explode. I remember that scene when she talks to him. On the first take I had her be judgmental, and Paul was like, “No, cut! She’s not judging him.” I was like, wow. At that moment I really understood her strength. She’s love. She’s hope.
DP: She’s the conscience.
LC: Yeah, she’s very powerful. She’s almost like a symbolic figure in the movie, a little Buddha. That’s how I connected to her.