Screenwriter Paul Haggis may be most famous now for writing back-to-back best picture Oscar winners, Million Dollar Baby and Crash, but he once feared he'd be best known for the Chuck Norris cheesefest Walker, Texas Ranger.
After spending eight days rewriting the pilot episode as a favour to a colleague, he saw the television series run for 10 years with his name attached to it as creator. "Never do a favour for anyone. It will come back to haunt you," he joked during his "In Conversation With …" session at the Banff World Television Festival.
"That's why I ended up deciding to quit television and do independent films," Haggis told the crowd. "I woke up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat. I'd just pictured my tombstone, and it said 'Paul Haggis: Creator, Walker, Texas Ranger.' I had to do something to right that."
This January, Haggis is returning to television for another shot at redemption with the crime drama The Black Donnellys, to air Thursdays on NBC. He co-created the series with Crash collaborator Bobby Moresco, and directed the pilot episode.
Haggis calls it an homage to a "story that haunted me in my youth." The real-life Black Donnellys were a family from Lucan, Ontario – 40 miles from Haggis's hometown of London – murdered by their neighbours in 1880. His show The Black Donnellys follows the story of four brothers involved in organized crime in New York.
"I wanted to do something contemporary about that tragedy, and talk about intolerance, about criminals, about the way people look at criminals. To make you empathize with and really love these people, and see how they deal with the larger community," said Haggis. "In the (real) Black Donnellys' case, the larger community slaughtered them, so it didn't work out overly well."
"I'm basically telling a tragedy, but it's a tragedy that will be played out over four or five years. Hopefully a funny tragedy," he added, pointing out that even in his sombre films like Million Dollar Baby, people forget there was humour in his writing before the tragic twist.
NBC picked up The Black Donnellys a decade after Haggis and Moresco wrote it, only after The Sopranos and later shows proved audiences were ready for complex anti-heroes. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was after the series creator acquired two Oscars and a heap of other accolades and publicity. It was written immediately after the quick failure of his critically acclaimed show EZ Streets, which he said is similar in tone and subject matter. "I think it'll fail brilliantly," he joked about his new project, bemoaning his TV track record for critically acclaimed failures.
Episodes of the extremely short-lived EZ Streets are now available on DVD and the web thanks to Brilliant But Cancelled. The series has been hailed as paving the way for The Sopranos, but Haggis takes little pride in the pioneer label. "I'm a petty fuck," he claimed. "I didn't even watch The Sopranos, I was so upset."
He explained he'd tried to sell EZ Streets to HBO after its cancellation on CBS. "They said, 'You know what, we could do this. But we have this script called The Sopranos. If that doesn't work, we'll call you.' So yeah, I've been bitter ever since."
Like The Black Donnellys, EZ Streets presented morally ambiguous characters the audience wasn't sure they should love or hate. Mocking his inability to pitch a show, Haggis recounted how he tried to sell the network on the series. "I said to CBS, 'It's about moral ambiguity.' And they just stared at me." Instead of trying to convince them of the brilliance of his idea, against their objections he went away and just wrote the script, which they ended up loving.
But audiences didn't.
"At the time, the Gulf War was on and all my good liberal friends were coming to me and saying 'we gotta go kick Saddam Hussein's ass.' And I said, 'I'm sure we do, I'm sure he's a horrible, heinous guy, but what about the horrible dictators we're supporting? Why don't we kick their asses?'" Haggis recalled.
"People, Americans especially, love to put a black hat on this guy and a white hat on this guy and that's all you need to know about these people. So I said, 'I'm going to do a series where you never figure out who's the hero and who's the villain.' And America took to that like a rock. They said 'OK, yeah, yeah, we hate that.'"
Though Haggis has lived in the United States for about 25 years, and uses the pronoun "we" to talk about Americans, he's proud to be identified as a Canadian, too. His career, however, is not quite as Canadian as it would seem from the Banff festival. He was honoured with the NBC Universal Canada Award of Distinction, "recognizing an individual who exemplifies achievement and advancement in the Canadian entertainment industry." But as he pointed out at his session, the one partially Canadian credit in his long list is Due South – a fine show, but perhaps not that fine.
He started his career on American sitcoms such as One Day at a Time, Diff'rent Strokes, and The Facts of Life, and moved into dramas with thirtysomething and L.A. Law, among others. His more recent success with films that sink audiences into depression (before racking up the Oscars) makes it something of a surprise that he's so effortlessly funny and caustically self-deprecating in person.
While he plans to remain involved in The Black Donnellys – if it defies his tongue-in-cheek prediction and succeeds, that is – his return to television is not full-time.
His rewrite of the new James Bond script, Casino Royale, is due in theatres later this year. "It's about how Bond becomes an assassin, and how he becomes a misogynist. I think I've probably ruined the Bond series for everyone forever."
Among other upcoming films are two more collaborations with Clint Eastwood, who directed Haggis's Million Dollar Baby script: Flags of our Fathers and Red Sun, Black Sand.
While he said he couldn’t go a week without writing before thinking he's wasting his life, Haggis plans to continue directing as well. "Directing is a breeze compared to writing. It's a social activity. You just have to disagree with 100 people who are trying to get you to change your mind, and say 'no, I'm going to do it my way.'"
That is, after all, how he earned his success. He explained that after the surprising success of his independent films, studios trust his judgment more than they used to. Now, he said, they think, "We don't understand his new project, either, so that fits the pattern perfectly."