Interview : Paul Haggis


The Screenwriter of “Flags of Our Fathers”

Ain’t no doubt about it, Paul Haggis is one of today’s most prolific and brilliant screenwriters. Following his success with “Crash”, Haggis teams with director Clint Eastwood for the moving “Flags of our Fathers”.

Did you do any special research for writing the screenplay?

I didn’t do any special research. I took the research from the book. Clint had been researching it for some time. So, he’d keep sending me other books and other documentaries. I didn’t have to go out anywhere; Clint did everything. What I struggled with the most were two things: how to tell a story; and why to tell a story. There have been many war stories told, some good, most bad. And finally, after several months, I came up with this idea, which was a very obvious idea. It wasn’t anything brilliant: what it does to a man to be called a hero when they don’t believe that they truly are heroes, and how that can destroy a man. These three men had three very different reactions to being called heroes. The research I did do on the book. I was born after the war, and I had no idea that this battle was so brutal on both sides, and so many lives were lost. It was incredibly shocking.

What did you discuss with Mr. Eastwood regarding the Japanese version?

The first thing about Flags, he said he didn’t want it to be, in his words, another B.S. war movie. He didn’t want it to be some flag-waving thing. That was for Flags of Our Fathers. And then, about halfway through working on it, he said, ‘I have an idea.’ And I said, ‘Great. Well, I love your ideas.’ He said, ‘I’d like to make a movie from the other perspective.’ I said, ‘That’s brilliant. It’s insane. How do you make two movies at the same time? But it’s brilliant.’ And he asked me to write it. And I said, ‘No, no, I can’t write it. I’ll help with the story. But you need a Japanese writer to write the perspective. I wouldn’t feel right doing it.’ So, it took a long time trying to find either a Japanese or Japanese-American writer. And we found Iris. I’d read some of her scripts that I liked, and we thought she’d do a good job. Then, we discussed the stories and he found the Book of Letters from a General, and I found them very moving. Very moving. And so, we tried to base it around that and other research that Iris did. Mr. Eastwood wanted to humanize the people that we had long demonized. I think it’s a real problem, especially with history, that the victors tell the history, and it’s always an unfair one. So, I think it was a brilliant thing for him to do.

What did you feel from Mr. Eastwood’s in making these movies?

He was very passionate about this. Originally, the book Flags of Our Fathers is a book that Steven Spielberg had sent him, and he sent to make. And I didn’t know how to do it. It was a huge, huge book. And I didn’t know how to attack it and how to humanize it. But, the more research he did, the more he became involved, just very passionate about this project, from both sides. So, you could just see him, whenever he spoke about this project, or these two projects, his whole face lit up. He just became very involved. He loves research; he loves finding out about history; he loves the detail of history and discovering some of the things. And we just didn’t know, especially from the Japanese perspective, some of the things that happened on the island before the battles and some of the idiosyncrasies and the funny moments. And so I wanted to bring that, and wanted to bring his passion to the screen.

What is the message behind Letters From Iwo Jima?

I don’t like to write movies that have messages. I like to write films that ask questions. In this case, I co-wrote the story, and Iris wrote the screenplay. As I said, I really truly wanted to humanize people that we demonized for a long time. And I try to do that in all my work. I especially tried to do that in Crash, and make you empathize with people you didn’t want to empathize with, make you understand people because tolerance is the only way through this world. And if we continue to demonize people, whether they’re Japanese in World War II or whether they’re Arabic or Persian or whatever, or Korean, we can’t understand their point of view, even if we think their other point of view is crazy, we should seek to understand it. So, we can solve some of our problems. So, that was why I was asking, is if we can do that. And so, I think it’s a lovely film for that reason.

What kind of vision or approach do you think Mr. Eastwood has towards movie making in general?

Well, he is a very economical filmmaker. He loves a very spare film. He loves Haiku, I guess, the filmmaker. He doesn’t mess around. He comes in, sees what he wants, shoots it, and moves on without a lot of fuss. He finds the emotion in the scenes, but he lets the actors, and in my case, the writer, really create within their realm, so that it’s a cooperation of artists. It’s a collaboration. And that’s why I think artists love him. That’s why actors love him and why writers love him. He really demands the best of you. But then he accepts it. And he moves on. And that’s a great way of making films.

Have you ever had any discussion with Mr. Eastwood about family being one of his themes?

No, I’ve never had that discussion. It’s an option. People don’t know what themes they’re working on. I certainly don’t know often what themes I’m working on. They’re just things that intrigue us. And only later we look back and go, ‘Oh, look, they all have similar aspects.’ No, we’ve never discussed that. He just looks for a good story. That’s what he’ll tell you. He just looks for a story that intrigues him. And, in this case, he started reading about Iwo Jima and finding some things he didn’t know, because he was too young to be in the war as well. And it just fascinated him. And so he started digging and digging and digging and more reading and more researching and meeting people. And it became a passion, an obsession. So, if that’s driven by something, you’ll have to ask him. I think he looks for the stories, and then a theme emerges.