Something happened to James Bond a few years back. He became a man again. The irreverent, impeccably dressed comic book hero turned back into the haunted but tough assassin that Ian Fleming first wrote about. And the unlikely saviour of the 007 franchise is none other than Paul Haggis.

To most of us that didn’t make sense – he was a screenwriter and filmmaker whose stories were about issues, not espionage. He wrote about people not spies. And yet after two straight screenplays written by Haggis, Bond is stronger than ever.

His Crash was a series of vignettes in which everyone was shattered to some degree; Million Dollar Baby understood the soul that lived within a broken body; and Flags of Our Fathers took the pain of death on the battlefield to the front door of American homes.

Haggis knows that the invincible is boring and the vulnerable, divine. Perhaps that’s why he has taken up a cause that is bigger than anything he’s created for Hollywood: educating, feeding and saving the children of Haiti. He has began an organization called Artists for Peace and Justice and turned to some of the biggest A-list names in film to support the cause.

While the Toronto International Film Festival buzzes with sound bites and press conferences about the importance of cinema, Haggis is in town to deliver a different message.

Q: I used to go to London, Ontario, every year as a young man because we all thought Western University attracted the best looking girls.
A: I wouldn´t know. They’d never talk to me.

Q: Well, little did we know that at the same time London was also cultivating one of Canada’s better screenwriters, filmmakers and now activists. What was going on in London back then?
A: I don´t know. It was a strange place to grow up, London. I was a bit of a rebellious kid but I also had it in my genes. My mother had a huge fight with the parish priest when I was 13 years old because he just bought a new Cadillac. She said to him: "How can you do this when so many people are poor in our parish?" And he said, "Well, God wants me to have a Cadillac." And she said, "Well, then God doesn´t want us coming to your church." And we never went back.

So I have that kind of rebellion in my bones from an early age. As much as I´ve always had a dislike for religion I´ve also always been attracted to priests and nuns and people of the clergy. They´ve always been a big part of my life – sometimes lapsed priests, sometimes defrocked priests. There have been a lot of priests and nuns I´ve known over the years that I´ve run up against. They were the people who´ve been really instrumental in opening up my eyes from the time of Iran-Contra until now.

In this case I became interested in this priest/doctor who is doing really interesting work in Haiti. I found out in a very strange way. I was doing an interview in Italy with a journalist. It was a lovely interview and we finished and I asked her what else she was writing. She said, "Well I happened into Haiti and I just wrote an article on it." I was being nice and said, "Well, I’d love to read it." Of course, you don´t ever really mean these things but you say them anyway. But she took me at my word and had the article translated in English and sent it. Three months later she emailed me to ask if I´ve read it. Of course I hadn´t, I said, “My God, I´ll have to check and see what happened." I blamed my assistant for not giving it to me or some such bullshit. I read it and wow! It was about this guy Rick Frechette who was this doctor working in the slums there for 22 years. I was really impressed and I said something really stupid. I said, "Wow, I´d like to see that."

She wrote back and said there are some people going in February, you might think of going with them. At that point I had two choices. I could either be an asshole and say, "No, I was just kidding" or I could keep face because I don´t want to look bad in front of a journalist. So I said, "Of course I´ll go," knowing that by February I´d be doing some movie or something and I´d have a really good excuse.

Well, February came along and there was no movie and I had no fucking excuse at all. I had to go. So I put myself in the plane and I went to the slums of Haiti. And I met Father Rick with other Italians and various journalists and people who were there. I fell in love with the work he was doing in the slums; the way he was empowering people. It wasn´t about charity, it was about feeding their souls and giving them guidance and whatever little money and the skills he had to help them make something of their lives. He is one of the bravest men I ever met in my life. And so I brought a bunch of friends back a few months later.

I actually had Father Rick over to my house in the summer and introduced him to a few people. He didn´t know any of them. These were all famous movie stars and he didn´t know any of them because he´d been in Haiti for 22 years with no TV or anything else. He knew Barbra Streisand but she was the only one.

My friends were just as blown away by him as I was. And they said we´ve got to do something to help him. He has a very tough time raising money. He manages to get 100 bucks here and there and every penny of it goes straight to the streets of Haiti.

Q: Here we are in the thick of the [Toronto International] Film Festival and you´re not touting a movie, you´re touting a charity.
A: I´ve always felt really uncomfortable talking about myself. I love talking, I love meeting people, but the whole Crash promotion thing left me feeling very uncomfortable. Because basically, even though you´re talking about the movie, you´re talking about yourself. I´d much rather be talking about someone who does real work and really good things. My work, I don´t need to talk about it. You go to the movie, you either like it or you don´t like it. Why do we need to talk? I know you have to promote films, especially independent films. We had to promote Crash and In the Valley of Elah. Nobody wanted to see the films so we had to do it, but I just felt uncomfortable.

Q: But aren´t you doing real work, good work, when you make a film like Crash that dismantles everyone´s preconceived notion of what racism looks like?
A: Thank you. Yeah, of course it is, but it´s more joy than anything – and pain, a lot of pain to get there [laughs]. I think as artists we do amazing things but the by-product of that is celebrity. And I´ve always felt that we need to use our celebrity in any way we can to help. It´s a commodity. Back when we invaded Afghanistan I was out demonstrating in the streets. I quickly realized that if a celebrity wasn´t at a demonstration it didn´t exist. We had 50,000 people in the streets of Los Angeles and not a column inch in the LA Times. And so I decided to start cultivating celebrities, especially actors.

Back then it was scary times in America. Hollywood was terrified. They didn´t want to look unpatriotic in any way. It was very hard to get people to come. We had to promise there wouldn´t be any press – just come and listen and discuss and talk, you won´t have to agree to anything. No one´s going to question your patriotism, just come and listen.

Q: I guess people still had the blacklist in mind.
A: Yes, very firmly. But then you see people like Sean Penn who would do it and get away with it. He was such a great example to so many people. He was off in Iraq and he wasn´t paying any consequences. Some people did; Tim Robbins. I happen to think that Tim and Susan [Sarandon] paid a price for what they did. I admire them both so much for that. Now they´re back and it´s fine, but there was a time when people would say, "I don´t want to put Susan in my film, she´s unpatriotic."

Q: But don´t most Americans feel removed from their own government? Isn´t there some cachet to being the outcast?
A: I certainly like it.

Q: You feel like an outcast?
A: Oh yeah, completely. Some magazine recently called me an iconoclast and that was like the best thing ever. After we won the Oscars for Crash people started referring to me as a Hollywood director and it was a big Hollywood film I´ve done with Hollywood movie stars. And I said, "What? This is a $6-million independent picture. When did I become a Hollywood guy?" So I ran off to do an even smaller film immediately. Then people got used to me doing that so now I´m doing a suspense with Russell Crowe. I like keeping people on their toes. I don´t like them knowing what I´m going to do next.

Q: I think we were all surprised when your name showed up as a screenwriter for the reinvention of James Bond.
A: That was fun. That was so much fun. I just had to ask the same questions of Bond as I would ask any other character. Ask really tough questions of that character and he´ll give you surprising answers. In this case I asked, "What is it like being an assassin?" I don´t think he shoots a laser at someone from across the moon and laughs. I just don´t think that´s how assassins work. I think you stick them with a knife, you do it close up, you´ve got blood on your hands and even though you´ve coated your soul in armour, you´re going to pay a terrible price and just pretend not to. It´ll scar you forever.

And then I asked, "What is it with Bond and women?" Someone must´ve screwed him over big time [laughs] and so the plot came out of that.

Q: Your Bond seems closer to a John le Carré character than a Fleming character.
A: Ah, my favourite, John le Carré. The best work that has been done of his has been the BBC productions: Smiley´s People [and] Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Those are just brilliant.

Q: Clint Eastwood: Seems to me the older this man gets the better filmmaker he becomes.
A: A brilliant man. I don´t know how he gets away with what he is doing. He shoots two films a year. He just finished Mandela [Ed. note: Eastwood´s upcoming biopic about Nelson Mandela is actually titled Invictus] and now he´s on to something else. I just can´t keep up with him.

Q: But he hasn´t always been the most sensitive. His earlier films showed a far less progressive filmmaker.
A: You could see the change with Unforgiven. That´s my favourite film of all time. I think when he hit that, something changed in him. He had a few stumbles after Unforgiven but then he found himself again and came back with Mystic River.

Q: He certainly found himself with you.
A: I love working with him.

Q: Does a film like Million Dollar Baby have a shelf life because of its twist?
A: I think films with the great big twist are better the second time. I remember seeing Nicholas Roeg´s picture Don´t Look Now. I sat through it twice and the second time was more suspenseful. The suspense about not knowing what´s going to happen turns into dread because you do know. It´s that sense of dread that informs the entire film. I hope Million Dollar Baby stands up to that.

I love planting clues in humour. One of my favourite lines in Million Dollar Baby is just a throwaway moment. Clint´s character tells [Hillary Swank´s] character that he’s finally going to take her to a championship fight. Up until this point he has never let her make a decision so he tells her she gets to decide whether they drive or fly. She says, "Really? I get to decide? I want flying there and drive back." And that´s what happens doesn´t it? They fly there and drive back in an ambulance. And no one gets that until they´ve seen the film a second time. I love planting little gems like that that later pay off.

Q: Too bad Robert Altman´s not around, I think you two would´ve done well together.
A: I met him once when he got his honorary Oscar. After the awards ceremony we went together to Paul Thomas Anderson´s house.

Q: Do you think Altman’s crown has been handed down to Paul Thomas Anderson?
A: Yes. I´m a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson.

Q: The video you did online for Artists for Peace and Justice is incredibly touching.
A: You see those kids and it´s heartbreaking. A lot of those kids I played with the year before, when I returned they were dead. Haiti’s a forgotten place and it´s so close to us. We have to do something. People asked Father Rick if he’s made a dent in the 22 years he’s been here and he says, "No." Haiti is just as poor now as it was 25 years ago. And yet 3,500 kids are educated and eat because of him. He shouldn´t be out begging for money. He´s a doctor. We need him in Haiti.

Q: Isn´t it obvious then, you should do a film about him?
A: I haven´t figured out how to do it. I don´t know how to make films about heroes. He´s a great man. I don´t make films about great men.

More info: Artists for Peace and Justice


Thom Ernst is a Toronto-based film writer and critic and the producer/interviewer of TVO´s long-running movie program Saturday Night at the Movies. For more from Thom, visit the Saturday Night at the Movies blog.