Director Paul Haggis on In the Valley of Elah: The RT Interview
The Crash director lets us into the world of his latest.
The diminutive Canadian's new film, which he wrote and directed, is the latest in a series of Hollywood efforts examining the U.S's government's apparently rather unpopular war in Iraq. In the Valley of Elah revolves around Tommy Lee Jones' Hank, a patriotic Texan who turns detective to investigate the disappearance of his son after he had completed a tour of duty in Iraq. RT caught up with Haggis for an exclusive chat, and asked about his feelings on the war, his relationship with Clint Eastwood, and, of course, writing the script for the Bond 22.
The story came from a Playboy article. What about that article appealed?
Paul Haggis:: Before that it started with articles and things I was seeing online; things that the troops were shooting in 2003/4 and posting. I found some of these images to be really disturbing. One was a rock video some kid who was over there had cut together. There were rockets flying by, buildings and tanks blowing up, and then there was a picture of one of these kids posing with a burnt corpse and goofing around with it. Then there was more rockets, more guns, more tanks rolling by, and then there was a body on the ground that was in pieces. One of these kids picked up the hand and waved it at the camera.
I thought: "Oh my God, what's happening." So I went looking for something and found Mark Boale's story, it was sent to me by my agents. It was a story about a man who was searching for his son, who'd just come home from Iraq apparently and had gone missing. The father, in this case, was a former military police officer, so he starts his own investigation when the military seems uninterested in solving the mystery. And he eventually gets the help of a small town police detective, played by Charlize Theron, who again doesn't seem very interested but is compelled to help. I wanted to tell the story not from my own point of view... I was demonstrating against this war way before and I thought no one would accept that point of view.
So, I figured: "Tell the story from a proud American, someone we could look at and say that we may not agree with his politics, or his life, but he's a moral man, he knows right from wrong, and was a classic American hero. And let's just follow him. This character has the same sin that I have, and that our nation has, and that's a kind of pride. It's the reason it's one of the seven deadly sins, because excessive pride leads to blindness. So we start with a blind man who slowly opens his eyes and sees the truth and becomes destroyed by it.
As a father yourself, could you comprehend sending any of your children off to war?
PH: It would be the most difficult decision I'd ever have to make in my life. I don't think I'm against all wars but you'd have to have a damn good reason to send your son or daughter to fight, or to go yourself. So often, we are lied to and manipulated by our governments for their own very cynical reasons. And that's what's happening in America - these very cynical people are manipulating young people and making them volunteer to serve in a place [like Iraq]. They go there thinking they can do something. Many of them joined up right after 9/11 and wanted to support their country - to be a hero. And we told these kids these stories, like the story of David and Goliath. We tell them these stories and they grow up wanting to be that.
But in places like Iraq, they land there and very quickly they realise that perhaps they are Goliath - perhaps they're on the wrong side. They're killing so many civilians and it haunts them. They come back and they're often destroyed by what they've seen and what they've done. It's why we have the highest suicide rate in the military in history. And we're not even counting the suicides. We also have the highest rate of homelessness - these 22 and 23-year-old men come home and just disappear. They're lost and they're not getting the help they need. So I figured that if we couldn't really truly empathise with the Iraqi people, perhaps we can empathise with our own men and women and see the story through their eyes - and then maybe through them see what we're doing.
Do you think the American and UK public are yet ready for films about Iraq?
PH: I don't know. You don't make a film because the audience is ready for it. You make a film because you have questions that are in your gut. I put myself in the position of these men and I didn't know what I would do. So, I knew I had to write this movie, I had to make this movie. A lot of filmmakers are doing the exact same thing right now. So, you make the movie and if the audience comes, it comes and if it doesn't, then it doesn't. But you have to make the movie and you have to tell the story.
How influential was Clint Eastwood in helping to get it made?
PH: Clint's been a great friend. He's the reason the film got made. I took it all around Hollywood for six or seven months and couldn't get it sold, so then I took it to him. I asked him to read the story that Mark Boale wrote, which he did, and said: "Wow, is it true?" I said yes and he said he'd help get it done. So he took it to Warner Bros and asked them to consider it, which they did, and they bought the rights from me and I was able to write the screenplay. Then we had to cobble together the financing independently because it's an independent film, and Warner Independent released it for us in the US.