Producer/Screenwriter/ Director Paul Haggis in 2006 became the first screenwriter to write two Best Film Oscars winners back-to-back, Million Dollar Baby (2004) and Crash (2005).
His new movie The Next Three Days takes Haggis into a new genre – an action thriller. The story spotlights the relationship between John Brennan (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks), a happy couple until Lara is arrested for a murder she swears she didn’t commit. After several years in jail, Lara becomes suicidal and John decides to attempt a jail break, concocting an elaborate escape plot.
What was it about the premise of the movie that interested you in writing and directing it?
I’ve always wanted to make a thriller, especially one where a love story played such a central role. Here was Hitchcock’s classic scenario, a perfectly ordinary man who, in this case, thrusts himself into extraordinary circumstances.
He can’t watch his wife and son suffer so much as they drift apart from each other. But when he finds out what it takes to break her out, he has to ask himself a very difficult question, ‘Would you save the woman you love if you knew that by doing so, you would turn into someone that she might no longer be able to love?’
That’s what always draws me to a subject – a question I cannot answer for myself. When I find the question, I know I have a film. But the film is also about the nature and power of trust – what it means when you trust someone no matter what, when no one else does, when all the evidence is against them – when they can no longer even trust themselves.
Russell’s character does go through a lot of research on the internet, is that something you did for this movie?
When we started to figure out how to do this movie that’s what I did. I went online and said, ‘He’s a teacher, I’m a writer; how would I break my wife out of jail?’ And the first thing I did was go to the internet.
Everything you see in the movie I found in the first day. We had to re-shoot it because of the copyright issues, but it’s all there, you can learn how to do all these things. It’s amazing what you can find on the internet.
What was it about Russell that made him right for John Brennan?
Russell is one of the finest actors of our time. He’s right for almost any project but he was certainly right for this one because so much of the intent of the film has to be communicated without words. A turn of a head or a flick of an eye has to tell us so much, what John Brennan is thinking, what he’s decided, where he is going next. Russell is the type of actor who cracks open his chest and lets you stare right into his heart – deep, into the dark corners of his soul.
When he comes to the set you can’t get him off. He comes and he hangs out and I say, ‘You can go back to your trailer,’ and he says, ‘No, no, I’m going to hang out (until) we get the next shot.’ You see the investment he has in the film process. You really truly see how much he loves making movies, it’s great. It’s wonderful to work with an artist like that who really cares that the shot works. It’s great to work with an actor that cares that much.
What is it that makes Russell such a dynamic screen presence?
We all think Russell Crowe is larger than life because of Gladiator, Robin Hood, and then you look at the body of his work which are complex characters, he plays an everyman so beautifully, and that’s why I knew when casting him that you throw those preconceptions out three minutes into the film, and say, ‘The poor son-of-a-bitch, he’s never going to pull this off.’ And that’s why you cast Russell Crowe in a movie.
Why was Pittsburgh the right location for this film?
I was looking for a working-class town which had evolved because I wanted John to come from a working-class background. That was very important to me. I fell in love with Pittsburgh. The skyline is great, and each neighborhood is proud and distinct and has held onto its roots and its characteristics.
There’s a certain ambiguity where Lara’s innocence is concerned.
It’s about the nature of trust and belief and his character completely believes in her innocence and we have to look at that and go, ‘I think he’s a little mad,’ because everyone, including her attorney, looks at the same evidence and says, ‘She’s guilty.’ So it’s up to the audience to decide.
Did this experience make you feel differently about the American prison system?
I think we all used to think it was a really good thing, and now that we’ve been inside and looking out, we have a different perceptive. I think when you’re shooting in a real prison you start to understand what it’s like to be in one.