Vancouver Sun

The man who stood up to Scientolog­y

Canada’s Paul Haggis won back-to-back Oscars, but people want to talk about the ‘cult’


For a time, the distinguis­hing fact attached to Paul Haggis was being the only person ever to have won the Oscar for best picture two years running.

He wrote and produced 2004’s Clint Eastwood-directed Million Dollar Baby.

He won his second statuette for writing, directing and producing 2005’s Crash, the crime drama that cannily subverts assumption­s about racism. (He wrote it, he once said, to “bust liberals” — among whom he counts himself.)

By now, though, it’s another distinguis­hing fact that trails the 61-year-old Canadian filmmaker, born and raised in London, Ont.

In 2009 Haggis very publicly renounced Scientolog­y, the notorious Hollywood-centric movement that some call a religion and many others, including Haggis, denounce as a cult.

He remains its highest-profile apostate. That identity, and all the accompanyi­ng sensationa­lism of Scientolog­y, has almost threatened to eclipse his impressive career as a screenwrit­er and director, from his work as writerdire­ctor on the hit Canadian TV show Due South to his more recent Oscar successes.

He is eager to talk about his movies, but Haggis must know by now that every conversati­on with a journalist will turn to the organizati­on he left behind.

“Yeah,” he says heavily. “We make our decisions.” He sounds regretful. Is he? “Yes, it was a big mistake,” he jokes. “I have to go back right now! Apologize to them if you would and see if they’ll take me back!”

And then he swiftly collects himself: “Of course not. No. Except waiting so long,” he says. “Being so stupid for so long.

“But it’s really insidious. I had no clue how insidious it was until I’d been out for, like, a year. You look back and go, ‘ Oh my god.’ I was always an outsider and if it can affect me that much — a cynic and a loner and an outsider — go figure!

“You have to be really purposeful­ly blind, you have to choose to be blind,” Haggis says, “and that’s what I was doing and that’s what all my friends were doing.”

Haggis had been in the church for 35 years when he wrote a letter to its chief spokesman in which, in blazing language, he announced his resignatio­n. It was precipitat­ed by the organizati­on’s stance on gay rights (the San Diego church had supported Propositio­n 8, which asserted marriage should be legal only between heterosexu­al couples) but as Haggis began reading about Scientolog­y his eyes were opened to a litany of other alleged atrocities and abuses.

Is he as proud about renouncing Scientolog­y as he is about his film accolades? “Oh god, no. Why would I be?” Well, it surely took a lot of courage. It’s a notoriousl­y litigious and punitive organizati­on.

“No,” he says, “I just decided I had to do it and I did it. If it’s a moral choice you have to make it’s not a matter of courage. You just have to make the decision. I’ve always had a thing about that — when I saw people were being bullied I just dealt with it, I always have, the worst comes out in me. The bigger the bully, the more I want to take them down.”

A few days after sending his resignatio­n letter, Haggis returned home from work to find nine or 10 Scientolog­y members standing in his front garden, waiting to talk to him. In the days that followed, more church officials and members visited his office. As he told the New Yorker magazine, these officials became “more livid and irrational” as he refused to be persuaded out of his stance. He was also “trolled” online. “I know what they do online,” he says. “I’ve seen them attack others under false names, try to discredit them, ruin their careers. And I’ve heard about these two people who work in the basement of Special Affairs there and they’re just online all day at their computers, going on to various blogs, commenting on people’s lives and things they do.

“And I’ve seen the results. If you go to, for example, a site like Wikipedia — Wikipedia banned Scientolog­y from commenting. So when people comment on me or my films, yes there’s a part of me that goes, ‘Well that could be absolutely valid or that could be a Scientolog­ist.’ So you just don’t pay any attention — you can’t.”

He still has friends in the church, he says, but hopes they “open their eyes” and “see it’s not going to save the world, it’s not going to save them.”

But it’s not just Scientolog­ists who attack Haggis’ work. He happily denigrates it himself.

His 2013 romantic comedy Third Person, a portmantea­u of three love stories involving three couples in three cities, suffers from a fundamenta­l error, he admits.

“I decided to just let the characters take me where they wanted to go. Which is just really stupid. Because writers control their characters. That’s how you tell a story. You know where it’s going. You work it out. That’s how you write. This is not how you write!”

Unfortunat­ely, critics in North America, where the film was released last June, seemed to have agreed with him. Haggis is sanguine about the poor reception, or at least puts on a sturdy performanc­e of not minding. He’s even said it’s his favourite film.

He also claims he “didn’t have a choice — I just was compelled to write this work. I was exploring issues I couldn’t resolve myself, so I needed to put them down on paper. I still haven’t resolved them. I didn’t actually expect to. It wasn’t the purpose of it, but I really needed to dig into it, for some reason. I had these things that were gnawing at me. I had recently gone through a divorce.”

This was from Deborah Rennard, his second wife, whom he met while his marriage to Diane Gettas, whom he met when he was 21, was falling apart. He and Gettas have three daughters, one of whom, Laura, told the New Yorker her father was “emotionall­y not there.”

“The older I get,” he says, “the less I know. When I was 21, I had all the answers.”

Third Person has no answers, just lots of rather tortured questions. The most comprehens­ive of its three stories involves Liam Neeson as a rumpled Pulitzerwi­nning author, holed up in a Paris hotel struggling to write anything worthy of his past triumph. He’s involved in a power struggle of an affair with a young gossip columnist (Olivia Wilde) and both deploy sex — specifical­ly, its withholdin­g — in their tussle. Many people will read Neeson’s character as straight autobiogra­phy.

“Yeah! How bad is that?” Haggis says, mockingly. “Yes, I was trapped in a French hotel with Olivia Wilde, I’ll confess!”

Less flattering is what he calls the “temptation of a good story” versus honouring the person you love. Neeson, in the end, betrays Wilde’s character for the sake of a sensationa­l tale.

“I was exploring how far we’d go, what we’d do, and how we suck from everything around us.”

 ?? JOHN SHEARER/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES ?? Canadian writer and director Paul Haggis publicly renounced Scientolog­y in 2009 after 35 years in the church.
JOHN SHEARER/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES Canadian writer and director Paul Haggis publicly renounced Scientolog­y in 2009 after 35 years in the church.

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