Down In The ValleyAn Interview With Paul Haggis, director of Crash and In The Valley Of Elah
An Oscar winning screenwriter and director for his work on Crash, Paul Haggis’ other screenplays include Million Dollar Baby, The Last Kiss, Flags of Our Fathers, Casino Royale and Letters From Iwo Jima.
His new film, which he has written and directed, is In The Valley Of Elah, a murder mystery story set squarely in the present. Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank Deerfield, a retired soldier who begins the hunt for his son who went missing shortly after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. Police Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) joins him in a case that soon yields some dark and disturbing secrets.
At what point did you come up so distinctive a title for your film?
“About halfway through writing it. I knew that Hank would probably read the Bible, I didn’t think he was an overly religious man but I thought that he would find solace in it. I was looking for a story for him to tell, and I remembered David and Goliath because it was a story told to me when I was a young boy. I thought it was a remarkable tale of bravery, and I started to think of the stories we tell our children, especially young boys, that are like this. They grow up believing them and picturing themselves as David, or those characters who are fighting monsters and giants. I thought what must that be like, to go to some place like Iraq thinking that’s what you’re doing, that you’re going there to fight the monster only to find out that in fact you are the Goliath.”
Despite the tremendous success you had with Crash this was not such an easy movie to get made, was it?
“What happened was I’d just finished Crash and before it was released I went looking for the next thing to do. In 2003 of course we invaded Iraq and I was very disturbed by that, as a lot of people were. I was especially disturbed by the fact that even in Santa Monica, where I lived, I’d put signs out in front of my house saying ‘War Is Not The Answer’, and those signs were ripped up or defaced once a week. We went through 12 of those. After we invaded there was another sign I put up about bringing our troops home, and that was similarly treated. And that’s a liberal community. So I was looking for something to do on Iraq, I went online and looked for whatever I could find.”
What you found was the real case that you used as the basis for your story, didn’t you?
“I found [journalist] Mark Boal’s story in May 2004 when one of my agents sent it to me. But they said we’d never get it financed and I said ‘that’s ridiculous, of course we will,’. So I took it out and I took it around for about and no-one wanted to do it. After seven months I realised that I was never going to get this film made, so I took it to Clint Eastwood and asked for his help. He read the article and said he would help. He called the chairman of Warner Bros., and asked him to read it and to take it seriously. Alan Horn read it and was moved by it and bought the underlying rights for me.”
The reaction in America has been mixed hasn’t it, due to the sensitivity of the subject matter?
“We’re doing very well in Europe so far, but it is a difficult subject. A friend of mine said to me recently that you can talk about the history, you can talk about wars in the past because then you’re talking about scars. But when you talk about someone who has a gaping wound in their chest and they’re bleeding from it, it’s difficult to discuss. And we have that gaping wound right now so it’s not that easy for people to look at the subject, especially in America. So it was quite difficult to get going. I could have easily got a film going immediately that was closer akin to studio fare, directed a big picture or something, that would have been easy.”
How significant is it that two of these young guys playing soldiers in the film are real soldiers who have served in the Middle East?
“That was really significant and really important for me. I told my casting directors I wanted to find as many veterans, especially from the Iraq War, as I could. Part of it was laziness, as a director you like to work with actors or people who have that experience. I also read a lot of terrific actors for those roles, and they did a great job with the scenes but when these young men talked about their experiences suddenly you said ‘oh my God, they know,’. They could do it with very little.”
What has been the reaction of the wider community of veterans?
“I took a rough cut of the film and showed it all around America. Patricia Foulkrod, who made the documentary The Ground Truth, took it all around America for me. She showed it to veterans and family members, and there was an overwhelmingly positive response from Iraq war veterans. I had one experience where there was a screening in Washington DC that I happened to be present at. This was for veterans and family members before the film opened. After the screening three women approached me, one after the other from the crowd and talked about how difficult it was to watch the film and how in some cases they wanted to walk out because their husbands or their sons had been in Iraq. It turned out that either the son or the husband of these three women had committed suicide in the first three weeks after getting back. And these women didn’t know each other. It’s really devastating to see what’s happening to our sons and daughters.”
How did you find it working with Tommy Lee and Charlize?
“They’re very different actors, but both very skilled. That was what I wanted, I wanted actors who could do a lot with very little dialogue, who could also disappear into the roles. Tommy has a slow process in which he gets better with every take. You just watch as he eases into the role, you watch it build and build and build until you just get it perfectly. Charlize is almost always best on a first take. It’s great to watch because she’ll messing around on the set and then the AD will say we’re rolling and you’ll watch her face, you watch her arrive on her mark and her face changes and she suddenly becomes that character right there before your eyes. You say action and ‘boom’, she’s in the scene. Then you say ‘cut’ and she’s messing around again.”
Through your research do you feel you’ve captured the authentic voice of the soldier in your film?
“I interviewed a lot of them, and they’ll talk easily about their experiences. And it’s just shattering them, not all of them, many are fine. Thank God, who wants to destroy young men and women? But the civilian deaths that they’re participating in is wreaking such havoc on their psyches. I thought America wasn’t ready to empathise with the Iraqis right now, the thousands and thousands of Iraqi civilians who are dead, the innocents. We don’t know them, we don’t know what they look like, we think they’re odd because they speak a strange language and they dress differently and have different beliefs. It’s easy to distance ourselves from them, so it would be very difficult to tell a story from their point of view. But if we could tell a story from our sons’ and daughters’ point of view and see what they’re seeing, the decisions they have to make and see how they’re haunted by the senseless deaths that are happening there, perhaps then, through their eyes we can empathise with them.”
In the Valley of Elah is released on January 25th. For more information on the film, please visit the website - www.inthevalleyofelah.co.uk
In The Valley Of Elah Review