Paul Haggis on "Show Me a Hero" and bringing the politics of fear to life: "That’s still what we do all the time. It’s how politics is practiced in America"

The "Show Me a Hero" director talks to Salon about what we think is his best work yet

By Sonia Saraiya

Published August 17, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)


Now that you’ve (hopefully) watched the first two hours of HBO’s “Show Me a Hero,” which debuted last night, let’s talk about the way the show looks. When you’re making a story about public housing based on a nonfiction book, the visuals are going to be crucial toward making the show feel like TV, not a textbook. Enter director Paul Haggis, the Academy Award-winning writer behind two back-to-back best pictures: “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash,” which he also directed. “Show Me a Hero” is his first project that he’s coming to solely as a director, based purely on the pedigree of David Simon, and as I said in my review of the miniseries, it might be his best work yet. Simon and co-writer William F. Zorzi’s bureaucratic and detail-oriented sensibility is complemented by Haggis’ cinematic intimacy, making for a lived-in and involved six hours.

I spoke to Haggis about how he created the visual element of “Show Me a Hero”—who would have guessed sourcing the mid-range cars from the late 1980s would have been one of the hardest parts?

Note: I get into some of the details of the first two episodes with Haggis — so fair warning, if you haven't yet watched — as well as discussing the framing device in the first episode, but at his request I have not revealed the (historically accurate) ending of “Show Me a Hero.”

How did you come to this project?

I was in England and prepping a movie that was going to go, and the actor I wanted wasn’t available for a year, so we pushed. So I had nothing to do. I called my representation and they said, “Look, we have a bunch of interest, some features we want you to direct.” They started going down the list, and they got to No. 3 and said, “Oh, David Simon has a miniseries.” I said, “Stop there. Say yes.” They said, “Great, we’ll send you the script, and we’ll discuss.” I said: “No. Say yes, and then send me the script.” They thought I was kidding, but I wasn’t, because I’m a huge fan of his, always have been. “The Wire” is one of my favorite series of all time. And, you know, his work from “The Corner” and “Treme” and “Generation Kill,” all series I watched and loved.

Then I read the script before meeting him. Luckily, it was something I had a great interest in because it was talking about what I like to talk about: the fact that this wasn’t the civil rights battle in the '60s. This is a civil rights battle in the north, in 1990. It’s not those bad people down there. It’s us here in New York. I’m a New Yorker now.

And it’s those small decisions, of the “Not in my backyard” mentality.

Oh yes. There’s literally that line in one of the episodes: "I’m not going to have that in my backyard ... It is literally in my backyard." I’m not doing it, it’s in my backyard. On reading it, I could empathize with every single one of the characters on the screen. Because even those who were cast as villains in this had a really good point. I mean, you look at Schlobohm. You look at those towers, especially in that period. Do you really want that in your street? I don’t. I know it’s not a matter of race. I know no affluent African-American or Hispanic family would want that on their street. So that wasn’t a race issue, it was a class issue.

There’s also an issue about the way we had mismanaged public housing from the beginning and how we continue to mismanage it, and how we just love to take problems and just shove them someplace and go, “Oh, they’re solved. All those people, we’re just going to warehouse them over there, and that’s solved.” And it’s not.

There’s a bureaucrat in this—Oscar Newman, played by Peter Riegert, with the long beard. He’s the only one who’s battling. He’s a bureaucrat, and he’s battling the left, he’s battling the right, he’s battling the NAACP. He’s battling HUD, he’s battling everybody—because he wants a solution that actually works. He doesn’t just want the easy solution. We just want easy solutions in this country. In Yonkers, they finally constructed housing that works for low-income families. But the fear-mongering, the hatred, everything that came out of that — it was stunning to see that actually happen, and to re-create that was something that I thought would be tremendously difficult. I like doing tremendously difficult things.

At first glance, zoning doesn’t seem like such a dynamic and political thing, but it is. How do you make that happen visually? What were the motifs or sets that you would fall to?

Early on, they gave me the script. Dave and Bill gave me a script that’s basically all true, even if some of the characters are combined, or whatever. It’s all true; everything happened. My job is to make it feel true. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to do that, how to make you feel like you were in that crowd. I said early on to David [Simon, executive producer and writer] and Nina [Kostroff-Noble, executive producer], “There’s not going to be a perfect frame in this. I’m going to find imperfection and drag it into every single frame.” If you’re in a crowd, and you’re trying to get a glimpse of the mayor, there will be two people standing in front of you, and somebody with a big hat. And if you’re looking at somebody in a close-up, there will be a microphone in the wrong place. You’ll see later in a scene with Alfred Molina [who plays city councilor Henry Spallone], there’s a pole right in his face. That’s not an accident. I moved the camera to make sure that the pole was right in his face, so that you feel like you’re a participant in this.

If you feel like that, two things will happen. One is you’ll feel real. Two, you will be able to see these people with all their flaws, because the flaws are evident in the frame. If you do that, you’ll be able to empathize. You’ll be able to say, “Yeah, that’s sort of me. I sort of feel that.” And that’s what I’ve always wanted to do in my dramas: to make you empathize with people that you don’t want to empathize with and challenge your beliefs, on the left and on the right. Many decisions that the left was making were just too easy. And the right was all fear-mongering. It was all trying to make our constituents fear the Other, and that’s still what we do all the time. It’s how politics is practiced in America.

They appeal to our basest fears.

Absolutely. Always have. And it works, and you see it working right now. You want people to go, “Can we stop? Just a second. This decision you’re making is against your best interests. You understand that, right?” But it gives you an identity to make that, to say that we should not help the poor. “OK, fine, that’s other people. But we should certainly not have public healthcare, even though my daughter is sick and might need it and my wife has bad teeth — but no, that would be bad because that’s socialism and we’re not socialists.” Then, you go, “OK, let’s just apply a little common sense to this, rather than the demagoguery.”

[“Show Me a Hero”] is about really flawed human beings. The central character is an opportunist. He’s just a guy who wants to be the mayor. Why? Because he wants to be the mayor.

He’s not even a racist.

Right! He’s just like, “Oh, I can win on this. OK, yeah, fine. I just want to win — I don’t really care why.” That original sin is what is going to damn him. That personality flaw, so that as he turns and as he champions this, everything comes at a cost to him. His own ego is frail. He’s so human, it makes this story and his bravery, I guess, that much more brave. He had to fight his own demons as well as those that surrounded him.

What was the decision behind starting the miniseries with Nick Wasicsko at his father’s grave, in 1993, and then jumping back to 1987?

Just a dramatic device that David and Bill [William F. Zorzi, writer] came up with. I wanted to keep the audience off balance. I wanted to give them a sense that something might not be good here. Exactly what? We’re not sure. Even at the end, I think you’re not sure. I like to keep the audience guessing.

There’s something beautifully understated about your cast. I didn’t even realize Vinni Restiano was Winona Ryder at first.

She’s just droning on! People talking about zoning, parking regulations, and that’s how she’s introduced.

They do a great job of blending into the surroundings.

And yet, as you see going on, it’s really fascinating to see that every single one of those city councilmen—every single person in this city hall is memorable in that role. They’re all specific. That’s a great testament to those actors, who did their research, who watched the tapes of their counterparts, who brought their own suggestions about how to do this thing. And they all found their own idiosyncrasies. It was wonderful, a very talented group of actors.

What was your favorite scene?

I loved the city hall scenes in episode two, when all hell has broken loose—and finding a way to shoot it so that you felt like you were there and you were a part of it. Shooting behind a lot of people, and having my cameras behind people, having people block us, not being able to see, having to poke around, having a lot of foreground so you felt that you were part of it. The frame was always imperfect in some way so that it talked about who these characters were: These imperfect people who were trying to serve in some way.

Yonkers is this very unglamorous location. What was it like filming there?

It was great. As much as we could, we shot in the actual location. Some had changed. Some places we couldn’t. For instance, my production designer, Larry Bennett, had to go through, and we had to create a lot of the city offices. We had to build one of the tenements. We had to build one of the apartments inside Schlobohm because we couldn’t go in and kick all the people out of their homes to shoot. The offices at City Hall had changed radically—they’d been renovated. But we did shoot in the city council chamber. We did shoot in the corridors. Everything was the same; we made it a point. Mary Dorman’s house was Mary Dorman’s house. That was very important to all of us: to feel what they were feeling at the time and to put our actors in real locations. You want to understand how small Mary Dorman’s house was. It’s a little brick house on a nice little street, and she was trying to protect that little brick house on the nice little street. It was important. Of course, it was really impossible to shoot. It was so tiny. But it made you feel that her life is not that dissimilar from those who are in public housing, who just want to have that. Just a little house someplace.

Is there an inherent challenge in doing a period piece, or something that’s not a very glamorous period piece?

Yes, it’s much harder than you expect. People did not keep their cars from 1987. You’ve got to find them all, and the people who did keep their cars, they kept Cadillacs. [Laughs.] It was so hard finding the Gremlins or the Pintos, whatever the hell we were driving back then. The Ford Rancheros. So hard, but we had to find them. And you can’t just walk out into the street and shoot. We had to shoot this very quickly. In a normal movie, you shoot maybe one to three pages a day. This, we were shooting between six and 10 pages a day. That was a struggle. We had to shoot very quickly. A lot of locations. Over 40 speaking roles, and make it all feel real. [We had to] shoot really fast. Make decisions very quickly—how you’re going to do it—and stick to it.

You’ve had the opportunity to make your own masterpieces. What’s it like going into a situation where you’re creating things on the fly?

It’s great. I’ve never directed anything I haven’t written. It’s my first, ever. And I wanted to do it because I wanted to learn. It’s a great challenge to go in with someone else’s script, and as a director you get to give notes. You’re not putting pen to paper — that’s their job. They protect that, rightfully. They’re the writers. My job is to guide that where I can, to understand it, and to try to figure out how to do it where I can’t. And to bring it to life. If there’s a scene that requires just a truckload of exposition, how do I make it sound like those people really should be saying those things to each other at that moment, even though they both know it. How do I make it sound like that? How do I make the actors understand that? If I add this little thing, try to improvise around this little bit, and then find the life in it. Bring it to life, and then shoot it in a way that it’ll feel like it’s happening right now, but not do it in a strictly verité way, and do it in a way that has a style that hopefully helps tell the story.

I had to keep focusing on, “What’s the emotional arc here?” Yes, we have all this going on, but what’s actually happening underneath that? So when this vote comes down like that, what’s the emotional impact on our character. Ah, he thought he had it in his pocket. He thought he had this ally. This ally just turned him into an enemy, and I have to see that on his face. I have to understand that by just looking at it.

Sonia Saraiya

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