Ten years ago, the Canadian director, screenwriter, and famous Scientology dropout Paul Haggis released Crash, a movie that looked at the various ways that prejudice affected the lives of Los Angelenos of different racial and class backgrounds. The movie, which starred a litany of Hollywood A-listers like Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, and Sandra Bullock, went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture (though Haggis recently suggested that maybe it didn’t deserve the honor). “It was a fable, a social experiment,” Haggis tells Vogue.com by phone. “It was me just being perverse, to see how much I could manipulate you into rethinking things you didn’t know you believed.”
His latest project, by contrast, is based on real-life events, though ones that betray similarly latent racism in a seemingly liberal community. That project is the new David Simon–penned HBO miniseries, Show Me a Hero, which Haggis signed on to direct without even laying eyes on the script. (The first two episodes premiered last Sunday; this Sunday we’ll get two more, and the last two will air August 30.)
The miniseries, based on a book by Lisa Belkin, takes on events that transpired in the late eighties in Yonkers, New York, when a federal judge ordered the working-class Westchester suburb to build 200 units of public housing on the predominantly white east side of the Saw Mill River Parkway. Spoiler alert: White Yonkers residents, who couched their xenophobia in concerns about housing values, weren’t so thrilled about the idea, and they exerted enormous pressure on local officials to disregard the court order, to the tune of millions of dollars of fines and the eventual near-breakdown of city government. The excellent Oscar Isaac stars as Nick Wasicsko, Yonkers’s Springsteen-loving mayor, at 28 the youngest in the country, who wins office on the platform of appealing the court order. When that appeal is struck down just before he takes over, he finds himself in the unenviable position of having to turn on a dime and attempt to convince Yonkers residents to submit to integration.
Small-town bureaucracy: Sounds boring, but in the hands of Simon and Haggis, it’s pretty scintillating. “This is a slow burn,” Haggis tells me. “It’s a matter of trying to capture a moment in time and reflect on that. I’m just trying to capture these people’s lives and make you feel like you’re in the middle of those crowds, in the middle of that chaos, that uncertainty that a lot of people felt at that time. It’s a very different approach for me.”
Read on for more from our conversation with Haggis about working with David Simon, how he fell in love with Bruce Springsteen, and which rock star’s memoir he’s psyched to dig into this weekend.
There’s obviously a thematic overlap here with Crash. Does addressing this subject on the small screen feel different than addressing it on the big screen?
I don’t think it’s any different in terms of the size of the screen. It’s ten years later and we’re doing it very differently. This is a true story. But attacking race. Yeah. I could do that five or six more times. Because this is a subject that’s at the heart of many of the problems in our country, and it’s going to continue to be so for many, many years, sadly. Because we refuse to address it. We keep thinking we’ve handled it, or it should be handled. But it hasn’t been.
I read that you signed onto Show Me a Hero without reading the script. What made you so confident?
Confident. I wasn’t confident at all. I just always wanted to work with David Simon.
Was there ever a moment when you were like, “Uh, why did I do that?”
Yeah, of course. When we actually looked at how much we had to accomplish in a short period, I think we all looked at each other and said, “What the hell are we doing?”
Have you read the book the series was based on? Was the material shocking to you?
Yes, I have. I read the script first, and then I watched a documentary. And then I went back and did a lot of research, looking at photos. At the end of the series we actually put the photos of the real people beside our actors. Some of them were really shocking, the vitriol that came out. The anger and self righteousness was startling. We were talking about putting 200 units [of housing] in a city of 200,000 people. It was a very small thing they were trying to accomplish in this act of desegregation. But politicians used fear to manipulate people: We like being governed by fear in America. It’s simple. We have no use for common sense in politics in America. It’s just not something that we value. Yes, that was shocking. The fact that it exploded and it was right here in New York, and just a few years ago.
Where were you living in the mid-eighties? What was your community like? Was it totally segregated like Yonkers?
I was in Los Angeles. I was living in Glendale at the time. It was a working-class neighborhood. It was white and Hispanic and black. But Los Angeles itself is incredibly segregated. That’s why I wrote Crash. You can get the impression going around L.A. that it’s just this homogeneous place. It’s not. Nobody drives to South Central, at least we didn’t in those days, to see what’s going on down there. It’s just a few miles away. Los Angeles was no better off. It was no more liberal—it just appeared to be.
You live in New York City now. Before you moved here, did you have an impression of Yonkers?
None. It was a punch line. That’s all it was. It was a silly name. Yonkers. I knew nothing about it until I came to New York. In fact, until I did this project, I’d never been there. I live in downtown New York. It’s thirty minutes from where I live. And yet I didn’t have any idea what happened there. I knew what happened in the Bronx; I knew what happened in various parts of Brooklyn, the racial strife in the seventies and eighties through to the nineties. In the eighties you’d be in Midtown Manhattan and if you walked across town and you made it from one avenue to another, you celebrated: “Hey, I made it without being mugged!”
What was it like filming in Yonkers? Did you feel any echoes of the events you were depicting?
It’s hard. You feel it under the surface, I think. There was some resentment, some trepidation as to what we were going to do. Were we going to make them look like fools? I think after the mayor embraced us, knew we were coming and opened up City Hall to us—that helped a lot. We’re very good at putting things in the past very quickly, especially things that embarrass us. I think that was the case in Yonkers. They were able to say, “Oh, yes, that happened back then.” But you see, these same things are happening in Westchester right now, in Tarrytown. Defying a federal court order to desegregate—it’s the exact same thing, and they’re using the exact same rhetoric. That it’s not about race, that it’s a green issue, that it’s about the value of people’s homes. With not an iota of irony.
Where did the idea to use a vintage Springsteen soundtrack come from?
We were asking ourselves what kind of music Nick would have listened to. We knew he loved hard rock. We knew he loved AC/DC, that he had AC/DC T-shirts. We said, I think Springsteen would speak to him. We started with the end montage, how to end this piece without a big score. We found this one Springsteen song called “Lift Me Up.” It was just perfect and wasn’t that well known. I showed it to David, and he said, “God, it’s great.” After that we started thinking, What if that’s Nick’s musical identity? When he gets in the car, what if he turns that on? Maybe he’s at home, he puts a record on, it’s Springsteen? From there it evolved. David went to meet with Springsteen’s manager. So it was a long process.
Are you a Springsteen fan?
I am. I’ve always been. He played an unplugged concert in Los Angeles for this radical group I was involved with in the eighties. It was called the Christic Institute, which then completely fell apart after that. It was a bunch of defrocked priests suing the U.S. government over their involvement in El Salvador. I’ve always been sort of that guy out there—everyone else sort of looks at and distances themselves from very quickly.
Major gear switch: What’s the one thing you want to do culturally this weekend?
I’m getting on a plane for New Zealand in a couple of hours. I’ll be in Auckland and Queenstown for the next month. So my cultural experience is going to be limited to the tops of mountains. I’m going to be hanging out with dog sleds and having small planes crash into glaciers. That will be the extent of it. I’m taking some books with me that I’m excited to read. So it’ll be reading, unless you know people in Auckland who are going to take me to some museum.
Which books are you bringing?
I’m bringing a copy of Moby’s autobiography, which he’s asked me to read before it’s published. That’s really exciting. It’s called Porcelain. And I’ve just picked up an old book called Masochism in Sex and Society, by Dr. Theodor Reik.
Did someone recommend that to you?
Yes, a friend did. I’m reading it for something I’m going to write. That’s what usually happens.
Is Moby a friend of yours? Is that why he’s asked you to read his manuscript?
Yeah. He was one of the reasons I looked forward to moving to New York when I did, quite a few years ago now. And as soon as I moved here, the bugger moved to Los Angeles. He’s a lovely man. A great friend.
Are you going to give him notes?
No! I’m just going to read it and tell him it’s brilliant, because so far it is.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The post Paul Haggis on Collaborating With David Simon and His Big Weekend Plans appeared first on Vogue.
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