From David Simon (Treme, The Wire), William F. Zorzi Jr. and Paul Haggis (Crash), the six-hour HBO mini-series Show Me A Hero, set in the late 1980s, follows the young mayor (Oscar Isaac) of a mid-sized American city, who is faced with a federal court order that says he must build a small number of low-income housing units in the white neighborhoods of his town. His attempt to do so tears the entire city apart, paralyzes the municipal government and, ultimately, destroys the mayor and his political future.
While at the HBO portion of the TCA Press Tour, Paul Haggis, who was both an executive producer and the director of all six hours, spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how he came to take on the entire mini-series, what the shooting schedule was like, the challenges of editing it all together, how collaborative the entire experience was, and always looking for interesting stories to tell.
PAUL HAGGIS: I was prepping a movie to shoot in England and it got pushed because of actor availability. And so, my agent called me and said, “We’ve got these various projects that want you. They want you for this movie and this movie, and David Simon has a mini-series.” I said, “Stop there. Just call them and say yes.” They said, “We’ll send you the scripts and discuss it.” And I said, “Say yes, and then send me the scripts.” So, I read the scripts for the first two and liked them very much. I went to meet with David and pitched myself, and they said, “What do you want to do? Do you want to do the first episode? Do you want to do the last?” I said, “I want to do all of them.” I figured, if I was going to tell the story, I should tell the story, without really understanding exactly what that meant. If I had realized that, I wouldn’t have done it. With any movie or project, we have to fool ourselves into thinking that we can do it, and then we somehow pull it off.
What was that shooting schedule like?
HAGGIS: We shot for 72 days straight, or 75 if you count the second unit days that we shot. It was brutal because you had to shoot in real locations. On a normal movie, I’m used to shooting two to three pages a day. Here, we were shooting six to ten pages a day, and there were huge scenes. The logistics, alone, were challenging, but we managed to do it.
You said that you might not have tackled this, if you had realized what you were getting yourself into. But now that you’re done it, would you do it again?
HAGGIS: I’d love to. It was a great experience, telling the story. I loved collaborating with David and HBO. It was really worthwhile and it was a great story to tell.
When you’re dealing with writers of this level, is it a very collaborative process?
HAGGIS: They were very inclusive and allowed me to do what I do well while I allowed them to do what they do well. And then, when we’d have disagreements, we’d talk about a scene and what wasn’t working and what we should try to do instead, and that happened a lot. We’re both people with really strong opinions, and that’s a good thing, if you can listen to the other person. Just don’t shove your ego around the set.
Were the actors also very collaborative and well-prepared?
HAGGIS: Very much so. The actors really did a lot of their own research. These real-life people were often either available to them, or tape of them was available, so all the actors did their research and came well-armed with the knowledge of their characters’ idiosyncracies. When they had questions to ask, sometimes they got to ask David and sometimes they got to ask the real person.
You have a tremendous cast of a lot of actors who might not have normally been thought of for the roles they’re playing. How did you put this cast together?
HAGGIS: I like surprising the audience. Why should you see a character, if you’re just seeing an actor play the same role, over and over again? I want to trust them to be able to act, to just do what they do best, and to explore characters that are challenging to them. That’s how we put this together, starting with Oscar [Isaac], who hadn’t played someone like this before, but who’s an incredibly skilled actor. What he did with his performance was amazing.
What do you hope that people get out of watching a story like this? Do you hope that they see parallels that are still existing today?
HAGGIS: Absolutely! Also, that we empathize with the characters on both sides of the issue and understand how they, and we, are manipulated by fear and the fear of others, and how we’re often manipulated into doing things and voting in ways that are against our own best interest. Look at healthcare. People will tell you that healthcare is socialism and communism, and they’re doing this while their wife needs an operation and their kid needs braces.
Without HBO, would a movie like this be impossible to get made?
HAGGIS: Without HBO, this story wouldn’t be told. I love the fact that they were brave enough to do this and to think there would be an audience for it, and there is. People are interested in this because it’s a compelling story.
How challenging was it to edit this down to the six hours that we see?
HAGGIS: It was very hard. We struggled for a long time. Each of the episodes was probably 15 minutes too long when we started out. We always knew the last episode was going to be long, in order to wrap it up. But I had two terrific editors, Jo [Francis] and Kate [Sanford], who I’ve worked with before, and they did a great job. Often, when you cut things down, they get better and tighter.
With so many interesting characters, did you have to pull back on anyone’s story?
HAGGIS: No. For the most part, what David really wanted to do was show that these were pawns. These people who this was going to affect really had no voice in this. It was a bunch of people making these decisions from their ivory tower. It was important to put them there, in their daily lives, knowing that they were going to be affected, but not get a say in it, until they become a power later on and they do stand up and do something.
Did you talk to any of the real people yourself?
HAGGIS: Yes. Nay was around the entire time, so she was our touchstone to everything. She still works in the city government there, so she would bring people to the set. But, I left the scripts to Bill and David. My job was big enough trying to figure out how to make it feel true and real. I had to manage this thing. It was a huge job to do. So, I didn’t question the characters. I had watched documentaries and read the book. I familiarized myself with the characters, and then allowed the actors to build the truth.
Did you shoot this like a movie?
HAGGIS: Yes. It would have been impossible to do [it any other way]. We only had 72 days to shoot this and I needed 85, so we had to shoot it like a movie. Once you got to City Hall, you stayed at City Hall and shot everything you could. They were actually conducting city business, so we’d have to come back when they were finished. It would have taken another 20 days to shoot it, if we did it one episode at a time.
When you have an experience like this with such a collaborative process, and you get to tell a story over so many hours, does it affect what you want to do next?
HAGGIS: I just always try to find an interesting story and tell it well. That’s a hard enough thing to do, whether it’s a piece of fiction or it’s a small piece of reality. I just look for good story. I’m looking for my next good story now. I’ve got a few things I’m toying with.
You tend to tell very human stories that seem to be overlooked these days. Do you find those types of films harder to get made now?
HAGGIS: Yes, all the time. Independent films are very hard to get made, but I’m lucky enough to get them made, so I’m going to keep doing it. Being a director, I do like experimenting in different genres. Who knows? I might go do a big studio picture next. I never know. I’ve stayed away from it for a long time, but I love some of those. If [Steven] Spielberg can do it, maybe I should. I can dabble in that area, too. We’ll see.
Is there a specific reason that you’ve stayed away from the studio system?
HAGGIS: I like my independence. I like being able to tell a story the way I want to tell a story. I don’t like developing it with a team. I like coming to a story and deciding whether I want to do it or not. I love HBO for having the bravery to tell this story and to give us the money to do so.
Show Me A Hero airs on Sunday nights on HBO, through August 30th.