Paul Haggis: David Simon and I 'are both men who don't suffer fools'
Celebrated Canadian director talks working on Simon's Show Me A Hero
The new HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero doesn't sound all that sexy at first. Based on Lisa Belkin's 1999 non-fiction book of the same name, the show centres on the fight for public housing in Yonkers, New York in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But throw in the involvement of The Wire's David Simon, and London, Ont.–born director Paul Haggis, and the temperature starts to rise.
Public housing — please! You're going to make a drama out of that?
For Paul Haggis, who directed all six hour-long episodes — and who is perhaps best known for writing and directing 2004's Oscar-winning Crash — Show Me a Hero is a return to television, where he got his start writing for shows like Diff'rent Strokes, Thirtysomething, and The Facts of Life. His first series since 2007's The Black Donnellys, Show Me a Hero looks back on a civil struggle that is all too relevant today.
How did you envision the look and feel of Yonkers circa the late 1980s?
I was very lucky to be working with some television writers who I've admired for many, many years, David Simon and Bill Zorzi, who had taken the terrific work of Lisa's book and had also done their own research. They presented me with a very well-researched document, a very truthful script. It was my job to make it feel like it was true, and to bring a sense of urgency to issues that perhaps you and I would say, well, that's just about zoning! How is that going to be interesting? Or public housing — please! You're going to make a drama out of that?
Did you worry about viewers connecting with this story, which is so tightly focused on a specific time and place — and has very little in the way of sex and violence and dragons?
I'm sorry to say that I never worry about the audience. I think about myself — I'm a very self-centered human being! I put myself in a scene and think, where would I want to experience this from? And what would I be experiencing, if I was here in this crowd? Early on I told my producers that I was going to struggle to make every frame imperfect, and to put flaws into the frames that maybe other directors would struggle to take out. I would shove somebody into a shot to block it a little bit, so there's a dynamism that came out of it.
I love the way you've managed to capture both the humdrum, mundane rhythm of city politics but also its energy and sense of chaos.
We really wanted to say, 'This is what happens in City Hall.' When you first meet Winona Ryder [who plays city council member Vinni Restiano], she's just droning on about some city ordinance, and you almost pay no attention to her at all. It makes it feel real, like you're there — rather than the heightened sensibility we sometimes bring to political pieces.
Also, I think we all wanted to show truly flawed characters. There are no heroes in this. There are people who do heroic things, but they don't necessarily set out to do heroic things.
You shot on location in Yonkers, in some cases in the actual homes of the characters — like Mary Dorman, played by Catherine Keener, who doesn't want public housing in her neighborhood.
Whenever possible, we shot exactly where the story took place. You want to see that Mary's house feels a lot like the houses and apartments of the people that she's so afraid of.
This is the first project you've directed that you haven't written. Under the circumstances, what was it like to collaborate with David Simon?
It was terrific. We are both men who don't suffer fools. We have very high standards. We have strong opinions. I think if we didn't respect each other so much, it would have been a terrible experience.
Did you often disagree on how to approach a scene?
Oh, once a week there would be some scene where he was worried about the way I was shooting it, or I was worried about the dialogue. And we'd talk it through and come to something that would work better for both of us. It was the best kind of collaboration.