Set in three cities (New York, Rome, and Paris) known for romance, Paul Haggis’s Third Person is a raw and stimulating exploration of the difficulties of modern relationships. Born out of conversations with star and co-producer Moran Atias, this personal film has its characters question themselves, others, and the very nature of love itself, Haggis has also assembled a powerhouse cast featuring the talents of Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, Adrien Brody, Moran Atias, Mila Kunis, Kim Basinger, Maria Bello and James Franco.

We got the opportunity to sit down and talk to the filmmaker about challenging his audience, playing with narrative form, and why unanswered questions are a good thing.

Tribeca: What were your initial reactions when Moran came to you with this idea?

Paul Haggis: I was really annoyed. [laughs] You don’t want people pitching your ideas as the basis for a movie. However, what she said intrigued me. I started to think about relationships I had that succeeded for a while and ultimately failed and why. So I sat down and interviewed her for something like 50 hours—I still have it on tape. After that, I started to think about everything and came up with these characters.

During those initial conversations, we started to talk about ourselves as “he” and “she.” The idea of a third person in every relationship stuck with me. I decided just to allow the characters to take me where they wanted to take me. That might have been stupid [laughs], but ultimately it was exactly how I wanted this movie to be written. The script took a long time to write because those characters took me to blind alleys or they took me to places I did not want to see or to places I didn’t understand. I had to have patience.

It was also difficult to figure out the Liam Neeson character, Michael. Not only did I want to explore the questions of love, but also the creative process. Writers and creators are selfish, and other people often pay the price for the selfishness and dedication. In my case, my children often pay the price because I’m working all the time. I love my children intensely, but I spent much more time on my characters than I did on my kids.

Not only did I want to explore the questions of love, but also the creative process. 

Tribeca: What is the impetus of a script for you? Do you usually start from characters you are interested in or from larger themes that you want to tackle?

PH:  I always start with characters; then I figure out what the themes are. I also start with questions I have. In this case, those questions were about relationships, class differences and various other topics I didn’t understand. What’s it like to be somebody who is very different from you? I had been in Italy years before and  noticed the way the Romanians and Gypsies were treated, and I asked what is it like to be someone like that? That helped me to create the character of Monika. I wanted to explore what it was like to be that person. I wanted to see what unconditional love would do to a person in that situation. Can you love a person who is untrustworthy? Is love or belief transformative?

Tribeca: As you write a script that contains interconnected narratives, do you write each story separately or do you develop them simultaneously? Does it vary from script to script?

PH: There’s no rule. I try to figure out all of the stories before I start, but that usually fails. Ultimately you have to write them all together; it’s all one story you’re telling. For Third Person, I wrote two of the stories separately, combined them, and wrote the third.  I plotted each story on little cards so I could visualize everything. It took me two and a half years to write the script, so I pulled it apart and put it back together many times.

Tribeca: Third Person is a challenging film for an audience because it requires thought and attention, which I find refreshing. Is it a writer’s responsibility to challenge the audience?

PH: Yes, but it depends what you’re writing. Hopefully you challenge yourself in the process; that’s what I try to do. You expect the audience to be smart, to be aware, and to watch. Though, as a filmmaker, you give them enough clues so they’re not completely flustered. Some will be frustrated and that’s fine. Some look at different things and different films in different ways. Some people are very literal minded, and those kinds of audience members will not like my movies. Ever.

Literal minded people are smart people, but they like order and like stories told in a certain way. I like playing with genres as in In the Valley of Elah. The investigator, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is deep within a murder mystery, but gets the answers to solve his case 2/3rds of the way through the movie.  I wanted to throw out all the conventions of a murder mystery. I had characters suddenly run up and hand him the answers. He doesn’t know quite what to do. I like playing with the audience and having fun with the form.

Tribeca: We were lucky enough to have the US premiere of Third Person at this year’s Festival. How did the NY audiences react?

PH: Well, the cut I showed at TFF was much different than the cut I took to the Toronto Film Festival. I remember having a conversation with my financiers at Sony Pictures Classics, who loved the movie. We knew we weren’t going to get it out by the end of the year so we had many, many discussions about Third Person, and someone gave me some really good advice. I wanted to take that advice and re-edit the ending.

So the first time anyone saw the final cut was at Tribeca. It worked really well. I remember an audience member stood up during the Q&A and asked what the ending of the film meant. So I asked him, “what did it mean to you?” He told me exactly what it meant in a way that was better than I could have explained it myself. I replied, “Why did you ask me? You understood the film perfectly.”

That’s an interesting thing about this film. It says a lot about where we are now in cinema. In the 60’s and 70’s, you could make films like this—films that asked questions—and we accepted them. Now, the majority of people like everything to be underlined. They look at a film as a puzzle to be figured out with a right answer. I didn’t want to do that. It’s fascinating that people will know what the film is about but will question themselves and won’t want to say.

That’s why I think this is a movie you should see not just with a date, but with a double date, so the four of you can go out afterwards for a drink and argue about what the film is about. I love doing that. As an audience member, I love that interaction with the film and the filmmaker. It’s a challenging thing and it’s not something I think everyone’s going to love.

I toyed with which cities for a while, but in the end, if I was going to tell a very complex love story and go to some dark places, I wanted the settings to at least be beautiful.

Tribeca: As a director, you have a gift for pulling career-best performances out of your cast. I’ve never seen Olivia Wilde so raw and exposed on-screen. Why was she so perfect for the role of Anna?

PH: I worked with her before, and even I had no idea what she would do with this character. I knew she was a really skilled actress. When I cast her four years ago, she’d done Tron and Cowboys and Aliens. I knew she wasn’t being challenged the way she needed to be. That’s the nice thing about knowing people—it’s easier to trust them to do their job. I know, at the time, my financiers gave me so much shit for that because they thought she didn’t have the chops. They wanted a different actress, but I insisted on Olivia.

The same thing actually happened with Moran. We cast her, even though we were thinking Penelope Cruz for that role. Penelope wasn’t available, but I knew Moran could do this role. She was just so dedicated. She actually gave an awful audition [laughs], but I often cast people who give terrible auditions because auditions are such a false process. I remember Debrah Farentino came to read for me for this T.V. series I did called EZ Streets. She auditioned for me three times, each time worse than the last. I cast her anyway, and she was brilliant. Some people need to be in the setting with the characters to really come alive. You trust them. That’s your job as the director—to see something others can’t. 

Tribeca: How do you approach working with your actors? Has your process evolved over time?

PH: You’d have to ask them [laughs]. I hope I’ve learned to trust them more and direct them less. I only direct them when they really need it and give them only the directions they need.

Tribeca: This movie is all about relationships—some successful, some not so successful. You also chose to shoot in 3 of the most romantic cities in the world: New York, Rome and Paris. Was this on purpose? What about these locations spoke to you?

PH: Originally, it was New York and London and Rome but I couldn’t double London in Rome. I needed to double two of the cities. I couldn’t find any architecture that looked like London, so I did Paris. There’s French architecture. I toyed with which cities for a while, but in the end, if I was going to tell a very complex love story and go to some dark places, I wanted the settings to at least be beautiful. You don’t want a depressing picture in a depressing landscape. You want the characters and their surroundings to surprise you through their joy.

Tribeca: I noticed that this is your third project with editor Jo Francis. How involved are you in the editing room?

PH: We work very closely together. It’s a long process. We kept thinking we were done and then just ended up cutting and reworking it. She’s a wonderful editor. If she wanted to cut a scene by herself, she has to do it at night when I’m not there.  When I’d get back in the morning, she’d show me. We always have a great give and take, and she’s willing to try anything, even things that make no sense to her. We’ll also take notes from trusted collaborators and take them into the editing room to play with.

Tribeca: There are some beautiful transitions in the movie. For example, when one character takes off a jacket in one city and the next shot is of a different character putting on her jacket in another city.

PH: As a filmmaker, there are times when I watch what is happening in one scene and do the opposite that in the next. Oh, Olivia is walking around the bed and picking up something with her left hand, so I’m going to have Mila pick something up with her left hand in the next scene so it’ll be a nice transition. There are many things like that that I plan as a filmmaker—not necessarily in the script—and I start the blocking as a director. Other moments like these came as surprises or suggestions. It’s something I really love to do.