Viewed In 'Third Person': A Puzzle With Some Tough-To-Find Pieces

Jun 19, 2014
Originally published on June 19, 2014 7:12 pm

Robert Siegel speaks with Oscar-winning writer and director Paul Haggis about his new film, Third Person. Haggis is joined in the conversation by actress Moran Atias. The film has drawn some scathing reviews, but Haggis and Atias defend the film as a puzzle — one story told with three sets of characters.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Paul Haggis, who won Oscars for "Crash" and for writing "Million Dollar Baby," has a new movie that's more complicated than either of those two. "Third Person" has a notable cast - Liam Neeson, Adrien Brody, James Franco, Mila Kunis, Kim Basinger. It cuts from one story about relationships and parenthood to another and then to yet another. And the logic of how these stories fit together, if at all, is obscure. Here's a clip from one storyline. Adrien Brody's character is doing business in Italy. He meets an alluring and mysterious woman named Monika. She says she needs money to ransom her young daughter. Together, they visit the man who must be paid.


MORAN ATIAS: (As Monika) Give him the money, please.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What do we have? English?

ADRIEN BRODY: (As Scott) American.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Monika, you have an American boyfriend. Congratulations.

ATIAS: (As Monika) I tell you not to come.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Character) American, you have a sister?

BRODY: (As Scott) Yeah. Yeah, I'll be sure to bring her next time. There you go.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Boyfriend doesn't like.

ATIAS: (As Monika) He's not my boyfriend.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Not your boyfriend, but he brings me 10,000 Euros.

BRODY: (As Scott) Ten? No, no, no, you said five.

SIEGEL: Joining us are Paul Haggis, who wrote and directed "Third Person" and actor Moran Atias. She plays Monika, a Roma woman, who is either trying to reconnect with her daughter or she is just scamming Adrien Brody. Hi and welcome to both of you.

PAUL HAGGIS: Thanks for having us.


SIEGEL: We're talking with the two of you because I gather the idea for this film grew out of conversations between the two of you. When were these conversations?

HAGGIS: I was just in the last weeks of shooting my last film and Moran had a small part in that. And she started pitching me ideas. And at one she said, you know, you should do a multi-storyline film about relationships. You remember that?

ATIAS: Yeah, well, you know, you see a filmmaker like Paul Haggis and you want to be in that experience again. And I asked myself, how could I possibly create that opportunity for myself? And I started googling, best stories never been told.

HAGGIS: Really?

ATIAS: (Laughing) I went - I thought maybe a Holocaust movie because I'm Jewish, maybe I could get a part in that. And he kept on saying - giving me advice. Just find something that you care about and you would want to be part of for such a long time, because it does take a long time to develop a movie.

SIEGEL: Well, the resulting movie is "Third Person." And here's the problem I have. This movie is a puzzle. And through much of the film, we don't know what's supposed to be real, what's supposed to be fiction, how the plots are related or even if they are related. My informal survey, Paul Haggis, of three viewers, myself included, is that the puzzle's too hard.

HAGGIS: (Laughing).

SIEGEL: So what is your intent here? Should I, as a viewer, be wondering throughout how - what is going on here?

HAGGIS: It is interesting because it's either much too obvious, as some have said, or it's way too obtuse. (Laughing) So, you know, I think what I wanted to do is - you know, it's - I loved those films that really inspired me when I was growing up - so the French New Wave, the Italians, you know, the people who were just redefining cinema. And, you know, look at Antonioni. You know, you've got blow up. You've got a murder mystery that three-quarters of the way through the movie, they tell you there is no answer. And then it ends in a tennis game between mimes. (Laughing) And you leave the theater going what the hell? But next day, day after, you argue with your friends. You talk about it over a drink and then you go - ah, ah. And it sticks with you. And that's what I wanted to do here. I wanted to make a film, where - where you had an emotional reaction at the end, but you didn't necessarily get all the pieces. They're all there. It's not that tough of a movie.

SIEGEL: (Laughing) But if I'm experiencing some disorientation...

HAGGIS: You're supposed to.

SIEGEL: I'm supposed to. (Laughing) It's - I should think feel I'm watching Antonioni movie. You're okay with that?

HAGGIS: (Laughing) Yeah that I'm okay with.

SIEGEL: Moran Atias, is this the movie you had in mind when you first had a conversation?

ATIAS: Oh, even more than I could possibly imagine. It's not just three stories. It is a one story. And that maybe can help everyone feel that you are experiencing one journey. But it just - it takes you to different places, like life.

SIEGEL: You know, I'm reminded. There's one line in this film, which, by the time it was over, I thought aha, that was the topic sentence. And I didn't understand it at the time. And it's when Liam Neeson's publisher tells him that he's been writing junk.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We're not going to publish it.

LIAM NEESON: (As Michael) I'm reworking it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Your first book? Stunning - it was cruel and raw. No pity, no shame - second book, less so, third, fourth. Now you have random characters making various excuses for your life.

HAGGIS: I worry that that's what I do. That I just keep making excuse for my own life. Or that I can only feel through the characters that I create and that I'm distancing myself from real life and living through them.

SIEGEL: The Guardian gave this film, "Third Person," I mean, one of the most scathing, negative reviews I've ever...

HAGGIS: Yeah, I think, the biggest piece of all traffic trash of all time.

SIEGEL: Something like that. I mean, I think the writing was likened to airline magazines - it was quite a piece of invective.

HAGGIS: (Laughing) People love to - to be really personal.

SIEGEL: Well, I mean, you read something like that. And I know this talk answers, I don't care about reviews. You know, who cares? Does it hurt?

HAGGIS: You know, if that was the New Yorker rather than the Guardian, it would've hurt more. Everyone wants to be universally loved. But I knew that going into this - I mean that's - I knew going into all my film, that's not what I really set out to. I like to challenge myself. I like to push things to the edge. Today, we love to have everything underlined, in caps and bold face. And this asks more questions than it answers. And I think you get frustrated because you want to write for an audience that you respect and that's what I think I do. You have to respect your audience. Some people, today, just don't like that. They want things told in the same way it's been told many many times. And they're very angry when you break with tradition- that kind of tradition.

SIEGEL: You mention - this was, I think, Moran who said - it's one story.

ATIAS: Uh oh.

SIEGEL: You said it's one story before.

ATIAS: I did.

SIEGEL: Which is - in a way, that's the answer to the puzzle. Would you have wanted to make it clear earlier on, Paul, that this is one story, that there's something here?

HAGGIS: You know, it's fascinating because, when I was cutting this together, I thought - at several points, I thought, oh my God. I've given away everything by that reaction, by that shot, by this - (Laughing) - my partner, Michael Nozick, kept saying, no Paul, you really haven't. But if you are paying attention, I said, you'll see this. You'll see this painting here. You see this thing. You're going to start to figure this out. I love the fact that the story sweeps you along. And you aren't looking that carefully because if you look carefully...

ATIAS: You have all the answers.

HAGGIS: It is there.

ATIAS: And people, when they leave the screening, they come up and ask, was there a daughter? Wasn't there a daughter? And people literally argue if I have a daughter or not. There is an answer and it's clear. It's in the screen. It's in the frame.

HAGGIS: It's not good enough that we figured it out. We want to be told that we're right. This is not a date movie. This is a double date movie. You have to go with at least three people, so you can argue outside what it's about. And together you'll go, oh, yeah, yeah. You'll feel great.

ATIAS: It's like a great book. You can't read it all at once. And you want to go back to a certain chapter and re-experience and understand why his character is even doing what he's doing at that moment.

SIEGEL: Well, Moran Atias and Paul Haggis, thank you both very much for talking with us.

HAGGIS: Thank you for having us.

ATIAS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: The film is called "Third Person." It is scheduled to open in theaters tomorrow.

BLOCK: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.