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Paul Haggis on “In the Valley of Elah”

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By Aaron Hillis

IFC News

[Photos: Left, Charlize Theron and Tommy Lee Jones in “In the Valley of Elah”; below, Paul Haggis, Warner Independent Pictures, 2007]

The irony of Oscar-winning writer and director Paul Haggis (“Crash,” “Million Dollar Baby”) making a U.S. military drama with a nonpartisan approach is that he may be the most polarizing filmmaker since Michael Moore. Whether you find his to be the work of an astute humanist or a middle-brow manipulator, “In the Valley of Elah” has certainly grabbed people’s attention, and it surely doesn’t hurt that Haggis has roped in a triple threat of award-winning actors. Tommy Lee Jones plays retired Army sergeant Hank Deerfield, a Tennessee patriot and loving husband to Susan Sarandon, whose soldier son Mike has returned from Iraq. When Mike suddenly goes AWOL from the base, Hank heads to New Mexico to try to track down his boy with the help of a local detective (Charlize Theron). I chatted with Haggis briefly about the film and the fiery debates his work has inspired.

It seems like everybody is making an Iraq film these days. What prompted yours?

It was 2003 when I started researching [“In the Valley of Elah”], when I started looking at images online that were being posted by some of the troops in Iraq, and I found them really disturbing. These are kids, 18 or 19 years old, making their own home movies and putting them up there like our kids do on YouTube. They were getting around the Pentagon censors somehow, and you’d see them cut to some song like “We Will Rock You” — the first few images would be fine, the stuff that we’ve seen on the nightly news: laser-guided missiles blowing up buildings, tanks rolling by, men shooting heavy machine guns at enemies they can’t see. And then this image came on of a young boy — who had obviously made the video — hugging a burnt corpse by the side of the road, and putting a hat on it. I thought, “Wow.” Just goofing off like kids would do, but my god, what’s happening here? That particular video didn’t last long online. [laughs] But I found more and more of these pictures, and I started asking these questions: What’s happening to our men and women? Then in May of 2004, I found this article by Mark Boal about a father who goes searching for his son who had gone missing. I was so deeply moved that I knew I had to do something about it.

What do you want audiences to take away from the film?

I can’t ever really guess that. What I try to do is pose difficult questions, and then hope people will talk about it. I don’t know what the conclusions will come to, but I think [about] if we had to face those pictures of the dead that our troops have to face every day. — maybe we could make a better decision about whether this is a just war or a corrupt endeavor. We can make up our own minds.

We have a really wily government that has convinced us that these images are too disturbing to see, and we have a media that has agreed because they think — correctly so — that you’re not going to buy toothpaste after seeing a headless child on the news. So, we’re just not seeing these things, and that’s wrong because we’re making [other] men and women face these horrors. The reason we can’t understand [the U.S. soldiers] when they come home and the reason they’re having a lot of problems is because there’s a huge disconnect between them and us. That’s why I made a film that I hope is political without being partisan. It doesn’t say, okay, you’re smart for having opposed this war, or you’re stupid for having supported the war. This is our shared problem. We’re all in this, but now we have to see what’s happening to our troops who are returning home with these terrible, terrible scars and deep wounds that are just evident on their faces. We have to look at what they’re facing every day.

Did you ever feel that you’d neglected any responsibility by not putting your personal point-of-view in the film?

No, I have a responsibility to take myself out of it, I think. It’s pretty easy to figure out where my leanings are. If you go online, you can find out I was demonstrating against the invasion of Afghanistan, for chrissakes, so you can imagine how it was with Iraq. I felt that I’m too easy to dismiss; who wants to see that point of view? What you want to see, what I hoped, is the point of view of a man like Hank Deerfield, who we can all point to from the left or right and say, that’s an American. We may not agree with his politics, but we know that proud man. I thought I should tell this story through his eyes, through the eyes of the G.I.s, the returning men and women who just want to be heard. For all the research I did, and I talked to many veterans who were active duty soldiers, they kept saying over and over that we’re not hearing what’s happening over there. If we see what they see, like WWII, that there are horrors, [maybe] it’s worth it. Or we can look at those same things, and say: “You know what? It’s not worth it.” But at least they’re informed, and the truths are much more informative if, while they’re in it, it’s haunting them.

What do you think about all the right-wing political bloggers who are up in arms about this movie without having seen it yet?

I don’t. There are always stupid people out there. Anyone who criticizes before seeing it or reading the script is just a moron. You don’t try to convince people who can’t be convinced. They have a political agenda. They don’t want to see what’s going on. I would tell them, don’t talk to me. Don’t see my movie. Just go find a veteran and ask him or her what’s going on, and listen. Don’t try to judge from your own point of view. I tried not to judge these characters. I put myself in their places, and I don’t know what I’d do. I’m not interested in what bad people do and the wrong decisions that are made. I’m interested in what good people do and the right decisions that haunt them forever. If these people can put themselves in that same place and say, “Oh yes, well I would make the morally correct decision,” then they’re horses’ asses.

Having written (and directed one of) back-to-back Best Picture Oscar winners, do you feel pressure to keep the bar set high when approaching new projects?

I guess it’s difficult for me to take meetings these days because my head is so huge it’s hard to get through the door. I have to make sure there are double doors so I can get in. [laughs] You just continue to do things you feel passionate about, and you use those Oscars and nominations to reassure people. This was really hard for me because in 2003 and 2004, we had a president with an 80% approval rating. Democrats and Republicans alike were driving around with flags on their cars in Santa Monica, where I live, which is like the most liberal place in America. [laughs] So it was not easy to get this film made. They look at those awards and go, “Well, we didn’t understand ‘Crash’ and ‘Million Dollar Baby,’ and Clint’s the only reason that succeeded, but okay. We don’t understand this one either, but those films made money and awards, so maybe this one will make money, too.” So I guess that helps a lot.

The hot debates surrounding “Crash” are suddenly being dug up again. What’s your reaction to those accusations that “Crash” panders to liberal guilt by accusing its audience of being racist?

Well, I like to disturb people. I think I succeeded because a lot of people are really disturbed by what I do. That makes me feel great. Who would want to do a film where everybody says, “Hey, nice job. I wonder what comes next?” If people are still disturbed by this two or three years later, I’m thrilled.

I think the concern is more with the means than the content itself.

If you had a particular point of view and an axe to grind, would you necessarily always say, “I’m blank, this is what I feel, and this is what I’m going to criticize”? You never hear things straight out. Someone will come up with all sorts of justification to why they hate things. Oddly, 99% of the audience didn’t hate [“Crash”] until it won Oscars, and then people were outraged, especially for me. Well, I didn’t vote! [laughs] I’m sorry, I never said it was the Best Picture of the year. It’s a ridiculous thing to judge one picture better than another. I like the Oscars, don’t get me wrong. I’d like to get more of them. People felt betrayed because they loved [“Brokeback Mountain”], and they felt outraged that I somehow boondoggled people into voting for mine. Well, I left the country six weeks before because I couldn’t stand the P.R. machine. I went to hide and write. I’m a Canadian, I don’t promote myself; I don’t like it.

Of course it stings, but this is the business we have chosen. My job is not to be liked, but to make films that are provocative. If I stop doing that, then people should hate me. I would much rather be loved or hated than just go down the middle of the street and have people say, “Oh yeah, he’s a nice filmmaker. He’s okay.” I think people will be vilifying me for all new things: it’s too subtle, or whatever. There were two articles about “Crash” that I felt were just hysterical. One was an opinion piece in the Washington Times, I think, and it was called “Why the Left Hates ‘Crash'”. Then a month before or after that, I can’t remember which, another article in some liberal-ish rag was titled “Why the Right Hates ‘Crash'”. I knew I was doing something right.

“In the Valley of Elah” opens in limited release on September 14th (official site).

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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