Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Lawrence Wright and Paul Haggis: Making Their Love of Movies Crystal-Clear

Anyone who’s wandered through Hollywood, gazing up at imposing buildings with bold signage, knows that Scientology remains Big Business in Tinseltown. The Church of Scientology’s showbiz connection is spelled out in Lawrence Wright’s hot best-seller, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. Though Wright (a Pulitzer Prize winner for The Looming Tower) devotes much of his new book to über-Scientologist Tom Cruise, he first got interested in the subject by way of his 2011 New Yorker profile of writer-director Paul Haggis, who had split with the church in 2009.

Paul was a Scientologist for thirty-four years. During that period he wrote such TV hits as thirtysomething, won acclaim for his Million Dollar Baby screenplay, and both wrote and directed the surprise Best Picture winner, Crash.  His official bio, though, omits his Roger Corman period. In 1988, when Paul was looking to move from television into film. Corman optioned a Dean Koontz thriller, Watchers, about a young couple and their preternaturally smart dog.  Working with me on the screenplay, Paul proved to be pleasant and smart (and no proselytizer).  He showed me some spec scripts for which he had hopes, including a clever romantic thriller called Blood Ruby Red. Roger, alas, wasn’t interested in backing that project. And when I returned from a brief vacation, I discovered the Watchers premise had been totally upended. Overnight the saga of a couple and their dog had turned into a boy-and-dog story, and other hands were involved in writing it. Later, Paul and I communicated only once, when I wrote to tell him I’d been blown away by Million Dollar Baby.

Paul and I both love movies, and so does Lawrence Wright. This comes through in his very first book, a 1988 memoir called In the New World: Growing Up with America, 1960-1984, when he writes of a trip made to Europe after college. It was the late Sixties, the Vietnam War was raging, and Wright felt little fondness for his native land. Then he went to an underground cinema in Paris, and found a local crowd gathered to watch a Gary Cooper double-bill. Memories flooded back: “How many times had I seen these movies on late-night television! To see them again in France was to understand at last the power of the American Western, which is really the creation myth of America.” Wright may have been an American abroad, but “I could see, as I glanced at the faces around me, that this was a European dream. It was individual man, called to his limits, facing evil and the prospect of death, but standing alone and in the cause of goodness, truth, justice.” The fantasy of the lone American hero was alive and well on the Rive Gauche. 

Soon thereafter, Wright was teaching English at a Cairo university. Though relations between Egypt and the U.S. had been strained following Israel’s victory in 1967’s Six Day War, Wright discovered his Egyptian students hardly held the American public responsible: “Their genuine feeling for the goodness of the American people was formed by Hollywood, which casts a spell over the entire world. The America of the movies is a land of such innocence and beauty that my students were predisposed toward forgiveness. They wanted to be on our side. Some of them had been born in villages in the Nile delta, or in Palestinian camps on the bloody West Bank, but they had grown up watching Doris Day driving carpool through the suburbs of the new world and Fred MacMurray smoking his pipe and telling bedtime stories. America had insinuated itself into their imaginations.”


  1. Well, yes, if you put it that way . . . .

  2. I'm intrigued by Scientology - as it seems based on such ludicrous concepts - but then so many successful Hollywood people are a part of it. I only knew that Paul Haggis has been a part when that New Yorker piece was promoted back then. Have you known or do you know any practicing Scientologists Ms. Gray?

  3. Good question, Mr. Craig. I never knew anything about Paul's beliefs, and (fortunately) have no friends who went that route. But years ago, at New World Pictures, there was one rather obnoxiously cocky screenwriter who said he was a member. (He was hardly a good advertisement, so far as I was concerned, and I haven't heard his name since.) And one assistant director was very insistent about meeting with me about a personal matter. I was newly married, and when this fellow started saying that obviously my husband and I had financial challenges, and that he knew an easy way to surmount them, I emphatically announced that we had absolutely all the money we'd ever need. He seemed pretty surprised to hear that, but once I repeated myself several times over he left me alone. I have no idea what he was peddling (Scientology? Amway?), but I was sure I didn't want to buy it.