Gregory Kirschling
September 14, 2007 AT 04:00 AM EDT

A lot of people really hate Paul Haggis. You can read their vitriol on comment boards all over the Web — where he’s been referred to as ”Paul Hackis” — or overhear it in certain Hollywood offices, where his very name seems to be fighting words. Mostly, they hate him on account of Crash, his button-pushing breakout movie about race relations in L.A. Perhaps more than any other recent film, Crash provoked extreme reactions. The people who loved it gave Haggis two Oscars in 2006 — one for Best Original Screenplay, the other for Best Picture. The people who loathed it felt jerked around by Haggis’ heavy hand as a writer, director, and moralist. ”We look at a win like Crash,” says one Oscar strategist, ”and we think, ‘How did he get enough votes for that?”’

A few weeks before the release of his new movie, the Iraq-themed mystery In the Valley of Elah, Haggis sits down to lunch in Manhattan. Before long, he’s admitting that he isn’t sure how Crash won the Oscar either. The director, 54, is wearing a rumpled polo and jeans and is busy chewing on a steak at Balthazar, a noisy French bistro two blocks from his apartment. He’s a voluble, ever-smiling presence. He answers almost every question with a story, and, despite whispers that he can be arrogant, comes off as refreshingly modest and centered over the course of a 90-minute interview. Ask Haggis what he thinks about people who call Crash manipulative, and he chuckles. ”It’s completely manipulative,” he says, his surprisingly blue eyes gleaming. ”I set out to manipulate, and I did! All good films are manipulative. What people probably didn’t like was that they could see the manipulation happening, and that may be true. That’s one thing that really made me uncomfortable about that screenplay — it all happened in very short bursts, there wasn’t a long lead-up to anything. So, oh yeah, it’s totally manipulative.”

In the Valley of Elah also takes on topical, hot-button stuff, but with considerably more restraint. Set in 2004 and based on real events, Elah casts Tommy Lee Jones as a retired military sergeant named Hank who investigates the disappearance of his son (Jonathan Tucker), a soldier who’s gone missing Stateside after a tour in Iraq. (His only real ally in the search is a local police detective played by Charlize Theron.) Unlike Crash, Elah derives much of its power from the way it sneaks up on you: Before you know it, the film suddenly morphs from a gripping police procedural into a powerful, sobering statement about how, in Haggis’ words, the Iraq war is ”turning our kids inside out.” EW’s Owen Gleiberman recently gave the film a solid-A review, while reassuring skeptics, ”I’m one of those people who couldn’t abide Crash.”

For some, the fact that Haggis tackles real issues is nothing but laudable. ”I think the most interesting directors give you the opportunity to look at things in a different way,” says Susan Sarandon, who does tremendous work in Elah in a brief role as Jones’ wife. ”There are many ways to tell the story of returning vets, and it’s interesting that Paul chose to tell this one, because it’s not necessarily the popular version of what war does. It breaks the mold, and that’s what good filmmaking is all about.” Good Hollywood filmmaking, of course, is also about putting people in seats — and Jones is quick to point out that Elah is not a polemic. ”It’s important to remember that it’s a good whodunit,” he says. ”The idea is to raise important issues in an entertaining way.”

Haggis burst on the scene three years ago with his script for Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. A former Facts of Life writer who’d left a 25-year career in TV to pursue film, he wrote that screenplay, as well as Crash, on spec — and became the only screenwriter ever to pen back-to-back Best Pictures. Since then, Haggis has collaborated with Eastwood on Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, picking up his third Best Screenplay nomination in a row for the latter. ”He’s a quality writer, and he comes up with very good ideas,” says Eastwood, who is in talks to reunite with Haggis on future projects. ”The studios seem to be on a roll looking for either goofball pictures or sequels with comic-book characters. But he’s managed — and we’ve managed — to do things that aren’t quite in the mainstream, and make a success out of it.” Haggis has also done for-hire screenwriting on Casino Royale and is at work now on the upcoming Bond movie, a.k.a. Bond 22. (Appropriately, Haggis is on page 22 at the moment.) However, he’s not interested in directing the 007 adventure. ”I love writing all kinds of movies,” he says, ”but the ones I want to direct now are ones that I think are going to challenge people on some level, to ask questions about who we are.”

That vaguely high-flown sort of talk is part of what rubs some in Hollywood the wrong way about Haggis. There’s a perception, fair or not, that he’s a simplistic thinker having a particularly glorious 15 minutes of fame. One subtext to the sniping is that Haggis is a Scientologist, which some in the industry equate with a bizarre, single-minded overconfidence. Haggis is by no means a proselytizer, but cynics shrug even this off by saying that, unlike Tom Cruise, he simply knows better: ”Scientology does not sit well with the Academy,” as one insider puts it. Asked how the religion affects his work, Haggis says, ”My politics are what rule that. My passion for justice, my passion for the underdog — those are the things that push me. One thing I’ve learned by being a Scientologist is not to judge others. Because people can look at my beliefs and go ‘That’s crazy as hell!’ and I can look at others and do the same thing. So I try really hard to put myself in that person’s skin before I judge them.” He expects the same from his characters, he says.

One reason so many people bashed Crash may be that it aced out Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture. ”I think people were shocked,” Haggis says, ”because if you look back, after the Oscars the dogs were let loose. Everyone wanted to say why it was a bad film — or why it was the worst film of all time. Well,” he laughs, ”I’d argue that I’ve probably seen a couple that are worse. Some Troma films might qualify.” Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, maybe? ”I think what people didn’t like about Crash,” he continues, ”was that they thought it was overrated.” He pauses for effect. ”But I didn’t rate the movie!”

Nevertheless, Haggis believes — correctly, by our lights — that ”because the subject matter deserved it,” Elah is a quieter and more ”artful” movie than Crash. He insists he set out to make a political piece, but not a partisan one. (Viewers for whom Sarandon herself is a hot-button issue should reserve judgment until they see her performance.) ”I think it’s a much more subtle vehicle, but hopefully it leaves people in a place where they’ll be talking about it in the lobby,” says Haggis, who names Oliver Stone and the Greek director Costa-Gavras as the filmmakers he admires most. ”I don’t think you have to be so subtle that the audience won’t be challenged, that they’ll just enjoy themselves and feel good that they ‘learned a lesson.’ No,” he says definitively. He still wants audiences to stew a little bit: ”I’m ready to shake people up.” Additional reporting by Sean Smith

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