DarkMode/LightMode
Light Mode

‘The Black Donnellys’ Creator Paul Haggis Gets His Irish Up–Even Though He’s Canadian

Winning the Best Picture Oscar last year for Crash gave Paul Haggis the clout to do a lot of things. He got to polish up the latest James Bond script, appear on Entourage and earn yet another nomination for his story work on director Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima. And now he’s resurrected a TV series he’d tried to make 10 years ago as The Black Donnellys finally comes to NBC thanks to his virtual carte blanche in Hollywood.

The ongoing story of an Irish family in the big city, Donnellys was inspired by the rough-and-tumble life of Bobby Moresco, Paul Haggis‘ writing partner on Crash. Told with the voiceover of Joey Ice Cream (Keith Nobbs), Tommy Donnelly (Jonathan Tucker) gets in trouble trying to protect his family. Things aren’t always what they seem as even the narrator may be shady.

Haggis just loves to tweak audience perception, as he did with the twist and turns of Crash and the shocker third act of Million Dollar Baby. Already busy working on his next film projects, Haggis took a bit of time to reflect on his return to television.

- Advertisement -

Hollywood.com: Was there any reservation about going back to television after winning the Oscar?
Paul Haggis:
No because we figured we’d never win a second won, so, you know, we should get back while the going’s good. [The idea] was something that Bobby and I really love deeply and something we wrote originally in 1996, and when [NBC head] Kevin [Reilly] gave that opportunity, we both jumped on it.

HW: Back in ’96, you were doing EZ Streets for CBS. Did you pitch it there?
PH:
Yeah, this is a follow-up to EZ Streets, and it was something that we were going to do then and it was right after EZ Streets failed. And then Leslie [Moonves] realized, “Hold on, I just cancelled this show. What the hell am I doing?” Rightly so. And it was something we tried to do with CBS over the years, and it just wasn’t a fit for them, and we sort of gave up trying about five years ago.

HW: What have you learned since then?
PH:
I don’t think we learned the damn thing. I mean, at the time, we were told, “Don’t you guys get it? No one wants to see a continuing story over 24 episodes.” And we said, “Okay, “and we went off, and then, of course, 24 hit, and a lot of other shows, and now people say, “Don’t you get it? That’s the only thing people want is a series for 24 episodes.” So we didn’t learn a damn thing, we just did the show exactly as we would have done it then, I think. We just, you know, maybe had a little more freedom. We had the freedom to cast kids who were relatively unknown now when we may have had to at the time cast name actors, which would have been a shame because you don’t get a lot of name actors who are 21, 22 years old.

HW: If you started this in 1996, what made you think of it then?
PH:
I just met Bobby the year before. I’d written the pilot for EZ Streets and I was looking for writers and someone recommended I look at Bobby, and Deborah and I read his work and really liked it. So he became my right hand on that series. And then, as it was failing, we wanted to do something else. And I’d been listening to his stories, and said, “How about I steal your life? Would you like to do it with me or not?”

HW: What can you do with an ongoing TV show that you can’t with a movie?
PH:
I don’t think we treat them differently. You know, I directed this thing exactly as if it had been a movie. You’re just trying to tell a good story. And with a lot of other television shows, when I’d direct them, people would go, “You know, you really should be doing movies.” And it wasn’t a compliment. They were just trying to get rid of me. The nice thing is that NBC is really supportive with that. We do a scene in the pilot in which it’s all shot, it’s very important scene and these two figures in silhouette, and you never cut in. It’s the stuff you usually do in a feature. But we did that, and I fully thought I’d get network notes of “OK, where are the close-ups?” and they never gave those notes.

HW: Wouldn’t this be an R-rated movie? How can you do that on network TV?
PH:
It’s a real line to walk. And Bobby learned to walk that every week, more so than I because Bobby was responsible for getting a lot of the scripts going on once he got first a few done. And it’s a tough line.

- Advertisement -

HW: What were the challenges of doing this for a network, when Brotherhood or The Wire can just say anything on cable?
PH:
I haven’t seen Brotherhood but The Wire is a magnificent show. It’s one of my favorite shows in the television. It is obviously always a challenge with the language, but that was basically it. And we weren’t even challenged that much. I mean, we got to tell all the emotional truths. I was worried about that, I got to tell you. I never thought that we would be doing this on network television. They really gave us a lot of freedom, and we tried to be responsible with that. But we used a lot of curse words too and they let us get away with that. It was just things that a ten o’clock audience would say, “This might be pushing the boundaries but it’s not something we haven’t heard before.”

HW: Given that Joey Ice Cream is such a B.S. artist, is it possible that he’s leading us, the audience, in a completely wrong direction?
PH:
It’s more than barely possible. It’s fascinating because it’s something we want to explore. We want to sometimes tell a deeper truth than what was the factual truth for the moment whether Joey “Ice Cream” was there or not. He seems to know what’s going on inside this. But what are his motivations? I mean, that’s something we certainly explore to go along. And as you see, and especially since we have him in this limbo, you never really know, and we purposely kept this, what’s the outcome of the story and is he damning his friends, is he protecting his friends, you don’t know.

HW: As a writer with diverse subject matters, what sort of theme do you look for in stories?
PH:
I think we just look for great stories, fabulous dilemmas and questions that are unanswerable. We try to put our characters into situations where we wouldn’t want to be and then help them make choices that we would never want to make, and that’s how we do.

HW: Why is the public so drawn to mob or gang stories?
PH:
Oh, I don’t know. We’re drawn to a lot of stories and this is one. The journey that these boys face, what we liked was not necessarily a mob story. We liked the idea of doing a coming of age story within this sort of this world where crime is the easiest way to make a living. That’s what appealed to us.

HW: But this year with The Departed and all, why do you think there’s this interest in mob stories?
PH:
I don’t think it’s an interest. Bobby and I wrote this in 1996 and then we dragged it out, so it’s hard to say. It was like last year with the Oscar when people were asking us why is it that all these films have social significance this year. It’s impossible to tell because all those projects, were created three, four, five years before. And they always happened to role in there. Is there something in the consciousness or common consciousness this causing? I don’t know. Good question.

- Advertisement -