From Scientology Apostate to Humanitarian, Oscar Winning Screenwriter Paul Haggis Helps Rebuild Haiti

By , Contributor

When Lawrence Wright was writing his lengthy and controversial New Yorker article on the defection of Paul Haggis from Scientology, he called me for a long discussion. I had not spoken to Paul for years because as far as I knew, he was in Scientology and I hadn’t been involved for well over a decade. Extant Scientologists don’t talk to people who leave, by policy. Still, I have a very good memory and was able to tell Wright things about Paul that Wright didn’t know. Paul and I had formed a group for Scientologist writers in 1979 that continued for almost a decade.

I explained that Paul had impressed me with his writing the first time I read anything from him. In 1978, a mutual friend named Spanky Taylor gave me a “spec” (written on speculation) script for the show Welcome Back, Kotter that Paul wanted Spanky to give to her friend John Travolta. I was already making money writing and Spanky wanted my opinion. I laughed out loud at a Vinnie Barbarino line where he postures that he could probably get a scholarship to beauty school because he was so good-looking.

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Paul overseeing construction of school in Haiti

Paul impressed others with that script and soon got work writing animated shows in town via Michael Maurer and his brother Jeff (who later changed his last name to Scott), who were grandsons of Moe Howard of the Three Stooges. I told Lawrence that Paul had also gotten a boost when Peter Devaney, a strawberry farmer from Canada, had shown up at a writers meeting at Celebrity Centre wanting to spend $15,000 to develop a movie about the life of L. Ron Hubbard.

Paul and I were running the meeting and I turned to him and said, “You take it.” Paul made a deal with Devaney and although Hubbard’s life story didn’t get done, the money bought Paul some time to write, and his career took off rapidly (and he paid Devaney back). Before I knew it he was the show runner (writer/producer) on the TV series The Facts of Life (the show that gave George Clooney his start). Paul was always gracious, encouraged me to write for the show, but I just didn’t want to do that at the time.

I regretted that a bit one night in Santa Barbara when I was watching the Emmys and saw Paul win a statuette for a script he wrote for the show thirtysomething. I called him up the next day and congratulated him and, as usual, he was gracious, happy, and wanted to know how I was doing. I never found him to be otherwise, no matter how successful he became. I remember talking to him once after the devastating Northridge earthquake in 1994 about some Hollywood business and he said, “Did you see that house that went over the cliff on the news?”

“Sure!” I said. “That was awful.”

“My house,” he laughed. He actually laughed.

I, on the other hand, felt a bit devastated, because I knew that during the Chinese uprising in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the pro-democracy movement there had been greatly aided by fax machines in America that ran constantly to China, keeping freedom fighters connected. Those fax machines were located in Paul Haggis’ hillside home.

When Paul wrote the screenplay for Million Dollar Baby and it won the Best Motion Picture Oscar, I fully agreed with the selection. Although I’m not a fan of euthanasia, I thought the script was excruciatingly perfect. When he won three Oscars for Crash the next year, including Best Picture, I couldn’t have been happier, even though it was sad that I’d probably never speak to him again due to the fact that those who leave Scientology are completely shunned by those who remain in it.

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Next thing I knew, Paul was writing a James Bond movie. He wrote another movie for Clint Eastwood. And another James Bond movie! It was astonishing - the aspiring screenwriter I’d once been asked to help was completely at the top of the game. Meanwhile, I was writing books about how to break into Hollywood, teaching writers around the world online, and raising a family. Had I taken the wrong path entirely? Should I have gone through TV to the movies, like Paul had done? Oh well.

Another thing that saddened me was how I knew Scientology would use his Oscar win to tout the glories of Hubbard thought. The only other person who had ever won an Oscar while in Scientology was Bert Salzman for the short Angel and Big Joe in 1975. The legendary Ernest Lehman had been involved in Scientology, but I don't believe he was by the time he passed and though nominated six times, the only Oscar Ernie had was a well-deserved honorary statuette. Other than that, John Travolta and Karen Black had been nominated as actors. In contrast, when Hubbard’s novel Battlefield Earth was put onscreen, all it won was a bunch of Golden Raspberry (Razzie) awards for worst just about everything. Oh my, was Scientology going to make hay with Best Picture Haggis.


Only something funny happened on the way to the hype. Paul Haggis fell out with Scientology. He sent them a letter of resignation. In Hollywood, this was big news. I wondered what the repercussions would be, waited for their attack on him, but none came. Then the New Yorker article appeared. Still no attack, no lawsuit. Hmm. This verified something I’d observed for years - Scientology wasn’t what it used to be, when they’d sue anyone at the drop of a word. The Church of Eternal Litigation, some called it.

Finally, six months after the fact, Scientology struck back, via their Freedom magazine in one of the nastiest attempted hit pieces I ever saw Freedom do on anyone. And I’d know - I used to write for Freedom. I had encouraged Tom Whittle Freedom’s long-time editor to move to Los Angeles when he’d been in the Air Force in El Paso, Texas. I was Freedom’s correspondent in Portland, Oregon covering the massive Scientology protest and demonstration against Julie Christofferson Titchbourne, a young Portland woman who was awarded $39 million in damages against Scientology. I’d gone up there on a shoestring budget - no funds supplied by Freedom or Scientology - and when he found out I had no place to stay, Paul Haggis let me sleep on the couch in his hotel room.

APJ.jpgSo when the Freedom (an ironic word sometimes) attack on Paul came, I held my nose and read it online. I would have been amazed that they tried to denigrate his Best Picture Oscar win, or his amazing track record in Hollywood, even the fact that he’s been spending a lot of time and money building a hospital in Haiti lately but then, I know Scientology all too well - they’re capable of any lunacy. What they either didn’t know or chose to ignore is the fact that Paul’s organization Artists for Peace and Justice supports a children's hospital and built a cholera clinic where over 10,000 patients have been treated, many children, half of whom would have died within 24 hours without it.

And while Scientology crows in its article about revamping its building in Clearwater, Florida, APJ is currently building a high school for the children of the slums grades 7-13 - amazingly, the very first free high school in the history of Haiti. When they are done they will have between 2500 and 3000 students, who also get what might be their only meal of the day. And what’s your charity, Scientology?

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As Scientology did its best to degrade Haggis’ career, citing the disappointing box office of his latest movie, they failed to note how the rest of the world views Paul Haggis. For example, he’s to receive the Golden Eye Award, a lifetime achievement honor, from the Zurich Film Festival, which will also present a retrospective of Haggis' career as a director and screenwriter, screening several of his films.

I won’t bother with the contents of the New Yorker article or the Freedom “rebuttal” - you can easily read those yourself online. I will simply say that Scientology “ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” While the Janet Reitman book might not have been the expose many anticipated, the forthcoming books by Lawrence Wright and others will be. When Paul Thomas Anderson’s expose movie The Master hits the screens, the dwindling numbers of Scientologists who see it are liable to hit the streets, screaming.

It seems the Portland branch of Scientology is closed now, and “old timers” (people who were in Scientology early on like myself) report to me how empty the Scientology buildings are these days. If Scientology keeps attacking highly talented humanitarians like Paul Haggis, who simply have a difference of opinion, the religion founded by L. Ron Hubbard may soon, like a repeating line in his never produced screenplay Revolt in the Stars, face a “Future zero!”

That won’t happen for Paul Haggis.

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Skip Press is an author and teacher who has been active in Hollywood for decades. He knows as much about the inner workings of celebrity Scientology as anyone alive.

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