It took two-and-a-half years before Paul Haggis was happy with the script for Third Person, he tells Jeremy Kay.

Paul Haggis’ Third Person, a mystery wrapped up as a relationship drama, spans New York, Paris and Rome and the ensemble cast includes Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, James Franco and Mila Kunis.

Corsan financed and handles international sales while Paradigm and CAA represent US rights. The film has its premiere in special presentations in Toronto today.

Tell us about the genesis of the film.

It’s been four-and-a half years. I was finishing the shoot of The Next Three Days and having a conversation with [Israeli actress] Moran Atias, with whom I have worked twice. We were commiserating about relationships and the impossibility thereof. She said I should do something like Crash but make it about relationships.

I dismissed it at first [but then] I had so many questions I couldn’t answer about love so I thought it would be something interesting to explore.

What areas did you explore?

I had three questions. If you trust someone who is completely untrustworthy, do they become what you imbue them with? If you damn someone and try to get someone to face the worst of themselves do they become damnable and what happens to you in the process? If you are able to change someone, just by the nature of changing do they become someone you no longer want? 

I put these ideas into three different storylines but also wanted to investigate the nature of creating itself and what one has to kill and destroy in order to create. Another question I had was what are the two most important things in life and I thought they were love and art. And I thought OK, choose one. So I made one of the characters make that choice.

I packaged this as three storylines of three different couples – one in New York, one in Paris and one in Rome. I wanted to have really romantic settings for these complex themes.

What’s the tone of the film?

I knew I would shoot in Europe and I wanted this to be an indie film. I wanted to make a movie for smart people. This pretends to be three love stories when really it’s a mystery and you only find this out half-way though the film. I love those films where you walk out of the theatre and stand on the sidewalk with your friends and say ‘What the hell was that about?’ You don’t see enough of that; it isn’t studio fare.

Why did it take so long to write?

I wrote this from the inside out. I’m a structuralist but I wrote this in a different way. I wrote this with a partner over two-and-a-half years and got it wrong, got it wrong, got it wrong. I wrote six days a week, six-eight hours a day – gruelling. Any decent writer could do this in six months.

You finished it in 2011. Then what?

I took it to Cannes to find money. Sadly, we showed it to the wrong [financier] and went up a blind alley. [Some time later] I remembered I had met [Corsan head] Paul Breuls at the Berlin Film Festival… So I picked up the phone and called him and asked him if he remembered the script and told him the budget. We took it to Cannes in 2012.

How did you choose which cities to shoot?

It all came together very quickly and we had to make some practical decisions about shooting in these three cities. New York incentives mean you have to shoot half of it in New York and this was one-third, one-third, one-third. Rome was largely exteriors – it’s a road trip. So that was the most important location and the other two were mostly interiors, so we chose Rome.

At that time the script was set in New York, London and Rome and Rome was easier to double for Paris – it’s really hard to double London. We shot a little bit in Paris and New York for our exteriors. It’s a 100pc Belgian film and we did our post in Belgium.

Tell us about your cast.

It really fell together nicely. I like working with people over and over again. Olivia [Wilde] I had worked with first when she was 21. I have always liked her. While I was writing the piece her manager called me and asked if Olivia could have that role and I had no idea what she could do with it and it was completely opposite to anything she had done before.

I try not to think of actors while I am writing but as soon as I had finished it I asked Liam [Neeson] and send him the script and he said yes. Taken 2 got moved and there was a conflict. [Neeson initially moved on.] I asked Russell Crowe and he said yes and then things got pushed again and Russell couldn’t do it and I asked Liam again and he said yes and it worked out quite well.

I had worked with James Franco and loved him and he said he would do any role I asked him to do.

[Naomi Watts was originally on board and fell out because of the Diana shoot so Mila Kunis stepped in.] I thought she was totally wrong but a brilliant actress and we met and in that one window I was completely convinced she could do this role. I re-wrote it just a little bit for her.

Adrian Brody I also thought was completely wrong for this but it worked out.

What’s next?

I’ve just finished writing with my daughter Alissa, with whom I have collaborated before, on an adaptation of the young adult novel The Ranger’s Daughter. Dick Cook’s new company will produce it and we’re hoping to shoot it next year. I may end up directing it.