UPDATED with more details: Paul Haggis took the witness stand today in his Manhattan trial for sexual assault, and the Oscar-winning Crash filmmaker and former Church of Scientology member’s first words when asked by his lawyer Priya Chaudhry how it felt to be testifying were: “I’m incredibly nervous, of course, and I’m very happy. Because for five years I’ve been unable to clear my name.”
Prosecution lawyer Ilann Maazel immediately objected, arguing that Haggis statement was irrelevant, but was overruled by Judge Sabrina Kraus.
More from Deadline
Later on Wednesday, Haggis began telling jurors his version of what happened the night he brought a movie publicist, Haleigh Breest, to his apartment in Manhattan — a visit in January 2013 that Breest says turned into a rape and led to her lawsuit against the filmmaker in New York civil court.
Almost immediately, their accounts diverged.
After tearful testimony and occasional name-dropping about his family life, Scientology past and Hollywood career, Haggis spoke in more detail about Breest.
“I thought she was adorable,” Haggis said when questioned by his lawyer, Priya Chaudhry. He said they met around 2010 and then hit it off at a party for a Hunger Games movie. “I know I liked her,” he said. “She liked me. We seemed to talk a lot. I was flirting, She seemed to be flirting, and there seemed to be a mutual attraction.”
Haggis sat in a raised witness stand directly across from Breest, who sat behind her lawyers at the very back of the courtroom well, looking straight ahead. In between them was Chaudhry.
Haggis spoke so softly that the judge, Sabrina Kraus, said she had difficulty hearing. Haggis apologized and said, “I have a habit of speaking quickly and mumbling.” Asked by Kraus to enunciate “more slowly, loudly and clearly,” he thanked the judge and said, “I will do my very best.”
Haggis said that until Breest sued him in late 2017, he had thought they remained “friendly” four years after the night she spent at his apartment. “She never gave me any indication it was anything other than consensual,” he said.
Breest testified that after a movie screening party in Manhattan where she worked and Haggis was a guest, she went to his apartment for a drink out of a sense of responsibility to her boss at the movie-events company, who was a friend of Haggis.
She testified she was not attracted to him, saying, “He was older than my dad.” Once there, she said, Haggis tore her clothes off in a struggle, forced her perform oral sex on him and to submit to intercourse, and pushed his fingers inside of her as she repeatedly said no. Her lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for the harm she says Haggis caused her.
With Chaudhry asking the questions, Haggis said they left the movie screening party when he offered her a ride home in the car that Breest’s boss had arranged for him. Breest has said the two then haggled over their next stop — her place, his or a bar — in a conversation outside the car, and that Haggis became annoyed when she didn’t agree right away to forget about going home.
Haggis said he invited her up to his place only after they had climbed inside. “I was interested in her,” he said. He said it felt mutual based on how warmly she greeted him at the party, and how engaged they were with each other all night. Jurors also saw friendly, unsolicited emails from Breest to Haggis preceding the party.
“Then she said something odd,” he testified: “‘OK, I’ll come up but I’m not going to spend the night.’”
Breest has testified that she “wanted to make it clear that I had no romantic interest in him.” Haggis said the caveat was odd “because I hadn’t invited her to sleep over.” He said he laughed and told her, “We’ll have a glass of wine. That’s it.”
Breest has said that as the car headed south through Manhattan she realized her phone had died. Haggis said Breest said nothing about a dead phone, and the car had charging capability. Where Breest has said that Haggis invited her up to see his wine collection, Haggis testified, “I don’t have a wine collection,” just a few bottles.
Breest’s demeanor in the car was “very happy, very fun,” Haggis said. “She was having a really good time — seemed to be.” Even her tone when she said she wouldn’t spend the night was “playful, cartoony, kind of kitten-y,” he testified.
Likewise, he said, “I was enjoying this.”
Haggis said that when the car pulled up, the driver turned and asked him if he should wait. “I asked Haleigh if she wanted to keep the car,” Haggis testified, and she surprised him by saying no. They went inside and took the building elevator, which opens directly into his full-floor apartment on the seventh, top floor.
They kicked off their shoes, he said, and Breest tossed her coat over a nearby chair. He opened a bottle of wine and a few minutes into a conversation at the kitchen counter he described as friendly and flirty, he leaned forward and kissed her.
“Tell us about that kiss,” Chaudhry said. Haggis said it was a brief, close-mouthed kiss with him placing one hand on her waist or shoulder.
“I stepped back,” he said, “and she acted a little surprised, like, ‘Oooh!’”
“I do not think she was surprised,” he continued, “I got the impression she was acting like she was surprised.” He said he responded with an amused, “Really?”
In Breest’s telling, this is around the point where Haggis backed her into his refrigerator and, pinning her arms, said, “You’re scared of me aren’t you?” and “Don’t act like a f*cking 18-year-old.”
After the first kiss, Haggis described a kind of time out, telling Breest she could use a nearby bathroom if she needed to, while he went down the hall to the bathroom in his master bedroom. He also removed the medical brace he’d been wearing under his shirt for back support every day since his spinal surgery in Italy eight weeks earlier.
Haggis testified earlier that he was pain free an able to walk after the surgery, and carry or roll light luggage through airports, but his back was still stiff and his pelvis felt “loose” and still weak in a way that made him mindful of even simple body movements such as leaning forward to shake hands.
(Haggis briefly left the courtroom on Wednesday to put on the brace — now an exhibit in the trial — under his blue dress shirt as a demonstration to jurors of its discreet fit.)
The bathroom break was “also to give her some space,” he said. “I had just kissed her.”
He returned to find her still in or near the kitchen, and they kissed again.
“And how long did that kiss last,” Chaudhry asked.
“Longer,” he said.
Haggis will return to the stand on Thursday. “We look forward to cross-examination,” a lawyer for Breest, Zoe Salzman, said outside the courtroom. Judge Kraus said she expects the jury to hear closing arguments on Monday.
The 11th day of testimony began with Haggis’ ex-wife and fellow ex-Scientologist Deborah Rennard, who told the court he never was violent with her and never forced sex on her.
“I know of no reputation with him regarding women,” Rennard testified. “He had great relationships with women. I never heard of anything negative.”
Earlier in his testimony Wednesday, Haggis wept on the stand as he talked about Rennard, his second wife, who he admitted cheating on repeatedly before and after they married in 1997. They separated in 2010 and officially divorced in 2016, two years before the lawsuit. “She’s been my best friend ever since,” he said, removing his glasses to wipe away tears with a handkerchief. “So few people stand up for you in situations like this.”
The couple’s adult son James Haggis was in court today, watching along with the defendant’s three daughters from the earlier marriage, and Rennard after she had finished testifying.
When the court recessed for lunch, Haggis had not yet addressed the rape allegations directly. Breest is seeking unspecified unspecified damages from a claim that he forced her into unprotected oral sex and intercourse in his apartment in Manhattan in 2013. Four other women called to testify by Breest’s team thus far said that Haggis assaulted or tried to assault them sexually in separate incidents between 1996 and 2015. Breest was working as a freelance events publicist at the time of the alleged incident. She was 26, and Haggis was 59.
But his first 90 minutes of testimony — much of it autobiography — laid the groundwork for him to deny that he had ever committed rape or tried to force sex on anyone. In discussing his 31 years in Scientology — to which he said he gave a “stupid amount” of money in the millions — Haggis said he also paid for so called “auditing” sessions that church clergy conducted using a so called “E-Meter,” a kind of lie detector for the soul.
Haggis said he underwent these spiritual, confessional interrogations into “what have you done that the church would want to know about” willingly. They ranged from 30 minutes to 12 hours, and he collectively paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for them. The test administrator took handwritten notes, and Haggis said he later learned that many sessions were videotaped unbeknownst to their subjects.
The auditing revealed a church hierarchy “fixated” on sexual behavior as well as any sign of disloyalty to the church, he said.
“I grew up Catholic,” Haggis, a native of London, Ontario, Canda, said. “So I confessed absolutely everything in auditing.”
Chaudhry asked if the sex he confessed to in the audits was consensual, non-consensual or “something else.”
“Consensual,” he said.
“Did you ever reveal anything else regarding women?” she asked.
“There was nothing else to reveal regarding women other than sexual relationships,” Haggis said.
Haggis said that at one point he glimpsed the collection of file folders containing the handwritten notes of his auditing sessions. It was “a big pile as high as the ceiling,” including “hundreds of folders with my name on them,” and enough folders in all to fill a room 15 feet across and 12 feet high.
Haggis, on the stand, was also the self-deprecating figure that many witnesses talked about before him.
“Can you tell us some of the shows you have worked on?” Chaudhry asked.
“Just the good ones? Or?” he replied to laughs.
Ticking off work for shows including Love Boat, Three’s Company, One Day at a Time, Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life, he said, “I made a very good living as a very bad writer for many, many years.”
He said his work on the prestige ‘90s lifestyle drama, Thirtysomething, marked a change in his outlook and his fortunes. He won his first Emmys, and then became the show runner of a CBS drama, Family Law, based loosely on the lawyers who handled his first divorce. Then he turned the show over to someone else to concentrate on breaking into film.
Threaded between his career arc were stories of a dysfunctional relationship with his first wife Diana Gettas. He said that once, when they were engaged, he “hit her in the cheek with my fist” when she attacked him with a chef’s knife. He said that otherwise she did all the hitting in their relationship. He said he would ether endure the blows or lock himself in the bathroom.
He said he was still living in Canada, working in construction for his father and dreaming of Hollywood when he met a couple of “long-haired freaks” like himself, and one showed him a copy of “Dianetics,” the founding book of Scientology. He said one led him into a small office above a Woolworth’s five and dime store, where he made the decision to join the church in hopes of finding help for his relationship with his future wife. “They said basically they could fix it,” he said.
On her cross-examination, second wife Rennard said she didn’t know the substance of the allegations from Breest and the other accusers and didn’t know that he told some of these women intimate details about his married sex life. She said a letter she wrote in support of him after the lawsuit was not influenced by the $20,000 in monthly alimony support she was receiving from Haggis at the time.
She said she was “trepidatious” about testifying, fearing Scientology — which she quit with Haggis — might come after her. The Haggis legal team has argued, so far without evidence, that the Breest case might be a Scientology operation to destroy him for qutting and becoming a Scientology critic.
Maazel challenged Rennard on this point, saying. “You said you were “trepidatious … but you issued a public statement and sent it to press outlets around the world.”
Erik Pedersen contributed to this report.
Best of Deadline