Screenwriter and film director Paul Haggis arrives at court for a sexual assault civil lawsuit, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)
NEW YORK — Filmmaker Paul Haggis told jurors Wednesday that he believed he had a consensual encounter with a woman who later accused him of rape, portraying himself as a “flirt” who acted on what he thought was mutual attraction.
Publicist Haleigh Breest alleges that he forced her to perform oral sex and then raped her in 2013 as she repeatedly told him no.
As Haggis took the stand as the defendant in the civil rape trial, he said she “never gave me any indication it was anything other than consensual” until he heard from her attorneys in 2017. She sued soon after.
“For five years, I’ve been unable to clear my name, and now I will,” Haggis told jurors.
Breest earlier gave the jury an extensive account of the alleged assault.
“I said, ‘Stop! Stop! Stop!'” she testified. She is seeking unspecified damages; there are no criminal charges in the case.
Haggis’ testimony, due to continue Thursday, hasn’t yet addressed all of Breest’s accusations, including the moment at which she said he shoved her onto a bed, pulled off her clothes and forced oral sex. Nor has he detailed his account of the point at which she alleges he raped her.
But earlier that evening, when she maintains Haggis startled her with kisses that she didn’t return and quickly backed out of, he said she initially deflected him with an ambiguous “ooh!” Then, when he made another pass, “she was kissing me back,” he testified.
Haggis agreed with some parts of his accuser’s account of how she ended up alone with him in his downtown Manhattan loft: He offered her a ride home from a movie premiere and invited her for a drink at his apartment. She responded by suggesting a bar instead. When he said he preferred the apartment, she accepted but told him she wasn’t spending the night.
But where Breest said she made clear that she wasn’t interested in a physical liaison, Haggis said he got a different signal.
Once they got to his home, “she was having a really good time, it seemed to me,” and they were both “flirtatious,” smiling and “very engaged” as they chatted over glasses of wine, he said.
Breest’s lawyers haven’t yet gotten their chance to cross-examine Haggis, who is known for writing the early-2000s best picture Oscar winners “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash.” Breest was a publicist who moonlighted at premieres that he sometimes attended.
The 69-year-old moviemaker testified that he thought Breest, 36, flirted with him at screenings and in occasional emails about events and show business. He said he found her “adorable.”
When she greeted him with a hug on the night in question, he took it as “an escalation in our relationship,” he said.
Breest has said she just showed professional friendliness to Haggis, who is older than her father.
Haggis hasn’t yet told the jury his version of interactions with four other women who testified that he sexually assaulted them on separate occasions between 1996 and 2015. One said he raped her.
In testimony that veered from self-deprecating humor to a few tears as he recalled a failed marriage, Haggis did say he has “always been a big flirt” and acknowledged having “a number of affairs” while married to his second wife, actor Deborah Rennard, from 1997 until a 2010 separation and a divorce six years later.
Hours of Haggis’ testimony focused on his decades-long membership and highly publicized 2009 split with the Church of Scientology, a system of beliefs, teachings and rituals focused on spiritual growth. It was founded by science fiction and fantasy author L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s.
Haggis’ lawyers have floated the notion that the church somehow generated the lawsuit to take down a famous dissenter, though they’ve agreed there’s no evidence that Breest has any ties to the religion. Nor have any witnesses testified that they know of a link between Scientology and Breest’s lawyers or between the faith and Haggis’ other accusers.
But one of Haggis’ lawyers, Priya Chaudhry, has said the “circumstantial evidence of Scientology’s involvement here will be powerful.”
Ex-Scientologists, including one of his daughters, have related what they portrayed as church efforts to scrounge up damaging information about him or his family after he left the organization and called it “a cult” in a 2011 New Yorker article.
The church said in a statement as the trial opened that it “has nothing to do with the claims against Haggis, nor does it have any relation to the attorneys behind the case.” Breest’s attorneys say the same.
The Associated Press generally doesn’t identify people who allege they have been sexually assaulted unless they come forward publicly, as Breest has done.
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