Rape accuser testifies against filmmaker Paul Haggis

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Screenwriter and film director Paul Haggis arrives at court for a sexual assault civil lawsuit in New York on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

NEW YORK – He was a famous moviemaker. She was a publicist working a film premiere where he was a VIP guest. He'd offered her a lift home and then invited her to his apartment for a drink.

Once there screenwriter-director Paul Haggis abruptly tried to kiss her, backed her into his refrigerator, and had a question for her, accuser Haleigh Breest told a jury Thursday.

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“Are you scared of me?” he asked, according to her testimony.

And so began, Breest said, a sexual assault that ended with the Oscar winner raping her. She's suing him in a civil case that's now on trial.

Haggis maintains the 2013 encounter was consensual, and his lawyer has argued that Breest called it rape because she's out for money. She's seeking unspecified damages.

In a steady, unsparing tone, Breest recounted what she said was a terrifying, painful attack that left her shocked and “really struggling to comprehend what had happened.”

“I couldn’t understand how somebody who seemed like a nice guy would do that,” she said.

As she spoke without looking at him, Haggis, 69, watched largely expressionlessly, sometimes rubbing his bearded chin or taking notes.

The Associated Press generally doesn’t identify people who say they have been sexually assaulted unless they come forward publicly, as Breest has done.

Breest, now 36, said she first met the “Crash" and “Million Dollar Baby” screenwriter in 2012 at a premiere afterparty where she was working.

Breest and Haggis exchanged occasional professional emails and party chitchat, she said, over the months before their paths crossed again at another premiere party she worked on Jan. 31, 2013.

A tipsy — but not stumbling drunk — Breest accepted the filmmaker's offer of a ride, and then his invitation for a drink, she told jurors. She said she suggested someplace public instead, but he pushed for his apartment in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood, and she didn't want to offend one of her employer's red-carpet guests.

“But just so you know,” she testified that she told him, “I'm not sleeping in SoHo tonight.”

Yet Haggis' advances began as soon as she put her bags down in his loft's open kitchen, Breest said.

“You've been flirting with me for months,” he soon said, according to her.

“I don't even know you,” she said she replied.

Breest said she dodged him and thought she'd politely defused the situation when he started showing her the apartment. But when they reached a guest bedroom, Haggis “became aggressive very quickly,” pushed her onto the bed and pulled off her tights and clothes as she tried to keep them on and told him to stop, she said.

Then, she said, he forced her to perform oral sex and wanted intercourse. She said she asked to take a shower as a subtle way to get out of the room, but he followed her there, then steered her back to the guest bedroom and made a further series of unwanted sexual moves that culminated in rape.

“I was like a trapped animal. There was nothing for me to do,” she said.

Breest said she passed out soon afterward, awoke alone on the bed the next morning and left without seeing Haggis again.

That day and in the ensuing months, Breest said, she told a half-dozen friends that she had been sexually assaulted, naming Haggis to some. She said she informed her boss the next year that Haggis had done something bad to her.

Breest didn't tell police. She testified that she was scared and concerned about how her allegation would be handled.

Nor did she confront Haggis when he emailed her the day after the encounter to ask about photos from the premiere. Nor at subsequent screenings or in emails, some of which she initiated, about social events and movie matters.

“I didn’t want my work experience to be awkward,” she testified, so “I pretended like everything was normal. And it wasn’t.”

Behind the scenes, Breest anguished over what had happened and what to do, according to text and other electronic messages shown in court.

The communications, sent to friends, veer from frank descriptions of forced sex — “and I kept saying no” — to moments when she seemed to downplay it ("it sort of is" rape).

At times she said she wanted to avoid Haggis, at others she mused about seeing him again to try to regain some equanimity and “not be the victim.” The messages are salted with lighthearted texting slang — “lol," “omg,” “haha” — that Breest says were attempts to use humor to defang a tough subject.

Haggis hasn't testified thus far, and his lawyers haven't yet gotten their chance to question Breest. In an opening statement, defense attorney Priya Chaudhry pointed to some of the accuser's messages — such as a comment that she needs “to get something out of this” — to question her credibility.

Breest said her remarks just reflect her horror at being victimized, her desire to seize back a sense of control in her life, and her confusion at how someone she thought well of could violently turn on her.

Now, she said, she understands that night.

“I thought I was getting a ride home. I agreed to have a drink. What happened never should have happened," she told the jury. "And it had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with him and his actions.”

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