At long last, Alan Ball makes his feature directorial debut with Towelhead. After building a reputation as a playwright, Ball began a Hollywood career as a sitcom writer, chafing under star egos (Cybill, Grace Under Fire) or otherwise watching his work marginalized (Oh, Grow Up, which Ball created, lasted 13 episodes). But everything changed when he won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for American Beauty. Ball then created Six Feet Under, a five-year hit for HBO about the death-and-life issues surrounding a funeral home (Ball directed several episodes, including the pilot, for which he won an Emmy). Since then, writer-director Ball adapted Erica Elian's novel Towelhead into a film and has returned to HBO with a new series: True Blood, a vampire drama based on a series of novels by Charlaine Harris. I spoke to Ball at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, during his press duties for Towelhead.
Groucho: So, you’ve been a standard bearer for more openness about the inner lives or the hidden lives—the sexual lives of Americans.
Alan Ball: (Laughs.)
G: And how has that been working out for you?
AB: Fine, I think. I think that sexuality is really a way that people’s souls get expressed in their lives, and so, when you’re writing about characters, it just seems like a natural place to go. I know that we have a tendency as Americans to sort of not go there, but I’m kind of interested in going there because I think it tells you a lot about someone’s psyche, you know? And it’s such a powerful force in all of our lives even though we’d like to pretend that it doesn’t exist on some level, and, at the same time, our culture is so saturated with it on other levels that it almost becomes a parody—you know what I mean?
G: Certainly an hypocrisy.
AB: Yeah, there’s a lot of hypocrisy around it—that’s what I like.
G: You bring a strong personal vision, having come from the theatre and not having your work diluted initially. But you’ve been stymied in the past in having to hand over your work to some degree. Given that, how do you prepare the authors you’re adapting currently like Erian, and Harris with True Blood, for that process—where they have to let go of their control to some degree to you?
AB: Well, I’m assuming they know what’s happening when they sign those contracts. I mean, they’re both adults and they both sort of realize—they both have actually verbalized in one way or another "I let go of it. It belongs to you now. And you understand how to make this transition to a different medium in a way that I don’t. And I don’t expect you to not deviate from anything." That being said, I’m incredibly respectful of both of their work and I feel very responsible to maintain their vision. You know, both Alicia’s books and Charlie’s books spoke to me in a way that was very synchronized with my own sensibility. So it didn’t feel like I had to do a lot of changing or turn this into that or—it just sort of—I responded to it. And I’ve remained friends with both of them throughout the process, and I feel like I’ve been very respectful. And I also feel like they know what they’re getting into when they sell their material.
G: Yeah. One of the things that’s very striking about Towelhead, I think, is that it seems a pretty rarely-told story—at least in the mainstream. You mentioned in the notes the statistical commonality of sexual abuse and assault.
G: And of course, it represents many people’s experience in the story of the film—culturally speaking. Why did you respond to this material? How did you find the way to this project and what did you think you could bring to it?
AB: Well, the project found its way to me. My agent called me and said, "I have an unpublished manuscript that I read and I think its right up your alley. Would you read it?" And I read it, and it just reached out and grabbed me. And Alicia’s novel is so brilliant in that it is so keenly observed. And all the characters are so rich and vivid and complicated. And all the behavior is understandable, even if it’s terrible behavior. And the book—the story itself refuses to pass judgment on any of its characters. And ultimately, it’s a story of empowerment. It’s not a story of victimhood at all. And that felt really, really refreshing to me. Obviously, the older man/younger woman thing is a theme I’ve explored before and that’s because it has personal resonance. I mean things happened to me when I was a kid that were a little inappropriate. And what I thought I could bring to it, I believe, is—I just got it—I got the tone. I understood how it was horrifying and hilarious at the same time. And I understood how the world was so absurd and surreal, and yet, at the same time, it was one-hundred percent authentic. And I knew what her story needed to be. And I knew what the tone had to be, and I knew what the characters had to be—because it was all there on the page and I recognized it. So I recognized it as something that is very much in line with my own sensibility. And I think I know how to get that. I know how to play the humor deadly straight. And that makes it all the funnier. I know how to cast. I understand the dynamics of this particular kind of drama. And I just felt like "I can do this. I know how to do this." Whereas—I read plenty of books where I think, "This would make a fantastic movie, but I wouldn’t know what to do with it. I would not have the slightest idea." So it was instinct, I guess.
G: On the personal level, the film deals with the sexuality of children—or young adults. But on the social level it also—there’s some satire there or exploration of sexualization of children in the media, with the photo-shoot scene and whatnot. Can you talk about how you wanted to explore both of those things and the intersection of them?
AB: Well, I definitely think we want to desexualize children. At the same time we’re, as a culture, become more and more focused on youth. So there’s really kind of a disconnect there. Children are curious, sexually. And I think a child that’s growing up in an environment where adults are frank about the existence of sex and talk to the kid without being petrified or hysterical—so the kid has all the information...that’s the desired environment for a child. Unfortunately a lot of children don’t get that. I didn’t. I know when I was a kid, there was an element of—I mean—I was curious. It was exciting, you know, and I think that's one of the reasons why it’s maybe so widespread. The mythology we have built around the particular experience of intergenerational sexual interaction—whatever you want to call it—is that the child is never curious, or doesn’t experience any pleasure or delight, you know? It’s all 100% victimization. And the perpetrator is something lower than human. It’s not a person. It’s so evil that it’s not even human. When the truth of the matter is, way more often than not, it’s somebody the child knows and trusts. It’s a member of the family, a friend of the family, neighbor, coach, teacher. And I think the fact that we feel the need to not acknowledge all of these issues—because it’s just too uncomfortable for us or whatever—it’s the same motivation behind ‘abstinence only’ sex education.
AB: It’s like ‘We’re so freaked out as adults about sex that we just don’t want—
G: To think about it.
AB: We don’t want to think about it and how it affects our children. And ultimately, it’s that kind of fear that is, I think, incredibly destructive.
G: Mm-hm. In watching the film, my gut reaction to the Toni Collette character is that this represented the authorial voice or the voice of reason. Is that how you saw that character? I know you’ve also talked about the flaws that character has.
AB: Yeah, I mean, certainly it is the first person who looks at just Jasira and doesn’t see his or her own projections. Certainly in condensing the book, I had to take out some stuff that would have made—that I wish I had had the time to keep in there. And we actually shot these scenes, but we ended up cutting them earlier as Jasira asks her for tampons. She’s like, "Well, I’m not going to give them to you if your father doesn’t want me to." So she sort of steps away from responsibility and then—but because the movie was almost three hours long, and we had to cut it down, now it seems as if "Oh, she’s the guardian angel." But I love the way Toni plays her because she’s kind of bossy, you know, and she is self-righteous. But she is definitely—she’s really the only adult in the movie—her and her husband. All the other adults are just children. All the other adults are just children in adult bodies.
G: I want to ask you a little about being openly gay in Hollywood. I think the perception people have about the Hollywood community, if we can call it that, is that it’s a very welcoming or friendly community to gay people in terms of artists and executives and whatnot. Was that your experience when you were starting out? Did you feel comfortable and were you kind of open from the outset?
AB: No, I came from the theatre and moved to Hollywood and started working in sitcoms. And I was in a sitcom writing room with a bunch of stand-up comedians who are the—stand-up comedians, as a group, are the angriest people you will ever meet.
AB: And, all of a sudden, having come from the PC world of theatre where, basically, everybody’s gay, I was in this room with all of these heterosexual men, who—and, you know what? The PC was out the window. Everything was fair game. I was shocked at the kind of language, you know? And at first I thought "What the hell?"—and I remember one guy, who I actually ended up really liking a lot, said: "Man, if it was raining whores, I’d get hit by a fag." And I thought, "Oh my god." I didn’t even know how to respond to that. And I continued to go with the flow and everything—because I had moved out to L.A. and whatever. And then gradually over the course of the year, I came out and everybody was like "Duh, we knew that." And the jokes continued. You know, and I started to realize, it really was not personal. It was, in that kind of environment, you have to be completely—you can’t censor yourself. You know, there were a couple of members on the staff who I thought, "Well, they really don’t like that I’m gay, because they don’t like gays." But I didn’t care. It certainly didn’t—I never lost a job or was kept from getting a job because of that. But the thing about Hollywood is, if you make people money, they’ll forgive anything. That’s all they care about. That is really all they care about. But there are a lot of openly gay men and women in the business. And I’ve never felt in any way that my sexuality has been an impediment. And I’m not sure I would feel that if I was still living in the hometown I grew up in, you know what I mean? I’m sure I’ve lost jobs before, in my life earlier. I worked at a radio station and I think I got fired because I was gay and the guy who ran the station didn’t like it, you know.
G: I wonder—this is something I haven’t really found people asking you about much—maybe I’m reading the wrong interviews—but you used to be an art director...in what field?
AB: Magazines. Trade magazines. Art director’s a glorified term for graphic artist who did info graphics, and took statistics and made them visually appealing with little illustrated things.
G: Yeah. I wondered, when watching Six Feet Under, your first directing stint—and I know True Blood has some of this as well—that the commercial spots that are sort of layered in there—
G: If that was an outgrowth of your time as an art director?
AB: Well, I was doing more print stuff as an art director. But I also had worked in an ad agency, and I had written commercials in that radio job I got fired from—I wrote commercials. So I’ve always been aware of advertising, and I’ve worked at very low level jobs in terms of creating marketing. So yeah. But the stuff on Six Feet Under was different because I just really wanted to establish that this is a business. This is a business with products that are marketed, that are targeted to a specific—that people take this stuff as lightly as we take shampoo, you know. Embalming fluid to them is mundane as dishwashing liquid.
AB: For True Blood, there was a different motivation. We were trying to sell the sort of backstory and the world where a synthetic blood beverage is marketed because there is a market for vampires. But that’s a really interesting question because there’s some definite similarity there.
G: I’m running low on time, but I do want to have you say a little bit about True Blood—particularly the homosexual subtext of vampires who’ve come out of the coffin and whatnot, and how we’ll see that sort of develop over the course of the series, I guess?
AB: Well, vampires have come out of the coffin—they’ve organized, they’ve hired lobbyists. They’re lobbying for a vampire rights amendment. There’s a church that is very specifically targeted against vampires and their big catchphrase is "God hates fangs."
AB: So it’s very, very easy to look at the vampires in the show as sort of a metaphor for the LGBT community and its struggle for acceptance and equal rights. Maybe a little too easy—because ultimately that’s not what the show is about. It’s ultimately—it’s a bit of a backdrop. The vampires can certainly be seen as any sort of feared and misunderstood, disenfranchised group that also has sort of an exotic sexuality that some people are drawn to out in the open, some people are secretly drawn to, and other people are just so terrified that they feel that they have to get rid of the vampires. And then, you know, vampires have always had a sort of pan-sexual, bisexual appeal. And we definitely follow in that tradition. A lot of the vampires are not really discriminating in the sex of their victims. And by victims I mean sexual partners because, in our world, the feeding and the sexuality are very, very closely combined. There’s a whole group of people called fang-bangers who basically want to hook up with the vampires. They go to vampire bars in the hopes that a vampire will pick them up and take them home and have sex with them and bite them. Because apparently it’s an experience. As one character says, "I read in Hustler that everybody should have sex with a vampire at least once."
G: I wanted to ask as well about American Beauty. You’ve talked about having written that from a place of anger.
G: With success, is it harder to cultivate the right level of passion to keep your writing going?
AB: It hasn’t been so far, you know? I mean, I’ve been very fortunate in that even though I have achieved a lot of success, I still totally feel like an outsider. And I think that’s really important for me to hold onto that. But so far, no, it hasn’t affected me in a negative way.
G: This film, Towelhead, takes place during the Gulf War period. What was important for you to capture about that period? Did you kind of take a trip down memory lane there? I mean obviously it has a cultural, added pressure for the character.
AB: Well, I liked the aspect of it taking place in the Gulf War. First of all, it does have some plot—there are some reasons it’s important to the plot. But second of all, I like the fact that here’s a story that is taking place 17 years ago—18 years ago. And America’s at war in the Middle East and people named Bush and Cheney are calling the shots.
AB: There’s something surreal and tragic and darkly hilarious about that fact. And it just plays to whole sort of—to me, it reminded us of a certain, in my opinion, moral failing, on the part of our government, and placed the moral failings of the characters in the movie in a sort of context that I thought was very interesting. And I was also really glad that it was the first Gulf war because nobody wants to see movies about the current war, apparently.
G: One more quick question. I just wanted to ask, after winning your Oscar, you had a comedy script in the works, and I wondered whatever happened to that?
AB: You know, I was going to take that out, and my agent called me about Towelhead right before we took it out on the market. And I changed my mind. I still have it. It’s gonna go out sometime soon. I don’t know when it’s gonna happen. But it’s something I would like to direct. It’s a screwball comedy set in the Thirties.
G: Wow. And you would direct it as well?
AB: Yeah. I hope so, yeah.
G: That would be fun. Alright. Well, thanks very much. Wish we had more time.
AB: Absolutely. Thank you very much. It was nice meeting you.