Alan Gets the Ball Rolling
by Paul Fischer
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Alan Ball is one of the most original voices in film and television today, from his Oscar-winning original screenplay for American Beauty, to his groundbreaking Six Feet Under, Ball is a new voice for a new generation. Ball makes his long-awaited theatrical directorial debut on Towelhead, based on the acclaimed novel, that follows the dark, bold and shockingly funny life of Jasira, a 13-year-old Arab-American girl, as she navigates the confusing and frightening path of adolescence and her own sexual awakening. Ball also has a new TV series on the air, True Blood, that puts a new and sexy spin on the vampire genre. Ball talked exclusively to Paul Fischer.
Paul Fischer: Towelhead obviously has been around for a little while. I mean, I know it premiered in Toronto a year ago. And with all the changes in the studios and what have you, do you as a filmmaker get a little bit frustrated, having to wait this long to see this film come out?
Alan Ball: Well, certainly as a guy who’s used to working in television, it does seem like it took forever. And I think actually two years—we started shooting about two years ago—is not really that long, in movie terms. But you know, I’m used to shooting an episode and it being on the air in a couple of months, so there were elements of it that were frustrating, yeah. Absolutely. But given that it’s such a difficult movie to get made, I’m very, very thankful that—you know, everything fell into place every step along the way. It may have taken longer than I had hoped. But I think making it independently was a smart move. And Warner Independent, when they bought it, they really helped me turn it into a better movie.
PF: How so?
AB: Well, their notes were really smart. And I fought some of them, of course. And I didn’t take every single one, and nobody forced me to do anything that I didn’t want to do. But the movie is 20 minutes shorter than it was in Toronto and because of that, I think the ending is more powerful.
PF: What was it about this book that really drew you to turn it into a movie?
AB: I think I just was on board with her journey from page one. I just really felt like I understood why everybody was doing what they were doing. I found the characters so rich and so complicated. And the book didn’t tell me what I was supposed to feel. It was a really visceral experience reading it, and at the same time, it was hilarious. And I thought, “These are great characters. I mean, these will be great roles for actors.” And then when I got to the end of the book, I really had a genuine sort of cathartic feeling. I felt, “Wow. I really feel like I’ve been through this journey with her, and I’m so happy that she wasn’t destroyed by it. That she wasn’t just turned into a victim for life. That she actually came out if it on the other side a deeper, richer, and more powerful person, and sort of taking charge of her own body and her own destiny. And it felt really organic. It didn’t feel like a phoney, trumped-up Hollywood ending.
PF: Were any of the notes you were given by Warner Independent an attempt at mainstreaming the material? I mean, was there any attempt at trying to move down the film’s sexuality, for example?
AB: There was some concern about that. But ultimately, when they purchased the movie, Paula Cohen told me, “That’s what we like about the movie.” And frankly, most of the notes were focused on trimming the length, so that the ending would be more powerful. And in making sure that Jasira’s relationship with Thomas felt very different from her relationship with Mr. Vuoso. That it didn’t seem just like every single man was totally exploiting her.
PF: What were the challenges in casting Jasira? Because, I mean, obviously—I imagine that you looked at girls of a variety of ages. Was it important for you to try to find someone old enough that could understand exactly what this character was going through?
AB: Well, I think the challenge in casting her is just finding somebody who can do it, who looks 13, who looks Middle Eastern, and who is adult enough so that the movie’s not going to traumatize them. And I thought, “We’re going to have to search the globe to find this girl.” And we hired casting directors in Australia and London, New York, Detroit. We saw girls from all over the world. And Summer was living in Pasadena. And, you know, her manager sent her in off a casting breakdown. And the first time I saw her, I thought, “Okay, she looks great, and she looks really innocent, and I love that.” Because I think she is innocent. Even though she may act in a provocative way, she’s a kid. She doesn’t know what she’s doing. And so I wanted—and she doesn’t know exactly how it’s going to play out. And so I wanted her to retain that innocence. And I knew instinctively that as an audience, you just had to love her. And Summer just really brought that. And then later in the process—she was already the front-runner. And the bond company told us, “Well, we’re not going to insure the movie unless the actors playing Thomas and Jasira are 18.” Summer was 17 at the time. I said, “When do you turn 18?” And she said, “In two weeks.” So it really just—you know, it really worked out.
PF: Aaron Eckhart is extraordinary in this movie.
AB: Yeah. It’s among the best work he’s ever done, I think.
PF: What do you see in him that convinced you that he would be right for this character?
AB: You know what role he had played that made me think of him for this? It’s not any of his ethically challenged characters. It’s the guy in Erin Brokovich. And I saw—I love him in that movie, because he’s just so genuine and decent, and such a good guy. And I didn’t want Mr. Vuoso to be creepy, or look weird. And the thing I really, really respect Aaron about is that he is fearless. He’s not one of those people who thinks, “Oh, well, I’m only going to play heroes, because I’m a commodity, and I don’t want to play anything that might make people not like me, because I’m first and foremost a commodity.” No. He’s an actor. He’s an actor, and he loves finding the humanity in these characters, no matter what they may do. And he’s also incredibly charming and charismatic, and the camera loves him. And he’s also almost—you know, at least in my experience working with him, he’s almost without vanity. He really is an actor. He is there to act. That’s what he loves, that’s his reward. And I really—you know, he was the first guy I saw in my mind when I read the book. And I’m so happy that he said yes. Because he ultimately got the movie financed. And I also think he has done some of the best work he’s ever done.
PF: Let me ask you—we live in a very conservative country, in so many ways. How concerned are you about the readiness of mainstream America to accept a lot of what this film is exploring?
AB: I’m not concerned at all. I really think there’s an audience to this movie. I’ve been around the country, I’ve seen audiences react to it at screenings. I’m not concerned at all. I know exactly who the people are who are going to make a stink about it, and they’re going to try to turn it into something that it’s not. And frankly, those are people I have no respect for, and I don’t care what they think.
PF: It’s obviously extraordinarily empowering, I think, for young women.
AB: I think so, too!
PF: Do you hope that young women see this film? And what do you hope they get out of it?
AB: I hope they get out of it that they don’t have to be what other people want them to be. That they can—first of all, they can transcend traumatic experience. Our society really likes women to be victims. But they don’t have to be victims. That a sort of childlike desire to please people, and to sort of fit the societal expectation of the most important thing for a woman to be is sexually attractive to men—that that’s all lies. And it gets people in trouble. And I hope if a young woman saw it she would walk away from it saying, “I am in control of my body. And my destiny.” You know? “And nobody can take that away from me.”
PF: You’re not a writer and director who obviously wants to repeat himself. Tell me about True Blood, and how different you’re approaching the genre in this particular work.
AB: I think I’m approaching it from a different place in that I’m not that familiar with it, so I don’t really feel compelled to follow sort of established guidelines or stylistic choices. Once HBO did commit to making the pilot, I started watching a lot of vampire movies, and I very quickly came up with a list of things I did not want to do. I didn’t want to hear any opera music. I didn’t want silly contact lenses when the fangs came out. And I wanted to avoid that sort of icy metallic-blue light that a lot of vampire movies since the mid- to late-’90s feel like they have to have. I’m just approaching it from the way I approach everything. You know? The characters need to make sense. Their relationships need to be complicated and real. And I need to believe in these characters and their world, and I need to be invested in them.
PF: Are you show runner for the entire season, or are you just doing the pilot?
AB: No, I was show runner for the entire season.
PF: So you’re kept very busy.
AB: The term “workaholic” jumps to mind. [laughs]
PF: What are you doing next, do you know yet?
AB: I probably will focus on the second season of True Blood and then I have a couple screenplays that have been sitting on my shelf that I’m ready to maybe try to do something with.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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