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- Sarah Polley on laying her family history bare in the new documentary Stories We Tell
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Alan Ball logged time as a writer and producer on network television shows like Grace Under Fire and Cybill, but his career took off when his first screenplay, for the darkly comic 1999 suburban drama American Beauty, won him an Oscar. He swiftly parlayed his success into the acclaimed HBO series Six Feet Under, which ran for five seasons and confirmed his talent for mixing dysfunctional family drama with larger social and philosophical themes. It also netted him a slew of Emmy nominations, including an award for his direction of the pilot episode.
This month, Ball is set to release provocative projects on two fronts. Beginning on Sunday, September 7, he returns to HBO with True Blood, a Southern gothic vampire series set in backwoods Louisiana. Based on Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series (a.k.a. Southern Vampire Mysteries), the show takes place in a world where synthetic blood has allowed vampires to co-exist with humans instead of feasting on them. Anna Paquin stars as Sookie, a telepathic waitress in backwoods Louisiana who meets and befriends her first vampire, the sexy, inscrutable 173-year-old Bill.
Later in the month, Ball makes his feature directorial debut with Towelhead (formerly titled Nothing Is Private), an unsettling drama based on Alicia Erian's novel about an Arab-American girl's coming of age in suburban Houston. Relative unknown Summer Bashil stars as Jasira, a sexually curious teenager sent to live with her strict, abusive Lebanese father (Peter Macdissi) just as Gulf War I is ramping up. Isolated from her racist classmates and her cold father, the naïve Jasira gets the wrong kind of attention from next-door neighbor Aaron Eckhart, an Army reservist who tries to take advantage of her. Ball recently spoke to The A.V. Club about vampires as metaphor, his real job, and making actors comfortable while shooting graphic sex scenes that make viewers squirm.
The A.V. Club: With True Blood, what's taken from the Charlaine Harris series, and where does the show depart?
Alan Ball: The main storyline is taken from it. I would say like 80 percent, we're loyal to it, the story of Sookie and Bill and their relationship, and there being a serial killing, and Sookie fearing for her life. That's all taken from Charlaine's book. The characters of Jason [Sookie's brother] and Sam [Sookie's boss] really only exist in the book whenever they're in the same place Sookie is, and Tara [Sookie's best friend] doesn't even show up until the second book, and she's Caucasian. But if we stuck to the book exactly, Anna Paquin would be working 12 hours a day, and you can't do that to an actor. It would be a huge strain on the production. I'm not sure it would be as interesting as having a lot of other compelling characters in the show, and having their stories as well. So that's where we departed from the book, but we've tried really hard to remain true to the spirit of the books, in terms of creating Jason's story and Tara's story and Sam's story.
AVC: What is the spirit of the books? What attracted you to them?
AB: You know, it's kind of a dumb answer, but they were just so much fun. It was such an escape, and yet there were nuggets of really profound things that [Harris] said about existence and parts of the culture, but it's also wrapped up in a fun amusement-park, gothic, romantic, science-fiction slasher movie. [Laughs.] And for me, after five seasons of attempting to wrestle with the existential dilemma of being mortal [with Six Feet Under], I just felt like I'd like to have little more fun. It's the kind of book when you're reading, you can't stop. I was determined to only read one chapter, because I had to get up at 6 a.m., and the minute the book was done, I got the next one and the next one. Right around book four, I remember thinking, "This would make a good TV series. If this show was done right, this would be a show I would watch."
AVC: How far ahead have you plotted the show? Do you have a full arc in mind yet?
AB: Fortunately, she's written about eight books, and she's about to publish a ninth, though I'm sure we won't stick to them 100 percent. And I think the show will encourage a lot of people to read her books, and then everybody will know everything, and I think at that point, it will become less possible or even not advisable for us to stick too strongly to the books. But for now, I'd say books one through four are really strong, and there are storylines we would go toward. But I also see as we finish season one and we're talking about season two, there will be other areas we're going to delve into.
AVC: As a show-runner, do you feel you have to look pretty far ahead in a series?
AB: No, I'm not like J.K. Rowling, where I know there's going to be this number of seasons, and I know exactly what's going to happen. I would be so bored if that was the case. There would be no journey. There would be nothing to discover. I'm lucky in that I get to work with some really, really gifted writers that feel passionately about this world and this material. It is a bit of a melting pot, the writers' room, in terms of the synthesis that happens between all these different minds and perspectives, and I trust that I will know how to keep things from veering off course. But I don't know how it's going to end. I haven't really thought about it. I did always sort of know that Nate Fisher would die in Six Feet Under, because it was like, "Of course," but I don't know about this one.
AVC: In your capacity as show-runner, how would you describe your sphere of influence?
AB: Well, let's say I have veto power. I'm certainly the last word in casting. I do a pass on the script before it goes to the table, before it goes to the director. That being said, I'm not on the set when shows are being shot. The writer-producers I work with, whoever wrote the first draft of that script serves as the producer. I don't think each show has to be exactly like the other one. I like it when this one feels a little more like a documentary, and this one feels a little more like an old-fashioned romantic movie. I personally like that as a viewer. But I think probably the role of show-runner on a television series sort of equates to the role of either director of a film, or a producer who is really highly involved. I mean, I'm involved in editing, I re-cut episodes, and I'm definitely involved in scoring and sound mixing, but I do feel like the focus of my job is to keep the best possible scripts coming down the pipeline, so department heads and visiting actors and directors have them 10 days before we start shooting. That's the only way I know how to work.
AVC: How do you envision the use of vampires as a metaphor? There are times on the show when it seems a very clear metaphor for something, and then it shifts around.
AB: Obviously, it's very easy to see the vampires as a metaphor for—at this point in history—for gay and lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, just in the sense that equal rights and vampire marriage—that is to say, marriage between vampires and humans—is an issue in the show. But I think it's so easy to see them as that. It's just too easy. As a deeper metaphor, beyond the talking-head political sphere, I think they are, in some ways, a metaphor for a kind of shadowy group that is silently but very efficiently amassing and consolidating power. That's their goal, and anybody who gets in their way will be destroyed. There are certainly forces like that at work in the world. So for me, they were kind of a fluid metaphor, and I like that. Some of the vampires are like humans, some of them are very sympathetic, and some of them are just bad, and actively want to spread chaos throughout the world.
AVC: Given the show's backwoods Louisiana setting, how does the broader concerns of the vampires—their official fight for equal rights, their integration into society—figure into a locale where few have ever met a vampire? How do those two things integrate?
AB: I'm not sure they really do. It seems to integrate more in the marketing campaign than in the actual show. It integrates in the way that a presidential campaign is integrating in a small town, and it kind of filters down. But it does serve a purpose in the show as texture, as background. The story is not about how the vampires are going to get their rights. But those issues are coming back, and certainly as the season progresses, the anti-vampire church comes more into play, and you've got to keep the political dialogue going between the pro-vampire and anti-vampire forces. When that happens, it feels organic, so that it's not like all of the sudden, we're telling stories about the church. Because to me, that's really clumsy storytelling.
AVC: So what are you looking to evoke about the South in this show? Do you see it as straight Southern Gothic?
AB: I certainly don't want to belittle the South and do the typical Hollywood "Look at those clowns and idiots," or give the women silly hats and big flowery dresses. I'm from the South, so while I personally find it impossible to live there, I still have a fondness for it as a geographical region. I'm just trying to create a place that has a real taste of something non-generic. Certainly one of the aspects of setting the show in Louisiana that we love is the presence of nature, the humidity, the heat, the bugs, all of that stuff. And I try to keep that alive in every episode, because we decided to approach the supernatural as not something that occurs outside of nature, but something that's a deeper manifestation of nature than we are equipped to perceive. One of the other things I responded to in the book was how much I love that Southern dialect, the way people express themselves. It's like music, and so it's nice to go there.
AVC: There seems to be a general perception that since The Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, and The Wire are over, HBO is looking for another flagship. Do you feel that's true? And do you feel a weight of expectation on this show that maybe you wouldn't have felt in the past?
AB: I definitely feel like they're marketing the hell out of this show, and that makes me very happy. My job is to do the best type of show I know how to do, and let other people worry about what it's going to do for HBO. I don't run HBO. HBO is not my responsibility. If they want to pin a lot of hopes on it, that's their issue. I'm going to sound like a flaky touchy-feely asshole right now, and I should probably just keep my mouth shut, but it's an ongoing struggle for me, dealing with whatever success I may or may not have achieved in this industry—which is such an illusion. I try really hard not to have expectations or desired outcomes. I really feel like my goal, and I don't always achieve it, is to do the best work I can do, and stay out of the results. Because ultimately, the result is not what the work is about. There are other people whose jobs are to focus on those results and maximize them, and that's great. Let them do their job.
AVC: Do you feel like you're successful in doing that, or is that a struggle, too?
AB: I've gotten a lot better at it. I think it's a lifelong struggle. The ego is kind of a big, unwieldy thing. It's not so easily tamed or subdued.
AVC: Let's move on to Towelhead. There are so many issues at play in the film—teenage sexuality, interracial relationships, cultural identity. How do you wrangle all that together without making it an "issue movie" per se?
AB: I have to tip my hat to Alicia Erian, who wrote the novel. She did all of that in her book. It was not an issue book. It wasn't a standard abuse story. If you look at it analytically, it actually fits pretty neatly into the Joseph Campbell hero-myth paradigm. To me, it's the story of a remarkable young woman who, without any real guidance or help, just from the sheer power of her will, sort of becomes the person that she wants to be. And along the way, it's horrifying, it feels very real, it refuses to judge its characters, it's hilarious, and ultimately it feels very redemptive, and not in a phony happy-ending kind of way. Those are all of the feelings I felt when I read the book, and I felt my job was just to condense it without losing anything. The biggest challenge for me when adapting the book was that the book is narrated. It's all narrated by Jasira, and it's all first-person, and it's hilarious. Alicia is a fantastic writer, but I felt in a movie, if I were to use narration, it would remove you from the experience. It would be, "Okay, is she remembering this? Is this an adult woman speaking about her childhood, rather than just being there in that moment when those things are happening to her?"
AVC: Jasira's sexual curiosity leads to some pretty uncomfortable places. What are the factors that make her coming of age maybe more disturbing than for other girls her age?
AB: Well first and foremost, she's alone. She's on her own. Her parents are raging narcissists. Emotionally, they're children just like her, so she can't count on anyone to nurture her or care for her. Second of all, she's a minority in an environment that's fairly racist , and she's taunted her for that. Third, she has no source of pleasure or power in her life. None. She lives a very sterile existence with a borderline-personality father from a different culture who is basically mostly just scared of and irritated by her, at an age where she needs someone more than ever. No one is there, so she's going to look for pleasure and power and the sense of being validated wherever she can find it. Of course when she discovers masturbation, it's like, "Okay, here's something that makes me feel good, even if it's just for a matter of minutes." And of course when the handsome, charming guy next door is interested in her, she feels this power, and she's going to get involved with him. She's a child. She doesn't know better. And I don't think that makes her any less innocent, the fact that she's provocative, the fact that she pushes the envelope. You can't hold a child accountable by the same standards you hold an adult accountable, especially a child that has never been taught what is right or wrong. Look at her mother: That's her model of how a woman behaves sexually. She takes in a much younger stoner, and haves him live in her house with her 13-year-old daughter because she's so scared of living alone.
AVC: There are some very queasy sexual situations in here and in True Blood. How do you pull those off as a filmmaker? How do you make uncomfortable scenes for the viewers relatively comfortable for the performers?
AB: In the case of Towelhead, we never asked Summer or any of the characters to be naked. We used modesty covers, we used a body double, Summer's mother was on the set every single day, Summer knew what she was getting into, and she had prepared herself mentally. It was actually much harder on Aaron [Eckhart]. It was much more difficult for him in those scenes, because Aaron is a pretty moral guy himself, and also, Aaron's character knows what he's doing is wrong, whereas Summer's character is like, "Well this is new, and it's kind of exciting." She doesn't have the context to know that something's really, really wrong. And in terms of True Blood, any time actors were asked to be naked, it was very clear what was going to happen, and they had to agree to it before they came in to read. Because I didn't want to get some great actor and have them all of the sudden say, "I don't want to do that." I just felt that in the world of True Blood, which is about sex and violence and nature, sexuality was going to be a part of it, especially when one of the main characters is pretty much sexually compulsive. I personally don't find it all that uncomfortable to watch. I just think sex is a part of life. I'm not one of those people who needs it to be a religious experience. I think it's part of life, like eating. [Laughs.] And it's always been a very interesting place for me to see into the psyche of a character. Ryan [Kwanten], who plays Jason on True Blood, gave everybody… men wear these flesh-colored baggies over their genitalia, which on our set has been nicknamed "the sock of destiny," and he gave socks of destiny to a lot of the crew members as a wrap gift. He's got a great sense of humor about it. And all the women have been great about it.
AVC: What sort of adjustments did you have to make going from directing television to directing film?
AB: Considering we had a budget of about $14 [for Towelhead], I didn't have to make that many adjustments at all. [Laughs.] The script, which I now know was way too long, had almost 200 scenes in it. Some of those scenes were half a page or a quarter of a page, but the days were very packed. It was like a television show. I'm used to shooting seven pages a day for TV, and I hear from people who work in movies that three pages a day is more the norm. To me, that's incredibly luxurious. I did feel on some days, working on Towelhead, "Okay, we're done, we can go home," and we still had an hour left on the schedule. That rarely happens on television.
AVC: How are you able to work so fast? Are you not too precious about things?
AB: Everyone's really well-prepared going in. I rehearse with the actors right up to the point where I feel things are starting to happen. Because when really interesting things are happening, you want the camera to be rolling. Also, when I shoot, I don't do take after take after take to get this perfect idea of what it should be, because this perfect idea of what it should be is probably going to change in editing. I feel like my job during the shoot is to get as much raw material as possible. Also, these actors are so well-prepared, and they so knew what they were doing, and there were moments when I was just sitting at the monitor with my jaw dropping, because I couldn't believe how perfectly something had worked. And once I've got it, I move on. I don't try to top it. You always have that clock running, and you know you have to keep going.
AVC: So what sort of experience do you want viewers to have with Towelhead?
AB: As long as the experience is authentic, I don't care what it is. I know that the movie pushes emotional buttons. I know there are people who are not going to like it, it's just not their cup of tea. I guess if I had to articulate what experience I would like for audience members to have, I would like for them to come out of this movie understanding how something like that could happen, and to feel like it's something they have to keep thinking about. Not necessarily for years, but at least a couple of days. [Laughs.]