Alan Ball is the writer/director of one of this year’s most controversial movies, â€˜’Towelhead”.
Set in 1991, it tells the story of Jasira, a young woman trying to find her way in the world. When Jasira’s mother finds out what has been going on between her boyfriend and her thirteen-year-old daughter, she has to make a choice – and chooses to send Jasira off to Houston, Texas, to live with her father. A remote disciplinarian prone to explosive rages, Jasira’s father is unable to show his daughter the love she craves – and far less able to handle her feelings about her changing body.
Bewildered by extremes of parental scrutiny and neglect, Jasira begins to look elsewhere for affection. Saddam Hussein has invaded Kuwait, and high school has become a lonely place for a “towelhead.” When her father meets, and forbids her to see, her boyfriend, it becomes lonelier still. But there is always Mr. Vuoso – a neighboring army reservist whose son Jasira babysits. Mr. Vuoso, as Jasira discovers, has an extensive collection of Playboy magazines. And he doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with Jasira’s body at all.
CLINT MORRIS caught up with the famed film (he penned the Oscar Winning American Beauty) and TV favorite (he created “Six Feet Under” and the new vampire series, “True Blood”) to talk about it.
First of all, your new TV series True Blood is going quite well I hear?
Yeah, I’m really excited about it. I’m really glad people are responding to it.
I’m hearing a lot of comments like â€˜The first episode was pretty good, but every episode afterwards is great – –now I’m hooked!’
What works about it, I think, is that it’s refreshingly original.
Yeah, well that’s what I responded to in the book [that it’s based on]. It seems like such an original mix. There’s so much in there that I really enjoyed. There’s a gothic-romance element, and I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it if that’s all it had been about, but there was also sex, violence and this serial murderer, all set in this crazy world where vampires are struggling for equal rights. And then there’s this cliffhanger old Saturday-afternoon matinee feel. It’s just really, really fun to work on.
And it’s an awesome cast. Anna Paquin is great.
She’s good casting. Thank god she wanted to do TV! When the casting director said “Are you interested in Anna Paquin?” I shot back “Well, yeah, but is she interested in this?” She says “Yeah, she is”. Anna pursued this role, and thank god she did because… she really gives the show heart… soul. It’s a great cast, lets not discount anyone else in the cast, but playing someone whose been hearing someone else’s thoughts their entire life isn’t easy – and she makes it look easy.
And to “Towelhead”. Why? When? How?
Its based on a book. My agent sent it to me about three years ago. I read it before it was published. I contacted the author and told her I was in love with the story. I found it so refreshing. I’d certainly seen a story about an older man and a younger woman – I’d ever written one [American Beauty] – but here it was told in a way that was kind of refracted in absurdity…set in America in war times.. in this day… and with a whole multi-cultural element and race element… and the fact that this girl is not destroyed by [the events of the movie] and that she comes out of it stronger. She takes back her own authority over her own body and her own destiny. And that’s so not the way the story is usually told. Its incredibly refreshing and inspiring and redemptive.
Was it a hard book to transfer to the screen?
It wasn’t. I think [author] Alicia’s [Erian] sensibility is so close to my own. Certainly the hardest thing for me was figuring out what to lose. And also the book is narrated by Jasira, and you hear everything she’s thinking, and I didn’t wanna rely on narration in the movie. So that was a bit of a challenge – but the story is so strong, and the characters were so vivid, that it really wasn’t that hard.
Where did you find Summer [who plays Jasira]?
Er, she lives in Pasadena. I thought we would have to search the globe for actors. I’d spoken to casting directors in London and Australia; saw girls in New York, Detroit… I saw girls on tape from all over the world. Summer came in off the casting director’s breakdown. Thank god we found her. Its not like we read the book and go â€˜We need an eighteen year old actress who looks thirteen and looks middle eastern and can carry a movie – yeah I’ll just call CAA!” because that girl doesn’t exist.
And Peter, wasn’t he in â€˜’Six Feet Under”?
He was. He played Claire’s art-teacher.
So you obviously remembered him from then?
Yeah, and I knew he was the type of actor who could approach this from a non-judgmental place. And I also didn’t want to be too old – because if he’s 60, and he’s laughing at his daughter, that’s just too old to be forgiven. Ever.
And it’s great to see Aaron Eckhart in this role. Especially after playing all-round good-guy Dent in â€˜’The Dark Knight” – not that there isn’t a likeable side to this character too.
Yeah. He has the hardest role in the movie – especially in terms of comfort level. Summer is playing a character that’s not consciously doing anything wrong, she’s just trying to validate and feel good about herself and have someone pay attention to her – which he does. Aaron hadÂ to live in a really uncomfortable place but it’s a testament to what a great artist he is. It’s incredibly brave to take this role and I just think he’s one of the best actors alive.
Did he shoot this before or after Batman?
We actually shot it before.
Maria Bello. She’s a small role in this film, but is no less memorable than anyone else.
She does so much with the time she’s on-screen.
I saw her in â€˜’The Mummy”, and I know they have to do the big commercial blockbusters, but she seems so wasted in films like that
If they’re lucky enough to be in a position where they can do a big stupid movie like that, make a lot of money, and then go and do little movies like this, ones they really want to do, I think it’s a great place for an actor to be.
The last person I interviewed said it’s always a case of “One for them, One for Us”.
But she is terrific in it, and of course, not playing such a smilingly nice character for a change.
No [Laughs] She’s the worst mother in the world! What I loved about the character is that the fear she lives with is so intense – the minute she feels like she’s competing with her daughter for this guy’s attention, she feels she has to abandon her daughter. She’s really believing what she’s doing is best for her. That to me is fascinating. I’m sure it’s incredibly common, but that to me is like â€˜Oh. My. God’.
I just love actors who are like â€˜Ok, I’m an actor. It’s my job to find humanity in this person, even though what she does I would never do it in real-life’. There’s so many actors out there that wouldn’t go near this part, because they feel people won’t like their character, and more so, it’d affect their standing on the Hollywood power list but they’re not actors, they’re commodities. I’m only interested in working with actors.
How was it directing?
Well, I’ve directed a lot of TV before – a lot of high-end TV, so it wasn’t that much different. Aside from having a little bit more time, it just feel like what I do.Â It’s all about the characters, it’s all about the actors…
…but in comparison to say something you didn’t direct, like â€˜’American Beauty”, did you feel you had more say this time around?
The thing about American Beauty is that Sam [Mendes] and I were so in sync. And he also really admired and believed in the script that I wrote. In a way, that experience kind of spoiled me – I don’t feel now that I want someone else directing my work, especially if they want to go off in another directions; I just can’t do it. I don’t think I’m going to be one of these people who only I can direct the things I write – certainly on TV other people direct my scripts, and I direct scripts that other people write – but that being said, I really, really enjoy directing.
How did the film change after Warner Independent picked it up?
I think it got better. One of the most helpful notes they gave me was that Jasira felt as equally unsure as Thomas about what they were doing and could we make it a little bit more enjoyable for her. I went back in and I did that and it was really, really smart. I didn’t really cut out anything content-wise – they asked me to, but they didn’t force me to – and ultimately I took out a lot of little trims of scenes or scenes with a point that had already been made – they’re interesting, compelling scenes, and the performances are great; they’ll all be on the DVD as extras – and by not having to wait so long to get the ending, the ending got more powerful.
I’m really sorry to see [Warner Independent] go away because I really, really enjoyed working with them.
The title changed didn’t it?
Well, the book is called Towelhead but when I started shopping the script around town – under the same name – everyone passed. So when we made the movie independently, and had to take it to Toronto to try and sell it, we had to put another name on it. It [Nothing is Private] was a horrible title – everybody thought so. When Warner Independent bought it they told me we had to change the title because Nothing is Private is a really long title. We talked about all these other titles and eventually I just said â€˜You know, Towelhead is the best title for this story’. I thought they’d turn me flat-down, but they didn’t, they said â€˜Well if that’s what you believe, we will support you in it’. I was very lucky. There was a bit of controversy about the title. Two organizations wrote letters. But we ended up having a round-table discussion with both organizations – which we video-taped and you can view on the website, it’ll also be on the DVD – and I think they were shocked that we actually answered, let alone invited them to have a discussion with us. It’s hate-language, but that’s kind of the point.
What are you working on now?
I’m going into Season Two of True Blood. I’m working with the writers on Monday. And I have two screenplays that I’ve written over the years, both original, that I may do. I think I’d like to direct one and I think I’d like to produce one. I’m playing with the idea of becoming a production company. But there’s nothing definite on the horizon besides True Blood.
Any faces from past Ball projects popping up in â€˜’True Blood”?
Well, from Towelhead, Lena Collins, who plays Thena, Carrie Preston, who plays Mrs Vouso, and even the French teacher show up. Chris Messina, who was in Six Feet Under in a brief but hilarious role as Barry, and was also in Towelhead, is in there too. I tend to do that – work with actors again, especially if I feel they’re really good and are a pleasure to work with. If something is right for them, I’ll look them up.
Would you like to do a film that’s set in that same supernatural world that â€˜’True Blood is”?
I’ve found that after Six Feet Under, and now Towelhead, that the things I’m not drawn to seem to be genre – which was never the case for me before. I certainly have ideas for films that seem to be more science-fiction – that’s the label that best describes them – even though these two new scripts I’ve written both take place in the real world, one being a period piece. In terms of what I’m reading, and are interested in though, I sort of feel like I’ve had my fill of angst.
So there’s no â€˜’American Beauty” sequel then?
No [Laughs]. I can’t imagine what that would even be. Though maybe I’ll turn it into a series – American Beauty : The Series followed by Towelhead : The Series. [Laughs]
Only the network will make you change the title – depending on what network you go with! [Laughs]
Though you’re on a good run at the moment.
I’m having a good time these days. I â€˜m aware of how lucky I am and thank my lucky stars every day for it.