Alan Ball: “It’s not my job as a filmmaker to make people feel comfortable”

I had the opportunity to talk to Alan Ball about Towelhead, his first feature-film script after American Beauty and his feature directing debut, when he presented the film at the Seattle International Film Festival in June, 2008. Now that the film is getting a limited release in New York and L.A. (with a wider release to follow), I share our talk about Towelhead, Six Feet Under and the differences in writing for TV and film.

Be warned: we discuss key scenes of the film and there are spoilers here.

Why did you choose this novel, Towelhead, about a thirteen-year-old Arab-American girl dealing with adolescence in a culture inundated with Desert Storm, as your next feature project and your directorial debut?

You know, it’s interesting. I actually had a spec screenplay that I was ready to go out with, it’s a screwball comedy set in the thirties and I was just putting the finishing touches on that when my agent called me and said, ‘I have this manuscript that I just got and I think you might respond to it,’ so he sent it over and I read it and I couldn’t put it down. There was something about the story and the characters and the tone of it that just really spoke to me and I could see the movie totally in my head when I was reading it. And I loved the story. I loved the fact that it was a not hysterical take on what is a very common experience for a lot of young women, and young men, for that matter, and also that when I got to the end of it, the character of Jasira had not been destroyed by what she went through. I found that really sort of refreshing, because usually any story that’s told about a young girl who has some sort of improper sexual interaction with an older man, the feeling at the end of that story is, ‘That’s the worst thing that could possibly happen to her,’ and she’s destroyed. Not the case when it’s about a young boy and an older woman, then it’s like, ‘Oh-ho, score!’ And so I found that there was something really interesting about that aspect of the story and that this traumatic experience she goes through kind of makes her a stronger, deeper person and also allows her to take control over her own life and her own body in a way that she wouldn’t have been able to had this not happened to her and I found that really kind of refreshing and I don’t want to use a word like revolutionary, but it did make me realize that I’d never really seen a story of this nature told in that way that didn’t fetishize the victim status of the girl and also was kind of sex positive and also presented a young female character who was curious and sexually assertive without punishing her for it or making it seem like she was “asking for it.” I just really responded to it so I called my agent on Monday and said, ‘I would love to option this book. I want to do it myself, I don’t want to take it to studio because I can only imagine what trying to develop this in a studio would lead to.’

She’s surround by some really screwed up role models of sexuality and going through the men’s magazines isn’t helping her develop a healthy sense of body image. I’m fascinated that the film and the book, from the very title, sets you up for a story about race and cultural identity, and while that’s important, it’s not nearly as central as her experience as an American girl growing up in American society.

Absolutely. She’s just trying to make sense of her own life and discover her place in a world that wants to identify her by her ethnicity, by her beauty, by her sexuality, and that’s why I think Towelhead is such a great title for it, because any sort of racial or ethnic slur is an attempt to dehumanize the focus. You call someone a ‘towelhead,’ then you’re not seeing a human, you’re seeing a concept, you’re seeing an idea, you’re seeing the fear that you project on an entire group of people. That’s what people see when they look at her. They don’t see her, they see their own desires, their own fears, their own whatever.

Because she is thirteen, it’s really uncomfortable as an audience member to watch she’s going through, more so because you realize, while the story may be fiction, it’s really what’s happening culturally in our world. Girls are physically developing at a much younger age than they used to, they are having their periods, and they are being inundated by sexual imagery in TV commercials alone, so they are going through this at a younger age when they don’t even have the experience and maturity that a 15-year-old had when they were going through this experience.

Absolutely. And you know what else is interesting. This happened to me. One of my guilty pleasures is Dancing With the Stars and I was watching an episode this year when they were having the young kids doing ballroom dancing, which is surreal enough on its own, but they had a couple, the boy was thirteen and the girl was twelve or thirteen, and they had all the kids out and they were asking them, ‘If you could dance with any celebrity, who would you want to dance with?,’ and they were saying Miley Cyrus or the Jonas Brothers or I don’t know, I’m so out of the youth culture I don’t even know, but they get to this thirteen-year-old boy and he says, ‘Any of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders.’ The audience erupted, laughter, applause, the host made a little joke like, ‘Well, I think Jimmy just grew a little.’ And then a week later, when these kids won, they brought out two or three of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders to give him his award. Now a thirteen-year-old boy being attracted to hot, sexy women, that’s healthy, that’s totally natural, and it was so completely validated by the audience. Now can you imagine what the response would have said, ‘Any of the Chippendales.’ It’s a completely different standard and of course I understand there are reasons for that standard – culturally, historically, whatever, in terms of women pay the price of unwanted pregnancies. But in this day and age it just seems hilarious to me – and this was after I had made the movie – that we still don’t want girls to be sexually curious whereas for boys it’s totally cool and it’s healthy. And for girls it’s healthy too, but there’s something really off and weird about this whole process and the whole double-standard.

I don’t think most parents are comfortable with their thirteen-year-old boys when they become sexually curious, but there is the sense when we see it elsewhere that it’s, ‘Ha-ha, what a boy!’

Yeah, you don’t think any less of him, you don’t think, ‘He’s a slut’ or ‘Oh, there’s something wrong with him.’ Even today at the airport, I was buying a bottle of water and here’s Maxim with ‘The 100 Hottest Women.’ I think Jasira, like all girls, gets a message very early on that being hot and being sexually desirable to men is a big source of power if not the biggest, from her vantage point watching TV and movies and magazines and seeing the imagery of women packaged for male consumption. And you know what? She’s looking for power in her life, she doesn’t have any power. She’s in this completely new and strange universe, she has total narcissist children for parents who either see her as a threat or an inconvenience, and when this handsome, charming man next door starts to pay attention to her, or this boy at school, she feels validated, she feels powerful, of course it’s going to happen.

She is very submissive in her interactions. I notice that when she talks to adults, her voice becomes much less assertive, it rises half an octave and becomes very tentative. It sounds like she’s lost about five years when her dad or her mom gets angry with her.

Because she’s never had anyone validate her and tell her she’s a good person and give her a sense of confidence. She has no confidence. But one of the things I love about the book and I really tried to retain in the movie is that ultimately this is a story of the triumph of the human spirit. Out of the sheer strength of her spirit, she survives this terrible ordeal and comes out on the other side stronger. Nobody helped her. Melina a little maybe, gave her a little information, saw her in a way that nobody else had seen her.

Melina also does something that no one else did, which is that when Jasira is in trouble, she stops her dad from coming into the house after her. For the first time, she’s had someone be a parent and stand up for her, protect her. That’s not empowerment, but there’s a sense of comfort, of being protected and being taken care of.

And a sense of security that she never even considered. ‘Wow, somebody’s going to stop somebody from hurting me.’ What a concept.

The worst failing of many of her father is that he simply isn’t aware of what’s going on because he’s never there, he’s at his girlfriend’s and she’s alone so much of the time, and even when he is there he doesn’t see her and listen to her.

And also he can’t wrap his brain around the idea of her becoming a sexual creature, of becoming an adult. The only way he can deal with her is to keep her a little girl. She’s something that must be controlled. Even though he loves her very deeply, he’s not a very evolved person. (laughs) He’s a product of his environment as well.

"Towelhead" - Mother and Daughter
"Towelhead" - Mother and Daughter

She has two parents who are completely self-involved.

They’re narcissists. And I love the Christmas scene because it really is the battle of the raging narcissists.

The line that Aaron Eckhart’s character, Mr. Vuoso, says, ‘I’m not a bad man. I’m really not. I wouldn’t have done that thing to you if I knew you were still a virgin,’ it’s really a disturbing line.

I know, because as if she wasn’t a virgin that would make it okay.

The idea that sexually groping a 13-year-old girl so hard he breaks her hymen, it would have been okay if she wasn’t a virgin.

In his mind. You know what? When I first Aaron and he had read the script, he said, ‘I don’t want to play a pedophile.’ And I said, ‘I don’t think this character is a pedophile. I don’t think he has ever looked at anybody underage in this way, I think this is a desperately lonely man in a lifeless marriage who probably was kind of a big deal when he was young, in high school, and who now has gotten so disconnected from his own life force, his own passion about life, and unfortunately he meets this person who sees him in this way that he hasn’t been seen by anybody in a long time and it wakes something up in him and he makes a big mistake.’ And it’s a serious mistake, it’s a serial ethical and moral and spiritual failure on his part, but he’s not a pervert, he’s not hanging around looking to molest children. And Aaron said later, for him it’s a love story. And it is, in the sense that he’s also dealing with his own narcissism and he’s really unable to see her except as this idealization of whatever. But I do think that it’s an emotional story for him, it’s not just a physical attraction.

He is another parent who has horribly failed at being a parent.

Absolutely.

I was talking to another critic about the film and the discussion got around to talking about Aaron Eckhart’s character in terms of Happiness, where the character was a pedophile. What both films do, and what I think is important, is that the films don’t portray them as monsters, but as human beings who do monstrous things.

Exactly. I feel like, in a lot of American pop culture and American politics and the media, we have this knee-jerk need to really simplify everything into black and white that doesn’t serve anybody very well, because it’s just oversimplified. I’m not in any way suggesting that what Aaron’s character does in the movie is remotely forgivable. I think he is punished for it. I’m sure his wife leaves him and he probably does some time in prison and that’s as it should be. But it’s so easy to, and I come back to the title, it’s so easy to not see the human being and to reduce another person to this idea, this concept, this thing that is very limiting for the person who is doing the reducing. Do you know what I mean? It’s just closing their mind and making life so simple and making them feel like they are right about everything. I just feel like that’s not a particularly effective way of seeing the world and living your life.

Do you find that humor or satire, as a way of getting at these horrible things that people do to each other, is a way that makes it easier to confront?

For me it is, because there is a… The culture of victimhood has this self-pitying mantle that can come along with it that sort of fetishizes the victimhood and some people can get trapped in the identity of victim and never move beyond that. I certainly feel like humor is a great survival mechanism. I think it makes life bearable at certain points. The book was very funny, and hopefully the movie mirrors the book, in that I felt like the humor came out of the absurdity of the situation and it was never at the expense of what Jasira was going through. But when I got in touch with Elicia about adapting the book, I said, ‘Look, one of the things I love about your book is that it is very funny and I promise you I will keep that.’ And later she reminded me of that, because I forgot I had said it, and she said, ‘That’s the one thing that made me decide. When you said that, I was like, okay.’ She didn’t write a book that is wallowing in the victimization of a young girl. She wrote a book from the young girl’s point of view that is very confused and dealing with a lot of different emotions, feeling powerful, feeling pleasure, this kind of pleasure in a life that is totally bereft of power and pleasure, and enjoying certain aspect of these interactions. And not being taken care of in a way that there are adult to keep this from happening and to help her process it and help her process the feeling of becoming a woman and dealing with sexuality and all of a sudden having men being interested in you in a different way. There’s a lot in the story that is funny and I just kept it in there. We didn’t set out to make a funny movie. In fact, one of the things that surprised me when we first started screening it for audiences were how big some of the laughs are. But I like that.

"Towelhead" - Father and daughter
"Towelhead" - Father and daughter

I found most of the laughs had to do with her dad, because there is such a pomposity to him. He’s a very judgmental person, so when you see how ridiculous some of the things he believes in are and his own misguided ideas of what he things womanhood is about.

Very old world. Very old world.

And yet it can be very uncomfortable. There are a lot of uncomfortable scenes, especially toward the middle, and at a certain point I just needed to know that she gets through this.

It is uncomfortable. It was uncomfortable when I read the book. I don’t feel like it’s necessarily my job as a filmmaker to make people feel comfortable. I don’t think it’s my job to make them feel uncomfortable, but at the same time, when you’re approaching a subject like this and you’re trying to approach it in a way that is honest, I don’t think it’s going to be comfortable.

You said you didn’t want to take this project to a studio and that surely had a lot to do with it. Is it going to be difficult finding an audience, given that level of discomfort?

You know, I’m so used to people saying, ‘We really love this but we don’t know how the hell we’re going to market it.’ Because they said the same thing about American Beauty they said that Six Feet Under, that certainly was one of the concerns with Towelhead. I think there’s an audience for this movie. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who have seen it, a lot of women who felt like, ‘I remember that time in my life when I had this power, that all of a sudden men looked at me and it was something different and it was something weird and it scared me and at the same time I liked it.’ I think there’s an audience for this movie. How big that audience is, I don’t know. But that’s not my job. My job is to make the movie, do the best I can, and then let the people who sell things sell it.

I said earlier that this is you directorial debut but that’s incorrect. This is your feature directorial debut. You directed a number of episodes of Six Feet Under.

I directed six episodes of Six Feet Under.

Is that where you learned how to direct?

Yes. Six Feet Under for me was kind of like film school. Prior to moving to Los Angeles I worked only in the theater. I directed in theater but I had never done anything for the camera and my first four years working in L.A. was working on sitcoms, which is basically theater with video cameras. And then when American Beauty was made, I was on the set every day, just observing, just watching. And then Six Feet Under was basically film school.

I see Six Feet Under as not just TV but long-form drama.

I’ve always said, without claiming sole authorship – because I certainly didn’t write everything myself, I worked with a really talented group of writers – it’s the closest I will ever come to writing a novel. There is certainly something I love about TV and this ongoing series, the scope that it has, it’s a different environment than a movie, which is two hours and you have to accomplish everything in those two hours. And I love that.

I find with really great TV on an ongoing drama like Six Feet Under, you have to bring a certain amount of closure in an episode but it is in no way definitive, the story continues until you reach the end of the run.

And you can also have your characters evolve and change over years in a way that is really not possible in movies. And nobody would ever let me make a movie about dealing with the existential presence of death in life if you’re in this business. That’s not a movie. You can have philosophical conversations on a TV show that you could never have in a movie. You know what I mean? In a lot of ways, TV is a… I don’t want to say TV is a better medium for a writer than movies are, because I mistrust any of those blanket statements, but I do think we are in a golden age of television right now, which is really exciting.

And you’re right about the differences between movies and TV. In a movie you can have a mystery up through maybe an hour’s worth of what the people are about and then you have get to it. In a TV show like Mad Men, it was eight episodes before the show really got under the façade of the main character, Don Draper.

Absolutely, the layers being pulled back very slowly.

That’s exactly what I saw and what kept me so wrapped up in Six Feet Under. It was toward the end of the first season when you really started to think that you got to know these people a little. And it’s not that expectations were undercut, it was just more and more layers being pulled back combined with watching them evolve through what they are going through.

It’s a different kind of relationship you form with characters in a television show that you watch over a period of years, or over a weekend when you rent all the DVD sets. You spend so much more time with them that it’s almost a different energy than with a character in a movie.

You’d written sitcoms before you made Six Feet Under, but that’s a different animal completely.

I have a lot of respect for really good sitcoms. I don’t think I worked on really good sitcoms. For me it was pretty miserable but it fueled “American Beauty” because I wrote that out of rage. I’m really glad not to be a part of that world anymore.

We’ve talked about how Towelhead is an uncomfortable film. One of the great things about Six Feet Under is that you would get that feeling of discomfort because you don’t want the characters to do that, you don’t want to see them make these bad decisions, and what really bothers you is that it’s honest how they get there.

Yes, people do stupid things. I’m not interested in characters who have it all together and know exactly what to do. I’m interested in characters who are trying to make sense out of their lives and trying to be authentic but are also flawed and human and do stupid things, and then how do they deal with that later. I’m so not interested in the people who are really functional. Now, those are the people I want to have in my life, but I feel the work that I do is a place where you can relax and just not judge the characters too harshly, even though they may do really bad things, like Mr. Vuoso, but really sort of explore where that behavior comes from and why it happens. Because if I was the father of a thirteen-year-old girl and I found out somebody had done something like this to her, I’d want to kill him. But in this fictional world, I’m interested in what makes him tick. Why does he do this?

Alan Ball
Alan Ball

What were the challenges when you were writing Six Feet Under, something that doesn’t just invite you let characters develop over time but almost demands it to keep that kind of dramatic energy going. What kind of challenges do you have that you don’t have in a play or a movie script?

(pause) Nobody’s ever asked me that question. That’s a good question. I think it is to remain true to the characters, to remain true to who they are, but to keep having them be challenged in ways that reveal something, the force them to go to a new place in themselves and to not let them stagnate. One of the things on sitcoms that I hated so much is you basically just did the same thing week after week. You didn’t really want people to grow. It’s like here’s your main character, she’s smart, she knows everything, here’s her friend, she’s drunk and funny, here’s the ex-husband, he’s a nebbish, here’s the other ex-husband, he’s a hound dog, and you just play off these very typical things. For me, it was just like, ‘Ugh, Jesus…’ And people would get really excited when the show aired. They’d say, ‘Did you see the show this week? It looked really good.’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t watch the show. That’s the last thing I want to do, is watch the show.’ (laughs) It was really, for me, it was a day job. Now, it taught me a lot of stuff, some of which I had to unlearn later, but it taught me nuts and bolts storytelling, it taught me plot plot plot. Having been a theater writer, I was very good with character and nuance, but it taught me how to keep the story going and that each scene has to have a purpose. It taught me a lot of discipline: you’ve got to get the work done, even if you’re there until six o’clock in the morning, you gotta get it done. It also taught me a lot of hacky things which I’ve struggled to unlearn since then. We started every episode on Cybil with what we called the moment of shift, which is the moment where somebody says, ‘Gee, mom, I guess the reason I was mad at you is because I was jealous of you because when you were my age you were so beautiful,’ or something like that, the moment where somebody learns something, which is horrifying because it’s so cheesy and phony and manufactured. I also learned a lot of sitcom tricks, smart-ass comments and that rhythm. And one of the things that I tried to do in Six Feet Under was, whenever something felt like it was the obvious place to go, is to look for a different place to go. And I’m still trying to do that.