Mr. Beaks Tackles Taboos With TOWELHEAD Writer-Director Alan Ball!
Published at: Sept. 11, 2008, 12:04 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
Yes, Alan Ball's TOWELHEAD is as confrontational as its title. Big surprise there. Ever since he took a flamethrower to suburbia with his Academy Award-winning screenplay for AMERICAN BEAUTY, Ball has been synonymous with provocation; even his long running, critically acclaimed television series, SIX FEET UNDER, toyed with its viewers' sympathies, almost threatening them to turn away as their favorite characters behaved irrationally (see season four's "That's My Dog"). Ball loves to watch us squirm - and this is difficult because there is no emotional detachment with him. He wants the audience to invest in his characters' predicaments, to feel everything from elation to disappointment to the most abject form of shame imaginable; in other words, he wants to present the full range of the human condition.
TOWELHEAD is lousy with range. Based on the novel by Alicia Erian, and centered on the unthinkably rough coming of age of thirteen-year-old Jasira Maroun (Summer Bishil), Ball's film takes aim at every kind of parental hypocrisy imaginable. Set mostly in a Texas cul-de-sac, which serves as a microcosm of the United States as it strutted through the Gulf War, TOWELHEAD demonstrates that it takes a very small village to truly fuck up a child. As she passes through the homes of her selfish mother (Maria Bello), her abusive father (Peter Macdissi), her hippie-dippie neighbor (Toni Collette), and, most treacherously, the lustful Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart), Jasira's blossoming sexuality is treated as a commodity. Of course, being that there's nothing less predictable than the libidinal urges of a teenage girl, Jasira's journey into womanhood ends up making these so-called adults look like a pack of fools.
Though it's caustic stuff (particularly with regards to Mr. Vuoso's Humbert Humbert act), I think TOWELHEAD is Ball's most accomplished work as a screenwriter; that it also marks his debut as a feature director makes the accomplishment all the more impressive. I'll have more to say about the film later in the week. For now, here's the transcript of my interview with Ball, which, like the movie, runs the gamut.
Beaks: I keep thinking of this as a Sundance film, but TOWELHEAD actually premiered at last year's Toronto Film Festival.
Alan Ball: We were at Toronto under a different title (NOTHING IS PRIVATE), and it's a different movie than it was. It's twenty minutes shorter. It's better.
Beaks: In losing those twenty minutes, were you responding to some of the cultural criticisms leveled against the film, or were you just tending to the narrative?
Ball: Narrative. The movie was just too long. By the time you got to the ending, the impact was diminished; it had taken too long to get there. So I ended up cutting about twenty minutes out. None of it was content related; it really was all just streamlining it and making it more compact - and having a more satisfying ending rather than the movie going on too long.
Beaks: If there were any elements that were deemed too commercial, I can't imagine what they'd be after seeing this cut of the film.
Ball: You know, there were some suggestions by Warner Bros. that were like, "Do we have to see quite so much blood?" Or "Aren't you on the bloody panties too long?" And, yeah, we took some frames out. They were right. All you need is a flash of that, and it does what it needs to do.
Beaks: You have a tendency more for irony than satire; often, you push right up against satire, but you pull back. You seem to prefer your work to have a grounding in something that resembles the real world.
Ball: I have to care about the characters, and I have to feel that their world is real enough for me to be invested in them and caring about them. Otherwise, it starts to go south for me.
Beaks: So you get to use this cul-de-sac as a microcosm for where America was during the first Gulf War. What interests me is that a lot of the feelings presented in your film have done nothing but intensify and curdle in the years since.
Ball: Perpetual war.
Beaks: Right. But it's an interesting reminder of where a lot of this animosity started. Did you see TOWELHEAD as a way of presenting a prescient picture of where we were headed.
Ball: It's all there in Alicia's novel. A lot of the choices that were made in terms of story and setting were really made by her; I just responded to them because I felt they really worked. I loved the fact that this novel was taking place in a world where America's at war in the Middle East, and people named Bush and Cheney were calling the shots. It was fifteen years ago. To me, I think war is kind of like the biggest pornography there is. And war waged purely for profits... there's kind of nothing more immoral than that. So I loved the fact that these things were happening in the context of a much bigger landscape of questionable morality.
Beaks: Questionable and disparate morality. You have the socially progressive neighbors, the hard-right conservative neighbors, and her religiously conservative father who only calls upon his faith when it's convenient. All of these people believe they know best for a teenage girl.
Ball: But nobody actually sees her. They see their idea of what she is and what she represents. Or how she can make them feel good about themselves. Nobody actually looks at her, sees the person there, and sees what she needs. Except for Melina (Collette's character). And even her, she's like... "Okay, read this book, but go home." (Laughs)
Beaks: "You're a little too damaged."
Ball: (Laughing) Exactly.
Beaks: It's unsparing, which, again, is something you've always been good at. (Way to end a sentence with a preposition, Beaks!) It toes the line between being honest and being cruel.
Ball: How is it cruel?
Beaks: I don't think it's so much cruel as much as it lays the characters out for us to judge in a way--
Ball: And life isn't cruel?
Beaks: Obviously, it is.
Ball: I mean, you think this doesn't happen to people? Certainly one of the reasons I responded to the book is because things happened to me when I was a kid, and... we don't have the kind of control over life the way an author might have control over a story. I prefer stories that more closely resemble life, where control is an illusion. It doesn't come from a place of cruelty, and I don't think Alicia is at all cruel to her characters. She's very, very compassionate. That's what I responded to.
Beaks: I think it's easy, though, for people to read it as cruel because they aren't used to such honesty. And also because it is a thirteen year old girl - and Summer does such a fantastic job of conveying that innocence. (Least graceful segue of my interviewing career!) Also, she draws you so completely into the film that you forget things like, "This actress is clearly of age, otherwise she couldn't perform these scenes." No, she looks the age of the character, and that's terribly unnerving. When you were casting the role of Jasira, did anyone else come close?
Ball: I narrowed it down to two actress, but she really was the one pretty much from the first time I saw her. I knew that the movie depended on her, and that she had to carry this movie. So I forced her to go through a lot of callbacks. (Laughs) But I just feel incredibly lucky that she was living in L.A., that she was an actress, and that she came in to read for us. She is the movie. How can this movie exist without her? When people ask, "How did you cast her?", the only answer I can give is "I was really lucky." As I'm sure you well know, there's not a huge pool of eighteen-year-old actors who can look thirteen and Middle Eastern and can carry a movie. You can't just call CAA and say, "Send me 'so-and-so'" because she doesn't exist. (Laughs)
Beaks: And for the scene where her virginity is taken from her, in building up to that scene - and I don't know when your shot it--
Ball: Early. All the stuff in Rifat's house was done in the first two weeks.
Beaks: Was this because you wanted to confront the difficult stuff early?
Ball: No, it was purely budgetary. We shot all of Rifat's house, then we went on location in and around Los Angeles while the crew took Rifat's house and converted it into Melina's house. It was towards the end of all the time we had budgeted on that set, but we had to shoot both those scenes with her and Mr. Vuoso in those first couple of weeks.
Beaks: Do you think it was beneficial for Aaron to come in and not be as familiar with her? Or did you have a rehearsal process?
Ball: We did. We had a rehearsal process, but it was very minimal. I like to rehearse until I see things start to happen, and then I stop because you want things to really happen when the cameras roll. I think this role was very difficult for Aaron; I think it was much more difficult for him than it was for Summer. He really knows how to keep the relationship with the other actor right; he was a little standoffish to Summer, but then the night we shot the Mexican restaurant scene, he was totally friendly with her and really open to her. He's kind of method that way.
But you know what? Aaron's a consummate professional. Summer is... what she lacks in technique and experience, she more than makes up for just in presence and instinct. They were both very respectful of each other and total pros. I had assumed that I would be dealing with a young woman over in the corner crying, because I've dealt with that on other things I've worked on that asked much less of an actress than this role did. But she knew what she was getting into. She's a very sophisticated young woman. She's wise beyond her years.
Beaks: The release of your film is somewhat timely, what with teen sexuality being thrust back into the news in a rather...
Ball: Boneheaded, hypocritical way? (Laughs)
Beaks: Well, it's obscene in a way. We don't know who this young girl is, and it's not like she had a choice in the matter.
Ball: I can just picture her locked in a room, crying her eyes out because she's been forced to be a part of this national spectacle. It's so disgusting.
Beaks: Now, do you see something there and say, "There's a story there!"? Would it ever strike you to write about it?
Ball: No, because that story is there. And it's being played out in a different medium: the medium of political theater. In terms of creating something or basing a movie on this? I'm sure there's a story there, and I'm sure the reality of what that story is we will never, ever come close to knowing. But... it's not a story I would be drawn to. I feel like once you make a character a politician, you just have no sympathy for them whatsoever. (Laughs)
Beaks: Or your only other option is to play it for laughs, in which case it can't measure up to reality.
Ball: Nobody can parody this. Nobody could've written it. It's so hilarious and just... so many levels of irony and hypocrisy and phoniness. If you made a movie about this, nobody would believe it.
Beaks: You can't satirize what's already a satire.
Ball: Exactly. It's already a train wreck.
Beaks: Switching gears a little bit, you've got TRUE BLOOD premiering on HBO, which gives you the opportunity to work within the horror genre. I don't know how much of a fan you are, but it's got to be fun to play with those vampire conventions.
Ball: I'm not a hardcore fan. I certainly enjoy genre stuff when it's done well, and the characters are real characters and not plot devices. That said, I haven't had this much fun in years. I can't remember when I've had this much fun. And it's the nature of the material.
Beaks: Have you been able to figure out where you'll take the series if you get a shot at multiple seasons?
Ball: I based it on a series of books by Charlaine Harris, and she's written eight of them. We basically used the first one for season one. I have an idea, certainly, of where things are going, but at the same time we also created a lot of new stuff.
Beaks: So maybe you'll diverge from the books?
Ball: I don't know if we'll ever diverge completely, but we'll continue to make our own contributions to the story.
TRUE BLOOD is currently airing Sundays at 9 PM on HBO, while TOWELHEAD will begin a limited release this Friday, September 12th.