Capone talks war, sex and vampires with TOWELHEAD director and TRUE BLOOD creator Alan Ball!!!
Published at: Sept. 15, 2008, 1:36 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey all. Capone in Chicago here.
The first thing you need to do is preface your reading of this by taking a peak at Mr. Beaks excellent interview with Alan Ball. After you've done that, come back here and read this one. It's actually kind of incredible to me that I had no idea Beaks was interviewing Ball (I think I actually spoke to him first, but I wanted to hold my interview until this week, when his film TOWELHEAD opesn wider), but there is practically no overlap in our questions or the answers. I chalk it up to two things: dumb luck and the fact that Ball did not enter into either interview with prepared talking points, like so many others tend to do. He listened to each question and answered them honestly and without a trace of rehearsal.
Alan Ball has been an exceedingly busy man these last couple of years. Most of 2006 he spent filming and editing his feature-film debut as a director--the often disturbing and ultimately fulfilling TOWELHEAD, from the novel by Alicia Erian. He also is the creative force behind the latest HBO drama "True Blood," about an alternate universe where a blood substitute makes it possible for vampires to live in the open and among humans. Ball was kind enough to arrange for HBO to send me the first five episodes, and while I was not particularly impressed with the first two. However, the remaining three are immensely better, creepier, and more vampirific.
As you probably know, Ball won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar a few years back for AMERICAN BEAUTY, and not long after, he took home an Emmy for his directing work on the "Six Feet Under" pilot, a show he created. I told this Ball and I'll say it to anyone who will listen: the final episode of "Six Feet Under" is perhaps the greatest final episode of any show ever. It's one thing to say good-bye to characters you've grown to love and care about; it's another thing to watch every single one of them die by the end of the episode. I could watch those concluding final five minutes a thousand times, and it would still crush me.
On top of being a gifted writer and filmmaker, Ball is a sharp dresser and one of the nicest people I've ever met, easy to talk to and impressive to listen to. I was fortunate to do a Q&A with him a few hours after the interview below after a screening of TOWELHEAD, and the crowd absolutely loved him. Please be aware he talks a great deal about the end of TOWELHEAD, so consider this interview full of Spoilers.
Here's my talk with Alan Ball…
Capone: My greatest sin of omission at Comic-Con was not having the time in my schedule to make it to TRUE BLOOD…
Alan Ball: Oh, bummer!
Capone: It was the first time I had ever been [to Comic-Con], so I had no idea how busy my days were going to be.
AB: They shuttled us in and out pretty fast.
Capone: I’ve tried very hard…I didn’t seek out the pilot. I want to see it with people while we’re watching it. We’ll get to that in a second, because I want to talk about TOWELHEAD first.
Some definite common themes here--at least, the way I see it--from work you’ve done before, both for TV and in AMERICAN BEAUTY…that sort of disconnect between parent and child, the great confusion that comes from just being young and immature emotionally. What is it specifically about that age group that fascinates you?
AB: I’m not really sure. There’s a school of thought that if you’re traumatized, you remain kind of stuck at that age. The most traumatic thing that happened to me [Ball's sister was killed in a car accident] happened when I was 13. Maybe, there’s a part of my psyche that’s stuck there. My heart breaks for young people, because I feel like the world is just becomingly an increasingly dark, a darker and darker place.
And, I’m also much more interested in people who need to learn and need to experience life to sort of figure out who they are. They’re much more interesting characters. Maybe that’ll change as I get older. Maybe, I’ll start writing about people confronting their mortality. Although...wait, I guess I did that already. [Laughs]
Capone: You did that for five years.
AB: I don’t know. I find as characters people who are young and who are really being called upon to make choices and try to understand experiences [for which] they don’t have the perspective necessary is a really compelling story. For me, it’s a really compelling moment in a person’s life.
Capone: Yeah, this film absolutely made me consider this issue in a way that I don’t think I ever had. Do believe there was ever a time, even in recent history, when kids could be taught something just by being told it? It seems much more now they want to learn by experiencing it, rather than just reading about it or hearing it second-hand. They want to actually go through it to see what some of these pains are like.
AB: Yeah, I don’t know. I certainly think it’s got to be a really, really strong bond between parent and child for kids to learn something from their parents. I think good parenting can certainly provide them with the knowledge and, hopefully, some sort of perspective that they need to make sense out of things as they try them themselves. You can also lock your child up and control them. That’s what Rifat [the father character in TOWELHEAD] wants to do, but I just don’t know how, in this day and age, you can shield kids from a lot of stuff that is, quite frankly, probably going to be a little damaging to them.
Capone: You said you ache for children today. Jasira is absolutely one of the loneliest characters I’ve ever seen.
AB: She is so alone.
Capone: …And, she doesn’t really have anybody she can trust, because everybody wants something from her, whether it’s sexual or just for her to behave a certain way. She broke my heart so many different ways. This is not material you wrote from scratch, but is that one of the aspects of her that you were drawn to?
AB: That’s all in the book. And, I think that’s one of the reasons that I responded to her, because after my sister’s death, I felt so alone in the world. Both my parents kind of went insane. My mom actually went into a hospital for a while. My dad was in such a depression, and both my brothers had moved away from home. So, literally, I was rattling around the house with a couple of crazy people and myself. And, I think, it really sort of cemented that ‘loner’ status in me, so that I really, really respond to characters who are alone, and I really seem to sort of intuitively have great sympathy for them.
I think also with Jasira struggling with her own sexuality and these feelings and wanting to explore them, but also being afraid of them, I could relate to because, you know, ’cause I’m gay. So, when I was a kid, which was back in the late 1930s [laughs]….no, I was born in ’57, so this was around the late 60s or early 70s, and it was a completely different cultural environment. I was living in the South, I was living in a small town/suburb of Atlanta. It was just, like, I can’t deal with that, I can’t deal with it, it’s too big, it’s too overwhelming, which, of course, made it the most fascinating thing that could exist. So, I think I understood her need to pursue that and the ways in which she became provocative. So, I guess I just really got her, and I really felt for her in a way that made me see the movie and want to work on taking it from the book and putting it on the screen.
Capone: Speaking of provocative--and I’m half-kidding when I ask this, but part of me actually believes it--I think you enjoy making people squirm, dealing with things they’ll probably never have to deal with in their real lives. In giving away tickets for the screening tonight, I said, “This is probably going to make a lot of you uncomfortable, but just deal with it. Sit with it and see how it plays out.” Do you like pushing things a little more than maybe anyone has before you?
AB: Do you know what’s kind of embarrassing: it doesn’t seem that weird to me. I’m always baffled by how uncomfortable it makes people. Maybe because of my own life, my own life history, and things I’ve been through, it doesn’t strike me as that shocking. And, certainly, the incidence of adults having sex with children in this country today is…the statistics are unforgivably high. It is a very common experience. That I find shocking. I don’t find the fictional depiction of it shocking. I find the fact that it’s happening really, really shocking.
Capone: And, those aren’t even the scenes that I was thinking of, because that has been dealt with very seriously in film before. It’s the other stuff with the tampons, and the shaving, those are scenes where I thought, Wow, people are really going to freak out a little. Teen-on-teen sex has been dealt with in a more comedic fashion, but to have it dealt with so seriously and so believably, I think, is what’s really going to throw some people. And, they deserve to be thrown. It’s happening in the real world.
AB: To be honest, I don’t find that stuff shocking at all. To me, it’s biology. Women use tampons.
Capone: But you know, Americans hate our bodies.
AB: [laughs] Yeah, we do hate our bodies. That’s a problem, actually. I’ll tell you what I find shocking is that were the movie to be about a woman being tortured and mutilated, I don’t think people would react as much as they react to the tampon scenes. That I find shocking, and it really says a lot about the sort of misogyny and fear of women that is obviously a big part of our culture.
Capone: The other thing I love about Jasira, and I wanted you to sort of talk about her more as a heroine. She’s a survivor, she’s a fighter…
AB: She’s a hero. Yeah, absolutely. As I started to adapt the story, it was clear to me that the story really fits into the Joseph Campbell hero myth paradigm. There’s a call to adventure, which is the first time she sees those magazines. There is a descent into the underworld, you know, which is basically being raped by Mr. Vuoso in that final scene, and being really used, and really objectified and really treated like a thing and not a person. There is a rebirth, and she comes out of it stronger and with new powers. So, it really fits into that.
I didn’t want the movie to be dark. I didn’t want it to be gritty. I didn’t want it to be handheld. I didn’t feel like the production value of the movie needed to tell us that what was happening to her was bad, because ‘Hello’, of course, it’s bad.
That’s one of the things I also found so refreshing about the book: at the end of it, you expect this story to end with the girl being destroyed. And, instead of being destroyed, she was stronger, and she was able to claim her own power and extricate herself from an abusive relationship with her father. She was able to take control of her body and her destiny. She was able to say, “I don’t want to stop having sex, because I actually like having sex. I’m not going to let this rob me of that.” In the book, it’s much more explicit. In the book, she gives Thomas a blow job [laughs], which, of course, I didn’t feel like we could do in the movie.
But, I thought that was refreshing for such a common experience. The way it’s usually dealt with in the media is in a really, really simplified, black & white way. And, I found myself being…I was so uncomfortable when I was reading the book, and I was so worried that it wasn’t going to turn out well, and I was going to be really upset, and at the same time, I was laughing out loud, because so much of it was funny.
And, it was funny just because of how absurd people were and how they were behaving. And, then, I got to the end, and not only did it not turn out badly, I felt she like really transcended and became this new, improved version of herself. And, it felt very authentic. It didn’t feel like a phony Hollywood thing. I sort of felt this real emotional relief, and all that tension…and I was real moved. I cried at the last sentence of the book. I thought, Well, this is a story that means a lot, and this is the kind of movie I’d like to make.
I had another script I was ready to go out with, which is a period piece, a screwball comedy set in the 30s. It’s just a romantic comedy about two really strong, egomaniacal, rich people negotiating their sexual relationship, which is basically what all those movies are about anyway. And, my agent called me with the TOWELHEAD manuscript and said, “I think you should read this. You might respond to it.” And, I immediately decided that’s what I wanted to do. Sometimes I question that now, because the movie makes a lot of people really upset.
Capone: And, for the reasons you mentioned--about how it turns out in the end--I’m telling people, “If you feel like you can’t handle any more, just hold on.” I’m not trying to ruin it for anybody, I’m just saying, “Stick with it.”
There are some bigger-picture things going on here, too. There’s the setting of the first Gulf War. There are the mixed media messages that Jasira’s getting about what is pretty, what is attractive and appealing to men…
AB:…And, what’s the main source of power for a young woman.
Capone: Right. I was really trying to…Having the Aaron Eckhart character be this military figure reminded me that AMERICAN BEAUTY also had a character in the military, too, but now, it has more resonance, especially the war that’s going on in this film.
AB: Absolutely. Well, you know, that’s in the book. And, there are some plot elements that depend on it. Vuoso needs to be able to tell Jasira he’s leaving, that kind of thing. I never…you know, just because a character is in the military, he’s not meant to represent everybody in the military. I don’t think anybody is going to look at the movie and go, “Oh, all men with sort of reddish hair are predators.” I think it’s a really gross oversimplification. I think there a lot of people who have a very distinct world view right now, and everything they see in the media, they see it through the filter of how it supports or does not support their particular world view.
If you want to talk about being supportive of the military, Why didn’t we send those people over there with the equipment they needed? Why are we abandoning them when they come home? So, don’t look at a piece of fiction and complain about, Oh, it’s anti-military. This entire administration is all about exploiting these men and women who are willing to put their lives on the line. So, I just don’t really think that argument has a lot of validity.
Capone: But, it’s a factor, just in terms of this particular war going on in this story.
Capone: I don’t think that’s going to be lost on a lot of people either, that there’s a timeliness issue to it.
AB: Oh, I love the fact that, you know, it’s 15 years ago--more than 15 years ago--and America’s at war in the Middle East. And, people named Bush and Cheney are calling the shots. That was kind of hilarious and tragic at the same time to me. It already skewed the world surreal, just like the world that we live in today is very surreal, because we basically invaded another country and are occupying another country, while we all go about our business.
Capone: I want to talk about Aaron Eckhart, because I think there are very actors who could pull off a role like this and probably not be too concerned about how it’s going to affect his career, because of what he’s done before in IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, the first film I ever saw him in, and even THANK YOU FOR SMOKING. I mean, he’s played complete bastards to a T before.
AB: Well, the main reason I saw Aaron in this role was his work in ERIN BROCKOVICH, because he was such a nice guy. He was such a charming, nice, decent guy. And, also, I wanted Mr. Vuoso to look the archetypal American, like Marlboro man. And, I wanted him to be handsome enough for it to make sense for her to have this big crush on him. He needed to be sexy. In the book, he’s very sexy. Just the way she describes him, you can tell, he’s totally sexy.
And so, I met with Aaron, and Aaron had read the script. And, he said, “I really, really think this is an amazing movie, but I’ve got to be honest with you, I don’t want to play a pedophile.” And, I said, “Well, I don’t think he is a pedophile, at least not at the beginning.” Of course, by the end, technically, he is a pedophile. But, he is not a man who has a fetishized attraction to children firmly situated within his psyche.
He doesn’t drive by elementary schools and look at little girls. This has never happened. And, it’s not happening because he finds children attractive. It’s happening because he is alone in his own life--kind of the same way she is--and, he’s a guy who back when he was 14, 15, he was IT. He was getting laid left and right, all the girls thought he was hot, you know. Those were the best days of his life…and they’re so gone.
So, all of a sudden, to have this young girl, who sometimes looks very womanly, looking at him in that same way is something he yearns for so much. Unfortunately and tragically, he doesn’t have access to therapy to deal with how bad his marriage or his life is. He doesn’t have any sort of spiritual belief system that can help him confront these kinds of ethical moments. He’s a weak character. He’s a man of very weak character. And, he crosses that line. Once he’s crossed that line, there’s no coming back.
But, for him…and it’s very twisted and pathological, it’s kind of a love story, you know what I mean? And, he got that. Once he signed on, he was fearless. It’s hard for him. Aaron is a good guy, he’s kind of a straight-arrow guy.
Capone: Yeah, I’ve talked to him before. He’s great.
AB: Yeah, he’s a really nice man, and he’s really got a sense of right and wrong. And, I think, this role was especially hard for him, because Aaron ‘the actor’ was so disapproving of the character’s actions. And, Mr. Vuoso, the character, knows what he is doing is wrong, and he doesn’t stop himself. So, that’s a hard thing to live with for a few weeks when you’re making a movie. And, Aaron said to me, “This is the hardest thing I ever did.” But, I have to say, I think this is the best work he’s ever done. I think he’s a phenomenal actor. And, personally, I really hope I get the chance to work with him again.
Capone: I want to ask one thing about “True Blood” before we run out of time? Tell me about your version of the vampire legend, the one that you’re laying out. I’m aware of the premise of the show, at least, but I’m curious about what vampire rules you've put into place. You’ve got a new rule in here about the synthetic blood.
AB:…which they claim satisfies their nutritional needs. But, we don’t know if that’s the truth or not.
Capone: I just saw my first commercial for it yesterday, and it was all about the sex and violence.
AB: I think you probably saw the trailer that…They have the male-centered trailer and the female-centered trailer. The female-centered trailer is all about relationship and romance.
Capone: Geared toward the “Twilight” crowd?
AB: [laughs]…And the male thing is just all sex and violence to a Rob Zombie song. That’s probably the one you saw.
Capone: That’s the one I saw: “More Human than Human.” That’s the one, that’s right.
AB: Well, in our world, the vampire…In our world, the supernatural doesn’t exist outside of nature. It’s a deeper and more profound manifestation of nature. Humans in their evolution and their way of evolving a consciousness that’s very cerebral and filters out what doesn’t really fit into the world view have lost touch with a lot of stuff, and so they don’t see a lot of deeper, profound, natural elements in the world.
Our vampires fangs are not here, they’re here [points to the teeth next to the middle front teeth, as opposed to the canine teeth]. They’re like rattlesnake fangs. They actually lie along the roof of the mouth and extend in moments of stress or bloodlust or just general lust, because the feeding and sex are very intricately connected. A lot of the standard myths about vampires--they can’t be seen in mirrors, you can’t take a picture of them, a crucifix will drive them away--is disinformation that the vampires themselves disseminated over the centuries, so that they could pass.
They’re just like humans: some are good, some are bad. But, they are dangerous. They cannot come out in sunlight. And, when the sun is out, they sort of die, they go into a box and die. And also, in this world, apparently, they’re very good in the sack.
Capone: That’s what I got from the commercial yesterday, yeah. We'll talk more tonight at the screening, but thanks.
AB: I look forward to it. Thanks.