Academy and Emmy Award-winning writer/director/producer Alan Ball is among our generation’s most important creative voices. Born in Atlanta, Ball studied Theatre Arts at Florida State University. In March 2000, AMERICAN BEAUTY, Ball’s first screenplay to get produced, won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.
Ball went on to create and executive produce the groundbreaking HBO drama SIX FEET UNDER. The series ran for five seasons and received two Golden Globes, six Emmys, and an Emmy and DGA Award for Ball’s direction of the pilot.
In 2007, Ball made his feature film directorial debut with TOWELHEAD, distributed by Warner Independent Pictures. In 2008, Ball continued his successful collaboration with HBO by creating and executive producing the series TRUE BLOOD.
The series received two Golden Globe nominations for Best Television Drama Series, as well as an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series, a Producer’s Guild nomination, and a Grammy soundtrack nomination for Ball.
Then, in 2018, he created, and executive produced HERE AND NOW for HBO. Most recently, in 2020, Ball wrote, directed, and produced UNCLE FRANK for Amazon Studios, which was nominated for an Emmy.
Please enjoy my conversation with Alan Ball.
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Alan Ball 0:00
There are formulas that work for certain people, but they don't work for other people, you know. So ultimately it's up to the it's up to each person to discover their own technique. What works best for them.
Alex Ferrari 0:14
This episode is brought to you by Bulletproof Script Coverage, where screenwriters go to get their scripts read by Top Hollywood Professionals. Learn more at covermyscreenplay.com. I like to welcome to the show, Alan Ball. Thank you. Thank you so much for coming on the show, Alan.
Alan Ball 0:29
Yeah, my pleasure. I'm happy to be here.
Alex Ferrari 0:31
I appreciate you, man. I've been a fan of yours for a long, long time. Six Feet Under my wife and I were obsessed. And we caught it after it went off the air and we just binge the entire show, which is the only way to watch truly that show is just just to sit there and just enjoy it all at once. And, and we were to blood, of course and American Beauty and so many things you've done over the years. But my very first question to you sir, is Why and how did you get into this insanity that is the film industry?
Alan Ball 1:03
Well, I wanted to be a playwright. I majored in theater when I was going to college and I started a theatre company. I started to theatre companies actually. And I was I was writing plays. I was working for Adweek magazine during the day living in New York. And then our theatre company would put on plays in basements, you know, and often dark nights for theatres. And, and I wrote a play called five women wearing the same dress about bridesmaids at a wedding in Knoxville, Tennessee and it got a it got produced off Broadway off off Broadway, to be honest. And somebody from Carsey, Warner TV, a man named David talked to man saw it, and, and suggested that they hire me to write for sitcoms, and I got I got a job offer to write for the second season of grace under fire. And I figured, well, how many times is this gonna happen, and the theatre company I was working with in New York was more of a hobby for most of the people in it than it was actually pursuing, you know, what they want to do with their lives. I mean, it started out that way. But then as the years went by people's day jobs turning into careers, people started having children. And so I thought, well, how many times this is gonna happen? And I came out to Los Los Angeles, I think it was probably around 1996 or 97. And, and started working in television. And that was where, you know, that's, that was where it all started.
Alex Ferrari 2:58
What was what was the culture shock of going from playwright to a writers room?
Alan Ball 3:07
Well, first of all, in the theater, everybody has a certain respect for the text and a certain respect for the writing that just did not exist in at least on the shows that I worked on. Writing was just viewed as disposable. And I remember, you know, we would, we would have a table read on Monday morning, and there would be a joke that would kill and then we'd have to run through on Tuesday. And it wouldn't, it wouldn't kill as much because people they'd heard it, you know, it didn't. It wasn't a surprise. And then when the network came on Wednesday, for the run through, they go, well, that joke doesn't work anymore. And you're like, oh, it's, it does work. It just doesn't work for you, because you've heard it. And then we'd have to stay and write a whole new script. And then on, on show night, when the show was being filmed, you know, the new joke would do, okay. And then everybody would huddle. And they say, let's go back to the to the table read joke. And they would, and it would kill because the audience had never heard it before. It was also sort of shocking to me. I mean, this was so long ago. But, you know, there was a there was there was a level of political correctness, for lack of a better term that was prevalent in the theater when I worked in the theater. Whereas when I worked in, when I started working on grace under fire, that writers room, anything could be said, and things that wouldn't that would get a lot of people in trouble today. I mean, I remember one of the writers, a guy who I love actually said, you know, at one point he said, if it was reining horse, I get hit by a fag. Which is funny. I mean,
Alex Ferrari 5:08
To be fair, that to be fair, that is a funny gag a funny joke, but I could understand how the Twitterverse might not accept that right now.
Alan Ball 5:14
Well, at the time, I was like, wow, I didn't, I'm not used to people who, you know, talk like that. So, you know, but it took some getting used to. So that was the biggest culture shock. And also, I think, you know, working multiple seasons, you start to just feel like, the work is so disposable, you know, it's like, okay, there's, you know, Sybil got a bad haircut, and it reverberates through what was civil was the show I worked on after grace, and you're fine. You would, you know, you would spend all this time on this 22 minutes, and then it's done. And then you're doing it again. And basically, it's just like, you know, figuring out ways for a bunch of people in designer clothing to, to insult each other. And I sort of felt like, this isn't about anything. And it really wasn't, you know what I mean? And it sort of frustrated, it frustrated me a lot, because I felt like my work, which has always been something that I didn't get paid for, but that I was really personally invested in, had become just, you know, like punching a clock and doing factory work. And I started to feel really disgusted with myself. And ultimately, that led to me writing American Beauty because I just had to write something that I cared about, and that I felt like had something to say about something, even if just to me
Alex Ferrari 6:48
Now, and that's so that I as you were saying this story, I'm like, This must have been what led up to American Beauty because it's around that same time that you were writing it. I always like to ask this question, because a lot of people think that you just sit down for the first time like the the legendary Stallone rocky script. I wrote it in a weekend and I won the Oscar, how many? And he actually said he goes I wrote the first draft in a weekend but I beat the hell out of that thing for the next handful of months. But so for people listening have to kind of take the delusion away. How many scripts? How many things have you written? Either plays or, or sitcoms or other scripts? Have you written before you tackled American Beauty?
Alan Ball 7:28
Well, I had written a bunch of sitcom scripts, but you know, I hadn't set I mean, I wrote a bunch of sitcom first drafts, but the sitcoms I worked on got rewritten by an entire room of people. I had written several one act plays, I had written a full length play the bridesmaid play. But, and I had written the screenplay, because I wanted to just teach myself if I could, if I could do it, if I could write in the medium. And I had written that before I moved out here. So I had you know, I and I had been I guess, you know, that I had written a fair amount of stuff. But in terms of writing American Beauty, that was my second screenplay, and my first produced screenplay,
Alex Ferrari 8:25
And, and how did American Beauty come to, like come to life? Like how did that story it's a such a, such a brilliant story in the inner and inner the way the characters work with each other. And, you know, obviously, how it was directed and how it was produced was, you know, magical as well. But it all starts with the text. How did it even come to life? How did that idea Germany?
Alan Ball 8:46
Well, when I was living in New York, and I was working with my theatre company, there was the I don't know if you remember this, you probably maybe were not even born. But there was a there was a big trial going on. And they're this Long Island. guy. His name was Joey but Foucault Oh, I'm
Alex Ferrari 9:09
I'm older. I'm old enough, sir. I know who.
Alan Ball 9:13
So the whole Joey by the Fuko Amy Fisher thing was happening. And I remember they were selling comic books outside the building that I worked. And, and they were these weird comic books and on the cover was Amy Fisher looking off virginal Catholic school girl and Joey but uh, Foucault at the door, leering at her with a big beer belly and wearing a white, you know, theater and having a beer and looking at her monstrously and then you turn, you flip the comic book, and on the other side, there's joy, but a Foucault standing at the door with his shirt all buttoned up, and a tie and he's going to work and it looks like a good husband and a good Christian and AMI by Foucault is all tarted up and looks like a sled trying to seduce him. And I remember thinking, the truth lies somewhere in between that, and we'll never know, we will never know what happened. And, and, and so then when I moved to LA, I had written, I was working on TV. Actually, I'd written two screenplays before the American Beauty, I did a rewrite on this, this romantic comedy about two divorce lawyers who fell in love with each other, who had been married before, but they were divorced now. But they fell back in love with each other. And I, I, my agent, I switched agents, because my agent left his agency. And it was it was a time, it was time for me to kind of get better agents. And I had dinner with him. And he said, I need you to write a new script, because everybody's read these two scripts, and nothing has happened with them. So I need to write I need you to write a new script to reintroduce you to the town. And I said, Okay, well, I've got these ideas here. One, this is pretty standard romantic comedy, too. Here's the second pretty standard, romantic comedy, and I was pitching these to him. And then I said, and then there's this movie, I don't even know how to characterize it. There's this, you know, this couple in the suburbs and their daughter and, and there's a guy next door with a video camera. And, you know, and, and I just expected his eyes to sort of glaze over because it was not. I couldn't, you know, it wasn't like a one sentence pitch.
Alex Ferrari 11:43
It's not a great, it's not a great pitch. It's not a great pitch.
Alan Ball 11:46
And he said, that's the one you should write. And I said, really? Why? And he said, because that's obviously the one that you feel the most passionate about. Later, he told me, I had no idea that I could sell it, I just thought we'd have a really interesting writing sample. So that's how that came about. And so I worked on it for about I, I was doing the sitcom Sybil by then. And there was this big meltdown on the staff and a bunch of people quit. And I wanted to quit and they said, please stay for one more season. And they offered me so much money. At the time for me that I thought well, okay, I'll stay and I'll just bank this money. And then I'll write the great American screenplay. But I hated the work I was doing on civil and I hated, I hated it so much. And I was filled with so much rage. You know, mostly at myself for having accepted, you know, another season on that. And I couldn't wait. I just, you know, I would come home at like, you know, midnight to in the morning. And I would sit down at my computer, and I would just pour all my rage into the screenplay.
Alex Ferrari 13:06
And so when the the script gets sent out the town and and then you've got, if I remember it was Spielberg was, was the was the producer on that. Or it was DreamWorks, if I remember. Right. Yeah. So Spielberg was involved. And I mean, when all of this this magic happened of, you know, the filmmakers behind it, and Spielberg and what were you feeling like? Because at this point, you were really just a sitcom writer, essentially. Yeah. So you weren't like, you know, you weren't any big time screenwriter or anything like that. So what what was it like for you going through that process? I'm assuming you met Stephen. And you sat down and had conversation like, This must have been a world win experience for you.
Alan Ball 13:45
It was crazy. You know, I have the script went out. And it got passed on by most everybody. But then there were a few people who wanted to meet with me, and who and DreamWorks was one of them. And I went over to DreamWorks and I met with Dan Jenks and Bruce Cohen, who were the producers. And Bob Cooper, who was I believe, Head of Production over there. And they were talking about it and then and how much they loved it and you know, that they really wanted to do it and and I had gotten a I had gotten a phone call from my agent the day before saying, Steven Spielberg's reading the script, so let's wait until he reads it to, you know, decide where we're going to go. And so I met with Dan and Bruce at DreamWorks and Bob and I was walking back out to my car and Dan and Bruce were following me, you know, saying, you know, just they read, they were really passionate about it, and they really wanted to do it. And then I see Steven Spielberg coming out and walking towards us, and I was like, oh, okay, I'm about to meet Steven Spielberg Just act normal. Because I felt like a big geek and and he said, Oh, hi. You know, he said, I really thought they introduced me. And he said, I really love your script. Why haven't I heard of you? And I said, Well, I've been working on sitcoms, you know? And he said, Well, you should only be writing screenplays and you should only be writing your own screenplays. And would that was an amazing thing to hear from, you know, a filmmaker like him. And then through the whole process seem just sort of charmed. You know, I, I met Sam Mendes, I went to see cabaret on Broadway, which was running at the time that he had directed. And I really liked how he had put his stamp on on it, but was, it was always in service of the story. It wasn't like, you know, here's some directorial flourish that I put in here because it's cool. Everything was always in service of the story and, and the characters. And then I met with him and we immediately hit it off. And we immediately you know, found realize we were both sort of on the same page about the movie. I,
Alex Ferrari 16:09
And then by the way, that was that was that was the first movie he directed if I'm not mistaken. Right. So yeah, the first time quote, unquote, first time writer, first time director, with Spielberg and DreamWorks pushing, this is a this is a unicorn of a story, essentially.
Alan Ball 16:22
I know. I know, everybody kept saying to me throughout the entire process, you know, it's not always like this.
Alex Ferrari 16:29
Alan Ball 16:31
No, it is not, it is not always like that. But then Sam was, you know, we were talking casting and Sam was like, you know, I personally see Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening. And I was like, Okay, get them. That's great.
Alex Ferrari 16:46
Sure, why not? Yeah.
Alan Ball 16:50
And it went into production relatively quickly. And, and the whole thing was felt sort of charmed.
Alex Ferrari 16:59
So let me ask you, so, you know, obviously, the movie came out. And it was it was a big hit. And it's such an interesting movie, because it's, it's a hard sell. It's not an easy trailer. It's not an easy. The poster was like, what it's like it all was extremely unique. And so outside of a Hollywood studio, imagine Hollywood studio doing that today like that wouldn't have. There's no way a Hollywood studio would release a movie like that in a major way today, in the way that the studios are right now. But so let me ask you that once it got out, and Oscar showed up, and you're there at the night, and you're have to did you think that you had a shot in the world to win an Oscar?
Alan Ball 17:41
I did, because I had won a bunch of other awards.
Alex Ferrari 17:46
Awards season. Yeah, there's awards.
Alan Ball 17:47
I won the Writers Guild Award, I had won a Golden Globe. So I was like, this might actually happen. I had a flask of whiskey in my tuxedo pocket, which I hit throughout the night, because it was so overwhelming. Sure. And yeah, it was really weird. Especially once, once the award season, things started. And DreamWorks started sending me to Santa Barbara Film Festival, this particular conference where screenwriters are talking and I just said, yeah, how I did everything. And it became very strange for a while it became like, my job was just being me. And being the scoop the screenwriter of American Beauty and talking about it at, at Panels and film festivals and, and, you know, on radio stations, and I got interviewed by CBS this morning, and it was, it was crazy. It was it was really sort of insane. But fun. You know, in a, you know it all it it was an experience that I will both treasure and feel like I'm lucky I survived that. Because I think that kind of attention can make you go crazy.
Alex Ferrari 19:20
Especially early in your career. Like if you're if you're young screenwriter, young director, young actor who gets that kind of attention. Like yeah, I mean, you worked with Anna Paquin. She was one of the youngest ever won an Oscar, it can destroy a person, that kind of that kind of attention, that kind of love and you're the best, you're the best. You start believing that hype and all of a sudden you just derail,
Alan Ball 19:42
Especially if you're like a neurotic person who was all for that without ever getting it. But I was lucky that I was in you know, I was like 4243 44 So I wasn't I think if it had happened in my 20s I would have gone crazy and probably become like a coke addict or something.
Alex Ferrari 20:00
Right exactly any success at that young age is so, so, so difficult. So you win the Oscar, I always look into this question from Oscar winners. How did the town treat you? What was that? What was that? Because that's another the next world win of the water bottle tour. I'm assuming you're starting to take meetings all around town, and what's your next project? And there's throwing, like, what do you want? What do you want anything? So you got a golden ticket for a short window of time? If I'm not mistaken, correct? Almost. So how did that how did it work for you? How did you capitalize on on that time in your career?
Alan Ball 20:36
I noticed that when I went to meetings, people would people acted like, what I what I was saying was worth listening to. Prior to American Beauty prior to I would go to these meetings and you know, talk about, you know, I remember I got a script. And I went in. I had a meeting at Sharon stones house with the producer. And they they wanted to remake this old movie. And and so I watched the movie. And then I came over to meet Sharon, and we, you know, I started to pitch my take on the movie. And I said, I think, you know, if you're going to update it, I would make this guy a politician. And, and immediately somebody said, or an art gallery owner. And I was just like, okay, yeah, I guess you could do that changes the pitch that I have prepared. So, and I there was a lot of, I remember I went to a meeting and and I had, I had written a screenplay of five women wearing the same dress. And I went to a meeting. And there was this, this young woman, she she must have just gotten out of college. And she looked like Katharine Hepburn. And I remember she was wearing black velvet pants. And she had requested a meeting with me. And I went into the meeting. And she was like, so I read your script. And I suppose I admire what you were trying to do. And I was just sort of like, well, okay, so why did you want to meet me? Why? Why am I here? Because she then proceeded to trash the script and told me that ensemble comedies didn't work, of course. But then after I won the Oscar, every time I went into a meeting, everybody was sort of sitting there leaning forward, like listening to me. So it validated my thought, you know, in a way that I nothing else could have, I think. So it was very, it gave me a certain amount of freedom in the stuff that I wanted to do. Go ahead. No, no, no.
Alex Ferrari 23:05
So so. Yeah, it's it's always it's very interesting with with Oscar winners, because sometimes it's like, it opens a lot of doors. And other times, it's like, I have 15 minutes, and then I'm back to back to the grindstone. So it all depends on how you capitalize, but I always tell people, I would rather have one to not, Oh, yeah. Even years later, it's like, what a master screenplay. It's definitely a badge of honor for for any screenwriters career, regardless of how it works out. Now, one thing I noticed in your filmography, though, is after the winning the Oscar for American Beauty, you decided to kind of jump back into television and not continue the road of a, you know, prolific screenwriter doing movie after movie after movie. You said no, I think television is where I want to be. And I want to hear why you decided to do that. Because at least from my point of view, it seemed that the more there was more exciting stuff happening especially on HBO at that time in, in the in the time of the of when you were starting to come into HBO. They were doing really amazing stuff. I mean, the sopranos obviously with David and, and, and Sex in the City and all these kinds of things that they were just breaking moles. So is that what attracted you to back to television? Because you weren't doing sitcoms? Obviously, you were like, Nah, I'm gonna do something a little different.
Alan Ball 24:22
Well, I had signed a three year development deal a week before I sold the script to American Beauty. So I was committed to this to this TV development deal and I created a sitcom for ABC that was called Oh, grow up there was did not work and didn't, did not succeed. And actually in 90 at the end of 1999, there was a people's best and worse. Magazine, People Magazine best and worst of 1999 and there was the top 10 movies. And American Beauty was one of them. And literally you turn one page and it says the worst TV shows, and my TV show which was called Oh, grow up, was there. And so at the time, I was winning all this acclaim and stuff for American Beauty. I was also trying to salvage this sitcom that eventually got canceled. So it was a great lesson in perspective. But I had, you know, so then I had, I had two years left on this development deal. And I, I didn't want to just like, say, Fuck you guys, I'm gone. I, I was trying to figure out what to do. And I kept being kept taking these meetings about sitcoms, and it's like, we, you know, we have a deal with this stand up that we think you're perfect to write a show around them. And we have, you know, or I have, you know, we have this idea about a man who dies and is reincarnated as a dog and his wife gets, you know, rescues infinite power. And she doesn't know he's her husband, I'm like, you please just shoot me. And then I had a meeting with Carolyn Strauss from HBO, who was head of original programming at the time. And she said, I've always wanted to do a show about a family run funeral home, and that something in my head clicked. And I just went, I can't I, I, I, I spent a lot of time in funeral homes when I was growing up, because people a lot of people in my family died during a certain time. And so I had a very specific emotional can feeling about what that show could be. And and I went home for Christmas break. And I, I wrote this back on pilot, I mean, I wrote the pilot on spec. Because I just was I was dealing with grief because my sitcom had been canceled. And all these people had been put out of work. And even though the show was bad, it was a great group of people. And I was gonna miss them. And I just sort of poured it all into this pilot for six feet under I got back to town after the holiday and in call, my agent said, Call HBO and tell him that that pilot I wrote it, and and she sent it over to them, my TV agent, Sue Nagel, send it over to them. And they read it and they wanted a meeting. And I came in for this meeting. And they said we really liked this, it feels a little safe. Because there any way you could just make it up a little more fucked up. And I was like, Yeah, I'd love. I've been working in network TV for so many years, I just, you know, I always assumed assumed, you know, that you have to the notes that I would get in network TV were always, always could be distilled into two thoughts. Make everybody nicer, and articulate the subtext. Which are, yeah, terrible. You know, both of them are terrible. And so I did another pass on it. And they said, Great, we like it, we want to make it. Again, I was having an experience where everybody was saying, you know, it's not.
Alex Ferrari 28:20
So okay, so I've been ever since I saw six feet under the if I ever get a chance to talk to Alan, I got to ask him these questions. You obviously now you kind of explained a little bit that you had a little bit of an inside view of a funeral home run by I don't know if I run by family, but you said funeral homes, because the depth of what's happening like did you like did you do research? Did you jump into? Did you hang out a funeral homes? Did you interview family run funeral homes? How did you get the details of stuff? Or did you make a lot of it up?
Alan Ball 28:53
Well, I read a book, a book called the American way of death, which is a book that was originally published in the 60s. And it is a sort of screed against the what refers to itself as the death care industry. You know, just sort of saying It's so terrible and they you know, people are customers are at their most vulnerable and people are trying to sell them you know, use that to sell them the most expensive casket because that means that you really loved the person who died. And it went into a lot of detail about what happens within bombing and in the in the, the prep room and what what actually goes on with these bodies. So that they can be looked at before you know, they go in the ground. So I did do a lot of research we had we had a some consultants that we talked to, but in terms of the story in terms of the emotional arc of the characters and of the fish Your family. I just made all that up. I mean, of course, it's based on I come from a very emotionally repressed family where people don't really deal with what's going on. So that that kind of found its way in there, too. But
Alex Ferrari 30:17
It's fascinating that, you know, I had a chance to talk to David chase on the show, and finding out that the sopranos was really about him. And his mom's relationship was fascinating. So it seems that you know, as far as the shows, it's the writer, the creator is pouring part of themselves in there. That's what makes it seem really does it makes it sing if you didn't have that personal Yeah, it made but the audience feels the authenticity of it. In the writing, and, and obviously, in the performances. And I mean, the whole beginning of each episode. With the deaths, it's just so brilliant, bad. So absolutely, bro. Did you did? I mean, did you? I mean, obviously, you came up with that. And it was just like this gag that just, it was part of the story for for the rest of the series? How? How did you come up with that like that this would be a good way to start show an episode.
Alan Ball 31:09
You know, I think it was just, it was very obvious that that was the way to open each episode. You know, obviously, we're gonna need obviously, it's a story about a family. Yes. But it's also a story about America's relationship with death, you know,
Alex Ferrari 31:30
Very much so.
Alan Ball 31:32
And these are, and these people who work in these funeral homes are the people that we hire to face death for us. You know, what I mean? We don't do things like, keep the body at home. And, you know, the family washes the body, and that kind of we don't do that kind of stuff anymore. So I, what was the question?
Alex Ferrari 31:59
The the beginning of the show the death of each?
Alan Ball 32:01
Yeah, it ultimately, you know, after, after the pilot was shot, and HBO, we sent it to them on a Friday, and they call it on Monday, and they said, Let's go to series. So I was like, okay, and then I was sitting down to write the second episode. And I was like, Well, how do you start and it was, like, we started with a death, then we should, that's what everyone should do. And then that that'll be, you know, the person who goes through and, and we can build the stories around that. So it turned into the death of the week, that kind of the way that hospital shows are the, you know, disease week, because it worked. And it was it was just, I don't remember struggling a lot to figure that out. I remember it just sort of being obvious that that's what it should be.
Alex Ferrari 32:52
Well, let me ask you, what was the biggest struggle with telling the stories of that show a lot of those characters, because, I mean, it was groundbreaking for David's character. And, you know, coming out, I mean, there's so many groundbreaking parts of that show. I mean, it is in the it's in the conversation every single time when you're like, Oh, the great television revolution, you know, that started arguably with the Sopranos. And then you had, you know, the Breaking Bad Six Feet Under, it's always in the conversation, what was the toughest part for you as a creator, telling those stories and, and specifically, how those characters were kind of brought out into, into the public the way they are, they were?
Alan Ball 33:33
I mean, the toughest part for me, I hate to say this, but it wasn't all that tough. I mean, working at HBO, at that time, they wanted a specific point of view, they wanted, you know, a voice. They weren't, I wasn't getting tons of notes to like, you know, blend everything out and make it palatable for the lowest common denominator, or make it really resemble something that had already been successful. You know, they wanted something that felt new, that was interesting. And and because they were working with a different business model, then, you know, network television, we didn't have to worry about ratings, you know, and are the advertisers gonna be happy. They just wanted a good show. They just wanted to show that would sort of, you couldn't see anywhere else. So the kind of freedom that we were given was was was great. And I'm not sure it exists that much anymore.
Alex Ferrari 34:49
Huh, not much. I mean, they I mean, yeah, it's not it's there was a window of a good
Alan Ball 34:55
10 fit there was a window and then I you know, since I've, you know, stuff I've done Since I've, you know, I mean, I would get network, I would get HBOs notes for six feet on there and for True Blood, and it would be like three notes. You know? That? Yeah. And most of them made sense. And, but then later Later, you know, I did a show, and I would get pages and pages of notes. And I was just like, what, what would? I don't? Yeah, it was, it's been a, it's the industry has changed a lot. And I'm trying to now I find myself in a place where I'm trying to figure out how to fit into it and how to it's interesting.
Alex Ferrari 35:45
It's, it's, it's a struggle with a lot of creators. I mean, the business changes so rapidly, I mean, you know, show a show, like six feet, or two blood could have never come out in the 90s, or the 80s. And then I wouldn't, it just wouldn't have existed. And it's so well, let me ask you this. And please remind me because I know David's character as a gay character, on on six feet under how many other gay characters were on television. Prior to his carry, I mean, it was pretty. If I remember, it was pretty like, oh, that Wow. The first time like, you're treating a gay character as not a token character is not a, as a funny sidekick, as like, Oh, this is a real human being with real feelings. And, you know, who's a real person?
Alan Ball 36:30
I mean, I think there was, I think there had been a bunch there. There was a, an auxiliary character on 30, something who was gay. And they showed him in bed with another man and like, everybody's heads exploded. And ABC removed that from reruns or something like that. Now, while we were on the air, Will and Grace came out. Because I remember there's a there's a scene where Nate catches David watching gay porn and, and David is like, mortified. And Nate is like, come on, David. I watched Will and Grace. I have gaydar. So I know wheeling Grace was on the air, I think, I think Queer as Folk was on the air as well. I can't remember if that was on Showtime or what, what
Alex Ferrari 37:22
It was, yeah. But, but
Alan Ball 37:25
In terms of in terms of, in both of those shows, where like, everybody's gay. You know, this is a this is a show about gay life. Whereas David was just a character within a family. And the show wasn't so much about gay life as about this one gay man struggling to come to terms with his own internalized homophobia. All right.
Alex Ferrari 37:52
Well, let me ask you this. When you sit down to tell a story, what is like, what is your process? Do you outline? The mean? How do you face a blank page, which is always the end of every writer's dread? Is that blank? That blinking cursor, not the blank, but that blinking cursor? Do you outline a lot? Do you just sit down and just start stream of consciousness? How do you approach a new project?
Alan Ball 38:13
If I'm rolling, if I'm writing something for myself, and like a spec pilot, or a spec screenplay? I don't outline because for me to outline, it becomes well, okay, that's the story. I've told the story. The story is told. So now I'm gonna go back to the beginning and just it so and I liked the journey of discovery. You know, I'll things will percolate. And I'll think about something and I'll think about the character and I'll think about what is the opening and I'll, I'll have a lot of that figured out before I sit down to right. But if I'm working on a show, everything is outlined? Absolutely. Because other people are going to be going off and writing scripts, you can't just say like, Okay, everybody, just go write what you feel. You have to you have to outline what's going on so that it tracks over the course of the season. And so that's but but on my own, I don't outline. But let me let me be honest, I have like a drawer full of scripts that I started that never did, I never finished because the steam or I didn't know where how to make it go anywhere or whatever.
Alex Ferrari 39:34
And also, I think, you know, for young screenwriters thinking that like you see, Alan Ball doesn't doesn't outline I don't need to outline I'm like, Well, there's a difference to you've been doing this for how many years? You know, so it's like you already a lot of the things that you would work out in an outline as far as pacing and Archons in structure and plots are all that you have that almost innately in the back of your head and your subconscious when you're writing or because you've done it so many times. So it's not like Have you a lot of time because I know a lot of writers who do that they'll just kind of stream of consciousness and just go, and then go back and tweak. But, but because you have this base, you can do that, as a young writer, it would probably be not a smart idea that just start, let's just write and see what happens. But it depends.
Alan Ball 40:17
Also, I think everybody has their own technique. I don't, you know, and I think part of one's journey, as an artist, as a writer is to discover what that technique is, and to be true to it. Some people, you know, outline everything, extremely, you know, very intricately before they start writing the script, and it works. You know, some people do stream of consciousness, and it works for them. I always, I'm always a little bit leery of, of any formula for, for what is what is storytelling, because I think the minute you do that, you're limiting yourself. There are formulas that work for certain people, but they don't work for other people, you know. So ultimately, it's up to the it's up to each person to discover their own technique. What works best for them.
Alex Ferrari 41:15
Now, Alan, I imagine that I know you had a good start with American Beauty and a fantastic start. I'm assuming it wasn't Yes. Is the entire way through your career. I'm assuming you've had a couple of knows along the way. Yeah, how? What advice can you give people who are at that place in their career where they're just getting the No, the No, the no, what did you do to just keep moving forward? Even early on? I'm imagining even during the grace, grace under fire, and several times, you were getting those left and right or being rewritten or being overruled? And, and that was where that frustration line? And how did you keep going? Because a lot of people would have just said, you know, what, screw this Hollywood crap, I'm just gonna go back and be a playwright, I don't need this, I want to go back and be, you know, an important writer with my, my, my stories that I want to tell that are important to me. You know, but you decided to keep going and keep going. So what was it that what advice can you give? And what did you do to just keep going?
Alan Ball 42:11
Um, I mean, a lot of people say like, what should I do? I think you should just one of the things I learned when I was working as a playwright in New York, with our little gorilla theatre companies, and everything is we weren't waiting for permission. We were putting on a show at midnight on Thursday, that maybe 10 people came to see, but we were still putting on a show. You know, and I think I would say, do it yourself, especially now, when you can make a movie on your iPhone. You know, if if you're getting though, then do something, start short. Start short. Start Something short, do like a five minute film, but do it yourself, make it get your friends to work on it, make it make it with your iPhone, it's not going to go you know, it's probably not going to go become like an award winning short at festivals, but it might and at the very least, what you have learned from making that is things that you can only learn by making things and if you're sitting around waiting for permission waiting for somebody to give you permission. Maybe they will most likely they won't because you know I think most everything that gets submitted gets turned down. I mean, I'm dealing with that now I just I just my producing partner and I suddenly you know submitted for scripts of a of a TV series that I think I was super proud of and everybody passed on it I don't know if it was I don't know if it's because it was too expensive or because there we didn't have any stars attached because it seems like TV has become that movie star test or a TV star tat but it's frustrating and if you are creatively if you are organically connected to your work emotionally which I feel like is important is important for work to feel really personal and and and emotional.
When it gets passed on it's gonna hurt but you just you can't give up you can't give up.
You know, just keep going and and ultimately figure out ways to do it on do it yourself.
Alex Ferrari 44:32
Now before I move on to Trueblood I have to just say thank you for arguably one of the greatest last episodes on 66 feet under it it is it is a tightrope that is is walked by many show creator on on the ending of a show and it is one of the most beautiful endings so satisfying. So wonderful. Arguably you couldn't end it any other way. I mean We won't ruin it for people who haven't seen it. But it is it was just so beautifully done. And I just felt so warm inside at the end of that, like, okay, I can let go of these characters now, as opposed to, you know, just turning to black David, or any other shows that just it's hard to nail that ending the nail the ending of a show, so I wanted to thank you for that because that's just what it was. I was I was scared to by the way as I was going through last season, I'm like, Oh God, how are they gonna finish this man? How are they going to finish this? Please don't let me down, please. I've spent hours and hours and hours. Please don't Don't drop the ball Alan please. It was so beautiful that you guys did it so well. So I just wanted to thank you for that.
Alan Ball 45:42
Oh, thank you. I appreciate that.
Alex Ferrari 45:44
Now True Blood another, you know, iconic show. How did you get involved with because that wasn't an original. That wasn't an original idea that was based off a series of books. How did you get involved?
Alan Ball 45:56
I had a dental appointment in the valley, and in Encino. And I was I got there early, like, you know, an hour early. I there was a Barnes and Noble nearby. And I went and I was just perusing books. And I was and I saw this book. And it was called dead until dark. And the the logline on the cover was maybe having a vampire for a boyfriend wasn't such a good idea. And I thought, that's funny. And I looked at it a little book. And, and so I bought it. And I started reading it in the waiting room. And it was like crack. And I remember at that point, there were four books he originally wrote. I mean, she eventually wrote 13. But it was you know, it was it was all about this world where vampires came out of the closet because of this synthetic blood that they can drink. And, and it was just, you know, I'm from the south. I that whole Southern Gothic thing is in my blood. And I just remember reading it, and I couldn't put it down. There was just such a great world in such great characters and so much fun. Oh, yeah. You know, and I think after six feet under, I think I just wanted to do something that was really fun. And so I called the I had my agent call the woman who wrote it, and it was under optioned by a filmmaker, but it was about to run out. And I said, Well, I'd like to purchase it. And I'd like to and I bought the rights and wrote the script, on spec, took it to HBO. And they said we have a vampire show and development. I said, Okay, well, you know, I'll take it somewhere else. And they were like, No, you can't you can't go anywhere else. Because you know, you're part of the HBO family. And I said, Well, shut up. Yeah. And they did they they killed that other show. And I feel really, really bad about her. You know, about the person who was working on that show. But I remember Chris Albrecht was still there. And he called me a before they said, let's go ahead and do it. He called me and he said, Just give me a one. One sentence thing. What is this show about? And I was like, Oh, my God, I don't know. What am I going to say? It's about the terrors of intimacy. Which is something I just pulled out of my ass. You know, I guess it's kind of true. But But I can see now when he went okay. All right. And they they greenlit it and we shot the pilot. And then. And then it took and Chris Chris had left at that time. And it was Richard Plepler. And Mike Lombardo, who were in charge, and it seemed like they were gonna pass on it. And they it seems like we were, you know, that it had taken like, a couple of months. We hadn't heard back, they were still deliberating. And finally they they said yes, and, and we made the pilot and, and we made the series.
Alex Ferrari 49:32
And it is in I mean, the stuff that you did in that show. I mean, you could tell you were having some fun.
Alan Ball 49:38
Oh my God, it was so much fun.
Alex Ferrari 49:40
Oh, my God, the characters were so brilliantly written, acted. I mean, it was like a magical each actor was magically designed for the character that was written on the page. It was so beautiful. And, and I mean, let's not even talk about the sex stuff. I mean, that's, I mean, it was you're just sitting there like, we gotta keep the kid A robot got locked the door when we watch True Blood? Yeah, they could just walk in on the wrong seat. And all of a sudden,
Alan Ball 50:07
Alex Ferrari 50:08
It was so much fun to watch that show. Now I know, you know, and I know you directed a little bit on on a bunch of your shows on set, there's always that day that you feel like the entire world's coming crashing down around you, as a filmmaker, we all have those days, regardless of budgetary cars, or anything. What was that day for you either on six feet under? Or any of your shows? For that matter? What was that day that you felt like? Oh, man, I'm not sure how we're gonna get out of this. What was that thing? If you could talk about it publicly? And how did you overcome that event in the day as a filmmaker.
Alan Ball 50:42
Um I remember there was an episode of six feet on there, I think it was the I think it was this season finale of Season One. And there was Rico and Vanessa are having a party for their for their, they just recently had a second child and they're having a christening party, and they're doing it at the funeral home. And for some reason, we just got so behind, you know, and it was like, we've been working for, you know, 10 hours already. And we have at least five hours that we left that we have left to do. And we can't push it off to another day, because this is the last day that we're shooting. And I remember just feeling like oh my God, I'm such a failure. I'm such a failure that I had, that I that I allowed things to get this far behind. And, but we you know, we worked overtime, and we got it and we got everything we needed. We simplified the shot list, but there was a moment where I felt, I have no idea what I'm doing and it's about to come out and everybody's gonna see what a big imposter I am. And, and, you know,
Alex Ferrari 51:59
It's, it's fascinating, too, because as I've talked to, you know, more and more high profile people on the show like yourself, we've had some Oscar winners, Emmy winners, things like that. I always find it so fascinating. And I think so educational for people listening that, you know, a lot of times they put, you know, people like yourself and other you know, Oscar winners up on a pedestal like, oh, they just they must just wake up in the morning. And it's pretty though, I'll just write an Oscar winning script today. Or I'll just why, you know, I'll just write six, under, I'll just, I'll just whip up, Trueblood, like these things I found to for after speaking to so many people like yourself that imposter syndrome is a thing. A thing. So even at the day that you're talking about, you've already won an Oscar. Yeah, you might have won an Emmy or I'm not sure. But you were on the way you want Golden Globes, you'd won a lot of awards already. Your award winning writer, and filmmaker and you still at that moment had like, Oh, my God, security is going to come in and they're going to find out what a fraud I am. And I'm going to be escorted off the set. And that was the feeling that you had still had after the success you had. And it's I think such an edge. Such a wonderful educational tool for people coming up to understand that throughout your career. It never leaves you.
Alan Ball 53:12
Oh, yeah. No, it never does. It never does. I have such a weird relationship to if I'm, if I'm about if I'm finishing a script, and I'm doing that last portion of it. I'll read it and I'll be going this is really good man. I really love I think I think I did something really great here. Close it file, you know, turn it to PDF, send it off to my age at the minute I send it off. I'm like, oh, there's a typo of fuck. And then and then from there, it just completely unravels. It's like, why is this scene even here? What the fuck are they saying? This is the worst dialogue I've ever read in my entire life. And so, you know, I mean, I think, you know, insecurity and it fuels a lot of people to become to express themselves in ways that I think they probably wouldn't do if they were more self esteem. I think a lot of a lot of great work comes from people who are working out their own
Alex Ferrari 54:24
Now if you if you had a chance to go back in time and talk to your younger self, and you could tell that person one thing if you were on that when you were making those off off Broadway plays and and the Alan Alan Ball of today could go back and just say one thing to that person to that island ball, about what the journey is about to be he's going to go on is what would be that warning or piece of advice.
Alan Ball 54:48
When I first I thought I'd say don't take the sitcom job, but I had to I had to, I had to and I wouldn't, I would just say like Try to keep keep your perspective. Ultimately, it's, it's just a movie, it's just a TV show is not worth making yourself crazy about, it's not worth destroying relationships over. It's just, it's, it's not real life. You know, because I get so invested in my work that it becomes, like, you know, when, when my sitcom for ABC got canceled, I got really depressed. And in retrospect, if that show hadn't been canceled, I would never have done six feet under, you know what I mean? And I guess I would, I would just say, like, try to take your work seriously, but don't take yourself so seriously, and don't take praise and or criticism that seriously. Because ultimately, you do the work that you do, you do the best work that you can do. And that's the reward. Whether you get a, you know, a statue or a nice review, or somebody pans you or your show gets canceled, that stuff is just whether, you know, it changes, it always changes, and just stay focused on being true to yourself and don't. And also don't compare yourself to other people. You know, don't compare yourself to other writers or other directors. Because you just don't
Alex Ferrari 56:47
It's so tough though.
Alan Ball 56:48
I mean, we're always gonna find somebody that you feel like is better than you and that you feel inferior to and that's in just don't, don't feed that particular demon.
Alex Ferrari 56:59
Before I go to my last few questions I always ask, I just have to say, in Banshee because I know you worked on Banshee, the fight sequence in the jail. One of them was brutal things I've ever seen filmed. It is. It is a it is an an art piece. And how you how on God's green earth did you guys do that? In the way that you did it? It was so brutal. It is not it was violent and brutal, but it it's visceral. The way it was shot? How did you guys get that?
Alan Ball 57:33
I mean, it's, you know, I was I was like an exec producer on it. I was not really that involved in the day to day, day to day. So that was that was Jonathan tropper, writer, and Greg etain Is Director and Anthony star who is now on the boys was just a really just a really genius. I mean, he was he was so good in that role. I mean, I gave notes on on, on on cuts. But usually I would just be like, Oh, good, I gotta Banshee cut because it would just be fun to watch because they were doing such amazing work, you know, and I really wasn't that involved. So I can't really take credit for that.
Alex Ferrari 58:23
Okay, fair enough. But it was for anyone watching you kind of watch that sequence. Watch the show. Watch that sequences. Yeah, that's it's a good show. And it was a very, very good show. Now, I'm gonna ask you a few questions as all my guests, what advice would you give a screenwriter wanting to break into the business today?
Alan Ball 58:39
First and foremost, write about what you care about. Don't write about what you think will sell. Don't write it, write about something that matters to you. Because that, that's going to infuse it with love level of personal passion that hopefully will make, you know, make it rise to the top of because everybody's writing scripts that they think will sell everybody's writing scripts that resemble something that have that has already been successful. So I would say write what you care about.
Alex Ferrari 59:13
I would agree because American Beauty is not like anything that anybody had written before or since. And there's there's not like an American Beauty type of script. Without question, now, what is the lesson that took you the longest to learn That failure is part of it, you know, if you if you if you insist on seeing things as success or failure you're gonna you're gonna get in trouble. Failure is part of it. Sometimes. You're never going to get to a place nor should you want to, I think where everything you do is good. Because you're because to grow as a writer to grow as a An artist you have to try things, you'd have to try things. And not everything is going to fly. That doesn't mean you're a bad person. It doesn't mean you're you're a shitty writer and you've lost your touch or whatever. It just means that that's part of it. And try not to take it too personally and just keep going. You know?
I think the big swings is what you say. Yeah. Without question, three screenplays that every screenwriter should read
Alan Ball 1:00:32
Three screenplays every screenplay Well, Chinatown I would say Nashville so bad I'm stuck on this third one.
Alex Ferrari 1:00:49
Anything that comes to mind?
Alan Ball 1:00:51
Well, one of my favorite movies of all time. Oh, the apartment.
Alex Ferrari 1:00:57
Oh, God. Yes, check. It still holds today. The timing jokes the way they popped it. You know a lot of movies from the 60s do not hold from but The Apartment still hold and what are what are I always ask what are your favorite films of all time?
Alan Ball 1:01:16
To Kill a Mockingbird. I Nashville and Chinatown. And the apartment that I mean, those are three of my favorite films too.
Alex Ferrari 1:01:28
Well, Alan, I appreciate you coming on the show. Thank you so much for sharing your journey with all of us. Hopefully it inspires a few screenwriters and filmmakers out there. And thank you for all the hard work and great stories you've been telling over the course of your career. You You're making a difference out there not only entertaining but shaping the young minds of people out there.
Alan Ball 1:01:46
Thank you so much, Alex, appreciate it. pleasure talking to you. I'm really glad that we did this.
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