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November 2014
Issue: November 1, 2008

DIRECTOR'S CHAIR: ALAN BALL - 'TOWELHEAD'

By: Iain Blair
LOS ANGELES — Alan Ball may not be a household name, but his TV shows (he created the Emmy Award-winning HBO hit Six Feet Under) and films (he won the Oscar for writing American Beauty) have made him one of Hollywood's most successful creatives.

Now Ball has directed his first feature film, Towelhead, a dark, controversial and often funny story of Jasira, a 13-year-old Arab-American girl growing up in the suburbs of Houston. It stars Aaron Eckhart, Toni Collette, Maria Bello and newcomer Summer Bishil as Jasira, a stranger in a strange land who has to navigate the confusing and frightening path of adolescence and her own sexual awakening.
Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Ball — whose television credits include Cybill, Grace Under Fire and his new HBO vampire series True Blood — sat down to talk about the film and his love of post.
   
POST: This was your first film directing. Any big surprises?
ALAN BALL: "I'd directed six TV episodes that were really high-end with a big budget, so making the transition to a really low-budget movie wasn't so different. There were so many scenes in this script that it felt just like shooting a day of TV, except that in TV I'm always posting one episode and prepping another while I'm shooting and giving notes on scripts. So it was nice to just focus on one thing.
"But I was less in a position of power, so I had to constantly fight for things, which wasn't the case with Six Feet Under, especially after it came out and was a success. I think everyone was also a bit terrified of this film, and even once we put it together with independent financing, they were still scared of it. So there were fights, and I learned how to become a Hollywood asshole. I can yell with the best of them — even though I hate that aspect of myself [laughs]. But sometimes that's the only thing people will pay attention to."

POST: What made you want to adapt Alicia Erian's novel Towelhead into a film, and what sort of film did you set out to make?
BALL: "A film that was true to the book. It's a great story that reached out and grabbed me. It horrified me, it made me laugh, it really moved me, and ultimately, although I've read books that explore similar terrain, it felt incredibly fresh. Also, I loved the fact that it wasn't just another tale of victim-hood."

POST: How tough was the shoot?

BALL: "We had 40 days but only $8 million, which is tiny."

POST: Talk about working with your editor, Andy Keir, who also cut True Blood for you. Was he on set?

BALL: "No, he was in New York and we shot in LA. He cut the pilot for True Blood, but couldn't do the whole series as we had to do some recasting and re-shooting. One reason I chose him for this was because he was based in New York, and once we wrapped this I was going there with a play I was going into production, and I knew I wanted to edit in New York. I'd met him, and we were in constant touch during the shoot. He kept sending me his assembly at the end of every week.
"When I hire people, it's all gut. First I check out their work and see if I respond to it, and I really responded to his work on Roger Dodger. I felt he was very intuitive and really allowed performances to breathe and characters to be complicated. Then when I met him, he's such a great guy, and that's so important too."

POST: How long was the edit and where did you do it?
BALL: "I spent months and months locked in a tiny room with him and we cut at the Post Factory in New York, and he's good company and very, very smart. He's a big reason this film works as well as it does emotionally, as he's all about story and character."

POST: Where did you do the post?
BALL: "We began in New York at the Post Factory. Then when Warner Independent bought the film, they had a few notes, so Andy flew out and we did a re-edit back in LA at the Sunset Gower lot and cut out about 15 minutes. Then we did all the mixing on the lot at Warner's."

POST: Do you like the post process?
BALL: "I love it. I think that's where a film really comes to life. To me, the shoot is all about providing yourself with as much raw material as you can.
"One of the things I like to do with actors is let them do what their instincts tell them to do, then guide them to what my instincts are, if different, and then do a couple of takes where you try anything. Then in post, where you're sculpting a performance and arc of a character's emotions and psyche in a scene, you have as much raw material as possible to work from. So I feel it's not until post that you even make the movie."

POST: Given that it was your first feature, did post go smoothly?
BALL: "It did. After all the TV stuff I've done I was pretty well versed in post, but it was my first time working in HD, and that was a whole new experience.
"My DP, Newton Thomas Sigel [The Usual Suspects, Three Kings, X2, Superman Returns] got us such a great deal on the Genesis package and I was a little leery about going in that direction, but he's such an artist. Then once I got into watching dailies and the whole process I realized it was nothing to worry about, and in fact, it saved us a lot of money.
"And working digitally in post is so amazing now, especially in terms of having to fix anything. For instance, after we'd shot it, we realized there was this glaring continuity error where Jasira was wearing the wrong outfit in a scene at the grocery store with her father. She had on the same shirt from the day before, so we just went in and changed the color of her shirt. I'm amazed at what they can do now!"

POST: How much of a tech-head are you?
BALL: [Laughs] "Look, I didn't go to film school and to be honest, I don't have a lot of technical know-how and skills, so my approach to directing and post is very simple — hire the best people you can who really know all that technical stuff and who want to make the same film you do, and then I just get out of their way, until I see things going awry."

POST: How many visual effects shots are there and who did them?
BALL: "We had a few, but most of them got cut out in the end. There's certainly some, such as the shot where she's on the golf course and she drives toward us and her mouth opens as she has her first orgasm, and then we pull back and she's actually in a room. Louis Morin was our visual effects supervisor and he did all the effects shots and did a great job."

POST: Do you like dealing with visual effects?
BALL: "I do, and I find I'm doing more and more of it with the new show I'm doing for HBO, True Blood. I see a lot of films with spectacular effects, but there's no story or heart. It's just about images that look cool, and I don't like that. I'm too old! I'm not impressed anymore just by something that looks cool.
"With the HBO show, we do every episode in just 10 days, so my approach to effects is, 'Let's see the beginning or the very end,' as I feel that less is more, unless you really have the time and money and resources to do it right. And even then, I honestly feel that so many of the visual effects in films today just call attention to themselves and pull me right out of the story. And once that happens, I get resentful."

POST: How important are music and audio for you?

BALL: "So important. I had a great music supervisor, Randall Poster, and  [eight-time] Oscar-nominated composer Thomas Newman, so I was lucky there.
"I always spend a lot of time with music supervisors, picking the right source for each scene, a lot of time with composers, and a lot of time in the mix. I feel that is a huge part of the canvas, even though film is a visual medium, because it's far more than just that. If you do it right, you really can transport the audience into this world you're creating with images, yes, but also with sound and music.
"One of the biggest laughs now in the film just came about in the sound mix. There was this little dead moment in a scene, and we added a line off-screen, which just made the scene. We did the mix on the lot at Warner Bros., on their huge mixing stage, and when I first walked in I was like, 'Wow!' I'd never been in a stage like that before."

POST: Did the finished film match the vision you first had on reading the novel?
BALL: "No, and it never does. I feel that as a writer, the idea you have when you write the script is what you need to get on the page, and then you have to throw that out, because other people come into the mix and they have better ideas than you do. Also, at some point, the film lets you know what it wants to be.
"On American Beauty, I originally had this big framing device where the kids went to jail and got tried for murder, and I needed that when I wrote the script, but ultimately the film didn't want it, even though we'd shot it all. It all got cut, and my initial reaction was, 'How can you cut this? Are you crazy?' But within 24 hours I'd realized that it was a much better film now, as I wrote that film out of anger and when it started being assembled it was a far less angry film than I'd ever intended, and you have to respect that. That was a very good lesson for me."

POST: Do you want to direct again?

BALL: "Absolutely. I'm not sure that I want to do something as dark [laughs], but I really love directing and I plan to do more and more."

POST: Tell us a bit about True Blood.

BALL: "I directed the pilot and I did the final episode, and it went great. It's not like when you shoot a show for a network and they want you to shoot a whole episode in seven days. Our show's big, there's a lot of visual effects, all done by Zoic, a big cast and a lot of stories going on at once. And there's a lot of blood — but they're vampires!"