Alan Ball Shares His Story with the UK Times

September 30, 2009 by  

alanball_01_185x185_620675aFor Alan Ball, creator of Six Feet Under and True Blood, the dark, twisted nature of life and death is all too familiar. That he is a creative genius cannot be denied. But his life was shaped by an early tragedy that makes a definite mark in his storytelling.

At the age of 13, he was riding in the car with his older sister on her 22nd birthday, when they crashed and she was killed.

“The impact broke her neck. It was very bloody. At that impressionable age, Death came and stuck its ugly old face in mine, and said: ‘Hello, here I am.’ “

Growing up in Marietta, GA, Alan faced many struggles in addition to his sister’s death, although he calls his childhood “pretty standard.” His mother suffered from depression and was one of the speaking-in-tongues, doom-and-gloom-prophecy religious types. His father drank a lot and was mostly withdrawn. Plus, Alan knew that he was gay from a young age and thought it was something to be ashamed of.

“I was always very aware of that. I mean, when I was 8 and went to see Goldfinger I found myself being turned on by Sean Connery. I was also very aware that it was something I had to keep a secret. I thought it meant you were relegated forever to the outside fringes of society. I tried to be straight. I even had a teenage girlfriend–who I really ought to apologize to–before I came out in my thirties.”

Alan was still grieving for his sister when he moved to New York years later.

“For six months I thought I was going crazy. I’d walk through the streets crying. It was lucky I was living in New York at the time: in New York no one pays you any attention if you’re walking through the streets crying.”

At that time, he was doing work in art direction for magazines, as well as writing plays for his own theatre company, Alarm Dog Repertory Company. One of those plays, Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, led to an invitation from some Hollywood producers to go to Los Angeles and become a staff writer on the sitcom Grace Under Fire. He then got a job writing for Cybill, for which he also served as the executive producer in its fourth and final season in 1998:

“After a while I became a bit of a hack. In every episode there was a part where one of the characters would have to learn a lesson from what had just happened. I used to call it ‘the moment of shit,’ because it just trivialized everything … By the third season I really wanted to leave, but they backed the money truck up to my house and I stayed. But I felt like such a whore, and at nights I dumped all of my frustration into the script of American Beauty. It’s a very angry script. It’s what you get when you’ve been working with a crazy person who walks into the room and says: ‘I got a bad haircut, let’s write a show about that.’ “

Things finally turned around for Alan when American Beauty was a huge financial success that won him an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. He soon partnered with HBO for Six Feet Under, a reflective, existential drama about a family that runs a funeral home. Alan was actually encouraged by HBO to come up with weird, unnerving stories for the complicated lives of the Fishers. The show became a cult hit, although some criticized it for being too depressing.

“That’s where it needed to go. It made death and grief less frightening to me. When my mother died I knew what grief was, so it didn’t freak me out.”

It helped a lot of other people, too. What Alan loves about Six Feet Under is how it was able to touch people on a personal level. Still, after that show finished, he had enough of “looking into the abyss” and sought a project that would be fun and thrilling. That search brought him to Sookie Stackhouse.

With True Blood, Alan could incorporate the Gothicism of the South in which he grew up, through a world as fascinating as the one imagined by Charlaine Harris in her books. This is a story he’s interested in telling because, put simply, “vampires are sexy.”

For the foreseeable future, Alan is going to continue working on True Blood (which he has a signed deal with HBO for at least 2 more seasons), as well as a couple of other shows and films. And after everything he’s been through in his life, Alan, at age 52, is enjoying himself.

“I’m a fairly happy person. I’m content. I really like my life. But for some reason I still get people coming up to me and saying, ‘Cheer up.’ “

Alan was asked how he feels about California’s recent overturning of the law allowing same-sex marriage, to which he said it turns gays into “second-class citizens”, but as he said “it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what’s wrong with America”.

Alan is now at peace. He loves the city he lives in now (Los Angeles), especially Runyon Canyon, a nearby park where he takes his dogs for a walk and he has become a Buddhist, because “it’s about love and not denouncing others, like the Christianity of my childhood”.

A wonderful man who has brought so much pleasure to millions with his projects and an inspiration to others.


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