I thought I lost Alan Ball on my very first question. It seemed to me to be an obvious joke, but I forgot that sometimes sitting in a hotel room answering the same questions again and again can skew the way you approach other questions.

Thankfully things righted themselves soon enough, and Ball and I had a wide ranging interview that covered politics, society and DVD box sets. I was talking to him for his new movie, Towelhead, a film that really blew me away at Sundance and has been haunting me for the last nine months. It’s not an easy movie, and I think it took a lot of bravery for Ball to make a film like this, a film as edgy and with so much to say about things that will piss off the left and the right. I remember talking to a journalist in Sundance who couldn’t even fathom why Ball would make a movie about this subject matter at all – the sexual awakening of a 13 year old girl who is molested by her neighbor – but I couldn’t understand why this subject has been pushed under the rug for so long.

It’s important to note that I did this interview before seeing the premiere of Ball’s new HBO show, True Blood, so we didn’t broach that subject. After seeing the show I’m glad that I walked into this interview without that in my head, and I do have to say to folks who were less than impressed with the premiere that Towelhead is completely different from that show in every way possible. Make sure you go see this movie in theaters – support smart, brave and interesting filmmaking!

Looking back at the movie now do you think to yourself: There’s one more button I could have pushed?

No.

I’m
kidding. But obviously the movie has been gathering some controversy,
especially in recent weeks. Walking in you had to know. How much of
that plays into the decisions you’re making? When you’re on set do you
modulate it because it might offend somebody, or do you just have to do
it?


I don’t think about how things are going to be received,
because that’s a trap. The logical step after you think about how
things are going to be received is you try to please people, and that’s
a huge trap. I responded very viscerally and very organically to the
novel on which the movie is based. It really spoke to me, it felt very
genuine and very real. It took a tale that is traditionally a tale of
victimhood
and told it in a way that made it a tale of empowerment. It had great
things to say about race, it had great things to say about what our
society teaches girls and how they value themselves. It was funny. It
was really, really funny. And it was moving. To me these are all the
elements of a great movie, and that’s the movie I wanted to make. I
didn’t stop and think, ‘How is this person going to react to it, how is
that person going to react to it?’ because it’s something I don’t take
into account. Whenever I’ve done that in the past I’ve failed
miserably. I created a sitcom for ABC that I thought was totally paint
by numbers guaranteed success – it had this element of Friends and this
element of Cheers and this element of Frasier, there was something in
it for everybody. It was bad. And it’s because it wasn’t genuine. I’ve
been very, very fortunate in my career that every time I try to create
something that I myself would like to see as an audience member, I’ve
been successful.


So yeah, the movie pushes a lot of buttons and
a lot of people are shocked by certain aspects of it. I was moved and
entertained and it was thought provoking. I’m probably not mainstream –
I know for a fact that I’m not mainstream and that things I find
intriguing and fascinating and compelling are not necessarily things
other people even want to look at. But this is a tiny little movie. We
made this movie for about 14 dollars. We don’t have to have The Dark
Knight’s audience. But I think there is an audience for this, because
I’ve been around the country with it and attended screenings with a lot
of people and answered a lot of questions and I believe there are
people who like to be challenged in this way, and who are willing to
sit through a movie that is uncomfortable because they want something
more from a
moviegoing experience than sitting there and letting something pre-digested wash over them.

I
don’t know if I’ve ever seen a movie that tackles the mixed messages we
send young women the way this movie does. That’s what really grabbed
me, the idea that on one hand young women are rewarded with attention
for their sexuality while at the same time being punished for it.
People don’t want to hear that. Why do we not want to talk about that?


Because
we don’t want to acknowledge that we’re a deeply racist and sexist
society. [laughs] We want to pretend that we moved beyond that. But
come on. Society encourages young girls from day one to be ‘hot.’ I
have a friend has a four and a half year old niece who one day was
rubbing her nipples. Her parents said, ‘What are you doing?’ and she
said, ‘My boobies are going to come in soon’ and they said, ‘Why is
that important?’ and she said, ‘Because I’ll be hot.’ Four and a half
years old. And they purposefully don’t let her watch TV they don’t find
healthy for her. There’s no escape from it. Talk about women being
packaged for male consumption – it’s worse than it’s ever been. Even
though for the first time we had a woman come close to being president.
But it is a deeply, deeply sexist society and to pretend that it isn’t
is a form of denial I can’t wrap my head around.


You go to the
mall and there are girls who are ten, eleven, twelve, dressed
unbelievably, and this just seems to be getting worse every year. Why
are we going in that direction? What’s wrong with us?


Part of it
is the whole deregulation of content under Reagan. Part of it is that
we’re a consumer society and eventually everybody becomes a commodity
and ultimately everybody wants to be a commodity. Part of it is that
it’s such a patriarchal society and that’s a way of
disempowering
women, making them sexual objects. Those are my guesses. Those are my
stabs at why it is the way it is, but I do think it’s that way.


You
premiered this at Toronto almost exactly a year ago. As a filmmaker is
it tough to have a movie that’s ready to go but not getting released?
Do you feel like your voice is stifled until it’s released or are you
comfortable waiting for the right moment?


I’m comfortable
waiting for the right moment. I felt like every time the movie kept
getting pushed back and pushed back and pushed back that we were going
to lose the moment. This film is so timely, and it’s as timely today as
it was – if not
moreso – two years ago. I retooled the movie and recut
it after Warner Independent purchased it and they helped me to make it
a better movie. I’m really, really thankful that this is the version
that is being released and not the version that was in Toronto. I think
it’s a better movie now.


What did you change from Toronto?

We took twenty minutes out.

Is that hard for you? For some filmmakers it’s like cutting off their own limbs.

It’s
hard to a point. But if you’re comparing it to cutting off your own
limbs you’re crazy [laughs]. One of the benefits of it taking so long
is that I had the time away from it and could come back and look at it
and realize that it’s a better movie if it’s twenty minutes shorter
because the ending is more powerful if the audience isn’t exhausted
when they get there. All the stuff we cut out, none of it was content,
it was all stuff in the novel that was emotionally complicated and
ironic – it’ll all be on the DVD – but the movie itself works so much
better now. I would be answering this question differently if the time
had passed, but now it feels as timely. If not
moreso, with the silliness that’s happening now.

With the teenage pregnancy of Palin’s daughter.

Talk
about hypocrisy. You go on the record saying you don’t support sex
education, you teach abstinence, oh my daughter is pregnant. That’s
family values!


It’s mind boggling to watch them tie themselves in knots to explain these things away.

You couldn’t write it. You couldn’t write it.

All the Palin stuff… that she has the foreign policy experience because she’s from the state closest to Russia…

I know.

If you had written that in a movie I would have given you a savage review. ‘This is the kind of bullshit dialogue-‘

Nobody is better at farce than politicians.

Have you ever considered doing anything political? Well, specifically political, as your work is obviously political.

About
politicians? I don’t think I could have any sympathy for them as
characters. I couldn’t write them. Which is not to say that there
aren’t politicians I believe in, just that the idea of politicians and
being a political animal and that whole culture… it makes my skin
crawl.


So you’re on the record as having more sympathy for the undead than politicians?

Absolutely. Without a doubt. [laughs]

We live in such a different world than even ten years ago, where longform television is a legitimate place for serious storytellers to work.

Sopranos changed all that.

How different is the longform
television approach from telling a story in film? Is there something
more positive about being forced to tell a story in the brevity of two
hours versus fifteen, or is there something more freeing about having
fifteen hours.


Both. You can do a movie and focus on making
those two hours as close to perfection as you can make them. You do a
series and you focus on making each episode as – and then you move on
and do the next one. Okay, move on again. However, I think a great
movie is like a great and satisfying short story or novella whereas a
great television series is like a great and satisfying novel. It
unfolds over time. There are great things about both of them. Certainly
given the room that you have with a TV series you can track a
character’s development in a more specific and isolated way, and you
can have people undergo changes that people undergo in a lifetime. With
a movie it has to be one event, it has to be one particular thing.
Unless you’re making Lord of the Rings, and then you’ve got nine hours
to work with.


I can’t say that I prefer one to the other. So
far I love that I live with a foot in both worlds. I started out as a
playwright, I miss that. I wrote a play a couple of years ago, my first
play in eleven years, and I miss that. I feel fortunate to be able to
work in a variety of mediums, and I hope I continue having that
opportunity.


Unless you’re making Mission: Impossible 5, you’re
telling a story that has an ending. With a TV show you’re telling a
story and you don’t always know when it will end. I read that you don’t
know if you’ll get a second season of True Blood, so you end your first
story but have to leave it open…


We set up season two in the last episode. And if they say ‘We decided to not go ahead with this,’ then okay.

But will that be a satisfying conclusion on its own?

Probably
not. I mean, you can only do a satisfying conclusion if you know it’s a
last episode. But TV shows get canceled all the time, so that’s the
luck of the draw.


You said that Sopranos changed TV, but I feel like DVD really changed it.

I agree.

Are you looking at the DVD right now, are you keeping in mind that final presentation of the show?

I’m
not thinking about it, but HBO is thinking about it. They’re keeping in
contact throughout the season saying ‘We’d like to do this for the
DVD.’ For a while they were bugging me, ‘Can you generate more content
for the online?’ No. I’m making a show! Sorry.




I don’t think about it. It’s different doing a show on HBO because you
don’t have commercial breaks, so the context of watching a show on HBO
is very similar to watching a show on DVD. But I know that I prefer to
watch series on DVD now. I like to get a series and watch the whole
thing in a weekend. I think that’s becoming what it’s about – everybody
has home theaters and you can watch an episode and go make lunch, watch
another one and walk your dog, come back and watch another one. You can
sort of experience it the way you experience reading a novel.




How about for film? Will the twenty minutes you cut from this be back in the movie on DVD?



No, they’ll be in deleted scenes.



So for you this is the director’s cut.



Yeah. I was never forced to make a change that I didn’t eventually
agree with. The scenes we deleted I think they’re good, they’re
entertaining, they work, they’ll be on the DVD, but I won’t release a
director’s cut. This is the cut.