This month, screenwriter and director Alan Ball emerged from a three-year hiatus following the season finale of Six Feet Under with two wildly different projects: HBO’s buzzy vampire soap True Blood and Towelhead, an indie film about a young Pakistani-American girl struggling with her sexuality and an overly touchy neighbor. Neither project has found massive acclaim just yet, but Ball doesn’t seem concerned. He spoke to Vulture about vampires, pedophiles, death, sex, and why it’s really not his problem if you’re not a fan of his work.
So, what’s appealing about vampires as characters?
People are also drawn to the idea of immortality. The idea of only being out at night so you can give rein to your darker, primal, carnal impulses. And I suppose we all know people who suck the life out of us. I don’t really know what it is about vampires that makes them such a powerful symbol, metaphor, whatever in people’s consciousness. But I do know they’re tremendously powerful. I mean, there’s a vampire on Sesame Street. And Count Chocula. I don’t know why it’s so powerful. As a culture we are not comfortable with mortality. We do not accept it the way other cultures do. We cling to youth, and we don’t want to die. It’s like, well, too bad, we do.
You seem to want to beat that into people’s heads.
When I was 13, my sister died in front of me, and it was very much … suddenly the presence of death was in my face, and, you know, that very much transformed me. In that one moment, life was separated into life before and life after.
What happened to her?
Car accident, and I was in the car. So I think I probably have a closer relationship to death than I would have had had that not happened. And it certainly informed my consciousness, my life, and therefore my work.
What about all the in-your-face sexuality? You seem to confront it in a very head-on way, especially in Towelhead.
You know, I’m gay and I grew up being aware of that at a very early age, in a fairly repressed family. No one in my family was ever naked in front of anybody else. And I think, certainly at that time — I was born in 1957 — there weren’t a lot of … I wouldn’t even say positive gay role models … there weren’t any gay role models at all. I mean, anybody that you saw who was seemingly gay on TV or in the movies was a villain — a creepy, queeny, crazy person who spread destruction. Like Dr. Smith on Lost in Space. And I think that’s probably why I was drawn to Towelhead. Because I know what it’s like to be struggling with these feelings and have these desires for sexual contact and at the same time feel, I shouldn’t be having these desires. It’s wrong for me to feel this way. And it has to be kept a secret.
Aaron Eckhart’s role is hard to watch. Did that take any convincing?
It’s a great role, and I think he saw that, but he was scared. He said, “I don’t want to play a pedophile.” And I said, “Well, at the beginning of this movie at least, I don’t think this guy is a pedophile.” He’s never had this experience. What’s interesting is where this comes from and how it happens. I don’t want him to be a guy who hangs around elementary schools. But he does commit a crime. He commits a legal, moral, ethical crime. What is it that will lead a person to do that? Because I don’t think people set out and say “I’m going to do something really bad. I’m going to spread evil through the world. That’s what I want to do. I don’t think it’s that simple.” When they put together the trailer, they certainly focused on the humor, but the other stuff is in there. I fought for that, because I didn’t want people thinking it was, you know, Superbad.
Did you feel more pressure when you were working on True Blood? HBO as a network hasn’t been doing that well.
I don’t mean to sound cavalier, but that’s HBO’s problem. My philosophy is, do the best work I can do and stay out of the results. Even if the show doesn’t find an audience, I did my job. Not everything is going to be successful. To strive for that is really naïve. You just do the best you can do.
Did you watch other vampire movies to prep?
I did. But watching all those movies, I learned a lot of things I didn’t want to do. I wanted to stay away from opera music. I wanted to stay away from crazy contact lenses when the fangs come out, because it’s like, “Why? Why is that necessary?” And I wanted to stay away from that sort of industrial, hyperblue light that pretty much every horror movie made since the late seventies has. Blade, Underworld, all those movies. I just wanted to let them be. I didn’t want them to necessarily look like bikers or leather people or goths. I just wanted them to look like people. Because in the world of Charlaine’s books, vampires are like humans. There’s a lot of diversity.
Anything special-effects-wise you’re particularly proud of?
I think we have to be very careful about special effects. We’re a TV show. We don’t have the time or the budget. I feel it’s very important to just suggest something or see the very beginning or end of something. I go back to those vampire movies when their fangs come out and they’ve got those weird contact lenses and their foreheads bulge out. Do you know how long that takes to apply to an actor? And do you know how many pages you have to shoot a day when you’re shooting television? Just give them fangs and let them act. With special effects, less is more.