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Dry Humor

Many theatre actors have performed his plays, including Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, at one time or another. He won an Oscar for scripting American Beauty, and he created the seminal HBO series Six Feet Under. Now Alan Ball makes his feature directorial debut with Towelhead, a film about a 13-year-old half-Lebanese girl's coming of age.

Back Stage: When Towelhead premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year, it raised considerable controversy. Fox News' Roger Friedman called it "odious" and "unacceptable." Were you surprised by the reaction?

Alan Ball: No. And I wasn't surprised someone working for Fox didn't care for it. What did surprise me was how many facts he got wrong. I'm fine with people not liking the movie. I know this is not a film for everyone.

Back Stage: The film is based on the book Towelhead, by Alicia Erian. But at Toronto, it had the more generic title of Nothing Is Private. Why the change back?

Ball: Well, the main reason we changed the title at the beginning is we were scared. We tried to come up with a different title that worked. When Warner Independent acquired it, they asked why we didn't call it Towelhead. I said, "Oh, I just assumed nobody would ever release a movie called Towelhead. But great!" I knew it would be controversial, but it didn't seem right to back away.

Back Stage: As with all your work, the film finds humor in the darkest places. Did you set out to use levity to balance some of the darker moments?

Ball: When I read the book I thought it was hilarious. And harrowing, and heartbreaking. But you know, this movie was really hard to make. We were basically told no, no, no every step along the way. So by the time we actually started shooting, I think I had forgotten how funny it was, because the material is so tough. But everyone in the cast wanted to be a part of it for the story. They weren't doing it for the payday, believe me; it was a true labor of love. So we had fun. It's a hard thing to say about a movie with this subject matter, but it was an enjoyable experience. It wasn't hard on the psyche.

Back Stage: What can you tell us about your new HBO series, True Blood?

Ball: It's another adaptation of a series of books that I found really entertaining. It's set in a world where vampires can come out of the coffin because the Japanese have developed a synthetic blood for medical purposes that satisfies them, so they've organized and hired lobbyists to assimilate into mainstream society for rights and privileges. Meanwhile, vampire blood is the hottest sex drug on the market. There's also a crazy fundamentalist church who hates vampires. In the middle of it is this telepathic waitress who meets a vampire and can't hear his thoughts, and for the first time she can relax. It's a combination of romance novel, amusement-park ride, and social commentary with a lot of sex and violence.

Back Stage: Is that the pitch you took to HBO?

Ball: No, I actually had them read the books, and I said to them [affects mock intellectual tone], "It's about the terrors of intimacy!"

Back Stage: How do you stay sane in a business that can be very tough on the psyche?

Ball: I travel. And sometimes I sit at my computer and play mindless video games. I try to read a lot; I try to get away from the industry. I take my work very seriously but try not to take myself too seriously. There used to be a time when I would Google myself and troll the Internet. Those days have changed because there's a lot of people out there who don't like the work that I do, and they're very vocal about it.

Back Stage: Because you're so involved in the casting process, is there anything you would want an actor to know if they're fortunate enough to audition for you?

Ball: Never think that your character is cool. Even if the character's name is "Cool Guy," don't try to be cool, because it comes off as smug. The main thing is use your technique. Make the scenes work; make them mean something to you emotionally. The worst that can happen is you don't get the job. But at least you brought who you are to it and didn't go in there and try to do something you thought someone else wanted.

Reach the author at jriley@backstage.com.

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