Alan Ball realizes he's been extremely fortunate. After all, most writers, especially those having their first film script produced, are not able to participate in the project once their screenplay has been optioned. Ball is one of those rare exceptions. As the Oscar-nominated writer of American Beauty, he not only retained his rights over his script; he was given co-producing credit on the film. He was invited to sit in on the casting sessions with director Sam Mendes. He was welcome on the set every day of the shoot, and he was allowed into the editing room.
This was not a beautiful accident, but rather a calculated move on Ball's part. He made sure that whoever produced American Beauty (which was not his first feature screenplay, but his first produced script), would allow him to be involved in the filmmaking process. Thankfully, DreamWorks agreed and, according to Ball, his relationship with Mendes and producers Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks could not have been better.
While feature filmmaking was a new venture for Ball, he had already worked for four years in the television arena, where he was the creator, head writer, and executive producer of the half-hour ABC comedy series Oh Grow Up, which debuted last fall but was pulled prematurely by the network. Previously, he wrote for the hit series Cybill for three seasons, eventually becoming co-executive producer. He first made his name in television when he was offered a job writing on Grace Under Fire after producing partners Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey read one of his plays.
Prior to moving to Hollywood to work on Grace Under Fire, Ball was a noted comedic playwright in New York. Among his credits are Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, which premiered in 1993 at Manhattan Class Company starring Thomas Gibson, Ally Walker, and Allison Janney; The M Word, which premiered at the inaugural Lucille Ball Festival of New American Comedy in 1991, Made For a Woman, Bachelor Holiday, The Amazing Adventures of Tense Guy, Your Mother's Butt, Power Lunch, and The Two Mrs. Trumps. He was also a founding member of Alarm Dog Rep, where he wrote, acted, and directed a variety of revues and plays.
Back Stage West: Tell me how American Beauty got off the ground.
Alan Ball: I wrote the script on spec. I had actually switched agencies because I wanted a career in features as well as television, and I felt like where I was before they just sort of paid lip service to that, but were basically keeping an eye on my TV commission. So I switched agencies and my new agent said, "You need to write a new script, because these other scripts of yours are out there, everyone has read them, and I need something to reintroduce you to the film community."
So I wrote American Beauty and he put together a very targeted list of producers who had deals at studios, and there were several people interested and a lot of people passed. A lot of producers loved it, and then they took it to whatever studio they had a deal with and that studio passed, but it ended up at DreamWorks.
BSW: Where did the idea for the script come from? Were you living with these characters in your head for a long time?
Ball: Yeah. I had known these characters and their world for a while. I had tried to write it as a play when I was living in New York six or seven years ago and it just hadn't worked. I can't really pinpoint exactly where it came from. My process is a little less conscious than that. I know that there are certain things that interested me, but I'm not sure where it came from.
BSW: Did you have a mental picture of any actors in mind to play the characters?
Ball: No. When I write, the characters seem real enough to me that I don't have actors in mind, because if you have actors in mind you start writing specifically toward their rhythms and their mannerisms. For me, if the slate is just clean, it's much more fun to discover a character that way.
BSW: Once the project got greenlit by DreamWorks, were you involved in the casting process at all?
Ball: I sat in on all the auditions and I certainly voiced my opinion, and luckily Sam and I seemed to be exactly on the same page in just about every instance. We both come out of theatre, so I think we look for different things than directors or writers who have had no experience working in theatre. But I don't fool myself for a minute that had I been diametrically opposed to Sam's and the producers' casting choices that they wouldn't have outvoted me. [Fortunately], Sam and I have very much the same tastes in actors, I think.
BSW: When you saw the finished film for the first time, what raced through your mind?
Ball: Well, it was really interesting, because I had been on the set every day. You see the film for the first time and each time you see the scene it brings back your experience. You know what I mean? And so it was kind of weird and disjointed and I was going, Oh, that's the day that my car wouldn't start. That's the day I spilled my Starbucks on my fancy new suede jacket and was really upset. So it was kind of weirdly disjointed. But then the second time I saw it, I started to really see what it had become and I was very, very happy.
BSW: What did you think of the young actors in the film? I'm speaking specifically of Wes Bentley, Thora Birch, and Mena Suvari, who I think all had great challenges in this film.
Ball: I loved them. I think all three of them are so good. I wanted to write teenage characters who were flesh and blood and who weren't necessarily concerned about being popular. So many of the teenage characters you see in film and TV, I think, are so condescending to teenagers, because it's usually about such trivial matters, like, Am I going to be prom queen?, and stuff like that. I really don't think most teenagers are that concerned about it. That's sort of a 1950s mentality, that people who write about teenagers, who actually don't know real teenagers, seem to be concerned with.
I felt like these characters [in American Beauty] were just as vital to the story as the adult characters. They just happened to be 16 and 17 years old. And I thought the actors were really wonderful in just bringing them to life in a way that, I think, you rarely see in movies, because of the way most movies are written. Movies about teenagers are specifically put together by people who are marketing towards a teenage audience-the key word being marketing-and I don't think most of those movies really treat these characters with any dignity.
BSW: I think that applies also to the adult characters in your film. There is a sense of dignity to all of them.
Ball: Well, I try not to judge my characters when I write them and I have to feel a certain level of compassion and affection for them. I mean, when characters do despicable things, I think as a writer and as a performer who is bringing that character to life, you have to find out what about them made them that way. What is motivating them? Why are they doing that? And usually it's from a place of pain. I think so many villains in movies and characters who are not clear-cut heroes are just plot devices, and you can see that and you end up not caring about them and then it just becomes a cartoon. Whereas I like movies, books, television-anything-where characters have a little more depth, there's a little more understanding, and there's a little more compassion toward them as human beings, on the part of the writer and the director and the actors.
BSW: American Beauty seems to have hit a nerve in our culture. Have you been overwhelmed by the response the film has had?
Ball: I'm very surprised by it. I knew the movie would be good when I was watching it being made because I saw the performances and I could see the shots on the monitor, and I just knew that not only would it be very true to the original intent of my script, but that it would also transcend that because of the talent and skills of the people involved. How people would respond to it? I didn't know and I couldn't be happier or more gratified that it does seem to strike a nerve.
BSW: The film has not lost its momentum since its release. Could this experience have been any better for you, especially since it was your first experience on a feature?
Ball: Nope. I'm very aware that this is the experience that screenwriters dream about, and now I'm kind of nervous about what kinds of experiences I'll have after this, because I wonder if anything will equal it.
BSW: Do you know what's next for you?
Ball: Yes. I'm writing a spec screenplay and there is another project around town that was brought to me by an actor that I'm really interested in. So I'm continuing to take meetings on that. And I wrote a pilot for HBO that I want to direct.
BSW: What have you found to be the key difference between writing for film, compared to writing for television?
Ball: The note I got from HBO after they read my pilot was basically, "Can it be a little more fucked up? Can it be a little messier?" And I just looked up at the ceiling and said, Thank you, God! Because the notes you usually get from the network are, "Um, can they be better at their jobs?" "Can they be more likeable?" "They're so mean to each other! Can't we see them really pulling together and supporting each other?"
Also, I feel like, at this point in time, the networks are not willing to give new shows the time to find themselves. A series is not like a movie or a play. A series is so collaborative and it takes so many people involved to create an episode every week. It takes a good half a season for a series to really start to find its voice and to hit its stride, but because the networks are so running scared, they are not willing to give a series the time to do that. So many great classic series of American television, like Seinfeld and Cheers, which did not do well their first season, wouldn't survive in today's landscape.
The networks seem to be run by committee, and as corporations are gobbling up the networks I think the creative content of the networks are being dictated by people who are not creative. They're marketers, and that shows, and because they seem unwilling to take chances-because there's so much money at stake and it's so competitive and they're so afraid-you tend to get more and more of the same old same old. If a show doesn't become a ratings hit its first time out of the gate, then they all look at it and they go, "Well, this obviously isn't working. Let's fix it." And then you've got 19 people who have to justify their salaries giving you notes.
I had a show on the air last fall [Oh Grow Up] that didn't make it, and if you're running the show, you're trying to do everything you can to keep [the network executives] happy and to keep the show on the air. But, if you follow their notes, I feel like the shows tend to become homogenized, because they just don't know what they're doing! [Laughs.] I think when network shows become really interesting and really good it's sort of by accident.
BSW: Despite any frustrations you had, was your time spent working in network TV invaluable to you?
Ball: Absolutely. It taught me so much. I had a really great writing staff [on Oh Grow Up]. I loved the cast of the show. They were all actors, as opposed to stars. I had worked on TV shows that were built around stars before, and that's something that I really feel like I don't ever want to do again. I've spent my time in that particular gulag. When you write something and then an actor says to you, "Well, I would never say that," it's just infuriating. You just want to go, "Yeah, well you know what? This isn't about you! This is about this character and your job is to portray this character."
Real actors can look at a character and see a character doing things they would never do, and go, Oh boy! This is going to be fun.
BSW: That's really the beauty of acting, isn't it?
Ball: Yeah, whereas a star will look at something, and if it doesn't present them as they think they ought to be presented to the world-because they're basically looking at the show as PR for their lives-then they want to change everything to be exactly who they are and what they would do in that situation. That's such bald narcissism. I spent four years working on TV shows that were built around very narcissistic women, and it was infuriating.
BSW: And then there are people like Annette Bening and Kevin Spacey, who play very complex, flawed characters in American Beauty, and they obviously embraced their characters.
Ball: They totally embraced them. Well, they're both actors. They come out of the theatre. They're used to portraying people who are not themselves, and even though they've both become stars, they've retained that. They just love acting. They don't necessarily want to be themselves every time they're on screen, and I think that, to me, is the definition of a true actor, and that's really the only kind of person I ever want to work with.
BSW: I want to return to our discussion about how you were fortunate enough to be involved, from beginning to end, with the making of American Beauty. It's so rare for a screenwriter, who is not also the director, to be allowed to have so much to do with the making of a film. How did you retain your involvement?
Ball: I told my agent that I didn't want to sell the script to the highest bidder. I wanted to sell it to some place that would actually make the movie-that wouldn't put it in development and just strip it of everything that was interesting about it. And I told [my agent] that I wanted to be a part of it because I didn't know anything about filmmaking. I had never been involved in a motion picture shoot and I want to direct. So I needed to learn that, and when I told him that, he suggested that I meet with everybody who was interested in purchasing the script, and I did. I told [American Beauty's producers] Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen this and I told DreamWorks this, and they said, "We promise you we'll let you do that."
BSW: It's rare for a writer to get that promise and rarer for a company to keep that promise.
Ball: It's totally rare. Usually, you sell a script and then somebody else rewrites it and they turn it into something different.
BSW: What about your ambition to direct? Is this close to happening?
Ball: Yeah. If a deal is made with HBO, then yes. I mean, they want to produce the pilot and I said, "Well, I want to direct it," and they said, "OK," but it's not a done deal. There are negotiations going on between the production company that I have my TV development deal with and HBO, and once they hammer out a deal, I think it will happen. They've basically said to me, "We're fine with you directing."
BSW: Do you have experience directing theatre?
BSW: How long were you working in that medium?
Ball: That's what I studied in college. I studied acting, mostly. I finished college around 1981 and then I started basically just producing my own work in basements and bars and stuff like that in Sarasota, Florida, and New York. That was from '81 through '93-so 12 years-and I was writing and producing my own work in college, too.
I started writing because I wasn't getting cast; I started writing shows for myself and my friends to be in, and I very quickly realized that my skills as a writer far outweighed my skills as an actor. Then, especially once I got out of college, I realized I'm not cut out for the actor's life. That kind of constant rejection depresses me too much.
And, in a way, I still act, because I play all these characters in my head when I'm writing.
BSW: What do you love about writing?
Ball: It teaches me about what I really believe I'm not really conscious about. I can't imagine doing anything else. I think it comes closer than anything to being my spiritual discipline. It's my outlet. I mean, I wrote a play when I was eight years old. So I kind of think that maybe it's what I'm supposed to be doing. BSW