Alan Ball on True Blood, American Beauty and bad 90s sitcoms

Alan Ball, the mind behind the phenomenon that was ‘American Beauty’, ‘Six Feet Under’ and, most recently, ‘True Blood’, has earned himself a reputation for being somewhat morbidly preoccupied with death.

But when Ball appeared in conversation with Alan Brough at the Wheeler Centre on Saturday evening, it wasn’t to dwell in darkness.  Despite some awkwardly-phrased questions, Ball answered everything asked of him with a dry, sarcastic sense of humour that never failed to amuse.

Compère Alan Brough managed to cover a myriad of topics over the course of the evening, ranging from Ball’s childhood in small town Georgia, his early work in theatre and sitcoms (including Cybill Sheppard’s self-promotional show fittingly titled ‘Cybill’) to his more recent works on HBO and the influences behind them.

His distaste for commercial networks is evident. “Every episode [of Cybill] would have what I like to call a ‘moment of shit’”, said Ball, “which is where the characters would hug and talk about their feelings”. Ball likened writing for the networks to being a “factory worker”. Perhaps his portrayal of a middle-aged writer struggling through a mid-life crisis in American Beauty is not so surprising then. “Although he [the character, Lester] dealt with it in a not-so-nice way,” Ball added with a laugh.

The Academy Award-winning film American Beauty was Ball’s first large-scale success. “It made a lot of people a lot of money,” Ball said, “Not me, but I’m not bitter,” he added wryly. This success, despite being undoubtedly a turning point in Ball’s career, has not changed him – at least not according to Ball. He still considers himself “an outsider” and somewhat separate from (and critical of) the Hollywood crowd in LA.

Ball went on to chat about how grateful he is to work for a network like HBO where the only note he received on his first draft of ‘Six Feet Under’ was, according to Ball, to make it “a little more fucked up”. Censorship is hardly a concern for Ball these days (and we’ve seen Eric Northman’s derriere enough times to vouch for that), which is a much-needed contrast to the commercial networks.

Alan Ball is a remarkable man to see in person and made for a fun and entertaining evening, while still providing an honest and insightful look into his career, personal life and the television industry as a whole.

And his advice for aspiring writers? “Write from the heart.”

“Now that,” he laughed, “was a moment of shit.”

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