(Summer Bishil and director Alan Ball on the set of Towelhead. Photo: Dale Robinette)
By Tamara Palmer
When we meet at the Ritz Carlton San Francisco, the Academy-Award winning screenwriter Alan Ball smiles and says, “I’ve been on seven planes in the last 10 days!”
His easygoing attitude makes clear that it’s more of a novelty than a chore that’s wearing him down as Ball, most famous for writing American Beauty and Six Feet Under, simultaneously takes on the launch of two new projects he's directing: The vampire series True Blood, which premiered on HBO on Sunday night, and the coming-of-age film Towelhead, which opens in San Francisco on September 19 at the Embarcadero and Sundance Kabuki theaters.
“It’s exciting and fun,” he says. “I can’t stress out too much about one or the other because my attention is being split. I’m glad they’re both happening at the same time so then it’ll just be all out of the way.”
True Blood is based on Charlaine Harris' Dead Until Dark, part of her Southern Vampire series of eight novels which Ball notes is his first real exposure to the modern genre, having never read an Anne Rice novel or watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While not at all for the squeamish, the program does nonetheless have an undercurrent that should appeal to female viewers.
"It's kind of like a roller-coaster, like a Saturday afternoon matinée serial," he explains. "It's a big soap opera. But it's definitely a bloody show."
Towelhead evokes comparisons to other uncomfortable films about teens dealing with an often harsh and fast world, from Welcome to the Dollhouse to Thirteen and Kids. But what sets this film apart is the unwillingness to exploit the main character Jasira, 13, under Ball's sensitive direction through what could be a minefield of bad taste.
The film hasn’t been without controversy, though. The Greater Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic relations recently called for a change of the title, opposing what they consider a “mainstreaming of a bigoted term.”
“Alicia Erian, who wrote the novel, she chose that word for a specific reason,” Ball says of the decision not to change it. “One of the central themes of the film and novel is racism. It’s about what it feels like to be called a name like that. Once Warner Independent bought the movie, we screened it for the Muslim Public Affairs Council in November and had a dialogue and they were fine, and nobody has objected to Alicia’s book title in the three years since it’s been on the market.
"I understand that it is a very offensive word, but that is kind of the point. I feel like to say that you can't use this word in any context only helps make the word be more powerful than it should ever be and also helps to create the illusion that we've progressed beyond racism. And I think we all know that's not the case."
Hardcore fans of Six Feet Under will also notice familiar faces big and small, from the brilliant Peter Macdissi (who plays Jasira's father Rifat and was Olivier on SFU) to a brief cameo by Chris Messina as Jasira's mother's hick of a boyfriend; he played Claire's conservative boyfriend Ted on SFU. Ball also says that several players in Towelhead also turn up on True Blood. No word on whether they play the living or dead.