Alan Ball Re-Emerges With Vampires, 'Towelhead' It's a big week for the creator of the death-obsessed series Six Feet Under. After several years out of the spotlight, his two major projects are emerging within a few days of each other. He discusses why both are focused on sex.
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Alan Ball Re-Emerges With Vampires, 'Towelhead'

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Alan Ball Re-Emerges With Vampires, 'Towelhead'

Alan Ball Re-Emerges With Vampires, 'Towelhead'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Back now with Day to Day, and a listener caution here, this next segment does contain language some people are going to find offensive.


Alan Ball is the creator of the critically acclaimed TV series "Six Feet Under." He also wrote the screenplay for the movie "American Beauty." He has another TV show and another movie out now. The TV show is about vampires. It's called "True Blood," and it debuts this Sunday on HBO. And the movie is called "Towelhead." It opens next week. Alan Ball is here with me in our Culver City studios. Welcome.

Mr. ALAN BALL (Producer, "True Blood," "Towelhead"): Thank you. It's great to be here.

BRAND: OK. Let's talk first about "Towelhead."


BRAND: This is about a 13-year-old girl named Jasira who is of Middle Eastern descent and she goes to live with her strict Lebanese father in Houston.

Mr. BALL: During the first Gulf war.

BRAND: During the first Gulf war. What do you say when people ask you, what is this movie about?

Mr. BALL: You know, I believe it's a real story of empowerment between being on the receiving end of racism and being on the receiving end of totally inappropriate attention by an older man. Jasira, sort of just through the sheer power of her own strength and her own spirit, she comes out on the other side of this experience really being in control of her body and her destiny for the first time. And as I've survived traumatic experience of my own, I thought that was a really, really powerful message.

BRAND: What do you mean by that?

Mr. BALL: Well, when I was a 13 years old, my sister was killed in a car accident in front of my eyes, and that certainly changed my life. What happens to Jasira with Mr. Vuoso certainly resonates with me personally - I don't want to get into the details - but it's one of the reasons that that's a thematic area in my work. And I do believe that for such a common experience, I don't think it always results in a life of being a victim.

BRAND: There is a scene in a movie where she meets her neighbor. We're going to play a little clip.

(Soundbite of movie "Towelhead")

Mr. AARON ECKHART: (As Travis Vuoso) Your father let you wear makeup? How old are you?

Ms. SUMMER BISHIL: (As Jasira Maroun) Thirteen.

Mr. ECKHART: (As Travis Vuoso) Wow, you look older.

BRAND: I think what I found interesting about your movie and your portrayal of Jasira and this older neighbor is that she really doesn't understand how she feels about him. She is attracted to him and scared, and repulsed, and drawn, and it's very complicated. And he, as well, he's not just pure evil.

Mr. BALL: Oh, no. Not at all. You know, Jasira is trapped in a very sterile life. Both her parents are raging narcissists. She is belittled by the students at school because of her ethnicity. She really has no power or no pleasure in her life. And so, the attention that he gives her makes her feel special. Obviously, she's going to go there. She doesn't have an adult perspective to realize what's going on and where it's leading up to. He, on the other hand, is very similar in a lot of ways. He is trapped in a life that is devoid of anything that makes him feel really valid or special. And his interactions with her take him back to a time where life was really exciting and the world was his oyster, so to speak. But he is an adult. He knows better.

BRAND: Where do the themes overlap with her being of foreign extraction, from the Middle East, in the middle of America? Where does that overlap with the story of child sexual abuse?

Mr. BALL: Well, I think they're both instances of objectification in a lot of ways. We're all towelheads of some sort or another to somebody else because of who we are.

BRAND: Now, the title has gotten some criticism from...

Mr. BALL: Of course. Of course.

BRAND: The Council on American-Islamic Relations, CAIR. They've come out and said please change the title. We think it's insulting. We don't like it. I know it's the title of the book you based the movie on. Did you think, hmm, maybe I should change it, or no, I am not going to?

Mr. BALL: I did change the title at the beginning because the movie was independently financed and I thought nobody's going to buy a movie called "Towelhead," even though, I think, that's the title the author chose. She herself is Arab-American. And then when Warner Independent bought the movie, they said, you have to change the title of the movie that you have right now, which was "Nothing Is Private," which is a really horrible title.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BALL: We spent days combing lists of possible titles and eventually I just thought, you know, the title of the book is "Towelhead" and the best title for this story is "Towelhead." It is offensive. It's hate language. That's the point.

(Soundbite of movie "Towelhead")

Unidentified child: Long time no see, towelhead.

Ms. BISHIL: (As Jasira Maroun) Don't call me that.

Unidentified Child: OK, Camel jockey.

Ms. BISHIL: (As Jasira Maroun) Shut up.

Unidentified child: OK, Sand (beep).

(Soundbite of hitting)

Unidentified child: Ow. You're in big trouble, towelhead.

BRAND: You're openly gay. What if there were a movie out made by someone else called "The F Word"?

Mr. BALL: Faggot.

BRAND: Hm-mm. Well, there you go. You said it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BALL: Even if I didn't like it, I would support that person's right to call that movie that. I don't think it's the word itself. It's the context in which it's used, and ultimately, we have to disempower these words anyway.

BRAND: This theme that you're talking about in "Towelhead" of disenfranchised groups of people and marginalization, this provides me of the great segue to talk about your TV series, "True Blood," which is about vampires. Talk about outsiders, the undead. Did you purposely have this theme in mind when you thought about this series?

Mr. BALL: I don't think that way. I don't think in a sort of cerebral academic way when I work. It's much more organic. When I read Charlaine Harris' novels, on which the series is based, I thought that was so entertaining and clever, and yet at the same time, it didn't feel didactic or preachy because it was vampires. You can't really take it that seriously.

BRAND: Yeah. I mean, it's really tongue-in-cheek. You have vampires going on TV asking for their rights.

(Soundbite of TV show "True Blood")

Unidentified Actress: Number one, show me documentation. It doesn't exist. Number two, doesn't your race have a history of exploitation? We never owned slaves, Bill, or detonated nuclear weapons. And most importantly, point number three, now that the Japanese have perfected synthetic blood, which satisfies all of our nutritional needs, there is no reason for anyone to fear us.

Mr. BALL: Yeah. It is tongue-in-cheek, absolutely. There is an anti-vampire church. They show up and they hold signs to say "God hates fangs." And it is tongue-in-cheek, but it's fun. It's clever.

BRAND: And it's full of sex.

Mr. BALL: It's very sexy.

BRAND: Vampires have always been a metaphor for sex, right?

Mr. BALL: Absolutely. I have discovered, since reading Charlaine's books, that there is whole market for vampire romantic fiction. And I'll admit it, there is a lot of sex and violence in this show.

BRAND: And obviously, a theme of death, which is "Six Feet Under," all taking place in a funeral home.

Mr. BALL: Yes, sex and death.

BRAND: Sex and death, two great themes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: In the American novel and elsewhere.

Mr. BALL: Absolutely. Yeah.

BRAND: All right. Well, Alan Ball, thank you very much.

Mr. BALL: My pleasure. Thank you.

BRAND: Alan Ball is the creator of "True Blood." It's a series on HBO which debuts this Sunday. He is also the director of the new film, "Towelhead." It opens next week.

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