Interview with Alan Ball

If Alan Ball earns an Oscar for his American Beauty screenplay, it won't exactly be a case of beginner's luck. After making his mark as a noted New York playwright, the Georgia native broke into television as a writer for the sitcom Grace Under Fire, followed by three seasons on the writing staff of Cybill (an exasperating experience that drove Ball to write American Beauty). As the creator of the new ABC sitcom Oh Grow Up, Ball is now poised to enjoy the best of both worlds, with a potential hit series and screenplay credit on one of the year's most talked-about films.'s Jeff Shannon interviewed Alan Ball. What was the catalyst for this script?

Alan Ball: I spent four seasons as a sitcom writer on shows that were really frustrating to be a writer on. As a playwright in New York, I had been used to having this really passionate connection to my work. And you can't do that on certain sitcoms, like the ones I was on, because the work just gets rewritten and shredded until it goes in front of the camera, because that's just what the process is. You have to develop a healthy detachment from it. I longed for the chance to write something that I was deeply invested in, and that--plus my anger and rage at my working situation--just sort of channeled into American Beauty. The writing feels very cathartic. Did it come quickly?

Alan Ball: The first draft took eight months, but that's because I was working full-time as a co-executive producer on a network sitcom, so I was coming home at one in the morning and writing for two hours and going to sleep. I just got in the zone, and it seemed to have its own life and the characters seemed so real, and it was like channeling. Do you equate yourself with Lester, the anguished husband played by Kevin Spacey?

Alan Ball: I definitely equate myself with him. I'm like half Lester, half Ricky [a teenage neighbor, played by Wes Bentley]. I'm sure there are parts of me in every character, but they all exist on their own. Did the script evolve much between first draft and shooting?

Alan Ball: It evolved in details, but there were no major shifts in story or tone. In the first draft, there was a framing device of a big media trial, where the videotape of Ricky and Jane [Thora Birch] has made them guilty in the public's eye. It all led to this horribly upsetting ending where they went on trial and got convicted. When I wrote that I think it was part of my anger, just pouring out on the page. We actually shot it, and when it got into editing it was just too cynical and too awful. Because with Thora and Wes in the movie, that love story is so heartbreaking, and the trial was also at odds with the whole heart of the movie, of Lester's journey and his realization, so it just fell out. How would you describe Lester's journey and revelation?

Alan Ball: Lester's a man who in midlife has completely lost his passion about living, as do many people who have mind-numbing corporate jobs. And he knows that he needs to get back in touch with that passion, and Angela [his daughter's Lolita-like girlfriend, played by Mena Suvari] is the catalyst for that. But he thinks she's the goal and she's really just the knock on the door. At the risk of sounding incredibly lofty and pretentious, he needs to get back in touch with his spiritual connection to living. And he does, you know, right before he dies. Better then than never! You were saying that the trial scene was too cynical to keep, and yet a healthy dose of cynicism remains.

Alan Ball: I'm one of those people who is equal parts brutally cynical and achingly romantic, you know? I think those two things can coexist--it's all a question of balance. You get too cynical, it's just too nihilistic. You get too romantic, it's unrealistic. You and director Sam Mendes must have been very much on the same wavelength because that delicate balance is maintained.

Alan Ball: He got it from the very minute he read it, and I knew that he picked up on it and got it. And I am so thankful that he directed this movie and not some big A-list Hollywood guy who would have missed the boat entirely. I was very impressed with how much Sam seemed to understand the script. And then I went to New York to see Sam's production of Cabaret. And although Cabaret is very different than American Beauty, it was really obvious to me that this was a guy who had a real strong visual sense; he really understood the whole kinetic combination of visual and music. He's also someone who can get incredible performances from actors. And I just instinctively went, "This is the guy." It's been a long time since we've seen a movie featuring a married couple really going at each other's throats. Were you paying any kind of tribute to Edward Albee?

Alan Ball: If I was, it wasn't conscious. I'm a big fan of Edward Albee, and I think Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of the great American plays. But I think my state of mind was so angry when I wrote it, that basically I was venting a lot of stuff that I couldn't vent about in actuality. Ricky is a drug dealer, but of all the characters he seems to be the most levelheaded and the most sure of who he is.

Alan Ball: He's certainly the most, I think, evolved. You look at Ricky and you look at what he's grown up in, the environment of repression and brutality, and it's amazing. What is it that kept him from becoming one of those kids who goes to school with a gun and just starts shooting? Something.... His ability to see the beauty in life is what kept him from just shutting down and becoming twisted and brutal. I think everybody has that ability, and we all make choices. There's something so simple and poetic about Ricky's encounter with the plastic bag that just keeps whirling in the breeze. You're not sure what it means, but the simple beauty of it has a profound effect. How did that come about?

Alan Ball: I had an encounter with a plastic bag! And I didn't have a video camera, like Ricky does. I'm sure some people would look at that and go, "What a psycho!" But it was a very intense and very real moment. There's a Buddhist notion of the miraculous within the mundane, and I think we certainly live in a culture that encourages us not to look for that. I do like, though, that Ricky says, "Video's a poor excuse, but it helps me remember." Because it's not the video he's focused on; it's the experience itself. He's very connected to the world around him. There's obvious irony in the movie's title. Without wanting to label things too much, what do you want the title to convey?

Alan Ball: If there's any theme to this movie, it's that nothing is what it appears to be on the surface. That there is a life behind things and it's much more interesting and real than the veneer of reality that we all sort of tacitly agree to accept. And the tag line is, "...look closer."

Alan Ball: Yeah. And when you first see the title you think, "American Beauty + rose," and then you see the movie and you think that Angela's the American Beauty--the blond cheerleader that is the secretive object of lust. But it's not Angela--it's that plastic bag. It's the way of looking at the world and seeing what incredible beauty there is in the world. And I think that's something that we're born with that gets ironed out of us by our culture and by experience and by conformity. I think there's a part of everybody that yearns to get that back. The movie's final line has a real edge to it that some people aren't going to find very comforting, but at the same time it's completely consistent with everything you've just seen.

Alan Ball: Yeah, exactly. The point is that we live in a culture that goes out of its way to deny mortality. And being dead, Lester's in a prime position to make that observation.

Alan Ball: Yeah, and I think you have to have a deep and fundamental acceptance of mortality to really be able to see what's beautiful in life, because beauty and truth are inextricably connected. That's not a particularly original thought, but a lot of stuff in the script is really instinctive. I didn't think about what the purpose of it was, or that kind of thing. And now I find myself trying to second-guess what is symbolic of what, and what it means.

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