A BIG, MESSY PLACE: ALAN BALL ON “TOWELHEAD” (PART 2)

SPOILER ALERT!

Can you describe some production hurdles with regard to getting a challenging subject like this made? I’m sure the subject matter made some people squeamish…
All the studios passed. Every single studio passed. A lot of people said, “I can’t possibly make this movie. I have daughters.” I sort of felt like, well, that’s exactly why you should make this movie. But, whatever. We had to find independent financing, so there was that hurdle. There was the hurdle of casting Jasira, because it’s not like there’s a huge talent pool of Middle Eastern looking actresses who can carry a movie who are eighteen but look thirteen. The Bond Company insisted that the actors playing Thomas and Jasira both be eighteen. Then, there was the selling of the movie, and getting it into film festivals. Some festivals passed, and some people didn’t like it. Getting it to Toronto, Warner Independent bought it. After Warner Independent bought it, Warner Independent went away.

It’s been a complicated road, but I don’t think it’s been a difficult road. I have to look at the fact that this movie got made, and the fact that Summer walked in. There was the actress to play this role. I believe everything happens for a reason. I can personally feel like studios should be banking more movies like this, but they’re not gonna do it until a movie like this is successful. Look at what’s successful. “Pirates of the Caribbean.” “Lord of the Rings.” “Batman.” “Indiana Jones.” Those are the movies that have made so much money. I think it’s conservative of the studios to not try to make movies for adults, and to focus so many of their resources on making movies for teenage boys. But I can’t blame them, from an economic standpoint.

This film deals with certain mundane aspects of life, like inserting a tampon. But you don’t see them very often in the movies. You watch “Towelhead,” and say, “Oh my God – when is the last time I saw a tampon in a movie?”
You know, I have to salute Seattle, because the response to the scene when the father holds up the tampon was the most subtle. I’ve been in screenings where people are like, “Oh, my God!” I’ve had writers accuse me of putting that in the movie intentionally to shock people. I personally don’t find it shocking. I think it’s biology. We all have mothers, and wives, and sisters, and daughters, and girlfriends – I mean, hello! The majority of the people on the planet deal with this, and yet it’s considered so shocking.

Ironically, horror films have come back with a vengeance. The “Saw” franchise made a lot of money. People are inundated with images of beheadings, mutilations and gougings.
We are much more comfortable with violence than we are with sexuality, especially female sexuality. We are a patriarchal culture, and female sexuality is pretty terrifying. The fact that I go to screenings of this movie with smart, urban, educated people, and they still gasp at the site of a tampon, is hilarious to me. Hats off to Seattle for not being so squeamish. I know the movie is going to make a lot of people uncomfortable. But if I’d made a movie about a thirteen-year old girl who was kidnapped and tortured, I don’t think that anybody would bat an eye. And I think that’s really twisted.

What’s your philosophy as to why one image is considered okay, but the other is not?
Because it’s a male dominated culture, and men are terrified of feminine sexuality because it is a power that is greater than any they will ever have. Violence and competition is kind of the basis for capitalism, so I think we’re okay with that. Working together and coming together and being mutually supportive and not making yourself the most important, is considered kind of revolutionary. It goes against everything that we hold dear (laughs). Which is kind of insane, but…

You have won an Oscar for “American Beauty,” and Emmys for “Six Feet Under.” How much does that boost your confidence, and your feeling that you can take on this very controversial film that some people are going to perceive the wrong way? Does that acknowledgment play into your willingness to take on a project like this, or is that totally irrelevant?
No, it’s not irrelevant. I think that kind of validation does effect your confidence, of course. It certainly also affects the way people respond to you. You’ve been validated by this particular statue, or this particular organization, and people take what you say seriously. I developed a television show for ABC before I won the Oscar. Every single decision I made and every single idea I had was questioned, and eventually changed. Because that’s what they do. They change things. Ultimately, the show turned out to be a show that I wouldn’t even watch. After I won the Oscar, I wrote the pilot for “Six Feet Under” and took it to HBO. Granted, HBO is a different place. They actually want writers with strong points of view, and they don’t really operate the same way that the traditional broadcast networks do. Everybody was like, “Well, what do you think?” For example, they said, “Who do you want to direct this?” I said, “I want to direct it.” I think had I not won an Oscar, they would have said, “No. You don’t have any experience.” But because I won the Oscar, they were open to it.

In that sense, it certainly boosted my own confidence and gave me a sense of validation that is nice to have. At the same time, it’s ultimately just – forget me for getting a little touchy feely here – but in spiritual terms, and terms of what’s really important, it’s pretty meaningless. The work is what’s important. There was a moment where I suddenly felt like, “Oh – the next thing I do has to be a spectacular thing, again!” I pretty quickly realized, “No – do not fall into that trap. You got this statue (Oscar) and this statue (Emmy). You can look at it as, well, I’ve done that. You don’t ever have to do that again. Just do the work that you believe in, and don’t worry about the results, or how other people are going to respond to it.”

As opposed to having to one-up that, in some way…
Absolutely. It’s like those actors that start in a movie that grosses a hundred million dollars. All of a sudden, it becomes about how every movie they do after that point is gonna open. What’s the numbers on the opening weekend? They forget they’re actors. They start thinking of themselves as commodities. That’s really tragic.

It seems like it’s so easy to buy into that, too. I recall turning on my computer one morning, and reading some Internet headline next to a picture of Tom Hanks that said something like, “He’s fallen from the A List.” His last movie didn’t make as much money as previous Hanks films that shot through the stratosphere of the box-office, so the press is perceiving him as a failure.
Everybody falls from the A List. Nobody stays up there forever. Is it more important to stay at the top of the A List, or to do work that you really believe in, and care about? At a certain point, you have enough money. You don’t have to make, whatever (amount of money). That’s why I respect actors who basically just do the work that they care about and they believe in. That’s why I respect Aaron Eckhart. He plays roles where he finds the psychology of the characters, and finds out what’s human about them.

Maria Bello as well. You wouldn’t do that for the box office – some of the roles that she has taken.
And Toni (Collette), too. Especially when the majority of movies are now comic book movies targeted to teenagers. I’m very fortunate, in that I have achieved a level of success and I have some financial stability that I thought I would never, ever have. So I never have to worry about those things. That’s a luxury.

Another striking thing about this movie is the set design. The cul-de-sac was such a character in the movie. You’re not moving around. There aren’t elaborate sets in different countries, like “Mission: Impossible.” How important was that setting to the film?
I always thought that it needed to be a fairly sterile environment. Her home, her neighborhood, her school. I wanted it to all be fairly… cold. You know what I mean? Not really warm or nurturing. Kind of institutional. There was a great show at one of the big museums – I think it might have been the Museum of Modern Art, but I’m not sure – years ago, called “The Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort.” I got the catalog of that show. When I started thinking about the look of this movie, I went over all these (images) with the production designer, James Chinlund, who is really gifted. We wanted to see the electric cords coming out of the wall, and all of the vents. When we were sound mixing the movie, whenever the doors opened it was kind of like a pneumatic thing. There are these closed, air-conditioned environments that you can feel. It’s like an air lock, almost.

Very controlled…
Yeah. Very artificial, and sanitized, and cleaned up. Because that’s also something about female sexuality. Women have to be controlled, and sanitized, and shaved, and made up. It was an architectural extension of that. William Eggleston was one of the photographers we really responded to.

And then at the same time, working with Tom Sigel, the cinematographer… you know, the story has mythic elements. From a sort of Joseph Campbell viewpoint, there’s kind of a call to adventure, with the magazines. She really descends into an underworld, and is reborn at the end. Literally, when you see that baby. By having the architectural elements be very cold, we would be shooting in a way that was really warm, almost like a fairy tale. In a way, it is like a fairy tale. You look at the symbology of Little Red Riding Hood, it’s exactly the same story. So… I hope I answered your question, sort of (laughter).

You did. There was that sterility, in both the cul de sac, and the school.
The school’s like a prison. I saw that school, and was like, “Oh, that’s great!”

Some of the most influential movies of our time have been about young people in perilous situations. These are roles that are hard for people to digest. There will be people who say, “I’m a father and I’m mad that a young actress has to be put through that.” How would you respond to that?
Nobody forced her. I mean, it’s a great role. It’s one of the greatest roles that an actress could get in her entire lifetime. She was eighteen. Her mother was on the set every day. And the story we’re telling is I think really important, in trying to shed light on how these things actually happen.

And statistically, they do happen.
They happen a lot. Hello. We live in a culture where pornography is a big commodity. I bet you a lot of those girls are eighteen. I mean, open up Playboy. Those girls are like nineteen, twenty. Let’s not kid ourselves. That’s what I would say. And I would say, if you are the father of a young daughter, you talk to her, and you let her know that she can come to you with anything. And that she doesn’t need to be ashamed of her body, or afraid to talk to you about those things. That’s what you need to do. Don’t get mad at me.

Why do you think a guy like me would well up at the end of this movie? I’m still trying to work this out (laughter).
You know what? Because you are expecting her to be destroyed. You’re expecting her not to bounce back. The fact that her life is taking a big turn for the better, and that there is hope, and that she’s not destroyed by this process, is really moving. The conventional mythology is that she’s damaged goods.

But in a sense, she came out of this…
Stronger. And in control of her own body and destiny. She’s gonna be taken care of and parented by people who really know how to do it. Her whole life is ahead of her.




Posted on September 9, 2008 in Interviews by
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