When Alan Ball sat down to write his new film Uncle Frank, it was like nothing else he’d ever done before. On the surface, he’s managed a stellar career that’s seen him win an Oscar for scripting suburban-set black comedy American Beauty and create touchstone shows like Six Feet Under and sexy vampire yarn True Blood, making him one of the most successful showrunners – alongside Glee’s Ryan Murphy – in contemporary television.
Movies have been a more difficult prospect, though. In 2007, he directed Towelhead, which told of an Arab-American girl’s sexual awakening and was “not well received” – with many critics objecting to the wayward comic tone. “The movies I want to make are about people dealing with people problems,” he says over the phone from his home in LA. “They’re not about superheroes. They’re not about crazy, outlandish, fantastic things. They’re certainly not movies that would fill a multiplex, even if they did get made.”
The touching and tender Uncle Frank is easily the most personal work of the 63-year-old’s career. It stars British actor Paul Bettany as a gay man returning home for his father’s funeral, his sexuality still a secret from his South Carolina family. “It’s not autobiographical because I’m not Frank,” says Ball, though he’s gay and grew up in Marietta, Georgia. “Certainly, the family members [in the film] are not based on anyone in my family. But the whole dynamic, that whole sort of Southern milieu, I’m very familiar with.”
Whatever Ball says, there was a personal root in the story. “When I was 33 years old, I was living in New York at the time, and I flew home to Georgia to come out of the closet to my mother. And when I did, she surprised me by saying, ‘Well, I blame your father because I think he was that way too.’ He was dead at the time. So I couldn’t have a conversation with him. And I don’t even know if that’s true. Or if it’s just a suspicion she had. But that sort of knocked my socks off.”
Even more shocking were his mother’s further revelations the next day when, on their way to visit relatives, they drove past a lake. “And she very nonchalantly said, ‘That’s where Sam Lassiter drowned.’ And I’d never heard of Sam Lassiter. So I said, ‘Well, who’s that?’ And she said, ‘He was a real, real, real good friend of your daddy’s.’” Lassiter had died when both were youngsters working in a summer camp. “And apparently, my dad had accompanied Sam’s body on a train back to their hometown.”
If it all sounds very melodramatic, Ball is all too aware. “My inner Tennessee Williams just grabbed onto that and ran with it,” he says, laughing. “And I thought about it for years and years and years: what if, what if that were true? What must it have been like to be gay at that time when it just wasn’t really an option? You couldn’t be yourself and still be a part of the world. And so I guess it just percolated for a few years. And then one day I sat down there to write it.”
Without venturing too much into spoiler territory, Ball lifts that story for Uncle Frank, a film that also deals pertinently with guilt and grief and the way it can fester inside a person. Again – for a story that Ball claims isn’t autobiographical – he more than understands such emotions. When he was 13, he was in the car with his older sister Mary Ann, who was driving. She turned a blind corner and was hit by an oncoming vehicle. She was killed instantly.
“That’s always been a thing that I’ve felt. That’s always been a trauma that I’ve sort of carried with me. And even though it doesn’t make any sense, logically, I blame… I went through a big portion of my life where I blamed myself because she was driving me to my piano lesson when it happened. So certainly, confronting a huge trauma and survivor’s guilt is something I’m very familiar with and how one carries that through life and how one makes peace with that and how one ultimately has to forgive oneself.”
Certainly, the spectre of death looms over Ball’s work – notably, with Six Feet Under, one of the first prestige TV dramas of the 21st century, set around a Los Angeles funeral home – though it’d be harsh to call him mawkish. Unless, of course, you’re looking at that meme-friendly scene in American Beauty, which set out to skewer suburban values and ended up being lampooned for the moment where Wes Bentley’s character finds joy and meaning in a white plastic bag skipping about in the wind.
After graduating from Florida State University with a degree in the arts in 1980, Ball broke into the entertainment industry working on sitcoms Grace Under Fire and Cybill. But it was American Beauty – a spec script he wrote – that changed his career, when it found its way to British theatre director Sam Mendes, who made his big-screen debut with the film. The film won five Oscars, including one for Kevin Spacey, who played the disenchanted suburbanite, Lester Burnham.
Since then, Spacey has fallen spectacularly from grace, as the rise of the #MeToo movement coincided with allegations about his predatory behaviour both on and off sets. So how does Ball feel about American Beauty now? “I feel really sad because of what happened with Kevin had sort of left its mark on it,” he says. “Especially since the character he played in the movie is somebody who’s lusting after a 17-year old girl.” He ponders this for a second. “I wonder if that movie would get made now.”
What does Ball make of the state of cinema in 2020? The doom-and-gloom prophecies after a year of movie houses shuttered has made the situation look bleak.
“Well, whenever we find a way out of the pandemic, I think people will go to movies, but I’m afraid that the only movies that are going to be shown in theatres are going to be huge tentpole movies, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you find places like Disney buying up all the movie chains to show their product.”
Would he consider returning to television, a more comfortable home for “difficult” drama? “I sort of feel like I’ve done my time [show]running. I wouldn’t mind doing a limited TV series, but to sign on to something for five or six years – I don’t feel like I have it in me right now.” Now in his sixties, he sounds a little worn out by showbiz, or at least the hoops you’re required to jump through. “In my 20 years in the business things have changed so drastically. And I can only imagine that they’ll continue to change drastically.”
Ball is clearly conscious of how difficult it is now to make a show that taps the zeitgeist – or even simply makes it to a second season before something else snaps at its heels. “You look at the streaming platforms. And there’s great stuff being made for the streamers and great movies being made for streamers as well. But it just feels like there’s such a glut of product. Content – this is probably the word that people would want to use. It’s overwhelming. How does anything break out of that?”
He’s twice seen his shows – True Blood and Six Feet Under – rise to become genuine phenomena. But he’s also been on the other side of TV’s Russian roulette. His 2018 show Here and Now with Tim Robbins “really tanked” and was cancelled by HBO after one season. “You never know what’s gonna work. You can get all the right elements in and it just doesn’t gel or… is it exactly the right time? But that’s certainly not something that I think you can control. And that’s one thing that drives the people who run the business crazy, because they really want there to be a formula.”
He certainly hopes that Uncle Frank will connect to viewers, pointing out that he’s been told by the marketing gurus at Amazon Prime, where the film will stream, that this is a movie that will heal divided families. “I hope that happens but I certainly never thought this is a movie that’s going to bring people together. I just thought this is a story that breaks my heart and at the same time, feels hopeful. Which is, I guess, a place where, especially in America, we’re all living right now.”
He’s already got three screenplays he’d love to make, as well as a limited TV series and – despite what he said earlier about “not wanting to get back into series television” – a pilot for a TV show he’s written on spec. “I’m not the biggest fan of development. It’s just something that has never worked for me. But we’ll see. I have no idea what’s going to happen. And these days you just have to live with a sense of uncertainty. That’s where I am in my career, as well.”
Uncle Frank is available on Amazon Prime from 25 November