Writer-director Alan Ball smiles for the camera.  He has two projects this month - one on the big screen , the other on the small screen -- "Towelhead" and "True Blood", respectively.  (Photo: Omar P.L. Moore/

A Film With An Unspeakably Spoken Name Is Alan Ball's Latest Game
With "Towelhead", the Academy Award-winning screenwriter debuts as a feature film director AND juggles television vampires in one fell Fall swoop

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel
September 2, 2008


Outside, on the Friday afternoon before Labor Day it is sunny.  Inside, at the plush hotel here, a distinguished gentleman introduces himself.  Alan Ball, at your service -- hardly a butler by any stretch of the imagination, but for a journalist the director is serviceable in the sense that he is willing to entertain any question.  No hiding the ball here.  Somewhat unprompted, Mr. Ball will mention a deeply personal episode in his life -- an "inappropriate interaction" with an older man when the director was an under-aged boy -- in response to a question pertaining to his feature film directing debut, "Towelhead", on the surface an ugly, racist title, but one based on the novel of the same name, written by Alicia Erian.

Alan Ball, whose Academy Award for original screenplay ("American Beauty") in 2000 propelled him into writing and directing all seven seasons of the highly-acclaimed and popular HBO cable television dramedy "Six Feet Under" has been a busy man over the last year or two, and the fruits of his labor will be displayed for audiences in America this month, with the horror satire "True Blood" debuting on HBO on September 7 and "Towelhead" arriving in Los Angeles and New York City in select theaters on September 12 before expanding to San Francisco, Boston and Chicago on September 19, with the rest of the U.S. getting a chance to see Mr. Ball's celluloid handiwork on September 26.

One reason for the film's title, the Georgia-born Mr. Ball revealed, was that the film's original title, "Nothing Is Private", just didn't work.  "The one thing you could count on is that in audience test screening responses was, "what a terrible title."  Warner Independent Pictures, which earlier this year was annexed by its parent company Time Warner in drastic cost-cutting measures, told the director and producers after the film's introduction at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival last September that a title change was imperative.  "We hired a company to come up with pages and pages and pages of titles and it just became clear that 'Towelhead' was the best title for this story.  One of the themes of this story is racism and what is it like to be on the receiving end of a vicious, hateful word like 'towelhead'.  And what is it like to be objectified as being an idea of one's ethnicity or cultural identity instead of a human being?  And Alicia did such a great job with that in the book that I just decided that . . . there's really no other title for this movie that's gonna work."

The title of the film, "Towelhead", which stars Summer Bishil (in her feature film lead role debut), Aaron Eckhart, Peter Macdissi, Eugene Jones, Maria Bello and Toni Collette, has been at heart of protests by several Muslim groups.  From very early on when the film's new title was virtually set in stone, the filmmakers and the studio wanted to put out any brush fires surrounding it, aiming to gauge the response of the communities which might have some concerns.  To that end, "Towelhead" was screened for the Muslim Public Affairs Council last November -- even though, Mr. Ball said, no Muslim characters appeared in the film (or Ms. Erian's book).  "And they saw the context in which the title was placed, and they approved of it."  The film was re-launched for the public in January 2008 at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, at America's foremost festival for independent film.

"I do understand," Mr. Ball said, "that it's an ugly word.  I understand that it's offensive.  That's kind of the point."

Mr. Ball made it clear that he was not trying to offend but was glad for two things: that dialogue around race, racism and bigotry was effectuated and that freedom to articulate such words was occurring.  "I feel like that the insistence that words like this cannot be used in any context whatsoever only gives these words more power than they should ever have and it also helps to create the illusion that we've moved past the racism and the bigotry that these kind of words represent which we all know is not true."

In late 2003 Warner Brothers had been criticized for its insensitivity to some in the Asian community, specifically the Japanese, at previews and premiere screenings of "The Last Samurai" when costumed Japanese women were treated in an offensive way according to some.  With "Towelhead", the independent arm of the Warner Brothers studio invited the Council on American-Islamic Relations to make a statement on the film's official website.  A panel discussion featured members from several Muslim community groups  and one or two actors from the film, which is also on the website.  In a few days time, Mr. Ball and Ms. Erian will be participating in a roundtable discussion with similar groups in New York City, prior to the film's opening there.

"I just feel like this kind of dialogue is so healthy, and while I understand the concerns and I do understand the motivation behind the protests, I don't think censorship is the answer," Mr. Ball said.

Alan Ball directs Summer Bishil on the set of "Towelhead".  (Photo: Warner Independent Pictures)

The film holds nothing back in its depiction of a Texas town and its reaction to a 13-year-old girl born in the U.S. to a Lebanese father and a white mother.  Besides the controversy surrounding the title, there are a number of instances involving minors that to any rational observer would qualify as rape.  In the small Texas town, 13-year-old Jasira (played by Summer Bishil) is the object of everyone's ire and desire.  Ms. Bishil was still 17 when the production began, but time -- about two weeks -- eased the nervousness of the producers, as the actress, who was born in Pasadena, California, turned 18. 
As with any film adapted from literature, Mr. Ball lamented wielding the writing cudgel, paring down the substance of one or two key characters of Ms. Erian's book, making for a "simpler story".  At the same time however, he sung the praises of the author, whose tome he recommended highly as a must-read.

The outspoken gay director took a deeper look at Ms. Erian's characters and his adapted editions of them.  When asked whether Mr. Ball, 51, had a metaphorical or personal connection to the teenage girl virgin characters he scripted in "Towelhead" and "American Beauty", the director responded in this way:

"I think these characters to me are very -- are innocent, you know, they're symbols of innocence.  They're symbols of inexperience and -- childhood . . . certainly I think the older man interaction with the younger girl (in "Towelhead") in a slightly skewed way I can relate to because when I was a child I had an inappropriate interaction with an older man who wasn't -- I wasn't raped (he then refers to an incident involving one of the film's characters) . . . but I do understand that children are curious sexually and children are capable of feeling pleasure, sexual pleasure, and that that can get kids into trouble especially when there's no proper guidance or role models or information about sexuality.  And that it's very easy to appreciate inappropriate attention because it makes you feel special and it doesn't necessarily feel bad.  You know what I mean? 

"And I also understand that it doesn't fall into that category that we might -- you know there's a mythology that as a culture we've built up around this issue, which is innocent child -- which is victimized -- which will always be a victim of this horrible thing.  No curiosity, no pleasure.  And on the other hand you have this creature which is so evil, it's like the worst thing you can do.  Subhuman, you know.  And unfortunately, it's just not that simple.  That's not to say in any way that I condone this . . . because as an adult you know better.  As an adult you make the choice to go there.  You have committed a crime, you know?  A legal crime, a moral crime, a spiritual crime . . . but at the same time you cannot judge the child by the same standards that you judge the adult because you just can't.  They don't have the information.  They don't have the perspective.  You know, I was at a screening last night (Thursday Aug. 28) and a man in the audience felt like Jasira was somehow responsible for what happened to her -- and that's the whole sort of blame-the-victim mentality that a lot of people use.  You know, it's like, 'if that woman didn't want to get raped she wouldn't have worn that miniskirt.'  That's insane.  As if men don't have the ability -- as if we're only animals -- we don't have the spiritual and physical ability to control ourselves."

True Blood
Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer in Alan Ball's "True Blood", a sexy horror satire that the director describes in interviews as "popcorn for smart people".  "True Blood" premieres on HBO cable television on Sunday, September 7.  (Photo: Home Box Office)

Must-see television also comes from Mr. Ball this month with "True Blood", which he is very excited about.  Vampires "have come out of the coffin, so to speak," said the director.  "They've hired lobbyists and there's a vampire's rights amendment being considered in Congress.  The nation has become polarized -- there's the people who believe that vampires deserve equal rights and there's this fundamentalist church that thinks they're evil and they scream about the vampire agenda and they hold up signs that say 'God Hates Fangs'."  Mr. Ball also talks about the central character, a blue collar waitress named Sookie Stackhouse (played by Oscar winner Anna Paquin) who is telepathic and whose love life has been very difficult as a result. 

"First time in her life," with a man she meets whose thoughts she can't read, says Mr. Ball, "she can relax and let that wall down, and that's where it starts."

Unintentionally or otherwise, walls and other assorted boundaries are tested in "Towelhead" and from the way Alan Ball talks about "True Blood", he has every intention of knocking them down in Vampire Town, U.S.A.

"True Blood" premieres on HBO cable television this Sunday (September 7) at 9 p.m.  "Towelhead" opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on September 12; in San Francisco and other secondary U.S. markets on September 19, and across the U.S. in expanded wide release on September 26.

Audio: The Popcorn Reel Interview with Alan Ball, director and writer of "Towelhead" and creator-director of "True Blood"  (16 minutes)

Statement by "Towelhead" book author Alicia Erian and "Towelhead" film director Alan Ball et al, as recorded by Warner Independent Pictures

Free screenings for "Towelhead" in select U.S. cities

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2008.  All Rights Reserved.
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