The creator of HBO's Six Feet Under speaks
Over five seasons, you have been responsible for the creation of some of the most memorable characters in television history. Will it be hard to say goodbye to them?
Yes, it will be very hard to say goodbye to them! When I wrote the last episode, I have a little place up in Lake Arrowhead and I went up there with two of my dogs to sort of just lock myself in, and immerse myself in it, the final couple of days I was working on it. And I was sitting on the couch writing the very final moments of the show, and I just started weeping. And the dogs were staring at me like, "What happened? Why are you so unhappy?" I wasn't unhappy. I was emotional. It was sad. So yes, it will be hard to say goodbye to them because I've spent five years with these characters. They're like family to me. It's like you have five children, eight, nine children and they're all going off to college at the same time.
Was it a difficult decision to conclude the show?
It was and it wasn't. Certainly the show has been the most creatively rewarding experience of my life. I've gotten the chance to work with really fantastic people. It's been a joy to come to work everyday. That being said, running a show is exhausting, and I really feel like I've aged in dog years over the last five years. And also creatively, I just want to do something different. And also, organically, it just felt like it was time for the show to end. This was the first season where we really started to run into walls in the writer's room because we'd pitch things and go "Oh, Keith did that in Season 2" or "Oh, Brenda did that in Season 4." You know, it sort of organically felt like it was the right time.
In the time "Six Feet Under" has been on television, you have explored and elaborated character relationships in a way that is both highly entertaining and remarkably truthful. Where does your inspiration come from in delving into these relationships?
It comes from my own life experiences and my imagination, but I have to say the biggest inspiration has been the other writers that I've worked with, because they also bring their own life experiences and their own imagination into the room. I want to name them because always sort of assume that I write the show which is very far from the truth. Bruce Kaplan, Rick Cleveland, Scott Buck, Jill Soloway, Kate Robin, Craig Wright, and Nancy Oliver are the seven other writers that I work with and I've worked with for the past three years. Earlier writers that are no longer with the show are Christian Taylor, Larry Andries, and Christian Williams. Eight characters have been through so much and faced so may different ethical, spiritual, and physical dilemmas, and the inspiration has been the other writers I've worked with because they bring just as much storytelling to the table as I do.
What is the most memorable moment for you in the evolution of "Six Feet Under?"
Certainly one of the most memorable moments was when I went to HBO and they had read my first draft and Carolyn Strauss said, "You know, this is really, really good. I love these characters, I love these situations, but it feels a little safe. Could you just make it just a little more fucked up," which is not a note that you get in Hollywood very often. And I though, "Wow!" And that gave me free range to go a little deeper, go a little darker, go a little more complicated, and that was certainly one of the most memorable moments. Another memorable moment for me was a casting session, the first season we were casting the stripper who gave the lap dance to David. The actors that we cast came in and, Libby Goldstein, our Casting Director who works with Junie Lowry-Johnson, was reading with this woman and this woman basically gave Libby a lap dance! And at one point she turned around and sort of stuck her butt in Libby's face. I mean, she was being 100% committed and she was giving the audition that got her the role! It was so funny. Libby sort of leaned back and looked away very casually, but it was really, really funny! In terms of shooting the show, a lot of moments I remember from the pilot. I remember rigging that hearse to get hit by the bus, and just setting up five cameras and just hoping that it would work the way we had planned for it to work. There's a shot in the pilot from a boat off the coast of Palos Verde, which was "playing" Sicily in the pilot, and we took a little inflatable speed raft out to the boat, and I thought I was going to get nauseous on the boat because the water was very choppy that day!
Which storyline was the most rewarding?
There have been many storylines. Certainly David's long journey to self-acceptance has been very rewarding. Claire's pursuit of art, trying to be an artist, and trying to know at such a young age what that means has been rewarding. Nate, I love Nate. I think there's a lot of Hamlet in him and he wrestles with what is the right thing to do, and he can't really come to a decision sometimes. But I think his tragic flaw and the thing about him that is so endearing is that he can always imagine a better world. That's a blessing and a curse! The way that he has dealt with all this stuff that life has thrown him, I think he a really heroic character, not in the traditional Hollywood sense, where he's the good guy who does the right thing, but that he's a hero in more of a mythic sense. I've really enjoyed his journey, even though it's been painful.
Music is a big part of every episode. "Six Feet Under" is always on the forefront of what's cool or what's about to be cool. Tell us how you choose songs and how music drives the scene.
The people who are responsible for that are our Music Supervisors Thomas Golubic and Gary Calamar. Their job is to bring in music to play as source in scenes, and we have a thing called a "music preview" where you play the scene with four or five different songs underneath it. They know what's new and what's happening, who's about to be released way more than me because I don't have time to pay attention to that, really. A lot of times, the choice of the right song will save a scene. Or there will be a scene that's a little flat and you put in the right song and somehow it just comes alive. As far as how we decide which songs to choose, it's pretty instinctive. Usually, there is a consensus among the producers. Sometimes we differ, but we always figure a way to choose something. Now, there are also other times when I've had a specific song in mind. When I wrote the pilot, The Devlin song Waiting that plays at the end, I knew that was the song I wanted to use. The minute I heard the Coldplay song, "A Rush of Blood to the Head," it was during the hiatus between Season Two and Season Three, not only are the words "six feet under" in the lyrics, but "A Rush of Blood to the Head" is a perfect simile for Nate's physical condition at the end of that season. So I wanted to put that in. But usually it's Thomas and Gary who bring the stuff in. Most of the writers will put music in their scripts saying "And this song starts to play." Sometimes that's what ends up in the show, sometimes we can't get it, sometimes it's too expensive, other times Thomas and Gary give us an option that's better.
Which do you enjoy more: writing or directing?
That's a very difficult question! They both are different versions of storytelling. I love to direct! I get really jazzed by directing, but directing is not the same kind of personal expression, the same kind of personal intimate expression that writing is. Because when you're directing, you're basically managing, basically getting out of people doing their job, except when you see them going astray. I'm not a control freak. Not every decision has to be mine. So one of the great things about having worked on this show is that I've worked with really smart people who are really good at what they do. Directing is physically exciting because there's a ticking clock, you're working with people, it's very social, it's very enjoyable. We're very luck because we have a very happy set and people really love what they do, and we've all been together for such a long time it is like a family. There are in-jokes. You can trust people to do what they do and that's really nice. I think I will probably always think of myself first and foremost as a writer. That's a more intimate experience. It's lonely, it's hard, but I don't think I'll ever stop writing, you know what I mean? Depending on what happens with my directing career, I don't think I'll stop writing even if I crash and burn in movies and TV. I'll go back to plays. Even if I crash and burn there, I'll write a novel. That's the great thing about writing is that you don't have to wait for people to give you permission to do it.
How do you feel being openly gay has affected your career?
I don't think it really has. I doubt if a straight man would have wanted to tell David's story with the same personal investment that I had, but I never lost a job because I was gay, that I'm aware of. And I'm not an actor, so I don't have to worry about being out, and how that will affect my life and my career. You know, if you're not an actor, people basically don't care what you do. If you are an actor they care about everything that you do. The level of celebrity worship in our society, I think, is verging on the pathological. Considering the truth and the reality of the crimes that are being committed underneath our nose by our own government and that more people can tell you what Angelina Jolie's tattoo says than they can tell you what's going on in the world and what's affecting them and their paychecks and their children and the environment, its really obscene! Its crazy! It's a form of madness!
Writers often talk about how they love each of their characters equally, or in different ways, pointing out that each character is a reflection of the writer's many traits. Taking all of that into consideration, which character do you have the closest bond?
Another difficult question! I do love them all equally and in different ways. I know that sounds like a copout, but I think probably the three Fisher kids, because there is something about each of them that I identify so deeply with. Like Claire, I had two older brothers that were basically grown up by the time I was born. I was the "afterthought" child. I always had this need to be creative and this need to sort of experiment with my life in ways that were kind of dangerous, probably. Like David, I am gay and didn't quite know how to deal with it when I was younger. I tried to be the good little boy who got really good grades and did everything that everybody wanted and the journey towards self-acceptance was long and hard. And like Nate, I can always visualize a better world. I've taken my own sweet time to get to a place where I could honestly accept the responsibilities of adulthood and be in a committed relationship and think about parenthood and stuff like that. So, I feel like I know each of those characters so well. But then I think about it, and I love Ruth and I love Brenda, because she's so fucking complicated, you know, she just was so destroyed! Not really, because she's not destroyed, but she was not apparent to the way that she deserved. She's too smart for her own good, and life has been really, really hard for her, and she's had to struggle to create real self-esteem and real meaning in a life with these role-models that were just horrible! You know, Rico, I love his optimism, and Keith, I love Keith's dignity and his sort of quiet strength. Yeah, he's got anger management issues, but nobody's perfect! He's so strong. And George, I love George because again another person who is so damaged by early childhood trauma, and yet he keeps putting himself out there. He hasn't shut down. None of these people have really shut down. I tried to answer but I have a close bond with all of them!
What's next for you?
I'm going to take a little time off. I am in the process of adapting a novel into a screenplay, the novel Towelhead, by Alicia Arian, which was just published last month. Beautiful, beautiful book. Really good writer! I'm trying to turn her story into a movie and do it justice. I wrote a play for the first time in ten years, and I'm going to be doing a workshop with that at the New York Theatre Workshop in August. I have two other screenplays I've finished, that I'm sort of sitting on. I want to direct. I would like to direct a movie. I hope to direct Towelhead first because it's the least expensive to make. And then I have some ideas for TV stuff. I don't want to run a show anymore, but I certainly like producing. I'm moving into a new house with my partner. I got a new car, I got a new cell phone. I feel like I'm really starting a new chapter in my life. I think we want to go on a big trip to somewhere like on the other side of the word that is really beautiful and take some time to just chill and relax before I come back and figure out what's next!
Alan Ball is the creator and Executive Producer of "Six Feet Under," the critically acclaimed drama series on HBO. The series, about a family-run funeral home in Los Angeles, has garnered unprecedented ratings for the network, two Golden Globes (including Best Drama Series) and six Emmy awards. Alan was awarded an Emmy and a DGA award for directing the pilot of "Six Feet Under", his directorial debut.
Alan's first produced feature film screenplay was American Beauty, for which he received the 1999 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, the Writers Guild of America award for Best Original Screenplay, and the Golden Globe award for Best Screenplay, among others.
His other television credits include "Oh Grow Up", "Cybill" and "Grace Under Fire."
Dont't forget to also check out: Six Feet Under: The Complete Third Season [5 Discs]