Producer Alan Poul on one of the most beloved HBO shows ever created, Six Feet Under
How did Six Feet Under come about?
After the success of American Beauty, Alan Ball was in a meeting with Carolyn Strauss, who is now the President of HBO Entertainment, to talk about things that he might want to work on for them. And he asked her what kind of show would she see him creating for HBO, and one of the ideas she threw at him was that she always wanted to do a show set in a funeral home. And that stuck with Alan and the idea resonated with him and he went off to visit his family in Georgia and sat down and wrote the pilot in a couple of weeks, sent it to her. She said "how quick can we start?" and that's how the show was born. And it was at that point that Alan called me and asked me if I'd like to come in with him and produce the pilot.
One of the things that was remarkable about Six Feet Under was the ease of its birth because a lot of people say "Gee, that must have been a hard sell, a show about death!" But the fact is it was sold from the network to the creator. It went the opposite way from the usual channels, and we shot the pilot and edited it and we turned it in on a Friday. I got a call Sunday afternoon from Carolyn saying they were picking up the show and going ahead, so the ease with which the show made the transition from pilot to series was also something that was really blessedly unusual.
How does knowing this is your last season shape character development and creative decision-making?
Every decision we've made this season has been based on bringing the story to an end. It doesn't mean that the end begins at the beginning of the season because its 12 episodes, so there's an awful lot of storylines that need to be set up and play themselves out before we get to the plot twists that will finally end the series, but we knew what those major twists were going to be from the start of planning the season. For us, creating 63 hours (I think its 63 hours!) of television, we've always thought of it as being a 63 hour long televised novel or miniseries, in the sense that rather than just being open ending, the stories of the show had to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. So we knew that when the time came to craft the end, that we really wanted it to be a fitting closeout to five years worth of themes and characters. So all of the decisions have been made with an eye towards to how we want the Fishers and the people in their lives to end up.
For a show known for being unconventional, will there be any surprises in store for those of us who have tuned in since the beginning?
Of course there will! Surprises are one of the things people watch for. People always tell me they want to know what's going to happen and I tell them, "No, you really don't." Because you want to discover while you're watching the show because you want to be shocked or surprised. This season has a number of, as all our seasons have, of startling plot developments, I think some of the biggest that we've ever done. Even when things happen on the show that are somewhat drastic, such as Lisa's disappearance and death or David's carjacking, they always happen because we are interested in the emotional impact that the event will have on the characters around them. It isn't just a melodramatic turn for its own sake.
After five seasons, Six Feet Under has made quite a lasting impression on the television landscape. What sort of an evolution have you witnessed on television that you feel is a direct result of Six Feet Under?
You know, people tell me that the show has had an impact on television, and I'm happy to hear it. I sort of feel like history is always the great leveler, so in the end, it's a little premature to say what the impact the show has had on the industry or on other shows. I'm happy people believe that, but from my own limited point of view of over the past five years, I have noticed that the level of irony that we bring into the narrative process with the freedom to not be earnest and to step back and sometimes view our characters from a more wry or detached point of view is definitely something that has become a more prevalent trend in television. And I also certainly hope that the way in which we dealt with David and Keith's stories in the first few seasons helped people to feel free to create less stereotypical, and more fully-fleshed out, even in the sense of warts and all, unvarnished portrayals of gay men and women as being as complicated and flawed as everybody else in the world. There was a period of advocacy where just the fact of presenting gay characters on television, you were saying this is OK, this is not wrong, because you were combating decades of built-in prejudice, but its nice for us to have come along at a time when we can sort of now correct the balance, let the pendulum swing back and say, "See, these people are just as messed up as their straight counterparts."
Without the censorship restraints most broadcast networks face, do you feel Six Feet Under was able to reach deeper and go places other shows simply couldn't?
It is very central to our show that we don't have the "language" constraints that a network show has, because our characters talk a lot more like real-life people. But that's a relatively minor point. I feel that in terms of sexual explicitness or content there almost was more boundary pushing in the first few seasons. We just want to tell interesting stories, so rather than feeling that the lack of constraints or censorship that we get being a paid-cable show gives us an obligation to push boundaries further and further in terms of nudity, sex, or violence, I don't think we feel that. I feel that, actually, the biggest lack of constraints that has really impacted us is that we are allowed to be totally, ruthlessly honest in our storytelling, by which I mean that the lack of network interference, the lack of pressure to make the show appeal to the widest possible demographic, the lack of any sort of advertiser concern or pressure. These more than the freedom to be explicit, are the things that allow the show to be what it is.
Six Feet Under often employs emerging indie directors to direct episodes of the series. How did you go about selecting those directors? Did you match their interests to the subject matter of the episodes? Do you feel these directors helped to bring a level of creative distinctiveness to the show?
One of the most successful risks that Alan and I took in the first season was to say, "Let's hire indie-film directors instead of television veterans." I mean, we've had a number of brilliant television directors as well, but in the first few years, we focused very hard on finding directors who had made independent features of genuinely distinctive tone, and bringing them into the world of our episodic television, and it really paid off because it gave the show much of its flavor. Because the show is a tone show, its not a procedural show. So the success of an individual episode depends on someone being able to get the tiniest nuances out of our brilliant performers, and also being able to establish a sense of vision or tone thematically that pervades the episode. And those are two tasks that are not often demanded of directors who work primarily in episodic television. So, by bringing in directors who really had a voice, and I watched dozens of indie films, I was always searching for someone who had a tone or a voice that was not necessarily the same as the show, but that I thought would be somehow compatible with the world of the show, a voice that shared the same kind of insight into character and the same combination of compassion and irony, you know, the mix that makes our show work. I think by and large we were very successful in finding directors who could match that tone, and many of them have come back again and again, and over the course of the first couple of seasons, we've been able to build up a dependable stable of directors whom we could rely on to pull out what was necessary from an episode. The other thing I think has really helped is that if the tone of each episode is a little different, if each episode feels like a one-hour movie and this week's "movie" is a little different from last week's "movie," but you still know you're in the world of Six Feet Under, that is a great thing to us. The episodes don't need to feel homogeneous, and if there can be some episodes that are broader and funnier and some episodes that are more serious and more realistic, and some episodes that are more surreal, that's fine. That helps keep the audience invigorated because every time they start watching an episode they're not quite sure exactly what it's going to be.
What do you feel the audience connects to the most when watching Six Feet Under?
From the very first moment of the show, it has been the characters: the Fishers and the people in their world that draw people in. So much has been made of the milieu of the funeral home and the subject matter of death, and the opening death, and the sometimes morbid nature of the funeral industry, the procedural storylines, but it's the characters as human beings and the problems that they have, the fact that there constantly trying to do the right thing and often failing at it that coaxes people in. I know this because whenever people are talking about the shows, I mean, journalists always wants to ask me about the opening deaths, but viewers and fans want to know what's going to happen to the characters. There have been people over the years that have had the idea of putting a show in a funeral home. That's not what makes the show works. What makes the show work is that those characters are brilliantly envisioned and written by Alan and the writers, and then, of course, brilliantly embodied by our cast, and that's all. And if it was the same show but it was set in a car repair shop, it would still be a very compelling show.
What was your favorite storyline over the course of the series' history?
It's very hard for me to play favorites, but I do think that David's first season storyline, in which he began as an uptight, conflicted, somewhat self-loathing closeted, homosexual man, and who over the course of the season came to the place where he was able to come out first to his mother and then, ultimately, to his church congregation, was exceptionally moving to me. Moving to me personally as a gay man, but also because I had never seen that particular journey rendered, presented or performed with so much unblinking sensitivity.
What was the most memorable episode in your opinion?
Well, you know, I directed "That's My Dog," which was the carjacking episode. That episode changed my life! I have so many favorite episodes of the show, but in terms of memorable, this was it. Because when that episode aired, none of us anticipated the amount of hubbub there was going to be on both sides of the line, and also the amount of personal attention that I received for having directed it. I just remember those couple of weeks after that show aired were probably the most overwhelming experience that I had in my five year history on the show.
The actor, Mike Weston, who played the sociopath on that episode, is so expertly cast in that episode.
Alan and I had both seen him in plays so when he came in to read, we knew him from his theatre work, and we knew what a good actor he was, as he wasn't how the character was written physically, but he nailed it, and we saw like thirty actors for that part. He nailed it in a way that we knew would give the episode the depth that it needed. The funny thing about him is that I had actually worked years ago with his father. His father is the actor and composer, John Rubinstein. He doesn't exploit that link that John's his father. I had worked with John on a theatre project and John and I also had co-written songs for the Jane Fonda TV-movie, "The Dollmaker" a "million years ago" when I was still working in musicals. John and I had written that score together in the mid-80's. And I didn't know when I cast Michael, that he was John's son. And when he came over to my house to rehearse for the episode, he finally sheepishly admitted "I used to know you when I was a kid." He was little Mikey, ten years old, running around John's house in pajamas, turned into this actor that I cast to play this kind of brutal sociopath! That was a pretty amazing moment for me. I felt really old.
Which character will you miss most?
All of them. I can't play favorites with the characters because I spent so much with all these actors. There are my family.
What is the one thing you are most proud of in the five season's Six Feet Under has been on the air?
The thing that I'm most proud of is the way that the show landed on the cultural radar. Whether it turns out to have had lasting influence or not, the fact that the show has entered the vernacular, the popular cultural vernacular, that even people who have never seen the show are aware of it, and it gets used as a reference, as an adjective, that makes me very, very proud. One of my proudest moments was when I got handed a clip from "Sesame Street," and they had done a little take on Six Feet Under. They said "It's time to watch our favorite television show, Six Feet Under!" And it was about watching a dinner table and counting the feet that were under the table and there were Six Feet Under the table. Just the fact that we were being used as a reference for "Sesame Street-" nothing makes me prouder than that!
What's next on the horizon for you?
I going to be directing an episode of "Big Love" this summer, which is another big, new HBO show. I'm very excited about that and after that, we'll see what happens!
Producer Alan Poul is a veteran of both motion pictures and television. Over his twenty -year career, he has received an Emmy Award, a Golden Globe, A Producer's Guild Award, four GLAAD Awards and three Peabody Awards. In December 2001, he was presented with PowerUP's first annual Premiere Award. In 2003 he received the ACLU Foundation's Pride Partnership Award. He is currently Executive Producer of HBO's Six Feet Under, recipient of 6 Emmy Awards in 2002. Six Feet Under has also won the Golden Globe for Drama Series, the SAG Award for Dramatic Ensemble (twice), the Golden Nymph for best drama at The Monte Carlo International Television Festival, and the Peabody Award. Poul has directed several episodes of the show as well, and in 2003 was nominated for both a directing Emmy and a DGA award for his episode, "Nobody Sleeps." He also recently directed an episode of HBO's lavish upcoming series, Rome, set to premiere in September 2005.