”It’s a lot easier to get stuff made for TV than it is for movies,” says Alan Ball. And he should know: The screenwriter of American Beauty and mastermind behind HBO’s Six Feet Under and the cable network’s new vampire series, True Blood, had to scrounge to get financing for his latest directorial project, Towelhead, in theaters this weekend.
”Every studio said ‘No,”’ he sighs. ”We had to make it on a shoestring budget with an independent financier.”
It might have been the subject matter that made the studios unwilling to pony up. Based on the novel by Alicia Erian, Towelhead focuses on a 13-year-old Arab-American girl (the astonishing Summer Bishil) forced to cope with an abusive father and the sexual advances of an older neighbor (Aaron Eckhart, in an Oscar-worthy turn). It’s a remarkable motion picture, directed by Ball with an intelligent, slow-simmering burn. The small-scale film, which also stars Maria Bello and Toni Collette, hardly has blockbuster written all over it (it cost only $8 million to make) — but its emotional rewards are far greater.
”I look at these big movies and I’m sort of appalled at the waste,” says Ball. ”So many movies are made purely for the purpose of making money, purely to be profitable. There’s nothing else in them. They have nothing to say about being human, about what we face as a race on this planet. And I find that appalling, frankly. But that’s just me.”
With Towelhead and to a certain extent American Beauty, the 51-year-old Ball explores the budding sexuality of a teenage girl. An odd choice of subject matter for a gay man? Not according to Ball.
”I just feel that if I wrote a gay coming-of-age story it would feel almost too narcissistic,” says Ball. ”It would be like sharing my personal mythology, which I sort of feel like, ‘What’s so interesting about that?’ Whereas if I can tell a story that is on a slightly larger canvas or is one step removed [from me], it feels like a story to me, it doesn’t feel like I’m being indulgent.” He pauses, and adds, almost apologetically, ”I don’t mean to say that people who do tell their own stories are indulgent. I just feel too embarrassed to get that personal.”
Towelhead opens Friday, Sept. 19 at the Landmark E Street Cinemas.