Alan Ball is in Sundance today to premiere Uncle Frank, a drama set in 1973. An 18-year old and her NYU professor uncle take a road trip to their South Carolina home to bury the prof’s father, who rejected his son when he learned he was gay. The trip will rear up past trauma that Frank has done his best to suppress. The road trippers are joined unexpectedly by the prof’s lover Walid in a drama about family, tragedy and forgiveness. While Ball won an Oscar for his very first movie script, Best Picture winner American Beauty and followed with an Emmy TV career including Six Feet Under and True Blood, this film is so personal to him that he’s especially nervous about his first Sundance premiere. Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Margo Martindale, Judy Greer, Steve Zahn, Peter Macdissi and Stephen Root. Here, Ball talks about this love labor and his concerns about a business where personal stories like this one are being crowded out.
ALAN BALL: He disappears into that role.
DEADLINE: What was the inspiration for Uncle Frank?
BALL: Two things actually. One is in my own personal history. My sister was killed in a car accident when I was 13 years old, on her 22nd birthday, and it was a very traumatic, life-changing experience. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized how you keep going back to those moments, usually not on your own volition and usually not voluntarily. But your life will say, it’s time to revisit this, and try to make some sense of it again. I’ve always been interested in characters who are carrying around big, traumatic, life-scarring events, as Frank does. Then the other thing, 20 years after that car accident, I came out of the closet to my mother. And she said well…she brought up a relative of mine who had since died, who was already dead but she said, I think he was that way, too. She let me know about the story about when he was a young man, working in the CCC camp and the friend of his from their hometown drowned. He accompanied the boy’s body back to North Carolina. That’s how close they were. Like any good playwright from the South, I have an inner Tennessee Williams. I chewed on that for years and years, and over the years those two events came together and turned into what became the movie.
DEADLINE: So much of the drama is about a father convinced his son would burn in hell for being gay, and Frank’s fear as an adult that the family he avoided would feel the same. Was any of that shaped from personal experience?
BALL: I didn’t personally have that kind of rejection, because I didn’t come out of the closet until I was in my 30s and I had already moved away from home and forged an adult life for myself. But I was very aware when I was younger of that kind of thinking, and that it’s just the worst thing that can happen to somebody. The worst thing you can be told, that it’s a crime against nature and God, and God hates you, and it’s a sickness and you’ll go to hell. I have some fairly religious people in my family. It was something that you just sort of absorb. It felt organic, the way it happened in the movie because I don’t really plan things out. I write from an organic place. So I wouldn’t say I had that same kind of rejection but there is a self-rejection that I did to myself from a very early age, just because of the culture, the place I was living in. I moved to New York City to work with a theater company I formed with people I went to school with. Most of my friends knew, but the family thing was the big one because I was so afraid of being rejected. While I wasn’t really — nobody said you’re dead to me — nobody really wanted to hear about it. They didn’t ask any questions about somebody I might be seeing, or anything like that.
DEADLINE: Was the shocking rejection of Frank by his father your own worst nightmare, channeled through your imagination to become a key element of the drama?
BALL: Yeah. I think also Stephen Root is so amazing in that father role, in that one scene he has, after he discovers the two boys together. You can see how painful it is for him to say these things to his son because he was brought up to believe them, and because he’s worried and scared for his son. He’s not being hateful at least not at that point. It’s just heartbreaking because that way of thinking I think has done so much damage to so many people, both children and parents.
DEADLINE: What made Paul Bettany right for this?
BALL: Paul read the script and just connected to him, and seemed to understand the role on so many levels. He’s a very, very accomplished actor and in talking to him, I just instinctively knew that this was right, and that he had the right combination of intelligence and humor and sensitivity, and willingness to go to the painful places. Like everybody, he shared with me some painful experiences he had been through in his life. I could just tell that he understood the character and he knew what we were trying to do and I just trusted my gut.
DEADLINE: Hard to get financing — Miramax is one backer — given the cast and your own track record?
BALL: It was hard because it’s not a movie that has a lot of explosions or people shooting guns. We showed it to a lot of people before Miramax finally stepped in.
DEADLINE: Why the reticence by others?
BALL: I think it was the subject material. Not anything about it being gay, but it being a small period piece. About humans. It’s not really a movie you can just sort of pitch in one sentence. It’s a complicated movie, challenging because it’s both very funny and very painful. I think a lot of people didn’t quite know what to do with it. You know how it is these days; they’ll spend 300 million dollars on any comic book, but they won’t spend five on anything unless it’s got Martin Scorsese directing it and the biggest stars that are working today in it. But this was the little movie that could. I still look back a little bit and am surprised that we actually got to make it.
DEADLINE: Who doesn’t like a good movie about the South, like Fried Green Tomatoes, The Help or those adaptations of Pat Conroy’s novels? The smell of the sea air, the heat, it’s all so vivid…
BALL: I know exactly what you mean. I love that, too, but I think they’re always basing it on what was the last movie like this and how did it do.
DEADLINE: Would you make one those 300 million dollar spectaculars?
BALL: I wouldn’t know how to make them anyway. I would be completely overwhelmed and baffled. I might go see one of them every now and then, but I don’t want to make those movies.
DEADLINE: How concerned are you that they dominate the multiplexes and a Parasite is a small miracle?
BALL: For a writer like myself, interested in small, human stories, yeah, I worry because it used to be that TV was where you went to do that. It still is, but even TV is getting so big in scale, and production entities want big A-list stars. It’s a little worrisome in terms of movies. I love to make movies. I’ve got four screenplays sitting around that I’ve written over the last few years that I would love to make. I’ve tried, and they don’t get traction, or the right piece of talent gets attached but then drops out. They’re not considered big or commercial enough.
DEADLINE: That surprises me because your work since American Beauty proves that was no fluke.
BALL: Well, I made one movie since American Beauty. That was a movie called Towelhead, which did not do well, critically or financially. At that point, I think people were like, oh, he’s TV. And I didn’t direct American Beauty. But I wonder if American Beauty would even get made today.
BALL: It was pretty easy the way it happened back then, because Steven Spielberg read it and said, yes, let’s make this movie. But I wonder if that movie would get made today in the way that it was made or if it would get turned into something more overtly violent or more overtly a thriller or something like that. I’m just not sure. I look at what gets made, and I understand the economics of the marketplace and that these big theme park movies make a lot of money and do well all over the world. As a writer, I do find myself feeling like it’s going to be hard for me to get some stuff in there.
DEADLINE: Sundance is where a lot of those movies originate. You come in as an acquisitions title. How are you feeling?
BALL: It’s exciting and terrifying. The movie is super personal, and so I feel very exposed. But I’m also extremely excited about people getting a chance to see the movie, and playing at the Eccles to an audience of that size. The screenings we’ve had that did have audiences, it plays really well, the humor especially. A lot more than perhaps I thought it would. I am hopeful but it is nerve wracking. I’m not a player. I’m not a mover and a shaker. I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to do or what I’m supposed to say. I’ve just got to show the world what we did and hope for the best.
DEADLINE: If all goes well, do you want to stay in the feature lane, or go back and create and run a TV show?
BALL: There’s a couple of TV projects that have been pitched to me that are interesting, but I would love to stay in features lane. Because I’m 62 now and running a TV show, that’s a big grind. I’d be very lucky to do it again, but there’s something about the finite nature of filmmaking and also the time that you get to spend in post to really make each moment as perfect as it can be. I would love to continue to do features but that’s not up to me but that’s certainly what I’m going to try to make happen.
DEADLINE: Well, it’s not like you don’t have a next project, if they like this one. Just pull one of those scripts out of the drawer.
BALL: I’m hoping that people like the movie and come up to me and say, what else do you have? Because I’d say I’ve got a lot. Surely, you’ve got to like one of these.