One-on-One with Alan Ball on "Towelhead"

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As I walked into the interview room, my bag jingled loudly. It's a Messenger bag I've had since high school, covered entirely in buttons I've collected over the years from Comic Con. One of them I just got at this year's, depicting a sun inside a triangle, with the words "Fellowship of the Sun" under it.

After our interview, Alan Ball inspected my bag to see all my buttons. "We gotta get you a True Blood button for your bag," he remarked. I told him I already have one, and pointed to the Fellowship of the Sun one. "Oh yeah! Fellowship of the Sun!" Ball exclaimed as he took a closer look. At the time of our meeting, his new show was supposed to have its premiere the next weekend. It was a big weekend for Alan Ball, as his new film was also opening that same Friday in New York (it opens in 9 more cities this Friday, and even wider next week).

Towelhead is not exactly in the same ball park as a darkly comic vampire show, but in some ways it shares the American Beauty writer's love for damaged people, humor and strong sense of sexual energy. Set in Houston during the first Gulf War, it follows the sexual awakening of Jasira (Summer Bishil), a young teen having to move in with his strict and conservative Lebanese-American father in suburbia. Her sexual curiosity peaks when she starts to develop a questionable relationship with her married Army reservist neighbor Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart), who takes advantage of her interest. Examining the silly prejudice and misconception surrounding sex and race, Towelhead is a provocative tale of an abused 13-year-old overcoming an experience both horrifying and rewarding.

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JPP: One thing that really stayed with me about this film is that even during the really uncomfortable scenes, you focused on faces a lot.

Alan Ball: Yeah.

You showed numerous shots of Aaron Eckhart's face as he's looking at Jasira and he looked like he wasn't trying to harm her, like he was actually in love. It seemed to me like he didn't even realize what was wrong with their relationship.

I think it was a struggle for him. I think at some level he had to know. I mean, a man knows, you know? But I think the longing for her and the yearning to connect with someone so young and beautiful and sort of rediscover that part of himself, when he was young and beautiful. Because I think when he was 14, 15, he was probably getting laid all over the map and all the girls looked to him [the way Jasira did]. For him, it's a struggle between the parts of the desire which feels so... right, with the knowledge of the difference in their ages making it so wrong. Unfortunately, he is a man who is too weak to keep himself from satisfying his own desires, even though he knows that it's harmful to the other person.

Aaron said he didn't want to play Mr. Vuoso as completely heartless...

Of course not, yeah.

Was it something that he came up with, or did you --

We talked about it. Before he even accepted the role, we talked about how it's got to come from a place of... I don't think anybody sets out to harm or destroy another person. It comes from a place of need. It comes from a pathology in people who are hardcore pedophiles, who really sort of fetishize children. A lot of times they were abused as children themselves, more often than not, but Mr. Vuoso doesn't fall into that category. He falls into someone who's lost contact with his life, with the sense that the world is a wondrous place, with the sense that life is filled with possibility. Here he is, at a point in his life where life feels like all the possibilities that he felt when he was a young man. [Now] all the doors had been shut on all of them; so he meets this young girl who's beautiful, who sometimes looks like a woman and not a child, who obviously is provocative with him. It's a real test of his character and unfortunately, he fails.

And Summer was, what, 18?

She had just turned eighteen.

Even so, it must've been uncomfortable shooting those scenes.

You know what? It was uncomfortable in the sense that... we wanted to get it right? But Summer was game. She knew what she was getting into. She's a very smart and self-possessed young woman. It was harder for Aaron. It was much harder for him than it was for her. Having said that, it wasn't like we had to work a lot to get there. We did several takes, but I think by the time we got down to actually shooting those scenes, we had already made peace with our own discomfort. It was a very respectful set, everybody was a total professional. And like you said, the camera always focuses on their faces, always focuses on what's going on with them emotionally.

Last year when this movie premiered at Toronto, there were negative buzz surrounding it, people calling it kiddie porn and such.

Right.

I didn't really buy into it, but when I saw the film I was almost surprised at how tasteful you shot the sexual scenes. I was curious if you even made any changes after that screening a year ago? Did the movie stay the way it was?

We made some changes after Warner Independent bought it based on their notes, but it didn't have anything to do with those things. They felt that the movie was too long, it took too long to get to the ending, they wanted to make adjustment in Jasira and Thomas' relationship to show it being a more positive experience for her, so it was very clear the difference between Mr. Vuoso exploiting her and Thomas engaging with her in a more age-appropriate sexual exploratory kind of way. But in terms of scenes of molestation, no, they were very supportive about it.

Do you think people's negative reactions to it have anything to do with the reluctance to see 13-year-olds being so sexualized?

Oh, sure. Absolutely. I think the movie pushes a lot of emotional buttons, and some people are unable to see past their own emotional response, some people just feel that a movie shouldn't go there. I find it interesting, I'm wondering if these people would make the same noise if it were violence instead of sexuality, seeing as, you know, how many movies are there about young women and men who end up in the wrong place at the wrong time and end up getting mutilated by some psychopath. It's not a movie for everybody, it's not a mainstream movie [Laughs]. It's a movie that a lot of people would be surprised that they respond to and I will not be surprised if there are a lot of people who won't respond to it.

It's kind of weird too how, I remember being 13, how that curiosity is always a big part of growing up...

Absolutely.

And as people get older, they refuse to acknowledge that part.

They don't wanna acknowledge that children are sexually curious, yeah. That's too upsetting for people. I don't know why, but it is.

Well, speaking of upsetting people, recently the title just came under fire. The movie was originally titled Noting is Private but then you changed it back to the novel's Towelhead title. What they are criticizing right now, was this a concern for you when you first named the movie?

Well, I changed the title at first because the movie was being financed independently and all of us thought that a movie called Towelhead would never get bought by a distributor. Once it got bought, we realized the title Nothing is Private is a bad title. It doesn't really say anything, it doesn't sound like something you want to go see, and it became clear that we wanted to change the title. It was actually Warner Independent that said to me, "Why don't you go back to the title of the book?" I said, "Well, if you're okay with that, I'm okay with that." And then they immediately screened it in November for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and there was a discussion, and they gave us their seal of approval. Then it wasn't until, I guess last week, that the Council of American Islamic Relations sent the letter of protest about the title.

I understand that response and I respect it, but both Alicia—who wrote the book and is Arab-American herself—and I released statements. I feel like, look, the movie is about racism, about what it means to be called towelhead, and the studio has decided to stick by us. While it certainly wasn't my intention to hurt anybody's feelings or to harm anybody... I know what it feels to be called slurs, you know? I know what it's like to be watching TV and see Ann Coulter say "Al Gore, total fag." But I feel like, to silence the use of that word in any context whatsoever only give that word more power than it should ever have. And it also helps to create the illusion that we have moved beyond racism, which we all know is so not true. But what we did is we gave [the offended] a place on the website for the movie to post their letter and next week I am going to engage in a roundtable discussion that will be videotaped to be, I believe, [included as] part of the DVD. Because the point of the title is to have a discussion. To open the discussion. And as much as I respect and appreciate their position, I do not believe that censorship is the answer.



Sep
18
2008
Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.

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