Photo by Roger Erickson for Out100 2008
When producer and director Alan Ball appeared in the 2008 Out100 portfolio, he was at a capstone of his career. In September of that year, True Blood premiered on HBO and Towelhead, the first feature film he directed, made its U.S. debut in theaters a few weeks later.
“It was kind of surreal because I actually had a similar event take place in 1999,” Ball recalls during a recent phone interview with Out. “I had a television show and a movie premiering at the same time. It was the exact opposite, though. The movie was wildly successful and the TV show was universally loathed and reviled.” The film and TV show he’s speaking of is, of course, American Beauty, which went on to win five Oscars including Best Picture, and the sitcom, Oh, Grow Up, was yanked from ABC’s lineup after it ran only 11 episodes. “ And then, in 2008 — nine years later — the same thing happened in reverse.” True Blood would go on to find an audience in the Twilight-era of pop culture, while his film had a tough time with critics.
It’s easy to dismiss the HBO gothic series’ seven-year run as just a part of the vampire craze that has now given way to zombies, but True Blood was actually revolutionary in expanding the presence of gay characters on TV. “I’m very happy about that,” Ball says of the show’s impact. “I do remember once: I woke up in the morning, logged on, and checked The Huffington Post, which I do every day, and it said ‘True Blood is the gayest show on TV’ and I was like, ‘Wow, I’m putting this on my Facebook page.’ ”
At the height of the show’s success, Ball stepped down as show runner, handing the series over to Brian Buckner. A tough decision, he says it turned out to be an important one for his psyche and creativity. The producer channeled his energy into taking care of himself and discovering an identity that wasn’t associated with vampires and werewolves.
Now, two years later, Ball is back to work. In addition to directing a new movie, I Am Chippendales, which was slated to begin production in October, Ball is also working on a new pilot for HBO based on an idea from Elton John’s production company. Although the title, I Am Chippendales might spark comparisons to Magic Mike, Ball says the film is a much darker story about the guy who created the all-male stripping troupe and how he lost his mind.
Both projects are a far cry from Bon Temps, but they both exist in that darker world that Ball seems to love. He says he's not obsessed with the dark side, however, as we once proclaimed in this magazine. “I would say that I find it fascinating,” he explains to the description that accompanied his biography in the 2008 Out100. “In my own life, I don’t necessarily look for darkness but when I go see a movie about somebody struggling with something that’s really difficult, I’m much more taken in by that than a story about a hero who gets everything right.”
At this point in his career — Ball is now 57 years old and very much still working — it is easy to think about legacy. This year, American Beauty celebrated its 15th anniversary release in theaters. Ball’s other successful series, Six Feet Under, surpassed its 10-year mark. And, in August, HBO put the final stake in True Blood. Yet Ball finds the whole idea pretentious. “This voice in my head starts going, ‘Oh my god, you egotistical asshole,’” he admits.
More importantly, in that time he made his mark on pop culture, Ball has learned not to second-guess how the audience is going to respond. “Anytime I’ve tried to look at the — to use a term I hate — marketplace and try to figure out something that would do well in the marketplace as opposed to organically liking the story or the characters or being invested in it in some sort of emotional level, I’ve failed miserably,” Ball explains, “and I’m almost thankful for that.”
The lesson is an important especially since he’s on the cusp of another career milestone. If both his pilot and film are completed as planned, he could be looking at another situation that’s not only happened once but twice in his career: both projects could debut in the same year. “That would be stressful,” Ball says fearfully of the possibility. “It may end up that way but that’s certainly not something that I would try to make happen.”