An Alan Ball postmortem

The "Six Feet Under" creator on the show's death, and on asking tough questions in an era of simple answers.

Published August 20, 2005 6:19PM (EDT)

There are two kinds of writers in Hollywood: those who enjoy and believe in the work, who stretch and challenge themselves, who set the bar higher for everyone else, and the ones who are content to imitate others until they can retire to a golf course in Cabo in a few years. While we can all get behind a little Mexican sunshine, it's no coincidence that the best writers often seem far less focused on their successes than they are on the next challenge that lies ahead.

It probably goes without saying that the man behind "Six Feet Under," a show that shoves mortality in our faces when every other part of our culture tries to distract us from it, is more than a little fond of challenges. He's that rare type, the Buddhist overachiever, the success story who never fails to stop and smell the roses, the busy mover and shaker who takes time to be friendly and to listen.

In fact, when he spoke to me on the phone from his Hollywood office, he told me his day had been pretty hectic, and I countered with some thoroughly off-topic digression about planning for months to plant bamboo in my backyard, only to learn it's a terrible choice for the space and that I'll have to plant a hedge instead. Ball listened and offered his own advice -- forget the bamboo. Let go, move on! -- and went on to discuss why viewers hate Nate Fisher, with the same honesty and humor.

Nate Fisher (played by Peter Krause) has been such a bastard, this season in particular. Did you always intend on killing Nate off in the end?

No. When I wrote the pilot, I had no idea where the show was going to go. When I tried to break down each character's journey over the course of the series, Nate's journey has always been towards accepting his mortality, but fighting it every step of the way. You know, towards accepting mortality in general and those he loves specifically and himself even more specifically. And the final, most fundamental acceptance of mortality is death itself. You don't really have a choice whether you're going to accept it or not. At what point in your life are you going to accept it? Are you going to accept it before it happens or are you going to wait for it to happen?

What do you think is the benefit of accepting death before you die?

I think there's a certain amount of peace that comes with that, there's a certain amount of liberation, and there's a deeper appreciation of every day. It's not like, "Oh, I'm so pissed off, I haven't gotten that promotion," and "Goddamn it, why don't I have a BMW?" It's a lot harder to find fault with the mundane details of daily existence when you really, really know on a cellular level that you're going to go, and that this moment, right now, is life. Life isn't what happens to you in 20 years. This moment, right now, is your life.

So screw all the bamboo!

Exactly, screw the bamboo. Whatever new plant you choose is an amazing miraculous creation.

Did Nate ever frustrate you as a character?


And do you like that? Because the characters on "Six Feet Under" feel sort of like family members to me, in that they're so often such a serious pain in the ass.

I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm not interested in writing characters who figure it out, and get it right, because I feel like that's too simplistic, and then you're writing about something that vaguely resembles life instead of writing about life. Because even if you figure out something, something bigger is going to come along that confuses the hell out of you. And for characters who are soulful and have a soulful connection to life ... One of the enduring themes of the series is that trying to figure out the right thing to do is such a mystery, it's so baffling. So many times when you do the quote right unquote thing, it makes your life harder, and you don't get rewarded for it. Then you get into the whole question of what is right and wrong. Is there a black-and-white universal right and wrong, or is there what's right for you, or is there what's right for people you love, or is there what's right for the global community? Life is infinitely complex and I feel like we live in a culture that really seems to want to simplify it into sound bites and bromides, and that does not work.

Well, I guess some people can probably cling to an idea that's very simple, or some structure or framework. And Nate is envious of those people!

Sure, or some illusion. You say Nate's been a bastard, but I don't see him that way because I don't see any of the characters as, "Oh, what a bitch!" or "What an asshole!" I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for Nate and his desire to get to the root of things and be authentic. And I think he is always [Pauses] he's difficult to describe because he's so complicated. Probably what is at the root of a lot of his less than noble actions is that, while not serving those who he's committed to well, there's something admirable, on some level, about still having this childlike hope of finding the right thing. Because there is the notion of, you know, you grow up, you lose your illusions, whatever, and you have to do that to become a functioning adult in society, but there is something fundamental that gets lost, a kind of joy. So I find him to be a deeply tragic character and a deeply romantic character. Whether I would say he's just a garden-variety asshole, no, I don't think so at all.

My thing with him is that...

Well, he does horrible things. And he's very selfish, but I mean, I always just think of that little boy being unable to sleep because of all the dead bodies in the basement.

Well, and I suppose that we're the most self-righteous about people when we recognize the things in them we fear the most in ourselves.

Right! I mean, we're all narcissists. [Laughs.] I don't think it's possible to iron narcissism out 100 percent, especially in this culture we live in, which is all about, "Hey, personal fulfillment, no matter what! It's possible! It could happen to you -- it should happen to you! Look at all these people it's happening to. You can buy it!" I think it's very difficult and it requires a tremendous amount of spiritual integrity and discipline to not be a narcissist in a culture that encourages it every step of the way. And when you throw in some sort of childhood trauma that is not linked to one particular event, but is just a sense of dread and mystery and a distant father and a suffering mother that's ingrained in you from day one ... You know, I think Nate's admirable. I think it's kind of a miracle that he's not a drug addict or an alcoholic or that he hasn't gotten himself killed or something.

It's the point where he injures another person with his idealism that bothers me.

Exactly, and that's why he's so interesting to me, because he's not just a movie villain who's evil and enjoys the suffering of others. He's deeply aware of the suffering of others.

And yet he's able to indulge himself in ways that create suffering.

Well, he just has the wrong idea of what's going to make him happy. He feels that happiness comes from someone or something outside of himself.

So he changes his circumstances over and over trying to find the right thing.

Yeah, hoping, "OK, this is my escape. I finally found the right person, or the right situation." And you know, that is a lesson that a lot of people never quite get, that it [happiness] doesn't come from outside.

And the explanation of what's wrong is projected onto others.

Yeah. "The reason I'm unhappy is because I'm in a bad marriage. The reason I'm unhappy is because this person doesn't understand me."

Well, if you go out with enough people, like I have, eventually you start to notice a pattern!

Right! [Laughs] At some point, no matter who it is, you're going to drive each other crazy.

Yeah, the hedge and the bamboo are exactly the same thing, all you can do is pick the one that's nicer to look at. Still, it's funny how Nate is such a conduit for our feelings about ourselves. Any character that can make you that angry ... And I had a friend who told me that she was depressed for weeks after Lisa died.

Most people really wanted her to die!

Yeah, I was thrilled when she disappeared, personally. And I loved the fact that she turned out to be kind of secretly...

Kind of a neurotic slut.

Yeah! And of course Brenda makes people really angry, too.

I know. People despised Brenda during the second season, and now everybody says, "Oh, poor Brenda!" All in such a short period. And I think, "You know what? That's like life!" I have relatives who once said, "Oh your Uncle Blahblah treats your aunt this horrible way, and she's really suffering!" and then three years later it's like, "She was crazy!" It's funny how perceptions change, and perceptions have so much to do with what our idea of reality is.

And we are always looking for ways to sum things up that are extremely simple. I think a lot of people want that reflected in their choice of entertainment and in...

And in their politicians, apparently.

Yeah, just maybe!

Because life is complex and baffling and confusing, and I think that's why people love the illusion that "You know what? It can all be figured out. It's really not that difficult."

What are you going to do for us next?

Well, I've written a play and I'm going to Dartmouth to do a workshop with New York Theater Workshop, which I'm very excited about. It's a twisted little look at cultural imperialism as refracted through a relationship between a trust-fund stoner and a male prostitute. It's really fun. And then I'm in the process of adapting a novel, "Towelhead," by Alicia Erian, in the hopes of directing that myself sometime early next year, and I'm going to be, hopefully, creating another TV series for HBO.

Do you know what that will be?

I have some ideas, but it's much too soon to put anything into words, because it could all change.

Do you feel like you have some closure about the death of "Six Feet Under"?

Yes. It's hard to maintain something for five years and I feel like, sure, there were some missteps, but we've gotten back into the groove. I'm really happy with the ending.

It's interesting to view the narrative arc of five seasons of a show as, say, a very long novel.

Exactly. That's what it feels like to me.

Is that how you thought about it at the outset?

No, I don't think that way. It depends more on the material. When Carolyn Strauss [at HBO] pitched the idea to me of a show set in a family-run funeral home, something in me just clicked. This new show that I'm going to try to develop for them is based on a book that I read, where the minute I read it I thought, "This would make a great TV show." So I respond more to the material, or even to a single character, or a tone, or a world. I don't think in those terms, "OK, five years." I think it's more instinctive. But I don't sit down and try to map out stories and go, "What are the stories we can do?" The process of discovery is what's most exciting to me. When I write screenplays, I don't work with an outline, because then I feel like it's a term paper. There are people it works for, and it definitely makes things easier, but for me, there's the sort of journey of discovery wading through the anarchy of all the possibilities. That's the rewarding part of writing.

How did you write "American Beauty" without an outline?

I have to admit, I got about three-quarters of the way into it, and I was like, "OK, I've gotta figure out exactly how this is going to end." So I started writing sentences like, "The colonel comes over to the garage and kisses Lester" ... I think I probably have a very innate sense of structure on some barely conscious level, so maybe there's an unconscious part of me that's outlining things, because as I'm writing I find that structure sort of falls into place. Most of the time. Sometimes it's just a cluster fuck. Those are the projects that never really see the light of day ... I'm very excited to go to this workshop with this play, because it's so great to get back in theater. And actually, you don't have to worry if a scene lasts more than three pages, and if a character starts talking and they stop half a page later, you don't have to worry. You can actually relax and luxuriate in the language. But at the same time, you're basically tied to that, you don't have the freedom of going into somebody's subconscious or going to a different time in history or going to a completely different universe with a completely different set of physics, which you can do in film. I feel very fortunate that I'm at a point in my career where I can hop from medium to medium. I don't want to get stale.

And be the guy who does that one thing.

Yeah. If you just make movies then you get really good at making movies, and even if you're a person who, by instinct, fights formula, you're gonna come up with your own formula. So why not jump to a different medium that forces you to flex different muscles, and it's going to teach you something, and you're going to learn something from it, instead of getting to the point where you think you know everything?

Sounds like you're secure with yourself as a writer, to be taking on new mediums.

There are times when I think, "Oh my god, I'm a horrible writer, this is just all some horrible mistake that happened, it's all going to become so blindingly clear." But you can't let your insecurities rule you. And also, I get bored doing the same thing over and over. I mean, I'd be lying if I said there weren't times during the run of "Six Feet Under" where I was just bored, but then that's true of my life as well, at some times, so I don't know how you can avoid that.

Well, once you feel like you've mastered something, then you can either keep doing the same song and dance for people and keep reeling in the money or whatever or you can challenge yourself.

I really love storytelling, and I love the stories as they reveal themselves. It's an incredibly nourishing process, it's probably the closest I come to having a religion. So, I don't want to get really good at the one thing and then just do it over and over. Because then I don't think you're growing -- not just as an artist, but as a human being.

That sounded incredibly pretentious, and I'm aware of that, and I'm kind of embarrassed that I said it.

We live in Los Angeles! It sounds normal to me!

But that is something that I feel. You know what I mean?

Definitely. Do you ever think that "Six Feet Under" is very much defined by Los Angeles? Sometimes I wonder if these characters are very specific to L.A.

I don't know. I mean, we tried very hard to capture the kind of surreal, hazy air, baked-out existential feel of Los Angeles instead of the palm tree one that you see in movies, but also all the back roads where the paint is flaking, and most of Los Angeles is really, really ugly. We tried to capture that, and just the weirdness of living in Los Angeles, especially the weirdness of living in L.A. if you're not in the entertainment industry. And I purposely chose Los Angeles to set the series in because, in a show about death, why not set it in the world capital of the denial of death, which has got to be Los Angeles? Los Angeles is where you come to re-create yourself and to become immortal.

What do you watch on TV these days?

I love "South Park." It's the funniest show on television. I actually enjoy "Reno 911" a lot. Some of the things that I like are really [Pause] I love "Animal Cops" and "Animal Precinct." I'm an animal owner and lover so I get riveted by "They've gotta save that puppy!" Of course I love "The Sopranos," that show is so brilliant. A lot of the newer shows I haven't seen, just because I've been working the whole time. I'm probably leaving some things out.

It takes an investment to get into a new drama.

It does. And when you spend so much of your day sitting in front of a TV screen, watching actors recite lines and editing it and trying to put it together, the last thing you want to watch when you come home is another drama. Because I end up thinking, "Oh, that was a weird edit, I would've done that differently" or "Why are they so close? It would've worked better if they played the whole scene in the master," or something like that, and that destroys your enjoyment of the story. What works better for me, obviously, are shows that have very little in common with the show that I'm doing.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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