Life (and Death) Again, Through Alan Ball’s Eyes
Outdirector’s latest feature tackles a closeted man’s family trauma in the ’70s
Few know their way around a funeral scene like master of mortality Alan Ball. The writer-director-producer had his fair share of time to get it just right while his crowning jewel of a series, Six Feet Under, aired for five seasons, from 2001 to 2005, on HBO.
The beloved show was one of a kind, delving deep into the complexities of grief and death like no other show has. At the center of the series were the Fishers, a family in Los Angeles who owned a funeral home. And as one of the first gay leads to be featured as a fully developed character on TV, David Fisher was groundbreaking.
Ball, who also created True Blood and wrote American Beauty (and won an Oscar for doing so), returns to the emotional, gay-inclusive, funeral-encompassing family drama with Uncle Frank, which he wrote and directed. Now watchable on Amazon Prime Video, the film is loosely inspired by Ball’s own Southern upbringing.
The movie begins as an outcast story set in the 1970s South, with teenaged Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis) and her cherished Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), who is gay but closeted, bonding over their shared outsiderness. But after his conservative, homophobic father dies suddenly, Frank is forced to reckon with unresolved family trauma.
There’s a will reading, a family dinner-table scene and a funeral scene in Uncle Frank, which instantly took me back to Six Feet Under. I find both works to be healing, particularly regarding trauma. Did filming Uncle Frank bring you back to Six Feet Under too?
I know the day we shot that funeral scene in the cemetery I had this amazing sense of déjà vu. Actually, I took a picture and posted it on my Instagram page. It was pretty interesting. I think the search to heal from trauma is certainly a theme that occurs in my work a lot because it’s something that occurs in my own life and something that I struggle with in my own life. Something I’ll struggle with until the day I die.
Does creating works like Uncle Frank and Six Feet Under help you process that trauma?
Just having the outlet to express those feelings and those issues is very helpful to me because I grew up in a fairly repressed, WASPy household. Delving into feelings, especially painful feelings, was considered just not very polite, not something you really do. Of course, I’ve been to therapy and I’ve grown up and become an adult, and now I’m so much better at being able to process my own feelings. But I definitely think my work has had a big part in continuing that process of healing.
The theme of unfinished business recurs in your work. Is that something you are conscious of while developing it?
Yeah, absolutely. Frank never got to confront his father. And the genesis of Uncle Frank was when I came out of the closet to my mother 30 years ago and she said, “Well, I blame your father because I believe he was that way too.” But he was already dead. So I never got to have a conversation with my dad to find out if that was true. There’s real frustration in that. But unless you’re a person who just goes through life in every experience you have making sure you’ve said everything you need to say to the people you need to say it to, there’s going to be unfinished business. That’s just a part of life.
Was Uncle Frank you imagining what life could have been like for your dad?
Knowing what my mom said about my dad and also knowing that when he was a very young man he had, as my mom put it, “a real, real close friend” who drowned and whose body he accompanied on a train back to Asheville, North Carolina, it is a sort of, “What if? What if that was the case? What might that story have been?”
Alternately, Paul Bettany’s father was gay and he came out of the closet when he was 63 and had a 20-year relationship with another man who died. Then Paul’s father went back into the closet and became super Catholic. So, for Paul, playing Frank was an opportunity to sort of be like, “What if? What if my father would have been able to fully embrace himself?”
I admire that the movie portrays a gay couple, Frank and Wally, who are middle-aged and neither of them die. Their relationship is loving and supportive. They lean on each other. And in the end, you know they’re going to be all right. Within the scope of LGBTQ films, that is a refreshing narrative arc.
It’s true. Yeah, it was important to me that Frank and Wally stay together because you are used to especially middle-aged gay men, when you see stories about them, usually somebody’s gotta die. I think of Brokeback Mountain, I think of A Single Man. I think of all these movies that are great, but there is this sort of implicit, “Well, somebody’s gotta die; they can’t be happy.” Especially in a period piece, because attitudes were so different back then.
It was the same way in Six Feet Under. The writers kept pushing for me to break David and Keith up and I wouldn’t do it because I wanted to depict a relationship where they stayed together.
Was it a struggle to fight for that relationship?
I was definitely in the minority. Everybody kept going, “Well, seeing David date will be very fun.” And I’m like, “No, it won’t.”
David wasn’t particularly good at dating.
Exactly. I didn’t want to see David go on a bunch of bad dates; I’d rather see David and Keith weather the storm of actually staying in a relationship. That was more interesting to me.
Your own partner, Peter Macdissi, who appears in much of your work, plays Frank’s partner, Wally. What has it been like to work with Peter all these years?
It’s been really edifying for me to be with somebody who’s from a completely different culture and a completely different background than my own. It just forces me to open my eyes and see things from a different perspective. One of the reasons I wanted Wally to be from Saudi Arabia, to be a Muslim – and there are people who are Muslim and gay and they don’t tell their parents but they still have relationships with their parents and they’re very close – is it’s such a different mindset than our Western life. I just find that working with Peter has opened my eyes up to a completely different world than just my own experience of white, WASPy America.
Did any of Frank’s relationship with Wally come from your own relationship with Peter?
I don’t do that consciously, but I’m sure it just shows up in there. I mean, he’s not Wally. That was definitely a performance. And he’s not Muslim. He was raised Catholic. And he’s not Saudi Arabian; he’s Lebanese. But there was a certain kind of affectionate bickering… actually, a lot of it got cut out because it was too long. But that was definitely something that I know. Frank and Wally are not a depiction of me and Peter in any way, but I’m sure there are little elements and details that show up in there.
I know some of your own real-life experiences inspired scenes in Six Feet Under, so I’m always curious how much of your own life ends up in your work.
When Frank comes out to his brother and his brother says, “I just have two words for you: no problem,” that’s what my brother said to me. It just had to go into the script. I even put my brother’s name in the special thanks at the end of the movie.
Do you ever think about the Fishers?
If I hear that song (Sia’s “Breathe Me”), I’ll think of the Fishers, absolutely, and I’ll think of Six Feet Under. But once I’m done with something, I sort of leave it. Recently I’ve been cleaning out an office of mine because my deal has ended, so I have to vacate the premises. I’ve been packing up a lot of memorabilia and souvenirs.
What’s been something that you found that brought you back to Six Feet Under?
When Claire was at art school the art department built some projects that some of the students had made, and one of them was a set of billiards bills, with the face of Jesus on each of them. I definitely kept that. (Laughs.)
As editor of Q Syndicate, the LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.