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Friday, 20 September, 2002, 08:43 GMT 09:43 UK
Alan Ball: Funereal triumph
Alan Ball and Rachel Griffiths, star of Six Feet Under
Alan Ball has a clutch of awards to his name

Alan Ball won the best director for a drama series award at the 2002 Emmys for Six Feet Under.

For a writer who started his TV career penning jokes for mainstream comedies Cybill and Grace Under Fire, Six Feet Under seems strangely at odds with Alan Ball's early successes.

But throw in the fact he wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for American Beauty and everything starts to fall into place.

Six Feet Under
The Fisher family ponder life in Six Feet Under
Thematically, American Beauty and Six Feet share a sense of the subversive, lifting the lid on the everyday and picking at the dysfunction underneath.

American Beauty charted the cracks in relationships in a suburban US family. Six Feet Under follows the same sort of path, except that the family's home is a funeral parlour.

The film, which won five Oscars, and the critically acclaimed series, which had been up for 23 Emmys, find humour in the darkest of places.

Guilty humour

The funeral parlour setting of Six Feet Under has been used before but the lip-smacking relish with which it seeks out humour amid the embalming and interment is a first for TV comedy drama.

While in American Beauty, the shocking death of a suburban Joe who was begining to ache with the relentless tick tock of his life produces a wealth of guilty humour.

Unusprisingly, Ball's writing has already brought the 45-year-old from Atlanta, Georgia, a wealth of awards.

In the space of three years, he has been able to place an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a Writers' Guild of America award and a Directors' Guild of America award, among others, onto his sideboard.

'Gulag'

His background is in theatre - he graduated from the Florida State University School of Theatre.

And he has written a number of comedy plays, including Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, The M Word, Made for a Women and The Two Mrs Trumps.

He admits that his early career as a writer left him feeling hemmed in and he has described the experience as being in a "gulag" and "frustrating and infuriating".

Alan Ball
Alan Ball: Offers flooded in after Oscar success
"My year on Grace Under Fire. My three years on Cybill. Although I wouldn't trade them because I learned invaluable lessons, they were torture," he told website gay.com.

He has also described the shows as being "serving the stars' egos".

He told the Los Angeles Times: "I had this free-floating rage... It's factory work. I had no emotional connection with what I was writing."

Banner waving

The writer is openly gay, something which would not be worth mentioning if not for the fact his two biggest screen successes have both featured strong gay characters, even if one of them in Six Feet Under is in the closet.

American Beauty
American Beauty was a runaway Oscar success
It is hardly a trademark of his screen-craft, but of note when one considers most gay characters on US network TV fall into the high-camp, banner-waving, theme-of-the-week category.

Ball, speaking in an interview about most gay characters on US TV, said: "They're out and proud and well-adjusted, and they never have sex."

In Alan Ball's scripts no one is well adjusted.

His current success stems almost entirely from his Oscar win in 2000, a fact he is quick to acknowledge.

"I won an Oscar, and everybody pays attention to what I say," he has joked.

After the win movie ideas flooded in, and so did pitches for films.

He recalled one pitch: "Okay, Winona Ryder is an heiress and Hugh Grant is a butler..."

'Screwed up'

But the project that he wanted to do most was Six Feet Under and he has been able to spread his professional wings, directing a number of episodes and acting as executive producer.


I love characters who are trying to make sense of their lives, trying to live an authentic life in an increasingly inauthentic world

Alan Ball
In fact, despite his renown as a writer Alan Ball is nominated just as a director in the 2002 Emmy awards.

The idea of Six Feet Under was proposed to him by an executive at HBO, which produces the series, a few weeks after the release of American Beauty.

After handing in a first draft for the series he was asked to go and make it "a little more screwed up" and make the programme "less safe".

He said he looked up to the heavens and thanked his lucky stars.

'Life'

He then produced his offbeat drama which he has described as "Knot's Landing in a funeral home" and an "existentialist soap opera".

Some people may be put off by what appears to be a series about death, but Ball prefers to say it is "about life in the face of death".

With two triumphs under his belt and the days of Grace Under Fire long since behind him, TV viewers and film-goers can look forward to more of the darkness and humour Alan Ball finds stuck to the underside of his shoe.

He confesses he likes getting into the "warts and neuroses" of characters.

"As a writer I love characters who are trying to make sense of their lives, trying to live an authentic life in an increasingly inauthentic world," he once said.

See also:

28 Mar 00 | Oscars 2000
18 Jul 02 | Entertainment
11 Jun 02 | Entertainment
11 Jun 02 | Entertainment
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