Alan Ball on creation
Was lucky enough to attend the Alan Ball interview at the Opera House tonight. He’s a warm, funny man & down to earth, surprised, I think, by the event & the crowd. I thought: this is what you get when you talk to a real writer, that acknowledgement of how hard won the successes are, & how constant the failures. And what interested me most was his inspirations, where they’d come from and where they’d eventually lead.
He was writing the Cybill Shepherd vehicle, Cybill, many years ago, writing what he called “moments of shit”. Moments, I would paraphrase, of cloying sentimentality, averaging one a week for three years. And at night, at 2am, he’d sit awake at his desk writing a movie that would express his rage. And he called that movie American Beauty.
Right before Alan (sorry, I just can’t refer to a human being as ‘Ball’, it sounds … weird) was nominated for an Oscar for American Beauty, he had moved onto a job writing a sitcom about a talking dog, & hating the ‘tv sitcom gulag’. But luckily for him, he won that Oscar & the talking dog sitcom got canned & he got to move on. To an idea that was pitched to him by an exec at HBO.
“We want a show about a family who runs a funeral home, we think you’re the guy to do it,” she said. Something clicked in Alan’s brain, the idea of death and dark, dark humour. And so – despite being contracted for another year of talking dog – he wrote a pilot.
And HBO said, “We like it, but it feels like you’re playing safe. Can you make the family more fucked up?”
Alan said, “Yeah. I can do that.”
See, that’s what I find most interesting about the creative process. That sometimes the grain of sand that starts the pearl comes from someone else, some other source that triggers your brain and you cannot NOT do what they’ve aluded to, even though the idea may not have been yours. The expression of that idea becomes all you can do. I’ve had some moments of that, sometimes, & if I can step outside my existing frustrations, I realise that the two big projects coming out this year with my name on the cover are BOTH grains of sand that began with someone else finding a trigger that set my brain in a direction that had to be realised. Which makes me just a little bit even-more-gladder for those other people.
And the reassuring idea that even when you’re in a gulag, there could be something awesome about to happen for you outside its walls.
At least, I fcking hope so.