DATE June 25, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Alan Ball discusses his series "Six Feet Under"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Alan Ball, is the creator of the new HBO series "Six Feet Under."
He won an Oscar for his screenplay for "American Beauty." He was a playwright
before he got his start writing in TV for the sitcoms "Grace Under Fire" and
"Six Feet Under" follows the Fisher family, which owns and runs a funeral
home. Each episode opens with the death of someone whose funeral will be
handled by the Fisher family. On the first episode, which was shown four
weeks ago, it was the father, Nathaniel Fisher, who was killed in a collision
with a bus while driving his hearse. His wife is breaking down, his son
David(ph), who has already been working in the business, plans to take it
over. David's sister, Claire, is still in high school. His older brother,
Nate, moved away years ago trying to distance himself from the family
After their father's death, Nate's first impulse is to convince the family to
sell the business to the corporation that is trying to buy them out. But then
he reconsiders. In the kitchen with his family, he tells David he wants to
keep the business and become a partner. David's sarcastic response will give
you a sense of the family dynamic.
(Soundbite from "Six Feet Under")
Unidentified Man: So now you don't want to sell?
Mr. PETER KRAUSE: (As Nate Fisher) I know it sounds crazy.
Unidentified Man: Oh, no, not at all. We'll keep the business for the rest
of the day, then sell it again tomorrow for a few hours.
Mr. KRAUSE: Just hear me out.
Unidentified Man: No, no, this is a good system. We'll sell in the mornings,
keep it in the afternoons, and maybe sometimes we sell again in the evenings
when we really can't make a decision.
Ms. FRANCES CONROY: (As Ruth Fisher) David, you're not being fair.
Unidentified Man: When I didn't want to sell, you could've cared less. And
when Nate doesn't want to sell, you listen.
Ms. CONROY: OK, I'm a terrible mother who's responsible for all your
GROSS: Alan Ball, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Mr. ALAN BALL (Creator, "Six Feet Under"): Thank you. It's great to be back.
GROSS: How would you describe "Six Feet Under" to someone who hasn't yet seen
Mr. BALL: Well, our log line(ph) on the set is "Knots Landing" in a funeral
home; it's sort of an existential soap opera. It's a show about a family that
runs a funeral home, and as such, you know, death is their business and
they're surrounded by it. But it's not a show about death. It's about life
in the face of death and, you know, people who, because of their chosen
profession, you know, are surrounded by death and how that affects their
outlook on life.
GROSS: Now the idea of setting a show in the funeral industry was proposed to
you by an HBO executive. What was the original proposal, and what did you see
Mr. BALL: Well, I had lunch with Carolyn Strauss, who is the head of HBO
original programming, a few weeks after "American Beauty" was released, and
she said, `I've always wanted to do a comedy about a family-run funeral home,'
and something in my head just went, `Wow. Wow. That's really interesting.
That's something I've never seen. That's spiritual and dark and weird, and
I'd love to work on that.' However, at the time when I was having lunch with
her, I was doing this sitcom for ABC called "Oh Grow Up," but it got canceled
relatively soon after, and I just sort of wrote the pilot for "Six Feet Under"
without even pitching it to her, without pitching the characters, and I wrote
it as an hour show as opposed to a half-hour, which is what I think she was
originally looking for. And I sort of did it as a pre-emptive strike, just to
avoid having to go back into network sitcom land, because I felt like I'd
spent my time in that particular gulag, and I didn't really want to go back.
GROSS: Was the pilot that you wrote the pilot that was actually broadcast a
few weeks ago?
Mr. BALL: Yeah. Well, I wrote the pilot. I took it in to HBO and we had a
meeting and they said, `It feels a little safe. It feels a little network.
Could you make the whole thing just a little more screwed up?' Well, I had
never gotten a note like that in TV.
Mr. BALL: And I just sort of, you know, looked up at the ceiling and said,
`Thank you, God.' And I said, `Yeah, yeah, I can definitely screw it up,' you
know. And I didn't go in and screw things up just for the sake of that, but
you know, when they said that to me, I sort of felt like I had carte blanche
to really go into the nooks and crannies of these characters' psyches. And
then it got really interesting.
GROSS: Can you give us an example of something that was less screwed up
initially that got more screwed up after you got that suggestion?
Mr. BALL: Well, in the pilot, you know, Nate meets Brenda at the airport and
they have sex and then...
GROSS: Just for people who aren't following the series, Nate is the
Mr. BALL: He's the prodigal son. He's the oldest son...
Mr. BALL: ...who left home because he did not want to go into the business.
And he's been sort of a Peter Pan, you know, hippie, basically, and he comes
home, you know, for the Christmas holidays and his father's killed in a car
accident on the way to the airport to pick him up.
But in the pilot, he meets this woman on the plane, Brenda, and she's kind of
very, very sexually assertive, and they end up having sex in a broom closet.
And then in my original draft, she just was kind of really nice and then she
showed up at the funeral and said, you know--after Nate has this scene where
he sort of insists on picking up the dirt actually with his bare hands and
throwing it into the grave, as opposed to a more sanitized procedure that's
standard for the funeral home. And she sees that and she sort of goes, `Wow,
you know, that was really impressive.' So she was just basically kind of like
the nice girlfriend, you know.
And so I went back and I made her a little more brittle and a little more
mysterious and put in a phone call where, you know, she calls him and, you
know, just to check out how he's doing, and he sort of flirts with her and
says something along the lines of, you know--he sort of, like, calls her on
some of her stuff, and she just snaps and says to him, `You think you're not
easy to read, you know? Guys like you are good for, you know, a roll in the
hay and that's it,' and she hangs up the phone. It just sort of makes it more
complicated, you know.
GROSS: Why don't we play back that phone call that you just described?
(Soundbite from "Six Feet Under"; phone ringing)
Mr. KRAUSE: Hello?
Ms. RACHEL GRIFFITHS: (As Brenda Chenowith) Well, it's about to start
raining frogs here. How are things on your end?
Mr. KRAUSE: God, I'm glad you called.
Ms. GRIFFITHS: Really? Why?
Mr. KRAUSE: I don't know. Because you have a calming effect on me.
Ms. GRIFFITHS: Uh-huh. Are you familiar with the psychological term
Mr. KRAUSE: Are you familiar with the psychological term `blow me'? Come
on. Grew up with all that psychobabble. Rebelled against it every chance you
got, still do, and that includes having sex with strangers in closets at
Ms. GRIFFITHS: And you think you're not easy to read? Coasting by on your
looks and charm isn't working like it used to, but you have no idea what else
to do because you've never had to learn. Any woman with half a brain looks at
a guy like you and thinks good for a hot (censored), but believe me, that's
Mr. KRAUSE: I...
(Soundbite of phone being hung up)
GROSS: Alan Ball, I'm glad you brought up the character of Nate's girlfriend
because in some ways I still don't know what to make of her. I don't know
whether she's a kind of really smart person, a life force, or whether she's
really troubled, whether she's beneath all of this a really troubled person
who's going to do a lot of damage as the series plays out.
Mr. BALL: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Do you want me to be confused?
Mr. BALL: At this point, yeah. A lot about Brenda gets explained over the
course of the first season. A lot of why she is the way she is is explained,
and you understand where she comes from. And she's also--underneath that,
she's incredibly vulnerable, much more than she would even like to admit to
herself. And we eventually get to that place.
But what was interesting to me about Nate and Brenda as opposed to, you know,
the traditional--they're kind of like the Hope and Michael from
"thirtysomething" of our show. But the traditional sort of main couple of a
show is usually sort of very well-adjusted and very, you know, committed and
very good about expressing their feelings. And these are two people who don't
have any experience in a long-term relationship, each for their own reasons.
And they're both smart and they're both good people, but they don't
necessarily have the skills to maintain a relationship, but they're both at
points in their lives where they kind of want to do that. And I also think,
you know, in my mind, overlooking the entire course of this series, there's a
little bit of fate involved in the two of them being together.
GROSS: Now I find that I usually resist new series until after a couple of
episodes or more the characters finally get under my skin and I get really
interested in them. I think I have a very crowded brain that feels already
overpopulated with characters and plot lines.
Mr. BALL: Absolutely. Yeah.
GROSS: Do you think of yourself as having to fight against that when you're
writing a pilot?--because in the pilot, you have to do a lot of work. You
have to not only make it interesting, but you have to introduce a whole cast
of characters, introduce the basic plot of the series and keep resistant
people like me interested.
Mr. BALL: Mm-hmm. Well, one of the great things about working at HBO as
opposed to working at the broadcast networks, just based on my own limited
experience with the broadcast networks, is that HBO is constantly encouraging
me to really get into the characters' psyches and get into, you know, the
stuff that's not so pretty--the warts, the neuroses. And as a writer, I've
always been drawn to those characters because, well, number one, I can relate
to them more than I can relate to, like, the perfect heroes or heroines.
And number two, I just--my heart goes out to them. I love characters who are
trying to make sense of their lives and trying to live an authentic life in an
increasingly unauthentic world, but they're not totally equipped and they're
just kind of acting on blind faith and, you know, really, you know, making
mistakes, and their lives are messy. I find that much more poignant and much
more captivating than, you know, your totally perfect hero or your completely
nurturing, you know, wife, mother, heroine--that kind of thing. I just
don't--those archetypes don't interest me.
And plot actually doesn't interest me as much as character. And so in the
pilot of "Six Feet Under," I felt like--you know, there's nothing like a
death--a cataclysmic event to really bring--it just sort of peels away a layer
of skin. And you get to see how people really are underneath the armor that
they wear through daily life, and the masks that they wear through daily life.
And those are the moments to me that are always interesting.
And I just--you know, "Six Feet Under" is the first television project that
I've worked on that is something that I myself would actually watch. And so
when I wrote it, it was from a very instinctive place as opposed to, `Well, I
need to convey this information about this person,' and blah, blah, blah,
blah, blah, blah. And usually pilots I've worked on before, there's so much
studio involvement, there's so much network involvement and you're constantly
being told to spoon-feed information about the characters to the audience,
whereas at HBO it was just like just let the behavior speak for itself.
GROSS: Now you've written for several shows for commercial TV, and in
commercial TV a program is divided into acts with commercials separating one
act from another.
Mr. BALL: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Are you basically taught when you start working in network TV how to
plot around the commercials?
Mr. BALL: Yeah. You start--when we were breaking stories for half-hour
sitcoms, we would start with the act break. Well, actually, we would start
with the moment where, you know--the moment at the end where people get all
weepy and somebody learns a lesson. You know, I worked on those kinds of
shows. And then you'd figure out the act break.
GROSS: So what are the tricks that you're supposed to keep in mind when
you're writing into or getting out of a commercial?
Mr. BALL: Well, you want to end the act with something that is a bit of a
cliff-hanger, so that people will wait--you know, will sit through the
commercials and they won't change the channel. And other tricks--you know,
just--I don't know. The shows I worked on had--and a lot of American sitcoms
do have this, I feel--they have kind of a leering adolescent viewpoint about
sexuality. And the characters may be teen-agers or they may be middle-aged,
but it's this sort of like bedroom-farce, wink-wink, nudge-nudge kind of
viewpoint that is--you know, after you reach a certain point in life, it's
like, well, grow up; it's not that big a deal.
GROSS: My guest is Alan Ball, creator of the HBO series "Six Feet Under."
More after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Alan Ball, creator of the new HBO series "Six Feet Under,"
about a family that runs a funeral home.
Now I'll tell you something that surprised me. At the end of the latest
episode--episode four, several people at the end of the show actually seemed
to learn a lesson and grow. You know, a gang leader learns to have empathy
with his dead homey's parents; the daughter seems to learn she probably doesn't
want to flirt with gangs and guns; and David, the brother who's been in the
business for a while, kind of learns a lesson from the corpse. I should say
here that the corpse usually talks to...
Mr. BALL: Well, David's the guy who spends the...
GROSS: ...the people in the funeral home. Yeah.
Mr. BALL: Yeah. He spends a lot of his time with dead people, you know?
And that, of course, is not meant--I'm not implying that these people are
actually ghosts. These are manifestations of interior dialogues that he's
having with himself.
Mr. BALL: But yeah, I mean, you know, I think as you watch the series,
people do learn lessons and then they back-track. You know, it's one step
forward, two steps back. But you know, while I feel like a lot of the
lesson-learned moments in network TV seem to me very saccharine and very
superficial, I don't think that one should necessarily just try to avoid those
moments altogether, because we do learn lessons in life. But I--what we
attempt to do is for it to be tempered, for it to be realistic. But people
have profound moments in their lives, and in a show that is about how the
constant presence of death throws your own life into stark relief I think
people will have profound moments. Are you familiar with the writer Thomas
GROSS: Yeah, the poet who's also an undertaker.
Mr. BALL: Yeah. Well, you know, I did a lot of research when I started
working on this show and his books had the most profound effect on me just in
terms of the tone of how they were written. And there's a certain reverence
for life, but at the same time just a completely unsentimental acceptance of
the fact that it is fleeting. And so I think that's what I'm attempting to do
in the moments where, you know, people do learn things, people do become aware
of things--people's consciousnesses expand. But at the same time, it's a
constant struggle because you always, you know, want to fall back.
GROSS: Alan Ball is my guest. He's the creator of a new HBO series "Six Feet
Under," and it's about a family that runs a funeral parlor.
You know, you described the series about living in the constant presence of
death. And I know that death really entered your life--I'm not sure if it was
for the first time or not--when you were 13...
Mr. BALL: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...and your sister was killed in a car accident, and you were both in
the car at the time she was driving. Could I ask you to tell what happened?
Mr. BALL: Well, I--my life was very clearly separated into before and after,
at that moment. She was driving me to a music lesson, and it was her 22nd
birthday. And she pulled out in front of a car and it hit the driver's side
and she was killed instantly, and I was not hurt at all. It was a, you know,
profoundly shocking and traumatic moment in my life and, you know, I will
carry deep scars from that moment until the day I die.
And then there was a lot of blood. And in the ambulance I said, `Is she going
to be OK?' And instead of just telling me, `No, she's dead,' they said, `Yes,
yes, she's going to be OK.' They took me to the hospital, and, you know, I
was thinking, `Well, she's going to be OK. She's going to be OK'--I was
holding onto that. And then our family doctor came and picked me up and was
driving me back to meet my parents, and he said, `You're going to have to be
strong for your parents.' And I said, `Well, why?' you know, `She's going to
be OK, isn't she?' And he said, `No.' And there was a moment where I--a very
distinct physical sensation of just the bottom dropping out from under me at
And my family--I wouldn't call them dysfunctional because there was no abuse
or no addictions or anything like that, but certainly we were not particularly
skilled in intimacy. And what happened is that everybody sort of splintered
and went into their own little world. And I think that's certainly--there is
a dynamic of that in the Fishers, in that people really kind of--even though
they're a family and they share the same house, they exist as separate
entities. And that, to me, is what gives the show fertile ground because as
these people move towards each other and start to reach out to each other,
that's, I think, where you can really mine that for some great drama and some
GROSS: You said that in your family when your sister died that everyone in
the family withdrew into their own world. What world did you withdraw into,
and did you remember that when you were writing the characters for "Six Feet
Mr. BALL: What I did is I became incredibly active at school. I became like
the guy who did everything--any club I could join, any organization, anything
I could do to get out of the house, I would do it, so I became somewhat of an
overachiever. And, no, there's not really that dynamic in "Six Feet Under."
GROSS: The daughter doesn't seem to be on the verge of becoming an
Mr. BALL: No, she doesn't.
GROSS: ...I'll say that.
Mr. BALL: No, actually, I think--you know, it wasn't until I went away to
coll--I was very much a--in high school I was named, like, Young American,
which was this group of kids--they were supposedly...
GROSS: How little they know.
Mr. BALL: Exactly. They were supposedly very upstanding and, you know,
everything that was great about America--whatever. And then I was actively
trying to do that. I was trying to be, you know, the ideal of what you're
supposed to be and it really had very little to do with who I actually was.
GROSS: Alan Ball is the creator of the new HBO series "Six Feet Under."
He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is
GROSS: Coming up we continue our conversation with Alan Ball, creator of the
new HBO series "Six Feet Under." And rock critic Ken Tucker reviews the new
CD by Rufus Wainwright.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Alan Ball, the creator
of the HBO series "Six Feet Under." Ball won an Oscar for writing the film
"American Beauty." "Six Feet Under" is about a family that owns a funeral home
and lives in the constant presence of death. Ball's sister died in a car
crash when he was 13.
What was your sister's funeral like?
Mr. BALL: It was surreal. It was very surreal. It was, you know, the
traditional open casket thing, and I remember the first time I saw her in the
open casket I thought, `OK, who's that?' Because they had done her completely
different. They had given her, like, big boofy hair, which she never wore in
life. It was like a lipstick color that she would never wear. And, I'm
sorry, you know, when they lay those bodies out in caskets they look phony,
they look like wax figures. And it's--certainly for me, and that's all I'm
saying. I'm not saying that this is true for everybody--it was not at all
comforting to see that. And there was a point where my mom just broke down
and started to cry. And somebody from the funeral home just appeared out of
nowhere and silently swooped her off into this room and shut the drape.
And that moment is very--I put that moment in the pilot because I'll never
forget that because the subtext of that moment is, `Oh, these emotions
are--it's--they're--no, you shouldn't see this. This is bad. You shouldn't
have this kind of emotion. The way that we should deal with this is very
quiet, very muffled, keep everything down.' Well, no, that a lie because what
you need to do is you need to scream, you need to bang on the wall, you need
to like tear at your hair. Because grief is a primal, primal thing, and the
only way out of it is through it. And, you know, it took me 25 years to learn
that because I never really grieved for my sister because, number one, I was
told to stay strong for my parents. Number two, I just didn't have the
skills. You know, I didn't know what you were supposed to feel, how you were
supposed to express it.
It was too overwhelming, it was too terrifying, and so I carried that grief,
that unexpressed grief around for 20 years. And then when I was living in New
York I had been pursuing this career as a writer, you know, doggedly my entire
life. And I wrote this play that got optioned by Columbia Pictures, and they
gave me, what was for me at that time, a large amount of money and I quit my
day job. And that was the thing I had been working for, you know, my entire
life: the moment when I could quit my day job and I could be a writer full
time. And what happened was I went into this pretty severe depression because
now that I no longer had this goal to distract me, all those years of
repressed grief welled up and I had, you know, pretty standard post-traumatic
stress syndrome. I had panic attacks. My heart was racing all day long. I
couldn't sleep., I would burst into tears at the drop of a hat. You know,
luckily I was living in New York City so nobody really cares. You can just
sit there on the subway and start weeping copiously and nobody pays any
GROSS: That's really true, yeah.
Mr. BALL: And I thought that I was losing my mind. I thought, `I'm going
insane.' And it was a period that lasted for about six or seven months, and
it was one of the darkest, most painful periods of my life. And having come
out on the other side, I'm so glad I went through it because it really
deepened me, it really made me kind of a stronger and a richer human being,
having experienced--really allowing myself to feel the primal existential
pain of a loss of that magnitude.
GROSS: Who was it that made you think that this depression and panic you were
going through had to do with your sister's death 20 years ago? Did you come
to that conclusion yourself or through therapy?
Mr. BALL: Well, I was in therapy. I was in therapy. And I had some dreams
that sort of like, you know, keyed me into it.
GROSS: Right. Right.
Mr. BALL: I have a very active subconscious.
Mr. BALL: Sometimes it's very unsettled. It's just like, `OK, this is what
this is about, you need to pay attention to it.'
GROSS: Yeah. Well, you know, I thought maybe I could play a scene here. You
know, you're talking about the importance of grief and how, like at your
sister's funeral, the funeral director tried to cover that up by escorting
your grieving mother behind a curtain. There's a scene I want to play from
the end of an episode because it's the first episode in which the father's
being buried, and the--one of the sons, the prodigal son who's come back,
wants to throw fistfuls of dirt onto the coffin as opposed to, as you
described it, the more sanitized symbolic version of throwing dirt onto the
coffin which is what this funeral home usually practices. And his brother,
who has been in the funeral business for a while, gets really angry with him
for acting out like that and for showing his anger and grief in public. And
this is the conversation they have between them about what the appropriate way
to behave is.
(Soundbite of "Six Feet Under")
DAVID: You want to be the alpha dog, Nate? Is that it? You're coasting
toward midlife with nothing to show for it. Now you want to come back and be
the rock for this family to lean on? (Censored) you.
NATE: That is not what I'm...
DAVID: Do you want to get your hands dirty? You sanctimonious prick, talk to
me when you've had to stuff formaldehyde-soaked cotton up your father's ass so
he doesn't leak.
DAVID: Yeah. Well, I'm sure you would have just tossed him out with the
garbage. It may seem weird to you, but there is a reason behind everything
that we do here. We provide people with a very important and sacred service
at the darkest time in their lives because maybe they don't want to make a
spectacle of themselves. Because maybe they'd prefer to grieve in private.
NATE: Why? Why does it have to be such a secret? It's nothing to be ashamed
of. Dave, please.
DAVID: You know nothing. Nothing. You had a responsibility to this family
and you ran away from it, and you left it all for me...
NATE: Whoa, don't blame me if you're not living the life you want. That is
nobody's fault but your own.
DAVID: OK, fine. Just do me a favor, OK? You got out. Stay out.
GROSS: Is there anything you want to say about writing that scene, Alan Ball?
Mr. BALL: Well, yeah, because I think they both have valid viewpoints. I
don't think that Nate is the hero and David is the villain at all. Because
Nate is so self-righteous when he says--when he's telling David, you can't go
through this without getting your hands dirty. He's telling this to a man who
constantly, you know, who constantly prepares dead bodies. And that's what
Nate was afraid off and Nate ran away from. And in David's mind, of course,
he abdicated his responsibility and left David with no choice but to go into
this business. I think it's--I also think, you know, the thing about the
relationship between Nate and David is that the bedrock of that relationship
is just this fierce love for each other. But because of the various ways that
their lives have taken them, they can't communicate that, and so that passion
gets rechanneled into anger and resentment.
GROSS: My guest is Alan Ball, creator of the HBO series "Six Feet Under."
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of Leo Kottke)
GROSS: My guest is Alan Ball, creator of the HBO series "Six Feet Under."
You had to learn something about what restorers do when they're working with a
corpse, especially if the corpse--you know, if the person died in a terrible
accident that mutilated the body in any way.
Mr. BALL: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: Where did you go to learn about that, and what are some of the things
that you learned that you're drawing on now?
Mr. BALL: Well, I actually, you know, I did some reading. I checked out
some textbooks from, you know, restorative art textbooks from, you know,
funeral training institutions. Embalming textbooks, I looked at. But we have
consultants on the show, people who are licensed embalmers, who are licensed
funeral directors, that we sort of turn to when we need to be really specific
about what's going on. But I did learn all kinds of stuff, you know. I never
knew really what happened in an autopsy. I didn't realize that they removed
most of your organs, you know, because when you embalm somebody after an
autopsy, the circulatory system is not intact, so you have to do it limb by
limb. It's an entire world of stuff that most people don't know about and,
thankfully, never need to know. But I can tell you this. I've decided that
when I die, I'm going--it's straight cremation for me...
Mr. BALL: ...'cause I don't really understand the need to preserve the body.
GROSS: You know what I find disturbing? The sense that after someone you
love dies, they still have an address, and the address is the cemetery. And
that's where you're supposed to go visit them, that there's a place where
you're supposed to be thinking about them, that it's not enough to carry them
in your heart and in your memory. There's an address that they have, and
you're supposed to go there on certain holidays, and it can be an incredibly
alienating experience, because you're not necessarily going to feel their
presence anymore in that cemetery than you are sitting in your bedroom or your
Mr. BALL: No. You know, last time I went home, I went to the cemetery
'cause my sister and my father are both buried there, and I hadn't been in
years, and I thought, well, you know, I'll just drive by and stop, and just
being there is such a--it is for me, an alienating experience. It's so weird.
And I didn't feel--you know, I cried, but it wasn't because I felt
particularly close to them or I felt their presence. I felt their presence
much more throughout daily life.
GROSS: Why do you think you cried then?
Mr. BALL: Mmm, maybe it's because--you know, Brenda says it in one of the
episodes of "Six Feet Under." You know, things happen that leave a mark in
space, in time, in us. And maybe just being in that particular spot, there's
a mark--there's some sort of psychic mark for me that reminds me of, you know,
those moments when it happened. But I didn't feel the presence of either one
of them, my sister or my dad. I just felt sad, but it was sort of a weird,
kind of generic sadness.
GROSS: So you're going to go the cremation route. Have you told people
that? I mean, have you made it official that that's what you want?
Mr. BALL: Yeah.
GROSS: And do you want to be scattered or kept in an urn?
Mr. BALL: You know what? I don't really care what happens to me after I'm
dead. I'm dead. I try to--I mean, one of the things that's weird karma for
me is, you know, I have my own fear and loathing of death, just like Nate,
that I carried with me for years. And, you know, everybody has that, and we
all will have it until we go, but now that I'm writing about death and kind of
confronting death, at least hypothetically, on a regular basis, there's a
certain relaxation and a certain kind of liberation. And Thomas Lynch says,
`The dead don't care.' And I don't think they do.
GROSS: Well, but if you don't care what happens, why are you so certain about
cremation? Is it to spare other people having to be tied to this address of
the cemetery, or...
Mr. BALL: Well, I think it's...
GROSS: ...to take responsibility to visit it?
Mr. BALL: I mean, to just take a body and pump it full of all these
chemicals and preserve it and then--there's something incredibly wasteful to
me about that. And I think, you know, just recycle me, you know. There's a
great David Sebaris short story, where he has his cat cremated, because she
never particularly expressed any interest in the outdoors, he sprinkles her
ashes on his carpet, and then he vacuums them up, which I love.
GROSS: David's a wizard with the vacuum cleaner.
Well, you know, I'm wondering, though, if there have been any of the, like,
rituals surrounding death that gave you a surprising amount of comfort or that
did nothing for you, you know.
Mr. BALL: When my dad died and when my sister died, the rituals did nothing
for me, nothing. And we were not a particularly religious family. We were
Methodists. I was raised Methodist, and we went to church on Easter and on
Christmas. And then, when my sister died, suddenly, it became all about
religion. And my mom and my dad, both, bless their hearts--they were just
trying to find someplace to turn to offer them any solace in their
grief--became very, very focused on that whole sort of, you know, end of the
world Gothic Christianity about the rapture and all that stuff. And I would
come home from school--I was 13 years old. My entire life was ahead of me.
And I'd come home from school and find my mom, like, crying. And I'd say, you
know, `What's wrong?' And she would say, `Well, you know, another prophecy
has come true. We're that much closer to the end times.' And she sort of
looked at that as a good thing, 'cause her life was so painful at that point
that I think she just wanted an excuse to, you know--I don't think she ever
contemplated suicide seriously, but I think she would have welcomed, you know,
some big cataclysmic, apocalyptic event that would just take her out of her
Now I was 13. I had my whole life ahead of me, and it was like I was being
told, you know, we're closer to the end of the world, and that's a good
thing. And so I sort of went, hmm, OK, thanks, Mom. Yeah.
GROSS: I want to briefly change the subject from death, the funeral business
and your series "Six Feet Under" to pornography, and the reason why, I read,
I think it was in the New Yorker, you know how a lot of pornography is a pun
on a well-known mainstream film. Well, your film "American Beauty" has had
its porn parallel, which is "American Booty."
Mr. BALL: "American Booty."
GROSS: So have you rented the film?
Mr. BALL: Actually, I didn't even know it existed, and a very good friend of
mine sent me a copy. And it's great because the video cover is like a total
rip-off of the poster. It's a background of rose petals, the typeface is
exactly the same, and it's a woman's buttocks, and she's holding a rose
between them. And when I saw that, I was, like, `Oh, my God, this is the
most exciting thing, you know. I have created something that has now been
bastardized by a porno knock-off. Wow, I have arrived.' Actually, I did
GROSS: Are any of the scenes homages to your film?
Mr. BALL: Not really. It starts off with this kind of vague montage of
suburban houses. They all look like houses in the San Fernando Valley. And
then this woman just sort of looks at the camera, and you can tell she's kind
of coked up. It's really sort of seedy and sordid. And she has this
monologue, she goes, `This is my neighborhood. It's so boring. If something
exciting doesn't happen soon, I'm just going to jump out of my skin.' And
then they dump rose petals behind her, but it's not in slow motion, so it
looks just like garbage is falling, and then the next thing you know, you're
in a jail, and some completely different woman is having sex with two men.
GROSS: Well, congratulations. You have arrived.
Mr. BALL: Yes.
GROSS: Well, I want to leave you with the words printed on the stationary.
It's the motto of a tombstone and memorial company in this area, and it's, `We
won't take you for granite.'
Mr. BALL: Wow.
GROSS: Well, Alan Ball, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. BALL: Thank you so much, Terry. It was such a pleasure.
GROSS: Alan Ball is the creator of the HBO series "Six Feet Under."
Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Rufus Wainwright's new CD. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Rufus Wainwright's new CD "Poses"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Rufus Wainwright is the son of two semi-famous musicians, Louden Wainwright
and Kate McGarrigle. Both parents began their musical careers with much
acclaim, but achieved little commercial success. Their son, Rufus, still in
his 20s, has just put out his second album, which is called "Poses." Rock
critic Ken Tucker says it's a less folk-oriented, more commercial-sounding CD
than anything Louden or Kate ever made. But Ken wonders whether Rufus is in
for the same long haul as his parents.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Cigarettes and chocolate milk. These are
just a couple of my cravings. Everything it seems I like's a little bit
stronger, a little bit thicker, a little bit harmful for me if I should
KEN TUCKER reporting:
When Louden Wainwright started out his career in the early '70s, he was
stickered with the label of being a new Bob Dylan. When Kate McGarrigle began
recording with her sister, Anne, around the same time, they made beautifully
crafted, but small-scale works that never sought a large audience. Rufus
Wainwright has inherited a lot, his own sticker--his is out-gay artist--and a
rebellious reaction to his mom's career. Unlike her, he wants to be a big
star. He's also inherited his parents' gift for meticulous craft, impeccably
measured word play, a knack for lovely melodies, but he works on a grander
scale with, there's no doubt, a grander audience in mind.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) California. California. You're such a wonder that
I think I'll stay in bed. Big-time rollers, part-time models, so much to
plunder that I think I'll sleep instead. I don't know this
(unintelligible) thousand ...(unintelligible) and big nights back East with
Rhoda. California, please.
TUCKER: Wainwright calls his new CD "Poses," and it's a collection of them.
In various tunes, he's a dandy, a depressed cynic, a jaded adventurer, or, as
the song title puts it, a rebel prince.
Wainwright revels in self-absorption, preening his homosexuality much more
prominently than he did on his debut, in compositions here, such as "Greek
Song" and "The Consort." It's with heavy irony, however, that his gay
venturesomeness comes across most effectively in a cover of a song by his
dad, himself a sometimes obnoxiously straight artist, called "One Man Guy."
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Who will know when they see this show the kind of a
guy I am. They'll recognize just the way I stand for and what I just can't
stand. They'll perceive what I believe in and what I know is true. And
they'll recognize I'm a one-man guy. I always was through and through.
People meditate, and that's just great, trying to find the inner you. People
depend on family and friends and other folks to pull them through. I don't
know why I'm a one-man guy, or why I'm a one-man show. Do they see cubic feet
of bone and blood in me or all I love and know. 'Cause I'm a one-man guy...
TUCKER: When Rufus sings that song, he sounds lonely and wistful, as though
being a one-man guy is a pose he wishes were real. It's an anomaly on this
collection, however, which is overloaded with piano-based, elaborately
orchestrated rococo arrangements that render his voice a blur of sadness and
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) You who abound with the sun above your shoulders,
you turn me on, you turn me on, you have to know. You who abound where the
sun, she keeps her distance, you turn me on, you turn me on
(unintelligible) You who abound there where beauty is existence, you turn me
on, you turn me over to you, my soul.
TUCKER: I suspect that Rufus' sexuality will end up pigeonholing him as
inescapingly as his father's novelty song "Wise Guy Persona" did him. Rufus'
contemporaries don't give a hoot about his parentage of course, but this
27-year-old singer-songwriter's self-knowledge hangs heavily over him. Like
every progeny of musician parents, from Shawn Ono-Lennon to Jakob Dylan, he
has yet to break entirely free of the limits he imposes upon himself,
consciously or unconsciously, to achieve the original sound he so clearly
Gay artists have for many years used the notion of the pose ironic distance to
communicate heartfelt emotion. About half the time on "Poses," Rufus
Wainwright achieves this very satisfyingly. The rest of the time, he's just
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
"Poses" by Rufus Wainwright.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. Wainwright: (Singing) Yellow walls are lined with portraits, and I got
my new red fetching leather jacket. All these poses, such beautiful poses,
makes any boy feel like picking up roses. There's never been such grave a
matter as comparing our new brand-name black sunglasses. All these poses,
such beautiful poses makes any boy feel as pretty as princes.
GROSS: Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer
today was Roberta Chirac(ph). I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with Susannah McCorkle singing a song by Irving Berlin. She took
her life last month. Today in New York, friends and family will gather for a
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. SUSANNAH McCORKLE: (Singing) Weary of roaming on, yearning to see the
dawn. Counting the hours till I can lay down my load. Weary, but I don't
mind, knowing that soon I'll find peace and contentment at the end of the
road. The way is long. The night is dark, but I don't mind, 'cause a happy
lark will be singing at the end of the road. I can't go wrong. I must go
right. I'll find my way, 'cause a guiding light will be shining at the end
of the road. There may be thorns in my path, but I'll wear a smile.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. STEVE EARLE: (Singing) In the blink of an eye...
GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, singer-songwriter Steve Earle on writing songs
and fiction. He's just published his first book, a collection of short
stories called "Doghouse Roses." I'm Terry Gross. Join us for the next FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. EARLE: (Singing) I can walk here myself, so you have to go through this.
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