Sunday, 11 September 2011

You Can Take A Picture: Meeting Alan Ball and TV as (bad) influence

Alan Ball (writer, director, Academy Award winner) and Keith Gow (fan)
It used to be cringe-worthy to say I was inspired to become a writer by the television I watched. I was a voracious reader as a child and I was exposed to theatre and was a film buff as a teenager, but the lasting narratives in my life were television serials. Often soap operas. But TV was a constant with me as a child. It's where my lasting love of continuing stories comes from.

It's no coincidence then that one TV show I could point to as a great influence on me - when I was studying writing and had to articulate what made me love long-form television narratives - was Twin Peaks. It was soap opera and detective series and Gothic melodrama of the highest order. And it was one of the very early examples of feature film auteurs putting their stamp on the small screen.

I used to say Twin Peaks was my favourite television series. And certainly in the context of TV shows that changed the face of TV - and my opinion of the medium, David Lynch and Mark Frost's cult television series remains a great influence. It made me see what TV could do. Unfortunately, it took television a long time to catch up and prove it could keep doing it.

At some point, I started thinking of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as my favourite TV series - mostly because it combined the high school drama with vampires, werewolves and never forgot the heart of the human drama. When I saw Joss Whedon speak in Melbourne (and got his autograph), I was almost struck speechless - though I did thank him for Buffy and asked him his favourite Sondheim musical.

Tonight, I saw Alan Ball speak about his career. I was enamoured with American Beauty after its release and captivated by Six Feet Under from its premiere episode to its very final episode five years later. Later, his series about the Fisher family and their funeral business became my favourite television series of all time - and now I've met its creator, too.

He talked of growing up in a small country town, of writing plays in New York, taking a job on Grace Under Fire so he could start a proper writing career, moving onto Cybill - and finding himself feeling like he was on the assembly line of a factory. No wonder American Beauty is about a writer trying to find passion in his life again.

After winning the Academy Award for best original screenplay, he was taken more seriously as a writer by other people (though he insists his views on his own abilities never changed) and this led to his creating Six Feet Under - a show for whom HBO had a single note on the pilot: can you make it more fucked up? He was up to the challenge!

The Q&A with Alan Brough was illuminating and the talkback section beckoned me, though I remained shyly in my seat. Luckily, someone else asked about the final montage of Six Feet Under and Alan talked about writing the script, then choosing the song ("Breath Me" by Sia) and then shooting with the song in mind.

Afterwards, he was signing DVDs - but all I wanted was a photograph. And I got one. And I got to thank him for Six Feet Under - one of the most profound and moving television shows I've ever watched. He seemed quite appreciative of the comment. And for the rest of the night, I was floating on air.

Television is in a golden age right now. Six Feet Under helped to usher it in. Mad Men has probably taken up its mantle as my favourite show on air. But Six Feet Under remains my favourite television series of all time. Meeting Alan Ball can't make me love that show any more than I already do, but maybe I might try watching True Blood again?

Or do my other favourites-of-all-time - Twin Peaks and Buffy - cover the supernatural melodrama genres well enough?

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