Alan Ball, 63 [pictured centre, with Peter Macdissi and Paul Bettany] won an Oscar for scripting American Beauty and went on to become one of the most successful showrunners in American TV history, creating iconic dramas Six Feet Under and True Blood. He also turned to directing film in 2007, with the feature Towelhead starring Aaron Eckhart, and is now back in that arena with Uncle Frank.
Written and directed by Ball, and set in 1973, it’s a heartfelt tale about a gay man (played by Paul Bettany) who returns to his South Carolina home for his father’s funeral with his family still unaware of his sexuality. Uncle Frank co-stars Sophia Lillis as Beth, the niece who helps Frank on this difficult journey.
Ball spoke exclusively to FilmInk about working with Bettany, themes he wanted to explore and where moviemaking is in his career.
What led you to choosing Paul Bettany to play the lead, Frank Bledsoe, in Uncle Frank? Was it a specific role he had impressed you in?
“Yeah, in Journey’s End. The character he played had such dignity and such an inherent moral goodness and quiet goodness. And that was the role that I went, ‘I could totally see him playing Frank.’ And then once we made the offer, I got on the phone with him. And we had a couple of really lovely phone conversations. There are elements of his own life that Uncle Frank, the character, and the story, spoke to. He felt a personal connection to it. And I could just tell through the phone conversation that he connected to the material and also that he was a really, really spectacular human being, a really kind, good person. We were on the same wavelength as to the kind of movie that we wanted to make. Also, we shared a very similar sense of humour. So, it just felt right. After that phone conversation, I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s go, let’s go with him.’”
How was Paul on set with the character? Very absorbed and immersed in the role?
“Yes, he had done a lot of work on it, on his own, prior to arriving to set and so he was very immersed in the character, but he also was just a joy to work with. He’s very funny. And he’s not one of those people who is like ‘I only want to be referred to by my character’s name’, or that kind of stuff. He likes the social aspect of filmmaking as well. So, for me, he was great. It’s exactly the kind of actor I like to work with, somebody who’s really prepared, somebody who really knows what they’re doing. But at the same time, they still really have fun doing it.”
Frank’s journey in the film leads him to past childhood traumas. Were guilt and forgiveness themes that you wanted to explore in Uncle Frank?
“I think when Frank is at the grave and he’s saying, ‘Forgive me’, he is basically forgiving himself in that moment. And, of course, things aren’t quite as clean as that in real life. You forgive yourself. And then a year later you forgive yourself again. When you’re making a movie…you have to crystallise and condense it a little bit.”
It’s also a film about healing and coming together. Did you feel it was a good time for Uncle Frank to come out, amid this year’s election chaos?
“That was certainly never my intent, because I didn’t know how things were going to be and what they were. And I certainly wrote the script before Trump was ever elected.”
You directed Towelhead in 2007 for cinemas. Where is cinema in your working life now?
“Well, I mean, things just worked out the way they did. I would prefer to, at this point in my life, make movies because signing on to several years of running a television show is daunting. Both True Blood and Six Feet Under, I found myself at the end of my run on those shows, going ‘Hey, where did those five years of my life go?’ I am sitting on a lot of screenplays that I’ve written over the years that I would love to get made, but it’s hard. I think Towelhead was not well received and was certainly not commercially successful. There’s that old adage: you’re as good as your last project.”
Your sensibilities seem akin to 1970s cinema. Do you feel that you might have flourished in that era?
“Well, that’s when I came of age. I was a teenager in the ‘70s. And I was going to movies all the time and seeing these great movies like Chinatown and The Godfather and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Taxi Driver. And those are the movies that made me want to make movies.”
You had two shows that tapped the zeitgeist. Did you get a sense at the time that True Blood and Six Feet Under were being embraced that way?
“I definitely got a sense that was happening as it was happening. I mean, I didn’t know they were going to be successful when I was creating them or shooting the pilot. But as they both sort of turned into phenomena, I definitely had the sense that was going on.”
What is next for you? Will you return to television?
“I have three screenplays. I would love to get one of them made and nobody’s biting right now. So, I’ve also been working on a limited series, a pitch for a limited series, that we’re going to take out to potential buyers probably the first week of December. And then I’m writing. I’m writing a pilot script for a TV show just for myself, just writing it on spec – a show that I would like to see. And when I finish that, we’ll see what happens. I mean, American Beauty and Six Feet Under and True Blood, I wrote on spec. And I wrote Uncle Frank on spec. I’m not the biggest fan of development. It’s just something that has never worked for me. But we’ll see!”
Uncle Frank streams on Amazon Prime Video from November 25, 2020.