Life (and Death) Again, through Alan Ball’s Eyes
Few know their way around a funeral scene like master of mortality Alan Ball, writer-director of his crowning jewel of a series, Six Feet Under (2001- 2005). At the center were the Fishers, who owned a funeral home. And as one of the first gay leads to be featured as a fully developed character on TV, David Fisher was groundbreaking. Ball, who also created True Blood and wrote American Beauty, returns to the emotional, gay-inclusive, funeral-encompassing family drama with Uncle Frank, which he wrote and directed. It’s now on Amazon Prime.
There’s a will reading, a family dinner-table scene and a funeral in Uncle Frank, which instantly took me back to Six Feet Under. Did filming Uncle Frank bring you back too?
I know the day we shot that funeral scene in the cemetery I had this amazing sense of déjà vu. Actually, I took a picture and posted it on my Instagram page.
The theme of unfinished business recurs in your work. Is that something you are conscious of while developing it?
Yeah, absolutely. Frank never got to confront his father. And the genesis of Uncle Frank was when I came out of the closet to my mother 30 years ago and she said, “Well, I blame your father because I believe he was that way too.” But he was already dead. So, I never got to have a conversation with my dad to find out if that was true. There’s real frustration in that. But unless you’re a person who just goes through life in every experience you have making sure you’ve said everything you need to say to the people you need to say it to, there’s going to be unfinished business. That’s just a part of life.
Was Uncle Frank you imagining what life could have been like for your dad?
Knowing what my mom said about my dad and also knowing that when he was a very young man he had, as my mom put it, “a real, real close friend” who drowned and whose body he accompanied on a train back to Asheville, North Carolina, it is a sort of, “What if?”
I admire that the movie portrays a gay couple, Frank and Wally, who are middle-aged and neither of them die. Their relationship is loving and supportive. And in the end, you know they’re going to be all right. Within the scope of LGBTQ films, that is a refreshing narrative arc.
It’s true. Yeah, it was important to me that Frank and Wally stay together because you are used to especially middle-aged gay men, when you see stories about them, usually somebody’s gotta die. I think of Brokeback Mountain, I think of A Single Man. These movies are great, but there is this implicit, “Well, somebody’s gotta die; they can’t be happy.”
It was the same way in Six Feet Under. The writers kept pushing for me to break David and Keith up and I wouldn’t do it because I wanted to depict a relationship where they stayed together.
Your own partner, Peter Macdissi, who appears in much of your work, plays Frank’s partner, Wally. What has it been like to work with Peter all these years?
It’s been really edifying for me to be with somebody who’s from a completely different culture and a completely different background than my own. It just forces me to open my eyes and see things from a different perspective. One of the reasons I wanted Wally to be from Saudi Arabia, to be a Muslim—and there are people who are Muslim and gay and they don’t tell their parents but they still have relationships with their parents and they’re very close—is it’s such a different mindset than our Western life.
Did any of Frank’s relationship with Wally come from your own relationship with Peter?
I don’t do that consciously, but I’m sure it just shows up in there. I mean, he’s not Wally. That was definitely a performance. And he’s not Muslim. He was raised Catholic. And he’s not Saudi Arabian; he’s Lebanese. Frank and Wally are not a depiction of me and Peter in any way, but I’m sure there are little elements and details that show up in there.
I know some of your own real-life experiences inspired scenes in Six Feet Under, so I’m always curious how much of your own life ends up in your work.
When Frank comes out to his brother and his brother says, “I just have two words for you: no problem,” that’s what my brother said to me. It just had to go into the script.##
As editor of Q Syndicate, the LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey, and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ, and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.