Six Feet Under’s Alan Ball on grief and dying, American-style
Who better to unpack our culture’s bizarre relationship with death than Alan Ball? The creator of the funereal drama Six Feet Under, which recently ended its 5-year run on HBO, Ball also penned the Oscar-winning screenplay for the 1999 film American Beauty. Utne recently caught up with Ball, 48, to chat about mortality and the sweet hereafter.
What inspired you to come up with Six Feet Under? Why tackle the subject of death?
Actually, I wrote the pilot, but the idea of doing the show set in a funeral home belonged to Carolyn Strauss [an HBO executive]. Granted, I think I responded to it because when I was growing up a lot of people in my family died, and I spent a lot of time in funeral homes.
When you were 13, your sister Mary Ann died in a car accident while she was driving you to a music lesson.
And my dad died two years after that. And in between, a grandfather, a grandmother, a great-aunt. There was a period when we were always going to funerals.
What kind of impact did that have on you?
It certainly taught me that death exists and it just comes out of nowhere. I remember, at the time, finding the whole ritual and the whole American funeral home experience to be surreal.
Well, my sister just disappeared. And then all of a sudden, we went to a funeral home and there she was, lying in a box. They had done her hair in a way she would never do it, and she was wearing a color of lipstick that wasn’t her. She didn’t look like her—she did and she didn’t—and it was weird and creepy. There was weird music playing, and everything was very secluded. The whole experience was muffled, and that stayed with me. When my mom broke down and really started to cry and grieve, somebody swooped out and carried her off behind a curtain.
The subtext was that this is too personal, we shouldn’t see this, it’s too upsetting. I’m not saying that’s true of the American funeral industry in general. But it struck me as a bizarre, muffled way of confronting grief that actually avoided grief.
Do you think denial is a uniquely American response to mortality and death?
I do feel like America is an extremely immature culture, with a frantic focus on youth and maintaining the appearance of youth. We go out of our way to sweep death under the carpet. Even what’s going on right now in Iraq: The administration refuses to allow the returning bodies to be photographed. It’s all about hiding the reality of death. And I think it’s profoundly unhealthy.
A few years ago, you said that writing Six Feet Under had forced you to confront death daily. Is that a good thing? Cathartic? Draining?
It’s all of those. I mean, there are times when the show is just so depressing, you develop a gallows humor about it, you know? Granted, this is all purely hypothetical. It’s not like I’m going to work every day and really confronting a dead person. I’ve gotten more comfortable with the idea of death, but it’s still horrible when someone I know dies, and I still have an uneasy truce with my own mortality.
Meaning I know it’s there. I know it’s going to happen. But it doesn’t scare me like it used to. Whether that is a product of having worked on a show about death for five years or just getting older, I don’t know. But I know now that life is short and I don’t want to waste my time doing stuff that’s not important.
You were a well-established playwright before you wrote American Beauty. Did you explore death as a topic earlier in your career?
Not so much. It wasn’t until American Beauty that it really came to the surface. You know, when my sister died, I didn’t grieve because I didn’t know how. Nobody in my family knew how to grieve. We were like the Fishers [the family on Six Feet Under], repressed WASP people who were uncomfortable with emotion. I literally carried around unexpressed grief for about 20 years. I was king of the overachievers in school and I was the happy-go-lucky party guy and then I woke up one day just terrified. I went through a period of about six months when I thought I was having a nervous breakdown. I went back into therapy. And do you know what it was? It was the grief that I had never been through. The thing about grief is, you can’t avoid it, because it is a fundamental part of being alive. Everything we know, everything we love, everything we care about, we’ll lose. Somebody said that the only way out of grief is through it. And C.S. Lewis said, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” Our knee-jerk reaction is to try to avoid those feelings because they’re unpleasant and painful and uncomfortable. But it doesn’t serve us well.
What is your take on how death is usually portrayed on the American pop culture landscape?
There’s so much violence in movies and TV. The Christian right doesn’t seem to have a problem with that. But have two people of the same sex kissing each other and everybody goes through the roof. I would say the vast majority of deaths that are portrayed are portrayed without consequences. Somebody dies and it’s cartoonish or it’s entertaining. Even in a movie, an important character, usually a wife, will die, so the hero has justification to become a vigilante and kill 30 people. You don’t see the scene where the hero is really sad and then he gets over it, you know?
Are you surprised by what a hit the show was?
In the beginning, people at HBO marketing were saying, “How are we going to market the show? – it’s so dark, so dark, so dark.” But I was thinking “I don’t think it’s that dark. I think it’s real.” In retrospect, I’m not surprised. Death is in the closet, so to speak, in our culture, but I think people want to acknowledge that it’s there because there’s a psychological cost to living in denial. I don’t think it’s any accident that a large part of Six Feet Under is about being gay, as well. You can’t have an authentic life unless you address the truth about who you are. When you pretend death doesn’t exist, you just give it that much more power over you.
Right. Repression seems to have a compound effect. We deny death constantly, and then we have this circuslike outpouring when it comes to people like Terri Schiavo or the pope.
Absolutely. And the right-wing evangelicals who were fueling the so-called culture of life with Terri Schiavo don’t seem to be too upset about slaughtering thousands of innocent Iraqi children. They are so wrapped up in pretending death doesn’t exist that they would allow a fundamentally dead woman to just exist there. You know what? We die. We all die.
What has it been like for the actors on Six Feet Under to essentially inhabit grief and death in every episode?
It’s like my experience. Everybody develops a gallows humor. Some of the actors have said to me, “Boy, after five years of this, I want to go to some big, stupid comedy.”
Do you feel the same way?
I do. I feel like, Okay, I’ve explored this daily peering into the abyss enough. One of the projects I’ve been working on is a frothy screwball comedy in which nobody dies.
Has it hit you yet that Six Feet Under is off the air? Or will that come later?
It hit me. I wept like a baby when I was writing the final episode. I wept at the table reading. I wept shooting several scenes. Sometimes it was because of my own sense of grief at the end of the show. Sometimes it was because the actors were so good in these particular scenes and what was going on in them was so moving. I’ve done a fair share of crying as it happened, which I think is much healthier.