Written by Dylan Callaghan
It wasn’t its racially provocative title but the emotional authenticity of the story of an Arab-American girl’s struggle for validation and sexual identity that made Alan Ball want to adapt and direct Alicia Erian’s acclaimed novel, Towelhead. In fact, Ball, an Oscar winner for his American Beauty script and the Emmy-winning creator HBO’s Six Feet Under, initially thought no studio would have the guts to buy the film with its original title. “I originally re-titled it Nothing is Private,” he explains. “I felt like it would never sell if it was called Towelhead. I thought people would be too afraid of it.”
Perhaps the most effective thing he did to defend the original title was to give the film a horrible new one. “Nothing is Private is a terrible title,” Ball concedes. “When Warner Independent picked it up, they said they thought I should revert back to the original title of the book.” Despite drawing protest from Islamic civil rights groups, the film’s distributor has protected the creative integrity of the title. “It’s very ironic,” Ball adds of the fact that the studio execs were, in this case, the ones trying not to change the original work.
Ball gave the Writers Guild of America, West Web site his surprising take on how derogatory slurs affect him and why he feels there is a genuine universal relatability to the film’s story, no matter how disparate it might seem.
What kind of reaction did you expect when you took on Alicia Erian’s novel and how much did that have to do with your decision to adapt and direct it?
Of course, people are going to be upset by the title, and that’s the point [Erian, who is Arab-American] made so eloquently in her statement [to press about the controversial title]. It’s not a surprise.
When I took the project on, what I was really thinking was that I love this story. I wasn’t really thinking about how it was going to be received because I try not to do that. I try not to second guess what the results will be because I feel like that’s a trap. I knew there would be something, but I didn’t really concern myself with how big or small it would be.
I’m not that sensitive about words like this myself. I’ve been the target of them, and I don’t place much importance on them.
I was going to ask about that. You have an intimate, personal grasp of being a minority as a gay man...
Photo: ©2008 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Peter Macdissi and Summer Bishil in Towelhead.
I’ve watched one of my favorite shows, South Park, as the kids refer to anything weak or ridiculous as “really gay.” That’s very wide spread in the culture, and I don’t think I should take political offense at it, even if it may bug me personally a little bit. But at the same time, I get it. That’s the way people talk, and I would rather see it out there than have it hushed up.
I have to sit there and watch Ann Coulter say that Al Gore’s a total fag on TV. I just feel like, when people use these words without any sense of irony or outside of any intelligent context, it shows how small they are. Frankly, I’d rather know who are saying those things.
It’s obvious given your own personal issues how you can relate to this story, but at the same time, this is a very singular tale about an Arab-American teenage girl. I’m curious what challenges those huge difference posed in terms of getting the right tone and rhythm for this script.
I was very fortunate in that Alicia had done all that work. Her novel’s story is told so clearly and is so keenly observed -- it did such a great job of putting the reader in Jasira’s [the lead character] shoes that I didn’t feel like it was a big leap for me make a movie with an Arab-American girl as its protagonist.
How would you describe your adaptation as it pertains to the novel?
Very faithful and extremely respectful. There were some stylistic challenges in that the novel was narrated and part of the joy of the novel is Jasira’s thoughts, but I didn’t want the movie narrated because I didn’t want it to be one step removed from what was happening -- it would seem like she was remembering it from adulthood and a different time. I also felt like it would just get in the way, so, instinctively I didn’t want to do narration. There was also the challenge of condensing it. I really love this book and tried to keep so much of it in.
Another challenge was her initial reaction to the pictures of the naked women in the magazine she looks at. As she describes it in her narration in the novel, it was very clear that it wasn’t sexual -- she didn’t connect those images with sexuality yet. There was a real innocence and a yearning to be a pretty girl who could be naked and photographed and deified, [for a place] where no one was going to slap her for coming to the table without a bra. That’s why I used the image flashes there, because I didn’t want it to seem sexual. I wanted to track her convoluted stumbling on her own sexuality.
If you were to distill what this film says for a journalist or maybe a studio executive, what would you say?
You asked what I would say to a studio executive, so you’re going to get a really stupid answer...
No, no, forget that then!
On the surface, it’s about race and sexual identity, but underneath it all, it’s about how one girl’s spirit would not be destroyed by an experience that would probably destroy a lot of other people. Usually when [these experiences] are depicted in fiction, they do end up destroying the person they happen to. I found that very inspiring and uplifting and redemptive -- all those words I hate when I hear them from studio executives. It’s really genuine in this story, not tacked on in some phony, Hollywood way. Honestly, I’ve actually said this about this movie, and I think it’s the truth -- It’s a story about the triumph of the human spirit.