He’s had tremendous success in both film — winning an Oscar for his screenplay for “American Beauty” — and in TV, creating iconic series such as “True Blood” and “Six Feet Under.” Now, Alan Ball — who was born in Marietta — is back with a new project, the character-driven “Uncle Frank,” which he both wrote and directed.
In the film, set in 1973, 18-year-old Beth (played by Sophia Lillis) comes to college at New York University and learns that her titular uncle (Paul Bettany), a literature professor, is gay and in a long-term relationship with another man. Not long after, Beth and Frank return home to South Carolina after a family tragedy — with Frank’s partner Wally (Peter Macdissi, Ball’s longtime collaborator and domestic partner) joining as well. “Uncle Frank” bows Nov. 25 on Amazon Prime with an ensemble cast that also includes Lois Smith, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer and Margo Martindale.
The idea for the film came 30 years ago. Ball was living in New York City and went home to Marietta to come out of the closet to his mother. When he did, he got an unexpected response. “She said, ‘I blame your father because I think he was that way too,’” Ball recalls. Ball also learned about a close friend of his father. “I had never heard of that person and my mother said he was a real, real good friend of your daddy. I later found out my father had accompanied this man’s body on a train back to his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. I don’t know if my father was gay — he was already dead and I wasn’t able to have a conversation with him about it — but it opened this window into my brain of what if this were true. What would that story have been? It percolated in my head for 25 years and five years ago I sat down to write a script and ‘Uncle Frank’ is what came out.”
When Ball was finished, though, he didn’t find an automatic greenlight for the film. “It took us a long time to find a financier,” says Ball. “A lot of people passed on the script. I think they looked at it and said we don’t see how this is going to make us any money. Eventually we got Paul Bettany attached and that helped us to get into some meetings with other financiers. Eventually Miramax said yes, but it took two or three years to get set up.”
The fact that Ball wanted Bettany to play the lead character made the actor receptive almost immediately, even more so when he read the script. Bettany did want to talk to Ball first, however, and make sure he was the most appropriate actor for the role. “We had a beautiful phone call,” Bettany says.
The actor’s own upbringing made him relate to the character of Frank. “I was raised by a closeted gay man who came out when he was 63 years and he had a 20 year relationship with a man who I believe was the love of his life,” says Bettany. “After he died, my father went back into the closet and I have some knowledge of someone who is running from themselves and I felt I could help and it could be useful (for this character) to be me.”
Lillis heard about the project from her agent. She read the script, too, and loved it, especially Beth’s arc. “In the beginning Beth feels she is stuck in South Carolina,” the actress says. “She loves Frank because he takes her seriously and talks to her like an adult. She wants to be like him and get away. In the end, she becomes more comfortable with herself and more independent, her own person. She becomes someone she can look up to; someone who can be a mentor. She becomes something of a mentor to Frank, telling him what he told her — ‘Be who you want to be and don’t care what others think.’”
Virtually all of Ball’s projects have had queer representation and it’s important for him that they do. “Being gay myself, I grew up watching films and TV where the gay characters were villains or psychopaths or tragic victims,” he says. “They were defined by their sexuality and nothing else. Part of my own struggle or journey is to not let being gay define me like society wants it to define me. When I write characters who are gay, they are gay but I try and make them as three dimensional and fully rounded as any character.”