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Anything But Ordinary: American Beauty Screenwriter Alan Ball on the Film's 15th Anniversary

09/03/2014 01:14 pm ET | Updated Nov 03, 2014

The Academy Awards have always favored industry over artistry. Which is why 15 years after American Beauty's release, it's still surprising that it did all but sweep the Oscars. The drama won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (for Kevin Spacey), Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. With the film both critically acclaimed and a box office smash, for a brief moment the suits and the artists could bow down in front of a campfire with one another in a hymn of "Kumbaya." It took hundreds to carry the logs, but the first one to incite the flame was screenwriter Alan Ball.

The idea came to him when he worked as a graphic designer for Adweek in Times Square. New York press was ablaze with coverage of the 1992 Joey Buttafuoco/Amy Fisher trial, in which Fisher was charged with first-degree attempted murder of Buttafuoco's wife.

"I came out for lunch one day and somebody was selling comic books that on one cover had Amy as this virginal Catholic schoolgirl. Joey was this hairy, lecherous, beer-bellied beast, just waiting to be a predator," Ball says as he sips a cappuccino, not that he needs the caffeine to jog his memory. "Then you turn it over, and he's the good suburban husband, and she's all tarted up like a little Lolita. I remember thinking, 'the truth is somewhere in between, and we will never know what it is.'"

The latent tone of resentment within the script is partly autobiographical.

Ball channeled his anger and frustration at having to accede to network television demands during his tenures on sitcoms Grace Under Fire and Cybill.

"I had learned all the tricks of the sitcom. I knew what they wanted and gave it to them, but they'd always change it every week. It was just an inefficient process. I felt like I was in a factory, using the talent I was given to make really disposable stuff."

In an effort to reintroduce Ball to the industry, where Ball was primarily known as a television writer, his agent implored him to pen a new film script. He pitched his agent three projects. Two were homespun romantic comedies, but the third pitch -- which struck a chord with his agent -- was American Beauty.

"I said, 'I'm surprised, why would you suggest I write that one?' My agent said, 'that's the one you feel most passionate about.' That's probably the best advice I've ever gotten in my career."

He initially planned to leave Cybill and work on his script for a year, but was offered so much money that he decided to stay on the sitcom for another 12 months, then write the script.

"I felt like such a big whore that I wrote it while I was working on the sitcom. I would come home at midnight, filled with rage because my job was so soul deadening. I think it's no accident that the movie's main character is a writer who has lost his passion for living. I had lost my passion for writing. I had to write something I cared about."

Upon its completion, the script was a Hollywood hot potato passed around to nearly every studio -- and was nearly sold -- but then Ball received word that Steven Spielberg got his hands on it. Ball was elated, but skeptical.

"I thought, 'pfft. Well, he'll hate it.' I don't know why I thought that because I have a lot of respect for him as a filmmaker. But I thought that he was so, for lack of a better word, mainstream. I didn't view the movie as particularly mainstream."

The next day, he heard that the Schindler's List director and business magnate loved it, and Ball met with DreamWorks producers Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks.

"Then on the way out to my car, Steven Spielberg came up to me, and I was like, 'okay, just act normal. You're about to meet Steven Spielberg.' He came up to me and said, 'I love your script. How come I've never heard of you?'"

Displayed on the wall a couple of yards in front of Ball's demure oak desk are glistening rose petals framed in glass, the signature symbols representing the profound urges and fantasies of the film's protagonist, Lester Burnham -- played by Kevin Spacey.

In an opening scene of the film, Lester informs us in voice-over narration, "In less than a year, I'll be dead. And in a way, I'm dead already." After he describes his wife and daughter the way one would read aloud a eulogy, he sprouts a new outlook. "I have lost something. I'm not exactly sure what it is, but I know I didn't always feel this... sedated. But you know what? It's never too late to get it back."

Esquire called 1999 the last great year in movies, a bold but arguable declaration. For the 2000 Academy Awards, American Beauty was up against stiff competition, especially in the screenwriting department: the twist-teeming thriller The Sixth Sense, the odyssey of love, failure, and forgiveness within Magnolia, the musical homage to Victorian life and theatre in Topsy-Turvy, and the courageous self-deprecation of Being John Malkovich.

"I think the movie spoke to people," Ball says. "Whether it's the performances, the way it was shot, the way it was directed. It spoke to people in a way they're not used to having movies speak to them."

I mention that Ball's director Sam Mendes referred to the script as a "rites of passage film about imprisonment and escape from imprisonment." Ball agrees with the assessment.

"There is spirituality to it. I don't want to define that spirituality as any particular school of thought, but I think it is about a man who goes on a spiritual journey and reclaims his life. Now, he does some pretty stupid and childish things, but in a way it's kind of heroic."

When brought to life on the silver screen, the American Beauty script became the Great American Novel, distilling the pinnacle and downfall of chasing the American Dream within two hours. Ball's characters are tragic (the Burnams' next-door neighbor Ricky Fitts receives crushing blows from his shell-shocked ex-Marine father when the teen's sexual preferences are questioned), comical (Jane's revolting expression when her friend Angela says her father is "cute"), and in their finest moments, both. (Cue Lester's signature line: "Remember those posters that said, 'Today is the first day of the rest of your life'? Well, that's true of every day but one -- the day you die.")

The picture's character types are difficult to pitch because the ever-heightening tension between them recurs in any high school soap opera: There's the bickering mom and dad, the cheerleader, the weirdo, the traumatized military vet, and the one who has to piece them all together. What makes them original is not in who they are, but what they do. Refusing to be typecast, Ball's characters reveal themselves the way an illusionist removes his cloak; like someone we've met, but have never been able to figure out until one ineffaceable action reveals his or her life's stakes. They keep us guessing until the grand finale.

"Pretty much every character does something despicable, but they are very human. You get to see their humanity and you get to see why they're so broken."

Gathering a decade and a half's worth of wisdom since his debut feature, Ball notes the inseparable relationship of success and failure. This was especially apparent during his seemingly overnight achievement in 1999.

"I debuted this sitcom for ABC, and everybody loved American Beauty. The sitcom was universally loathed and reviled, and died a horrible death. There was a People end-of-year feature of best and worst. It said American Beauty was one of the 10 best movies of the year, and you literally turn the page and you see the 10 worst TV shows, and there was my show, Oh, Grow Up. Ultimately, the lesson learned is that you do the best you can, and stay out of the results."

Ball's acumen when dealing with the good and bad has allowed him to take greater chances in the 15 years since his Oscar win, and with an attitude that is neither discouraged nor complacent. "It's a lot to live up to," he says with a chuckle, "but hopefully I've gotten better."

Just like in 1999, the reception has been mostly good. Ball wrote and directed his second feature film, Towelhead, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2007. Yet his international acclaim revamped when he returned to the platform he once loathed: network television. But the days of being mad as hell and not going to take it anymore were over.

From 2001 to 2005, he helmed the HBO black comedy/drama Six Feet Under. If any of his work could be labeled a "sequel" to American Beauty, this was it. With the allegories of flowers and blood, Ball introduced his doctrine of life and death -- but his first hit show trademarked it with fast precision. Words of his short-tempered characters whish like a gust of wind; the tragicomic theatrics torture and tickle the soul.

Stacked atop a mini-mountain of books on his waiting room table is Barrie Pattison's The Seal of Dracula. One would infer the mastermind behind True Blood -- which just aired its season finale -- still sinks his teeth into the supernatural, but he clears up that implication with a wry smile and soft exhale.

"I don't think I'll be doing anything with vampires for a while. I've got two things going on right now: I have a movie called I Am Chippendales that is supposed to shoot in October; then there's another pilot I've written for HBO, a period piece based on an idea that Elton John's company brought to my company."

Though eager to move forward, he relishes an opportunity to reminisce. "You know you've made it big," he says with a cheeky grin, holding up a DVD titled American Booty, "when they've made a porno named after your movie."

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