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Alan Ball presents: Sex, teens and vampires

  • Story Highlights
  • HBO's "True Blood" is about a world where vampires, humans intersect
  • Film "Towelhead" concerns Arab-American girl's sexual awakening
  • Writer-director Alan Ball ("Six Feet Under") is behind both projects
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By Todd Leopold
CNN
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(CNN) -- Alan Ball likes to get under people's skin.

Alan Ball has two projects debuting in September: the film "Towelhead" and the TV show "True Blood."

There were the suburbanites of "American Beauty," the movie for which Ball won an Oscar for best original screenplay, about a group of adults and teens leading lives of quiet desperation. There were the funeral home operators of "Six Feet Under," the much-lauded HBO series Ball created, whose characters dealt with drug abuse, racial and sexual stereotyping, and the often thin line between life and death.

Now Ball is back with two more projects: "True Blood," a graphic HBO series about a mind-reading waitress and some modern vampires, based on books by Charlaine Harris; and "Towelhead," a feature film about an Arab-American 13-year-old caught between the strict, traditional ideals of her father and her own sexual curiosity, which manifests itself in relationships with a black teenager and her much older white neighbor.

"True Blood" premieres Sunday, and "Towelhead," based on Alicia Erian's novel, will open in theaters September 12. Video Watch Ball discuss the challenges of "Towelhead" »

Both projects were inspired by the screenwriter and director's reading of the novels they're based on, though he says that he wasn't necessarily reading the books in search of projects.

"It's not like everything I read I see as a possible movie or TV show," he says in a phone interview from Washington.

Books, he continues, allow him to enter a self-enclosed world, one that's harder to get into with his own line of work. "It's hard for me to watch TV or movies without thinking, 'That was an awkward edit,' " he says. "Not so with books."

"Towelhead" was particularly attractive, he says. Erian's book, which was published in 2005, concerns Jasira (Summer Bishil), a 13-year-old who's been sent to live with her Lebanese-born father in a featureless suburb of Houston, Texas, after her self-absorbed American mother catches a boyfriend molesting her. Jasira's father, Rifat (Peter Macdissi), has no idea how to handle his daughter's burgeoning sexuality -- and neither does Jasira, who enjoys flirting with a military reservist neighbor, Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart). (The movie is set during the Persian Gulf War, which heightens the culture clash.)

The two embark on an awkward affair that's discovered by another neighbor, Melina (Toni Collette), who gives Jasira some of the maternal interest she's obviously lacking.

The work has proved controversial for everything from its frank depiction of sexuality -- which includes Jasira's interest in masturbating as well as her unapologetic hookups -- to its title, which has continued to receive protests from some Arab-American groups. At one point the title was changed to "Nothing Is Private," but Ball says that the "really lame" substitution didn't play well with him or preview audiences.

"Across the board, they said they hated the title," he says. "We couldn't find a better title, and finally [studio] Warner Independent said, 'You should call it "Towelhead." ' I also feel like a word like 'towelhead' is designed to remove the character's humanity, and that's what everybody does in the movie -- nobody actually sees her. So I saw it as a good metaphor."

Portraying an affair between a teenager and an adult was another challenge. (Bishil, who was 18 at the time of filming, had her mother on set at all times.) Eckhart, playing a character who's like a vulnerable cousin to the crass manipulator he played in "In the Company of Men," had to find a soul for a man engaging in immoral behavior.

"It's a testimony to Aaron [that the character isn't black and white]," says Ball. "He appreciated the challenge of finding the humanity in this person -- what he was subjected to, to make him cross the line. [The character] doesn't think of himself as a criminal."

In the film's production notes, Eckhart says, "You have to believe that his intentions are true. And that he can't help himself. ... As an actor it would have been harder for me if he were completely heartless ... [but] he is really trying to discover and explore and to get into her heart and make her fall in love with him."

In addition, Ball says "Towelhead" may have sat on a shelf without Eckhart: "His participating got the movie made," he says.

Ball says he finds it sadly ironic that the movie has been criticized for its portrayal of a teen's sexual curiosity while violence in film and video usually earns no more than a shrug. "It irritates me that people's lives are so disposable," he says.

But then he chuckles, because in a twist, "True Blood" revels in, well, violence (though there's plenty of humor, too). "I've created a new show with a massive body count, so maybe I'm not one to talk," he says.

In "Blood," a waitress in small-town Louisiana, Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), falls in love with a vampire, Bill (Stephen Moyer). Vampires have "come out of the coffin," as one character observes, thanks to a product called TruBlood, an artificial plasma that has freed the undead from feeding on humans. So, though the two societies seldom mix, there's no risk of humans being sucked dry -- apparently.

"The books are so rich, and [author Harris] opens so many doors," Ball says in a conference call for the show. He expects the vampire-human dynamic to provide several layers. "If it's just a story device with fangs, I'm not that interested."

"True Blood" is set in the Deep South, a milieu the Georgia-raised Ball knows well. He acknowledges there's a fine line to walk between maintaining a level of realism and overly flamboyant Southern Gothicism.

"I felt like I knew what [the line] was," he says, noting Hollywood's propensity for turning the South "into a clown show." "There are times I've asked [the actors] to dial it back -- but, at the same time, it is a show about vampires."

For now, Ball is focusing on "True Blood," which HBO hopes finds the popularity in its schedule long left by the departure of "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under" one-two punch. He's thinking about other projects, though they might not necessarily come from the book on his night table.

He says he does wish he could read more, however.

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"One thing I miss about living in Los Angeles is that there's so much driving," he says. "In New York, I used to read a lot on the subway."

HBO and Warner Independent are units of Time Warner, as is CNN.

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