Monday, February 6, 2012

Three Brave Souls on "Towelhead"

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Three Brave Souls on "Towelhead"

(from brinkzine.com 9/11/08)

alan ball and summer.jpg Alan Ball and Summer Bishil
Alan Ball didn't try to sidestep controversy when he chose to adapt Alicia Erian's novel "Towelhead" to be his feature directorial debut. Ball, who won an Oscar for writing "American Beauty," and a slew of Emmys (including one for directing the pilot) as the creator and executive producer of "Six Feet Under," retained Erian's incendiary title and the most disturbing elements of her story. A pretty but naive thirteen-year-old of Middle Eastern descent, Jasira (the captivating Summer Bishil), arouses the boyfriend of her American mother (Maria Bello), so she is exiled to Houston to live with her strict Lebanese-American father (Peter Macdissi). As the pretty girl undergoes a confusing physical transformation and sexual awakening, she experiences racism, physical abuse from her well-meaning but inept and distant father, and sexual abuse from her neighbor, Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckert.) Set during the first Gulf War, it's strong stuff, tempered by doses of humor. Ball seemed genuinely grateful when I told him I liked the bravery of his film, which opens this Friday. On Wednesday I participated in the following roundtables, one with Ball and the other with Summer Bishil and Peter Macdissi. I note the questions I asked.
Roundtable with Alan BallDanny Peary: Was there a second title for this movie?
Alan Ball: There was. I'll tell you the story of the title. My agent sent me the book "Towelhead" by Alicia Erian in manuscript form and I optioned it with my own money. Because I didn't think it would be a story that would work well in the Hollywood studio development system, I wrote the script on spec. I sent the script out with the title "Towelhead." Every single studio passed on it. Nobody wanted to go near it. At that point my agents and I found an independent company, Indian Paint Brush, which was looking to go into the film production business, and during production the film was called "Untitled Alan Ball Project." Knowing that we were going to have to sell this movie, we tried to come up with a different title. When we took it to Toronto, that title was "Nothing Is Private." It's a horrible title. The one constant remark on the focus group screenings response cards was: "Hate the title." Warner Independent bought the movie but said "You're going to have to change the title." I said, "Yeah, I know." So there were pages and pages and pages of possible titles generated. Titles like "In Her Own Backyard," "Dirty Little Secrets." Nothing that was as good a title for this story as "Towelhead." I eventually said, "I think 'Towelhead' is what you should call it." And to my surprise Warner Independent said, "Okay, we will support you on this decision." At that point, last November, the movie was then screened for the Muslim Public Affairs Council. They got it. They totally understood the context in which that word was used. They understood that it was a story about what it feels like to be called a towelhead and be on the receiving end of hate language. And they gave us their blessing. However, in the last two months there have been protests lodged by the Council on American Islamic Affairs and the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund. What we have done is videotaped roundtable conferences with representatives from both organizations. One with myself and Summer Bishil and Peter Macdissi, the two Middle Eastern actors in the movie, and one with myself and Alicia Erian, who is Arab American, and we allowed everybody to make their statements. It's obvious that ultimately we're all on the same side. In terms of whether or not the title is an appropriate choice or not, there is a respectful disagreement but we are going to put these videotaped conferences on the movie website and also on the DVD.
Q: Why was it important to you to make this transition from television to directing a movie?
AB: I don't think of it that way. I like to challenge myself in different ways. After "Six Feet Under" was over, I wrote a play and it was produced here in New York. Then I wanted to give myself the challenge of directing a feature. I had written a screenplay called "Unfortunately Yours," a screwball comedy set in 1936. It is very different from anything I've done because, like I said, I like to challenge myself. And when my agent sent me the manuscript of "Towelhead," I loved the emotional experience of reading that book, I loved the story, I loved the characters, I loved the complexity. And I felt it was doable. It's not a huge action-adventure piece, there are no crowd scenes, you didn't need to rely a lot on special effects or anything like that. I just wanted to try my hand at directing a movie.
Q: How long did it take you to bring it to the screen? At the time was Aaron Eckhart attached?
AB: I think I read the manuscript about three years ago, give or take a few months. We started shooting the movie two years ago. September of 2006. It's 2008 now, right? So, it took about three years to get it to the screen. Aaron had already attached himself to this movie when he got the role in "The Dark Knight."
Q: How important was it to keep the humor from the novel in your film?
AB: Extremely important. In fact, one of the things I told Alicia when I was trying to convince her to let me option the book, was, "I will keep this movie funny. And I'm not sure other people will." I assumed she was battling off authors from every corner and I found out I was the only one. But to me that's part of what made the story so great. I'm a person for whom humor is a very fundamental part of my psyche and it serves the purpose of keeping me from despair. If I did this story without the humor that was so delicious in the novel would make it unbearable.
alanbsummermaria.jpg Maria Bello and Summer Bishil
Q: Besides the issue of the title, what were the most anguishing moments for you when working on the movie?
AB: The most anguishing moments came when we shot the climactic scene when everyone is emotional and Jasira reveals to everybody what happened to her. And the reason that was so anguishing is that I had a line producer saying to me, "You have two days. If you don't get it, it's not going to be in the movie." So, those were two hard days. It was the end of the shoot. Everybody was tired. Anguishing? It's certainly anguishing for me to feel that some people believe that the movie condones either sexual abuse or racism. It anguishes me that there are people who are that thick that they can look at this movie and not see that it really presents these events in a way that I feel is very realistic and very true. Because the movie doesn't say out loud, "Hey, this is bad!," they think that is somehow condoning it. Well, I feel that would be is disrespectful to the audience-I don't need be told as an audience member that racism is bad or that childhood sexual assault is a bad thing. I would actually rather get an understanding of how something like that could happen and be so prevalent.
Q: How far did you veer from the book? .
AB: I was very, very faithful to the book. Certainly the book is way more sexually explicit and I chose not to go there in filming it because I think reading words on a page and actually seeing the image in front of you are two different things. I felt like what was important was what was happening to the characters emotionally and so I put a disclaimer page on my original script saying there will be no graphic nudity and the only nudity will be in the pictures of those girlie magazines Jasira looks at. It will all be implied. It's all about what is happening to the characters emotionally. The camera will focus on their faces. Another difference between the book and the movie is the book is narrated by Jasira. It's sort of told first-person and while it is a fantastic book and a lot of the way Jasira expresses herself is really delightful and so innocent and funny, I felt that if we were to use narration in the movie, it would remove us from what is happening at the moment to her. It's a period piece, so if we used narration, it would be so easy to think that she's remembering it all today, from an adult perspective. I wanted to be there with her as it was happening. So, that was a challenge. The other challenge in changing it from one medium to the other was just cutting. I had to cut a lot of stuff out. But ultimately I believe that we retained the heart and spirit of the book.
Q: How was it working with such a young actress as Summer Bishil and directing her through those really difficult, touchy scenes?
AB: I have worked with young actresses who were in tears because they had to kiss somebody. So, I was ready for Summer to be a little bit of a basket case and she was fine. She is a very smart, very self-possessed young woman. You know, we took really good care of her. Her mother was on the set every day. We used a body-double whenever necessary. So, it's odd to say, it wasn't that hard to work with Summer. She knew what she was doing. She had read the book and done her homework and she was ready to go there. And she never took it home with her. In fact, she would play these really painful scenes, where she got hit by her father or was molested and she would go to these dark places and afterward I would be so grateful. I'd say, "Summer, that was really, really fantastic. And she would go, "Thanks. What are we doing next?" It was much harder for Aaron than it was for Summer. She knew what she was getting into. I think it was easier for her because as a character Jasira isn't knowingly doing anything wrong when she goes along with the sexual advances of her neighbor Mr. Vuoso, whereas he knows that he is committing a crime. Not just legally but morally, spiritually. And I think that was a much harder place for Aaron to go.
Q: Why was it so hard for him?
AB: It was just very uncomfortable for him to live in this man's skin. He's so not that guy in life. He's such a decent, solid person in life. But he's such a good actor that when he gets into a character's skin and the character is like this, it's tough for him. It's a struggle. And I just think that's a testament to his commitment and conviction to the art of acting as opposed to the business of acting. I have to say, I love that about him. I love that he is an actor and for him a character who does something despicable is a chance for him to find the humanity underneath that. Whereas a lot of actors, especially successful actors, really consider themselves commodities first and foremost and for them all their career choices are about protecting the brand. Aaron is first and foremost an actor and he loves the challenge of getting into a character who is conflicted or who does horrible things.
Q: In Six Feet Under, you had a teenage girl having sex without ruining her life and having an abortion without ruining her life. Here you are dealing with a much younger teenager but it seems that again you're saying teenage girls can have sex without it ruining her life, which not many people are very willing to say. Are you trying to make a point?
AB: I think sex is a natural part of life and I know teenagers especially have sex and to pretend that they don't is irresponsible. And I think to pretend that it's going to ruin their lives, that they are not capable of being responsible about it, is stupid. I'm not going to mention any names, but if you go through your life advocating abstinence-only sex education, and your daughter turns up pregnant, well, hello, you did not do your job and somebody should call you on it. Okay, I'll name names. Sarah Palin. What the hell?
Q: You worked with Peter Macdissi on "Six Feet Under." Was he your first choice to play Jasira's father, Rifat?
AB: When I read the book, I immediately saw Peter as Rifat. I knew Peter was Lebanese and the right age. Rifat has to be young enough so that you can sort of forgive him for being such a bad father. Both he and his ex-wife Gail, played by Maria Bello, have to be young enough so that you can sort of understand that they're still children themselves. Peter reminds me of Peter Sellers a lot in that he can be hilarious without trying to be and he will take what are on the surface the most manipulative or despicable motivations and make them intensely human. I felt that was really going for the truth. Because though he's a bad father, there is never a question in my mind that he loves Jasira and that she loves him.
Q: That father could be a joke character. So how much guidance of that role was your part and how much came from Peter's instincts?
AB: Most of it was Peter. Most of the performances were the actors' instincts. I am a firm believer in that old adage that casting is 90% of directing. I am not a control freak, I have such respect for actors. You are asking these people to share the innermost parts of their psyche when the camera is right there. My job is to cultivate an environment in which they feel safe and to cultivate a relationship in which there is mutual trust and then to let them do what they need to do. If I feel like I can guide them in a direction that will take them to a better place, I step in. But I also want to give them a shot to do it exactly the way they think they should do it. Once we have done it both ways, we can come up with some off-the-wall options, bBecause the purpose of shooting is to amass as much raw material as you can. It's in post-production where the movie gets made.
Q: The father is a conflicted character, so is Mr. Vuoso, who isn't all bad. You have a love of conflicted characters.
AB: Absolutely.
Q: Are you a conflicted character yourself?
AB: Actually I am not that conflicted. Certainly I have been a conflicted character at various points in my life, but now I consider myself to be fairly functional and I actually like to surround myself in life with people who are functional. As characters, such people bore me to death. Conflict is at the heart of drama and it's through conflict from the outside and inner conflict that we really, really get in touch with our humanity and we get in touch with the best and worst parts of ourselves. I think of storytelling as mythology and if you look at mythology there are some very conflicted characters and some whacked out, messed up stuff happening. And as a storyteller and as an audience member, I appreciate complication in all of its glory, without a knee-jerk attempt to make it black and white and to simplify it. I don't think life is simple and its part of our cultural tendency to reduce everything to black and white and sound bites. That's a weaker aspect of ourselves as a culture.
DP: Where could you have gone wrong with this film? What's the worst thing that could have happened?
AB: The worst thing that could have happened in this film would be to not strike that balance between the reality of what is happening and the comedy. Also, in the way we shot the film, I didn't want the movie to be gritty or dark. I think the worst thing that could have happened to this movie would be for it to be dishonest and be a manufactured attempt to further an agenda. What appealed to me about the book was that it was a very real, honest story with very real characters and that's what I tried to stick to in the movie.
DP: Jasira's manipulated all through the movie but is she a complete person at the end?
AB: Are we ever fully who we are capable of being?
DP: No, and we have to remember that she's still thirteen.
AB: Right I certainly think she had made a tremendous breakthrough in self-acceptance and in owning the power that she has over her own body and her own destiny. But she's thirteen. Is she fully formed? No. But I'm not fully formed, I don't think.
Q: Talk about your new HBO series "True Blood."
AB: Did you see it? Again, I stumbled onto some books that I fell in love with. Charlaine Harris just took me to this world that I couldn't get enough of. Somewhere around book four or five I thought, "This holds up. I think this would be a great TV series." It has great characters, it's sexy, it's violent, it's entertaining. And it has some interesting things to say about how our culture deals with "Other," be it ethnic minorities or vampires. We've done twelve episodes so far. Anna Paquin is fantastic. I've never really been drawn to any particular genre, or the supernatural, but I've had more fun doing this show than I've had in a long, long time.
Summer Bishil and Peter Macdissi Roundtable
alansummerpeter.jpg

DP: Summer, the production notes make it a point that you were eighteen when you made the movie. Could you have made this movie when you were thirteen?
Summer Bishil: No. Well, I'm sure I could have done it but I don't think I would have been any good.
DP: What about understanding your character?
SB: I think I would have had some insight. I am very different from Jasira but I would have known what she is going through. I just don't know if I could have handled the work load or if I should have been doing that kind part back then.
Q: How is Alan working with actors? It seems to me that he gives them a lot of freedom. That could be scary to an actor, too.
Peter Macdissi: No, it's not scary. Alan trusts his cast and just lets you be. He has very good instincts about casting and we were allowed to be very creative and follow our own impulses and develop the relationships that the characters need.
Q: Did you feel more secure because you had worked with Alan before and there was a mutual trust?
PM: Absolutely. Alan is a master at creating a safe, secure environment for the actors and I'm very lucky and privileged to have worked under his direction. At times when I've gone on a set and not felt I was not safe or secure, nothing comes out. It's horrible. That's very important for actors. And you know what? It's not just me. I mean like great actors, famous actors, experienced actors would exactly feel the same way. Nobody is as insecure as actors.
Q: Were you taken aback by anything in the script so that you questioned Alan?
PM: The only thing I expressed my concern to Alan about was in regard to my character being abusive physically to Jasira. I wanted that to come from a human place that had to do with his background. He probably got hit by his own dad and now he's communicating that way with his daughter. I didn't want it to be random. I wanted it to be deeper than that. And Alan was very open to that.
SB: When I read it, it was just a relief. I was seventeen when I auditioned for it and I usually would read children-oriented scripts. I will always be proud of the work I did for children's shows, because it's good and for kids. But I wasn't dealing with those issues anymore. That target audience was about twelve. That was a long time ago for me. So it was good to read something that had this really great character.
DP: What was your audition process?
SB: I didn't change anything. Like I said, I was a student and that's the place I was coming from. I was really intimidated by the whole thing. So, it wasn't like I could say, "I think this would be a good idea." For my audition, I tested a scene opposite Peter. And I did the scene where she tells everybody what's happened to her. I also auditioned the scene where she is at the Mexican restaurant with Mr. Vuoso.
Q: What do you do to play a thirteen-year-old?
SB: Well, I changed a lot. I changed the way my face sits, I got my voice up a couple of octaves.
My posture is not really great anyway but I made sure it wasn't good because you are uncomfortable with your breasts when you have them for the first time. And she starts her period and is uncomfortable walking, so there are times when she walks a little funny. Also I gave her a nervous tick where she taps her index finger three times. I always have a tick for each character I play.
Q: What were some of the preparations you did?
SB: I did an essay before I started a scene, with every thought I had for every second I was on camera. I'm kind of like OCD. I'm a little weird. I don't let my guard down for even a split second. I plan everything. Every blink of the eye has to be thought out. That developed during "Towelhead." I don't move a hand unless I thought about why. Maybe that's bad. I don't know.
Q: Was the title already intact when you came on the film?
PM: think it was called "Untitled: An Alan Bal Project." The titles came on and went actually. It was "Towelhead," "Nothing's Private," and then "Towelhead" again. But for us, that was not much of a concern. We were just trying to do good work.
Q: When you were making the film did you have any sense of the controversy that seems to grow around it?
PM: I thought the Lebanese community might come out and say, "In Lebanon we don't behave like that. We don't hit our kids. We're sophisticated. We're more European." But it was Muslim or the Sikh associations that reacted negatively. There are no Muslim characters in the movie, so I didn't anticipate that.
SB: People hadn't seen it.
Q: Have either one of you experienced prejudice?
SB: I have, but it hasn't been this major thing in my life. My mother is English but I grew up in the Middle East. We were all there because our parents were and everybody accepted we were all different. But then when I came here, there was a fixation on it. Specifically now when I'm doing interviews. People want to know who you are. Some people really fixate on it. And to me, that's prejudice. Because prejudice is not seeing somebody as a human being or an individual, but as a stereotype in regard to ethnicity or nationality.
PM: Yeah. Once I was called towelhead. I was in my in my teens, and my ex-roommate called me towelhead and I knew it was something derogatory because he said it in a very hostile way. But I didn't know exactly what it was. But then I started to analyze what the word meant and I thought, "Oh, it's like what Gulf Arabs put on their head, it looks like a towel." I was offended more by him not liking me at that moment because we were buddies. That was what affected me the most.
alanballaaron.jpg Aaron Eckert
Q: Summer, Alan talked about how hard a time Aaron had filming sexual scenes with you. How did you and Aaron work together on that?
SB: We didn't really work together. I didn't know what his process was to prepare for a scene, but he had his own process and I had my own process. We went through that and then we got together and did our scene. That worked for us. Aaron is a nice guy and a really great actor. I was a student. That's the way I looked at it. That's all. I learned a lot and that's how I gauge my achievement. And not by what people think of the role or whatever. I was a student and I was just learning and a lot of times I would just step back and observe the scenes and try to make that standard. I hope that I did that.
Q: What did you feel you learned the most?
SB: To trust myself. I tried not to show something, but I tried to just feel it to remain authentic.
DP: You character smiles every time someone says she's pretty, which I guess was intentional. How important is it that your character is pretty?
SB: I don't know if it's so important. She thinks she's ugly all of the time and she constantly compares herself to her mother. And she is never going to look like her mother. She is very different. Jasira hasn't been around people that look like her. She doesn't think that difference is unique and great and interesting. She takes it as bad and wrong and gross. So any time somebody acknowledges her at all, whether it be pretty or ugly, she smiles. She just wants to be acknowledged. It was like her existence wasn't valid to so many other people around her. When Mr. Vuoso acknowledges her, it's like "Wow."
Q: Do either of you know anyone who has experienced underage sexual abuse?
SB: Of course, I'm twenty. I think everybody knows somebody. It happens.
SM: It happens a lot actually. What's shocking is it's 1 out of 3. I read that and went, "Wow."
DP: Peter, I saw a video interview of you saying that the purpose of acting is to not to read the lines but to show the human condition. Can you expand on that in terms of this role?
PM: A lot of directors say they just hire the actresses to say the lines, and we say the lines but what's more important is what's between the lines, between the words. In regard to the human condition, I try to convey why the father's world is the way it is. And why is his relationship with his daughter this way? You raise questions as an actor. So, for me to get this human condition to surface in this role I had to do a lot of work. I had to fly to Texas and stay there for a couple of days just to understand what it means to be in Houston. I had to understand what kind of music he listens to, what kind of books he reads, and why is so fussy about his appearance. It's not random. He's insecure about where he is, so he needs to feel important. He needs to feel to show the world that "I count." And thus the behavior, you know. Again, the physical abuse toward Jasira is because of his background but not because he is Middle Eastern. He has his own traumas, his own fears being an immigrant living in Texas.
alansummeraaron.jpg
DP: I think the reason we like your character at all is that you have a nice girlfriend and she sees good things in him.
PM: Well, of course she sees good things. Rifat is a good guy. Ultimately, he's a good provider, he's generous, he has a good salary, he has certain values. But he has issues just like everybody else.
Q: And role in Six Feet Under was kind of a similar is that you play someone who is a bad guy, for the lack of a better term, but someone you have love and affection for. Did you talk about that?
PM: the media is sort of interesting because they just think bad guy or good guy. I see no similarities between Olivier and Rifat at all. I mean, I think they re totally from different poles. Olivier is an artist, a flamboyant bisexual, free, doesn't care. And Rifat is the opposite. He's a conservative man. Very straight and very authoritative and he has rules and values. I saw no similarities at all. If Olivier and Rifat met, they would hate each other.
Q: Summer, do you think your character ends up in a good place at the end?
SB: I think so. I think that it is a triumph for her.
Q: How was it when you saw the film up on that screen?
SB: Oh, man. That was crazy. I saw it with my dad and my mom. He loved it.. He really thought it was funny and so complex. He said, "I know you did a movie but this is a good movie."
Q: Did you two always want to be actors?
SB: No. Definitely not. I always wanted to be one but that's definitely not the only thing I want to be. I think if I only was an actor I would be disappointed. I'm going to college in International Relations and Foreign Policy. HIV-AIDS is an issue that always has troubled me and I want to help them. And I want to be a writer.
PM: I've always wanted to be an actor. And it has been a very hard trajectory. What's interesting is that the reasons you want to act changes. You start by wanting to perform in front of your parents or your relatives to like you or to love you. You want America tojust fall in love with you. And you discover that really that's not very important. That's not the reason. What's important is for me to speak about the human condition. And I can do that well if I'm allowed to.
Q: What are you two doing next?
PM: After this I've been just reading scripts and I tell my manager, "You're kidding me." I just don't know what to do because it's hard to match this quality. I'm not looking to match it but I'm not looking to go 600 years backward. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of roles for people like me. It's nice to work but it's nice to work on something that's meaningful to me. It's not easy. The industry has to be a big more flexible and not put us in boxes
SB: This career is pretty absorbing because it prevents you from going to school. But I don't mind. I'm having fun.

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