In 2015 The University of California’s Matt Ryan hosted a talk with screenwriter Alan Ball about his most successful work, American Beauty, as part of their long running series Script to Screen. This 50-minute interview at the Carsey-Wolf Center is available to watch on the UCTV YouTube channel, and is teaming with honest insight into the process of creating a milestone in movie history.
American Beauty is now over 20 years old, but has managed to become a mainstay among classic Best Picture Winners. It continues to connect with audiences to this day, to the point that there’s even been backlash for its supposed ‘basicness’. This criticism comes largely from people assuming their own superficial take on the film is all there is to it, refusing to listen to even the film’s tagline and “Look closer”.
In truth, the themes of American Beauty have evaded academic consensus for years. It is a flexible story, that seems sentimental but sardonic, never settling on which of the characters has any of it truly figured out. Alan Ball constructed the story not by the clarity with which any scene or character makes a statement to the audience, but by shaping things he saw in his life which he thought seemed lonely or beautiful or funny into an exciting script. This is the same approach that results in many writers resisting explanations of their material, not for a lack of meaning, but because a story changes as people do.
Ball was sure much of the material would ring true because a lot of it was added incrementally over the course of its staggered development from 1992 to 1998, taking moments and ideas from his experiences. The plastic bag scene, where Ricky feels the presence of life behind all things, for instance, happened to Ball, as did the abusive homophobia Ricky’s father doles out at home. Events in the news (the Amy Fisher trial), Greek tragedy (epiphany always preceding tragedy), and culture at large (the irksome and pervasive cleanliness of sitcoms) played roles in adapting the material for
maximum impact on filmgoers.
Ball’s lengthy years writing for TV sitcoms, many of which operated under the consensus that the American family unit was quirky, but altogether well-adjusted, imbued him with disdain. This resulted in American Beauty’s most apparent quality; frustration with middle-class sedation.
Ball was also lucky enough to have an active on set presence, as the script continued to be reshaped during filming, improving each time, by his own admission. The final film is far more optimistic than its first draft, which was written in a state of anger. Overcoming this, and leaning away from the ever present irony he had included before, helped Ball realise the film’s potential for an emotionally satisfying sense of redemption and hope. This is the benefit of sidestepping some screenwriting 101, and leaving outlines out of the equation. It also meant that an entire framing device could be cut out in editing.
The best piece of advice from the talk, however, does not come from Ball, but from his agent. He pitched three projects he could begin writing to them, and they settled on American Beauty because it was clearly what Ball was most passionate about. Trying to be commercial can sometimes be
unavoidable, but if you’re trying to make an impression, to get anyone to really care, you have to work from a place of passion.