Towelhead: Alan Ball’s Controversial New Film


In 1999 a plastic bag floated in the wind—the most beautiful thing ever seen by the strange boy next door—and with that, Alan Ball won an Academy Award for his very first screenplay, American Beauty. Two years later Ball began testing his skills behind the camera, directing several episodes of “Six Feet Under,” the rich and deservedly praised HBO drama he created. All of this prepared the moviemaker for Towelhead, his feature directorial debut.

Premiering at Toronto in 2007 then rematerializing at Sundance, Towelhead is an unflinching and darkly comical drama based on Alicia Erian’s controversial novel of the same name. Set during the Gulf War, a 13-year-old Lebanese-American girl named Jasira (Summer Bishil) is sent to live with her psychologically abusive father (Peter Macdissi) in the suburbs of Houston. It’s here that her sexuality begins blossoming dangerously close to her predatory, racist, Army reservist neighbor, Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart). MM spoke with Ball about Towelhead, our society’s sexual double standards and how the film almost ended up with a tamer title.

Aaron Hillis (MM): Erian’s novel addresses a wide array of themes like cultural prejudice, pubescent sexuality and familial scapegoating. How difficult was it to determine what wouldn’t make it into your adaptation?

Alan Ball (AB): Well, it was hard. The novel has so many great moments, but unfortunately you can’t put everything into the movie, and there are moments in the book which are a little repetitive. I sat down and tried to distill it: What were the most salient, most important points to tell this story and still remain completely true to the spirit of the book and the author’s intent? My first draft was 180 pages, so there was a second pass of cuts and a third, and there were several passes during the editing. Ultimately, you get it down to what you feel makes the movie work best. I took a 10-minute trim between Toronto and Sundance, and while what the movie lost was really great—morally ambiguous moments with some interesting dynamics—the flip side was that it made the payoff at the end much more powerful.

MM: Were there any moments you were disappointed you had to cut?

AB: One of them was [Jasira’s mother] Gail’s return in the end. She returns in the book and gives her daughter a razor, and it’s a great moment. I cut this out in the script because once Jasira reveals what happened with Mr. Vuoso, then you’re done. You want to see the fact that she’s not destroyed by this experience. In fact, this experience gave her the strength to remove herself from an abusive situation with her father.

One of the things I really responded to in the book was that it didn’t tell the story of a young girl who has something sexually inappropriate between her and an older man that basically says, “Well, she’s destroyed. The worst thing that can possibly happen to her has happened. She’ll always be marked.” There’s a certain fetishization of victimhood when that story is told. Since it’s such an incredibly common experience, I found it refreshing in the book that not only did she survive it, but that she was stronger because of it. I definitely wanted to keep that, but I didn’t need to wrap up every little moment with every character at the end.

MM: The medium of film has to convey the racing, confused thoughts of this coming-of-age teen, and yet you seem to have made things harder for yourself by eschewing voiceover narration.

AB: Yeah, absolutely. Since the book is basically narrated by Jasira, that was difficult. But I knew right off the bat that I didn’t want to resort to narration. Not because I believe narration is bad—I don’t really buy those screenwriting seminars that give you a bunch of rules set in stone—but it didn’t feel appropriate for this particular movie, and that was a real instinctive thing for me. I knew I was trying to convey what was going on for her through her situation, the performance, the way we shot her, really seeing the innocence and wanting to feel some sort of power in her life. Casting was crucial. Thank god we found Summer, that’s all I can say. There’s not exactly a huge pool of extremely talented young actresses who can carry a movie, who look like they have Middle Eastern heritage and who are actually 18 but could pass for 13. There are four or five names you can go to, so we hired casting directors all over the world, in Australia, London, New York and Detroit, and Summer just walked in. She lives in Arcadia, California.

Alan Ball

MM: Summer certainly passes for underage, which makes her sex scenes with Aaron Eckhart even more disturbing. Yet I also sensed they were shot with a certain degree of titillation. Were you pointing out anything to the audience, maybe something about their voyeurism or apathy?

AB: When I’m working, I’m telling the story of these characters. I don’t really think about any meta aspect or engaging in any sort of conceptual dialogue with the audience because I don’t respond to that kind of work myself. The book allowed Jasira to be sexually curious and also to feel good and to have ambivalent responses to this attention from men. On the one hand she knows it’s weird, but on the other hand it makes her feel powerful, validated—you know, what passes in her own developed psyche for “loved.”

The intent was certainly never to be titillating or to say, “Oh my god, young girl with a much older man, isn’t that hot?” No, it’s not hot. But I do think Alicia’s intent with the book was that young people who are experiencing sexual sensations for the first time are allowed to enjoy them. That’s part of the dynamic of many sexual molestation cases that victims have to struggle with, that there are aspects that might have felt good. However, we live in such a black and white society. Our paradigm at looking at sexual molestation is the mythology of the 100 percent innocent victim and the 100 percent sub-human monster, which doesn’t allow either one of the participants to be fully human.

What I appreciated in the book, and what I really tried to maintain for the movie, was that all of those aspects go into this kind of situation, because again, it’s incredibly common. Some statistics have the occurrences of untoward sexual interaction between a young girl and an adult man as high as one in three women—and one in six men. Of course, you flip the genders and then all of a sudden it becomes a raunchy teen comedy with, “Woo hoo, he scored with the older woman.” We don’t like women to be sexually aggressive unless they’re “sluts.” We still sort of view women in our culture through that whole virgin-whore paradigm and I feel like the time for that has passed. But I don’t really control mass culture! (laughs)

MM: The film premiered at Toronto under the title Nothing Is Private. Was there trepidation to call the movie Towelhead before Warner Independent bought it and reverted back to the book’s original title?

AB: Absolutely. Yeah, there was fear early on in the process. Somebody said “Well, we can’t possibly call this movie Towelhead,” and I went, ‘Okay.’ Then we tried forever to come up with a title and we came up with a really lame one, Nothing Is Private, which is wrong for the movie.

The fear, of course, is that it’s an incendiary term, but the woman who wrote the book is half-Egyptian. She’s been called “Towelhead” in her life, Summer Bishil has been called “Towelhead” in her life and the thing about any racial, ethnic or gender-based slur is that when you use that word, you take away the person’s humanity. You turn them into a concept, so you don’t really see the real person that is there, and that’s exactly what everybody does to Jasira. She’s surrounded by raging narcissists and they basically see her as a prop in their own personal drama. Even Melina [the neighbor played by Toni Collette], to some extent. Though she probably sees Jasira more for who she is than anybody else… she still feels like, “Oh, I get to be the rescuer. I get to be the Mother Earth savior.” So in that sense, I feel like the title is a perfect metaphor for the movie, and I’m really glad that once the movie was purchased somebody said, “Come on, man up, call it what it is,” as opposed to “You can never call it that!”

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