I came to Six Feet Under late, as it originally aired during a phase in my life (my entire life) when my parents were anti-television. It's probably for the best, though; the amount of tears I shed while watching this show in my twenties would've been deeply alarming if expelled from the eyes of a young child. To watch Six Feet Under with me goes something like this:
- * The credits roll.
- * I hear the little plinky-plonk of those first notes of the theme song and see the bottom of that corpse's tagged bare feet.
- * I start crying.
- * The actual episode plays.
- * I continue crying.
- * The episode ends.
- * I continue crying.
Last night, I had the distinct privilege of attending a Tribeca panel celebrating Six Feet Under's 15th anniversary; Vulture TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz interviewed creator Alan Ball about the show's critically acclaimed finale, "Everybody's Waiting," as it screened in the background. This was going to be a double whammy for me: I'd have to hear the plinky-plonk, watch the feet, take in the entire episode, and simultaneously hear the voice and see the face of Alan Ball talking about all of these things. I predicted I was going to be openly weeping in public, the kind of ugly weeping that cannot be obscured by strategically draping one's entire jacket over one's face. I also predicted I wasn't going to be the only one. I was correct on both counts.
Here's a brief rundown of some of the insights and stories Ball shared last night, in order of how hard they made me (and many of my fellow viewers) cry in public.
Alan Ball cried while re-watching the finale. "I watched the finale on my iPhone last night in preparation for this and I cried," said Ball. He added that he "missed David and Claire. I was really, really emotionally invested in them, and identified with them in so many ways. David, partially because he's gay, and I know that whole thing about trying to be the best little boy in the world, and struggling with everyone's expectations because you have that internalized shame. It's gotten better for people who are younger than me, and certainly was way worse for people who are older than me, but it was hard."
He also cried while writing the finale. "When I wrote this episode I cried," said Ball, who explained how he locked himself away somewhere with his dogs in order to focus. "I just started weeping, and the dogs were looking at me like, ‘What? What did we do?'"
The entire cast and crew cried while filming it. "Most of the crew had been there since the beginning, and we had really become a family. I know that's a cliché, but it's true," said Ball. "Pretty much the last four episodes people were [all of us] crying. It was grief, and it informed the show in a way that was very organic. It was a show that helped us face our grief. It was very cathartic." (What wasn't cathartic, though, was the old-age makeup, which convinced Rachel Griffiths to augment her own aging process. "I remember Rachel Griffiths saying when they put her in old-age makeup, ‘OK, I'm definitely doing plastic surgery,'" laughed Ball.)
Ball drew on several experiences from his own life to write Six Feet Under. "My process always comes from somewhere personal, because otherwise it feels like math or a term paper," said Ball at one point. Earlier, he explained the impetus of setting the show in a funeral home: "My sister died when I was 13, my father died when I was 19. So I had been to funerals, and I knew that sort of weird, surreal turn that life takes when somebody who was a part of your life is all of a sudden just not there." A particular scene pulled from Ball's life: When Claire offers to stay with Ruth rather than go to New York, and Ruth refuses. "There's a lot of my mother in Ruth. My mom lost her only daughter, and she lost her husband, and she went through a long period of just being basically destroyed ... When my dad died, my aunt Martha came into my room, I was gonna go to school in Florida, and she said, ‘Stay here and take care of your mom.' So I told my mom, ‘I'll stay here and take care of you.' And she said, ‘No.' It was one of the greatest things my mom ever did for me."
The show almost ended very differently. Some of the writers wanted Ruth to succumb to Alzheimer's, but “I thought that was too depressing and not necessary," said Ball. “There was even a pitch that the sixth season would be kind of like a post-Holocaust thing, where they were trying to keep alive in post-Holocaust Los Angeles.” Instead, one writer — whom Ball couldn't recall at the moment — said, "We should just kill everybody. Let's be with everybody at the moment of their death." "I said, ‘That's perfect.' How else could the show end? I'm embarrassed I didn't think of it," said Ball.
Everybody wanted Keith and David to break up at the end of the show, but Ball wasn't having it. The writers initially wanted to see David go on "a series of bad dates" in the finale, but Ball wanted the two to stay together, in part because their coupling was so revolutionary and because "that relationship is so much more interesting" than a few bad dates would be. Ball also spoke to how carefully he handled the relationship as a writer, which Seitz described as "groundbreaking." "I didn’t want David and Keith to be the gay characters. I just wanted them to be characters. And actually, one of the notes I got from HBO after the first season was, ‘We need to make Nate and Brenda as sexy as David and Keith are.' I was like, ‘Oh, OK.' So we made Brenda become a sexual compulsive."
The Fisher family funeral home is actually the home of the Korean Historical Society and not actually the Fisher family funeral home, what the fuck? "There's a statue out back of some famous Korean golfer," said Ball. "A big statue, with those half-pants... We always had to cover it up with greenery whenever we shot outside the house."
Ball is obsessed with Frances Conroy, who is a genius/kook. Over the course of the evening, Ball uttered "I love Frances Conroy" multiple times. He talked about how easy it was for her to completely lose it on camera, telling a story about how, while filming the pilot, he had to ask her to film a difficult, sob-heavy scene twice for editing purposes, and was "really embarrassed" to ask her to do it one more time. "But she was like, ‘Oh yeah, sure!' ... She has such a direct line to her emotions." Later, Ball shared, "When we were casting Ruth, a lot of actresses came in, and they were in their fifties, and they all [pulls back face tightly]. And their faces wouldn't move. And Frances walked in, wearing weird little socks and sandals and a gardening hat, and I thought, OK, who's this quirky person? And she read, and it was like, ‘OK, we found her.' And we dressed her the same way throughout the show." (Ball later expressed shock at Conroy's appearances on American Horror Story: "I'm like, ‘No, that's Ruth, what are you doing?'")
None of the ghosts were really supposed to be ghosts. "You don't have to answer this if you don't want to, but I always wondered about the ghosts: How much are we supposed to see them as ghosts, and how much as projections of people's personalities?" asked Seitz. "Projections of people's personalities," confirmed Ball. "I never wanted to come down on one side or the other of the life-after-death questions, so they're thematic devices. They're not actual spirits." Dickish Ghost Nate, we hardly knew ye.
Ball actually read the message boards. Remember message boards? Ball spent actual time on them, time he will never get back. He referred to them several times over the interview. The show "got a lot of letters from angry people on message boards on the Internet" about Lisa's death; Ball also "read on the message boards" that people thought Maggie was pregnant with Nate's baby at the end, because she was filmed inside a doctor's office. "Maybe she is, I don't know, but we didn't intend for that to be the point." Why are you reading the message boards, Alan?!
The show made enemies of Lifehouse. Lifehouse! Early on in the finale, there's a scene where Claire mocks her boyfriend, played by Chris Messina, for liking "unhip" Christian music. "This was originally a different song, by a band called Lifehouse, which I really liked. I thought they were a Christian rock band," laughed Ball. "But when the show aired, they were really upset, and wouldn't let us use the song in perpetuity. I think it's because she says it's unhip. So we replaced it with a real Christian thing."
David's dark dream about battling his kidnapper came from Ball's bad LSD trip. "This whole sequence came from an embarrassing drug experience," said Ball. "I took LSD once in my life with a group of strangers in a place I'd never been before. It was not the smartest thing to do. And I hallucinated that this beast was trying to kill me, and I realized in my totally drug-addled state that it was just as scared of me as I was of it, and then I hugged it."