Alan Ball can’t remember whose idea it was to end “Six Feet Under” with an orchestra of death. He just remembers that of all the ideas that were brought up for how to end HBO’s dearly departed drama — which first premiered 15 years ago — it was the one that felt the most natural.
As part of the Tribeca Tune In program celebrating television at this year’s festival, Ball sat down with New York Magazine’s Matt Zoller Seitz for a live commentary on “Everybody’s Waiting,” the series finale of the mortuary family drama. While the Fisher family closed a major chapter in their lives, for better and for worse, Ball revealed just how personal a story “Six Feet Under” was for him, while acknowledging the elements of the production that gave it such impact for audiences.
For Real, Things Got Personal
“Claire and David, I was most connected to,” Ball said early on in the screening. “A lot of stuff from my own life that ended up being in the show [was theirs].”
But by the end of the screening, that began to feel like an understatement.
While Ball did not come up with the original premise for “Six Feet Under” — he credited the idea for a drama about a family-owned funeral home with HBO’s Carolyn Strauss — it was clear that the subject matter had a deeply visceral meaning for him, due to his own family history.
His sister died when he was 13, and his father died when he was 19, leaving his mother emotionally devastated. “There’s a lot of my mother in Ruth,” he said. “She went through a long period of just being destroyed. She eventually came out of it, but what do you do when you lose a child?”
Ball pointed to one key scene from the finale, in which Ruth demands that Claire not give up a job opportunity to stay behind and look after her, as something drawn directly from his own life. After the death of his father, he considered not leaving home for school and staying behind with his mother. His mother, however, demanded that he lead his life (“the greatest gift,” as he referred to it).
Seitz asked if it was hard for Ball to watch scenes like this, given his connection to them, but Ball said it wasn’t. “It’s not me, it’s these characters,” he said. “I’m just trying to give other people that experience.”
Ball Still Loves His Cast (Especially Frances Conroy)
Ball took multiple opportunities to rain praise upon the show’s ensemble, but singled out Frances Conroy’s devastating work frequently. And not just because, unlike a lot of the 50-somethings who came in to audition originally for the role, she hadn’t had any noticeable plastic surgery (to communicate this without words, Ball pulled back his face like Jonathan Pryce’s mom in “Brazil”). She came in wearing “little socks, sandals and a gardening hat” — elements they would seek to incorporate into Ruth’s own look down the line.
“It’s so weird to see her on shows like ‘American Horror Story,'” he remarked, because when he watches, all he can think is “that’s Ruth.”
An aside: Apparently both Peter Krause and Jeremy Sisto were considered for the role of David, but Krause got tapped for Nate after the original actor they brought to the studio choked during the audition. Michael C. Hall got the role of David, but while he won Ball over immediately — “First time I saw Michael, I knew, ‘This is the guy'” — Ball said that was the one casting choice HBO wasn’t completely sold on initially.
How Else Things Could Have Gone
Before landing on the idea of ending the series by following each character into death, the “Six Feet Under” staff toyed with a variety of other premises. There was a strong push to end the relationship between David and his long-time love Keith, something Ball was glad they avoided in lieu of depicting a complicated relationship between two men.
“I’m so glad I didn’t break them up the way the writers wanted me to,” Ball said while watching a key Keith and David scene. “This is much more interesting than watching David go on a series of bad dates.”
Other rejected ideas included Ruth descending into Alzheimer’s over the course of the season (which Ball deemed too depressing) and a Season 6 which would witness the Fishers trying to survive in the “post-Holocaust.” Seitz spoke for us all at that point: “That sounds kinda awesome.”
Some Important Facts About Babies
Rachel Griffiths was really eight months pregnant when they were filming the birth scene that opens the episode, and the two premature babies that were used in those early scenes were plastic props. (“The ‘American Sniper’ baby?” Seitz joked.)
Freddy Rodriguez’s real-life son played his older son on the series, and because the passing of time is inescapable, is now actually in college. Though as Ball mentioned several times over the course of the evening, Rodriguez “still looks like he’s in high school.” (Later, when flashing forward to Rico’s death, Ball noted that they didn’t even bother trying to add aging makeup to him because, “He still looks like he’s 12.”)
Brenna and Bronwyn Tosh, the twins who played Nate’s daughter Maya, essentially grew up on the show, playing the character from birth to the end of the series. When they would call cut on set, one of them would shout, “Cut!” as well. “She once did it in the middle of a take,” Ball added.
“I like casting sessions for babies,” Ball said at one point. “They bring in twins in strollers and you just look at them.”
And according to Ball, Peter Krause is the “baby whisperer” — able to effortlessly quiet a screaming baby on set (just another one of his charms).
The Show’s Cinematic Pedigree
The finale runs 72 minutes long, with a longer and slower credits sequence than usual because Ball wanted “to have everyone’s name up on the screen long enough to read it. I had a big fight with HBO about that.”
Seitz and Ball also dug into the craft of the show, from the attention paid to placing actors within the frame, to the fact that the design of the Fisher family home lent itself to a vast number of options when it came to camera placement and framing — including the ability to create “frames within frames,” as Seitz put it.
Also highlighted was the use of symbolism and foreshadowing, like David seeing a prehistoric creature’s fangs at the La Brea Tar Pits Museum, which appear later in a dream he has (a dream, Ball admitted, that was based on an “embarrassing drug experience I had” involving acid). When Seitz complimented Ball on including those elements without seeming heavy-handed, Ball almost shrugged it off. “You just can’t hang a lantern on it,” he said.
Other aspects of the filmmaking that were appreciated included Ball’s preference for “one-ers” — single shot scenes that don’t require additional coverage, which actors also enjoy — as well as long shots, like a Scorsese-esque tracking shot through the Fisher home with the entire family, followed by a similar long take around the dinner table. “I didn’t want to shoot 12 close-ups because that would take forever, and I wanted to get a sense of them as a family together,” Ball said of those choices.
And in general, Ball doesn’t love close-ups, feeling they’re overused on television. “I’m a big believer in saving close-ups for when they’re earned.”
But Ball doesn’t feel that “Everybody’s Waiting” is flawless. He admitted to wishing that they’d had movie-level money for the makeup effects at the end, and also, in retrospect, he would have cut the final line of the final dinner scene: “May he rest in peace.”
“It’s A Deep Thing You’ve Done”
So said Seitz to Ball at the end of the screening, after the credits rolled, and after Seitz told Ball about the death of his wife, 10 years ago this month. When he arrived at the hospital, a mere minute after his wife had passed away, the doctor asked him what he did for a living, and Seitz explained that he was a TV critic. “Have you heard of this show ‘Six Feet Under’?” the doctor asked. According to the doctor, it was the only show that captured the ins and outs of what he saw every day. For Seitz, it was clearly a profound moment.
It was overall an emotional screening, with audible sniffles punctuating some of the duo’s dry asides and the show’s own unique sense of humor. But that matched the whole production. Ball admitted that he cried while writing it, and that there were tears flowing amongst the cast and crew from the table read to actual production. “Pretty much the last four epsiodes, people were crying all the time,” Ball said.
Certainly, my eyes weren’t dry, even as I took notes, which speaks to the thing that’s ensured “Six Feet Under’s” place in the pantheon of captivating TV. Even while flawed, it was the sort of show that spoke directly to everyone. Because, after all, everybody’s waiting.
Coming soon from HBO…