Alan Ball’s ‘Six Feet Under’ Tribeca Finale Screening: Frances Conroy’s Genius and the Post-Apocalyptic Final Season that Never Happened

"Somebody said, 'Let's be with everybody at the moment of their death,' and I thought, 'THAT is perfect.'"

The finale of Six Feet Under famously saw each of its central characters dying at some point in the future, honoring them with the same treatment the show had previously given one doomed character per week. But according to creator Alan Ball, it could have been a lot more grim than it actually was. Yesterday, at a screening of the episode on its 10th Anniversary for the Tribeca Film Festival, Ball described some of the other alternatives that had been considered.

Weekly, the series confronted death’s inevitability with the perfect combination of compassion and wryness — especially when it turned a sardonic eye towards the commodification of death. And so systematically displaying each character’s eventual deaths the way another show might a montage of their lives actually seemed the funniest, saddest, most loving and intimate thing the series could do in its closing moments. We’d spent six years with those characters as they helped us comprehend and demystify death, and here we were with them, on their deathbeds (with Sia!).

It’s probably a good thing, then, that Ball didn’t opt for some of the other options that’d been thrown out. Before the screening (with live commentary) began, Ball explained to New York Magazine‘s Matt Zoller Seitz how this ending was probably far more uplifting than, say, what would have come from “a big pitch to make Ruth get Alzheimer’s and deteriorate over the last season,” which he says he ultimately “thought was really depressing and unnecessary.” On other depressing or purely weird things that could have happened in the final season, he said:

Everybody wanted to break Keith and David up, saying, ‘We wanted to see David dating!’ And I thought, ‘No, it’s more important to see a difficult relationship.’ There was even a pitch that the sixth season would be a post-holocaust thing, where they’re trying to keep alive in post-holocaust Los Angeles… So I was used to pitches that didn’t really feel like the show, so when somebody said, ‘Let’s just kill everybody,’ I thought, ‘Yeah yeah yeah.’ [But] then somebody said, ‘No, let’s be with everybody at the moment of their death,’ and I thought, ‘That is perfect.’

Once the screening portion of the Tribeca event began yesterday, there was a noted reverence every time Frances Conroy (playing perhaps one of TV’s most beautifully complex suppressed WASP characters, Ruth Fisher) appeared onscreen — the audience was especially attuned to what Ruth was doing, since this episode sees her in the aftermath of her first son Nate’s death. In fact, the whole commentary became something of a very merited love-fest for Conroy. The wrenching dynamism of her performance is exhibited throughout the episode, but particularly in a moment where, at the kitchen table, she randomly spots her granddaughter’s stuffed animal in a crevice by the fridge, flings herself at it, and starts weeping. (If some of the show’s stylistic and symbolic conceits now seem dated, and its profundity at times a little “Wooah dude”-ish, the performances — particularly Conroy’s — and writing of character are still so searingly good that they mean the show remains nearly as strong in 2016 as it was a decade ago).

Referring to this scene, Ball described another similar scene from the show’s pilot: “Ugh, I love Frances Conroy so much… Ruth had to break down at the open grave of Nathaniel and cry, and stuff was coming out of her nose, and I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ For editing purposes I had to get another take of it, and I felt so embarrassed coming up to her and asking her [if she could] do it one more time, and she said [imitates a nonchalant, chipper voice] ‘Oh yeah, sure!”

He recalled the day she came in to audition: “When we were casting, a lot of actresses came in, and they were in their 50s like the character, but their faces wouldn’t move,” he said, yanking his lips back, indicating a plastic surgical non-expression. “And then Frances walked in. She was wearing weird little socks and sandals and a gardening hat, and I thought who’s this kooky person? And then we [ended up dressing] her that way throughout the show.” Her embodiment of that character was so detailed and full that now, when he sees her on other shows — as in the panoply of character roles she plays on Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story — it’s uncanny, because to him, “It’s like, no that’s Ruth!”

His seemingly heightened connection to Conroy’s performance also has to do with the character’s origins. “There’s a lot of my mother in Ruth,” he said, noting how his mother likewise dealt with the loss of a child and husband, and “went through a long period of being grief-stricken. There are similarities to the character Alison Janney played in [his film] American Beauty too.”

He expressed a tenderness for all of the characters — especially Claire and David, into whom Ball poured the most of his own experiences — and across the commentary every other actor also racked up a tally of praising one-liners. It was especially interesting when Ball discussed original casting ideas, and how two other actors that ended up on the show were originally considered for the role of David: it’s well known that Peter Krause (who played Nate) was meant to play the role of the closeted character (who, like his mother, is all kinds of suppressed and torn between his ascetic Protestant roots and his slow testing of the waters of the hedonistic aspects of gay culture). Krause was ultimately swapped into the role of Nate when another actor who’d been cast in the role didn’t work out. But it turns out that Jeremy Sisto — who ended up playing Brenda’s bipolar brother — was also a contender for David. When Ball ultimately decided on Michael C. Hall, arguably now the most known actor among the cast following Dexter, he was the one “casting choice HBO was not sure about.”

As for the characters of Nate and Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), he mentioned that the writers had always thought of Nate as “a narcissist” and Brenda as “a borderline personality — not the greatest combination.” So in case you’re still baffled trying to piece together the logic behind Brenda’s choices 10 years later, perhaps this diagnosis will provide insight.

Meanwhile, he described how they got lucky with other casting options, as certain roles were written to be like Kathy Bates, Lili Taylor and James Cromwell, and ended up going to those very actors. As for the other key characters, namely the symbolic apparitions the characters who die become, Ball clarified that these weren’t meant to be interpreted as actual spirits. “They’re dramatic devices [that are] embodiments of that deceased person’s effect on the person who’s seeing them,” he said. (It always seemed obvious that the “haunting” effect was a sometimes overwrought manifestation of character’s psychologies rather than an out-of-place implication of spookiness.)

Regarding the show’s explicit-for-the-time content, he explained how HBO gave them the freedom to explore characters’ psychologies through sexuality in an unprecedented fashion:

Do you remember there was some scene in Thirtysomething where two guys were in bed together, they weren’t having sex, they were just talking? Everybody got really upset. The sponsors pulled out. Not having sponsors [for Six Feet Under], we were able to [feature gay characters], but I didn’t want David and Keith to be the “gay characters.” I just wanted them to be characters. And 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. So we made Brenda become a sexual compulsive.

At the end of the screening, a couple of questions from the audience were taken — one of which was the inevitable, “What are you doing next?” Following Six Feet Under and True Blood, Ball explained he’s currently having trouble getting projects — particularly movie projects — funded. He has a couple of screenplays that he’s been “trying to get produced for about a hundred years, but it’s a totally different world in features than it was when American Beauty happened — that movie would not happen today,” he said, echoing a great deal of what other pioneering artists from earlier decades have said about the disappearance of mid-budget films. The movies he’s been trying to get off the ground today, though, are “smaller, quirky movies,” and he’s finally in negotiations for both of them. He also mentioned he recently finished a pilot script and is actually “in talks to turn the movie Nightcrawler into a TV series.”

Another question addressed what strangers have to say about the show to Ball now. According to its creator, Six Feet Under‘s legacy — in what he’s gauged from what fans continue to tell him — is how the show, rather than merely depressing people, has actually “helped [them] deal with the death of a loved one.”

Seitz corroborated with a personal story he’d been deliberating not telling:

I didn’t know if I was going to share this or not, but my wife died 10 years ago. She was 35, and I went to the hospital, and I got there and the doctor told me she was gone, literally 60 seconds before I got there, and the next thing he said to me… was, “What do you do?” and I said, “I’m a television critic.” He asked if I’d ever seen that show Six Feet Under, and I said, “Oh, sure it’s a great show.” And he said, “Do you know the opening of that show, when they have people suddenly dying, and you never know how they’re going to go or what the timing’s going to be, or even whether it’ll be one person or someone else? I’ve been a doctor for a very long time and that’s the only time I’ve ever seen them do it right.”

The Tribeca Film Festival runs through April 24th.