Alan Ball Opens Up About Exploring the Meaning of Life With HBO's 'Here and Now'

Here and Now - Tim Robbins and Holly Hunter - Publicity -H 2018
Ali Paige Goldstein/HBO

Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball returns to HBO on Sunday with his first TV series since True Blood wrapped its seven-season run in 2014. Here and Now, a 10-episode, straight-to-series drama starring Tim Robbins and Holly Hunter, centers on a contemporary multiracial family in Trump's America.

To hear Ball tell it, the decision to return to family drama was based on a need that HBO had for the genre; the series also provides him with a chance to put an updated spin on the tried-and-true stories that are often at the center of such shows. On Here and Now, Robbins plays a philosophy professor who with his wife (Holly Hunter) is raising three adopted children — from Somalia (Jerrika Hinton, Grey's Anatomy), Vietnam (Raymond Lee) and Colombia (Daniel Zovatto) — and their sole biological child (Sosie Bacon). 

Below, Ball talks with The Hollywood Reporter about how he hopes to explore the meaning of life through the drama's multicultural family, the different experiences that exist in today's America and more.

Where did the inspiration for Here and Now come from? You did a big family drama in Six Feet Under, then did genre drama True Blood that had some political undertones. Why go back to family drama?

I had written a bunch of screenplays and nobody wanted to produce them. And I had done a couple of pilots that didn't go and I knew that HBO had been interested in a family drama for some time. I thought I would take a stab at my current version of that. There have been so many family dramas. I was trying to figure out a way to put a spin on it and that's where the multiethnic, adopted family and mystical element came from. We were in the writers' room when Trump was elected and we thought this show could also be a way to look at Trump's America as it is experienced differently through these different characters and how their particular makeup dictates the differences in the way they experience things.

This was one of HBO programming president Casey Bloys' first pickups since taking over for Michael Lombardo. What was your pitch to him?

It wasn't a pitch. I wrote a script because that's the only way I know how to work. When I have tried to make pitches and develop scripts, it's not a process that I have ever been able to kind of master [laughs]. I sat down and wrote this script and gave it to Casey. His question was if this was a family show or a supernatural show. It's both — and it's more than that.

Here and Now takes its title from the book that Tim Robbins' character, Greg, writes on the show. But what does the title represent to you?

Here and Now is this moment that we're in right now. Ultimately, there is a Buddhist concept and it's self-evident that this moment right now is really the only way we ever experience life. Life is happening right here, right now and that's where we all are. We have a tendency as human beings to get trapped in the past or project too much onto the future, [creating] depression and anxiety. But it's really in this moment that is where life happens.

On the mystical side, Ramon (Daniel Zovatto) sees visions of 11:11. What sort of story are you looking to explore with that?

People who see things that the rest of us don't throughout history have been treated in different ways. We tend to treat them now as people who are mentally ill, where that "needs to be medicated out of them." In earlier times, they were seen as prophets and shamans, and as being possessed by demons. I don't think of it more as mystical and less as supernatural because it's not that something is happening that everybody is subject to. It's more about what's going on in Ramon's perception. When I sat down to write the script, it was the way the show started.

Is that based on an experience or something you read?

I did have an experience of my own with a moment where I felt like a force pushed me to look at a clock and it was 11:11. I went on the web and there is a ton of stuff about people who believe that is a message from the universe. I'm not saying I personally believe that, but having had that experience I thought why not write something where you just go with that.

How does that fit in with the larger themes of the show?

[We question] what it means. Is there a force behind things that tries to communicate with us every now and then? Are there people who are more perceptive, who are more open to that than others? It felt like an interesting place to go so that you wouldn't just be dealing with relationships, sibling rivalry, arguments and the standard tropes of family dramas because there are so many of them right now and they do all that stuff so very well. I wanted to give this show at least an area where you could explore some other stuff.

Tim Robbins' Greg is a philosopher who is married to Holly Hunter's Audrey, a former therapist. And their son Duc (Raymond Lee) is a motivational architect, so you're essentially exploring multiple ways of thinking. What was it about that discussion that enticed you?

I'm at a point in my life where I think a lot about things and what they mean. I wanted to have characters who would be able to have conversations about what life means and how life needs to be harnessed or experienced. I am interested in watching characters and the different ways they handle exploring what life means and how to experience it.

The show was picked up well before Trump was elected president. How did his victory change the show?

I came into the writers' room and people were weeping. I think we drank a quart of rum collectively that day as a way to deal with the devastation that everybody felt. But then we also decided that it was an opportunity to write about this experience. We have so many characters from different backgrounds and different viewpoints and can explore the different experiences they will have living in Trump's America. That's part of what the show is as well.

Was it tempting to alter the show and explore that as a more central theme?

We just breaking stories and had not actually sent people out to write individual scripts when he was elected. I also knew that the show was not going to be airing for a long time but we couldn't really make the show about Trump being president or being elected.

How multicultural is your writers' room?

I knew that I had created a show with these multicultural characters and people from different ethnic backgrounds and experiences and I also knew that I'm about as white as they come and I couldn't really write that show from experience. When I was putting the writers' room together, my producing partner, Peter Macdissi, and I wanted to make sure that we had people who could bring their own experience to the process organically. Being in that writers' room was such a learning curve for me and for everybody, I think, because it's one thing to go online and research things and it's another thing to live it. That has been one of the joys of working on this show. It's a pretty inclusive room. We have a couple of African-Americans, we have a Lebanese Muslim, we have a guy from Taiwanese descent. We've got gay, straight, men, women, parents, adoptive parents, people who themselves were adopted. I tried to cover all the bases because that's what this show needs, that's what I needed as a head writer to be able to tell these stories in a way that's organic and not false. These were also the best writers that I read. But I did want the show to be authentic and to have a ring of truth and for these characters and their stories to come from a place that was authentic. It's not something I could have done on my own if I had just filled a room with people like myself.

Episode two features Ashley (Jerrika Hinton) and Kristen (Sosie Bacon) both being processed after being arrested and how that experience is different for a black woman than it is for a white woman. Are you drawing on experience from the writers for topical stories like that?

Yes. And we also talk a lot about current events and certainly over the last couple of years there have been a lot of things happening to black people in jails and we talk about things like that from different perspectives and different viewpoints and our own personal thing. I got arrested when I was 21 for smoking pot in the parking lot of a gay bar and I spent the night in jail and I was never worried about what a cop was going to do. It was a completely different experience. My biggest problem [at the time] was, where do I put my contact lenses? Whereas there are people who have died and that's a reality. And that's what I loved about going into that experience. Ashley had a completely different mind-set than Kristen.

In a larger sense, what subjects do you hope to explore through the show?

The world that we live in is changing so fast. Through the prism of these characters in this show, I hope to look at how people adapt and how quickly one can adapt and one should adapt. I hope that this show could be a forum for philosophical and ethical discussions; discussions about race, gender, sexuality and the nature of reality. We’ve got a big philosophical streak going through the middle of the show. An overarching theme of the work that I do is the challenges of living authentically in a world that seems to be increasingly inauthentic.

Given how much the TV landscape has changed since True Blood ended, have you thought about exploring a world outside of your longtime home at HBO?

Fortunately for me, I have never had to because every time I've gone to HBO, HBO has said yes. I have had such a great experience at HBO that I don't really have a need to look anywhere else. But that being said, I think the fact that there are all these platforms is just a great thing for the creative community because there's more options for people to tell stories. Working in television right now is incredibly exciting. I hardly ever go to a movie theater anymore because the more interesting stuff is on television and the vast majority of what's in the movie theaters is for 15-year-olds. I just don't find it that interesting.

Here and Now premieres Sunday on HBO.