Screenwriter Alan Ball and director Sam Mendes clashed but made up

By Josh Wolk
Updated March 27, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST
Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, ...
Credit: Lorey Sebastian

Sunday night Alan Ball took home the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for ”American Beauty,” beating Charlie Kaufman (”Being John Malkovich”) and M. Night Shyamalan (”The Sixth Sense”). But the road to trophy gold had its share of on-set bumps. The biggest came when director Sam Mendes cut some major plot elements from the original script.

As Ball wrote it, ”Beauty” ended with teen lovers Jane Burnham (Thora Birch) and Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) going to jail after being framed by Ricky’s father (Chris Cooper) for the murder of Jane’s dad, Lester (Kevin Spacey). It began with a shot of Lester flying down from heaven in a bathrobe to visit his old neighborhood, along with some foreshadowing of how he was killed and how the falsely accused teens lost their high-profile trial. Mendes filmed the script exactly as it was written.

But when Ball (a coproducer who was on set for most of the filming) saw the director’s first cut, those opening moments had been eliminated — and much of the ending had been trimmed as well. ”I said it doesn’t really work and you should put the stuff at the beginning back in,” Ball, 42, tells EW Online. ”Sam said, ‘I totally disagree, it’s not important,’ and we had words.”

That night, Mendes made even more cuts. And Ball prepared for a fight. But a funny thing suddenly happened: ”The next day I saw it again with ALL of the ending removed,” says Ball, ”and it really worked.” Without the trial and double-cross (Ricky’s dad had framed the teens with the videotape in which Jane talks about how she wants her father dead), the entire feel of the movie had changed. ”That other stuff worked on the page but not really on screen,” admits Ball, ”because the movie that evolved was one that for all its darkness had a really romantic heart. It was hopeful and optimistic. And for those kids to go to jail for a crime they didn’t commit, especially after seeing the heartbreaking performances of Wes and Thora, it was too cynical. And the movie itself ended up not being cynical at all. So I was fine with it.” (There was, however, a trace of optimism in Ball’s original script: It ended with Colonel Fitts’ wife, played by Allison Janney, discovering his bloody shirt and sending it to the police.)

Ball will be sure to defer to his director when filming his next scripts, since he’s looking to helm his own projects. He’s writing a pilot for a one-hour HBO series that he says has the same tone as ”American Beauty,” as well as another feature script. But this one, although dark, is much more of a comedy than ”Beauty.” ”[I’m doing that] because everyone always says, ‘How do you top ”American Beauty”?”’ says Ball. ”My response is, You don’t try to. There’s nothing more inhibiting than sitting down and going, ‘Okay, this has to be better than that.”’ But he’s not giving any hints as to the new script’s plot. ”If I talk about it,” he says, ”I won’t write it.” And every director knows: You can’t cut what you don’t write.

American Beauty

  • Movie
  • R
  • 121 minutes
  • Sam Mendes