FOR decades, Nancy Oliver wrote plays that her old Florida State University pal, screenwriter Alan Ball ("American Beauty"), occasionally produced on small stages. Oliver put obscurity behind her with a critically acclaimed television series and an Oscar buzzworthy screenplay in "Lars and the Real Girl." And it all came not a moment too soon. --
When Alan Ball offered you a staff writing job on HBO's "Six Feet Under," you were literally getting ready to leave town and give up on your writing career. Why is that?
When I moved out here I decided that I would give it five years because I'm not a kid anymore. When Alan called, I was moving because my five years were up. It was very difficult because I was doing it at a later time in life than most people. I didn't have the years to screw around. I was going to go back to Florida, find a place on the beach and figure out another way to make a living. I had boxes packed. When I got the call, I asked him if he could give me some time because I had changed my head so much [about staying in Los Angeles]. But after the first day [of thinking about it], I was like, "What? Are you crazy? Yeah, I'll do this!" Then I was clearly onboard.
How do you battle writer's block, if you get it?
There's plenty of struggle, no question about that. I had had a block . . . for five years and I wasn't sure that I would ever be able to write a big piece again. I've been working since I was 21, trying to put it all together, and hit just one dead end after the next. You question sometimes, "Is this what I'm supposed to be doing? I'm following my dream and it's leading me into the gutter!"
How did your writing habits change as you went from writing by yourself to being part of a writing team?
"Six Feet Under" changed me a great deal, and it was a wonderful training ground that really toughened me up. I'd been sensitive for quite some time and when you have to put your stuff on the table and let everybody go at it, it either makes you stronger or kills you. I really enjoyed it because I got so much out of getting other people's opinions. I think I'm a braver writer now. Less wimpy.
Your work on "Six Feet Under" and "Lars and the Real Girl" has elements of mental illness. What brings you back to that terrain?
It's a sort of theme in my life. A lot of people close to me have suffered a great deal from mental illness and when you're close to it like that, the suffering is palpable. There is a lot of anguish. It's awful.
Speech therapy is used to talk out Lars' problems and investigate his delusion that the doll is a real person. Interestingly, Lars is never medicated. What was your approach to writing Lars' treatment?
I didn't want to go therapeutic with it because it's not a documentary. It was about a lot of things that broke this one guy. He's finding his way out and he was functional. When someone says "Can you fix him?" the doctor answers, "There isn't a pill for lonely." And, there really isn't, and that was the crux of his problem for me.
How did you arrive at the concept of Bianca being a wheelchair user?
It's one of those mysterious things. It was in the script from the top. It was also stemming from Lars' need to nurture and to care for somebody like the way he never got to care for his mother. The fact that she was handicapped also represents the ways in which he's crippled. She reflects him as well as his desires.
In the end as part of his healing, Lars decides that Bianca has a terminal illness. When did this decision to kill off Bianca appear?
I had always claimed it as a resurrection story, which meant if somebody had to go, it wasn't going to be Lars. I wasn't sure at the beginning that she would die. She might leave and do something else but when it became clear that it was all about his mother's death and his own rebirth -- she had to go.
Bringing Lars to the screen has been a long and winding road for you. What was your moment of bliss throughout the whole experience?
It was probably in Toronto [at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival]. The movie ended and everybody got up and I thought they were leaving -- but they were clapping. That just kind of blew the top of my head off. I had an out-of-body thing because it was just an amazing moment. All those years -- 27 years -- more than that -- of just hard work and nothing. It was just extremely rewarding. I never, ever thought something like that would happen, never, ever.