|Alan Ball on Making True Blood|
|Sunday, 02 November 2008|
By Christina Radish
Best known as the creator and executive producer of the critically acclaimed television series Six Feet Under, which aired for five seasons on HBO, the 51-year-old Georgia native tells MediaBlvd Magazine that he is having a great time making the, at times, explicit and violent True Blood.
MediaBlvd Magazine> How did you go about taking these books and turning them into a series? How do you decide what the focus is going to be, episode to episode?
Alan Ball> The great thing about Charlaine’s books and the world that she’s created is that it’s so rich and there are so many different characters, and she opens so many doors. I don’t really know ahead of time what the series will be. I don’t map things out that far in advance. I rely on the four other writers that I work with to help instigate the out-chemical that you hope to make happen, when you’re mapping out a series. The other great thing about Charlaine’s books is that the stories work. However, the books really center on Sookie’s story, so unless the other characters are in the room with her, they don’t really appear that much in the books. So, I feel like we have the best of both worlds, in that we have a really elaborate story that works, and then we have a lot of other characters, and we can devise stories for them that remain true to Charlaine’s world. There will be something in there, for the people who are fans of the books, that will be surprising as well. In terms of the week-to-week, it’s just these characters that, hopefully, everyone will grow to love and care about, and seeing them deal with living their lives and trying to make a place for themselves in the world, with lots of sex and violence.
MediaBlvd> How closely are you going to adhere to the books, for the duration of the series?
Alan> We stuck really, really close to the first book. The first book is the basis for the first season, although by Episode 11 and 12, we started to veer into Book Two, just to set things up for the next season. We’re going to stick to the Sookie and Bill story very closely, and then we’re going to experiment with the other characters, but it’s going to remain very true to the spirit of Charlaine’s world.
MediaBlvd> Why did you choose HBO for this series?
Alan> First of all, I had a great experience with HBO, so why would I go anywhere else? Second of all, HBO allows you the freedom. My experience with the broadcast networks is that it’s all about flattening and making things plastic and making things resemble things that have already been successful. You have too many people giving you too many notes, and most of them don’t know what they’re doing. I will never do anything for broadcast network TV again. I’m only going to work in cable, and HBO is the best place to work.
MediaBlvd> Did you intentionally write the first three episodes of the series yourself, so that you could set the tone that you wanted for the duration?
Alan> What happened was that I had signed a deal with HBO, and then I went off to direct this movie, Towelhead. I felt guilty that I had a development deal, and I wasn’t really doing anything because I was focusing on this other thing. So, I basically wrote the second and third episode out of guilt. It did end up actually being helpful in setting the tone, but that wasn’t my initial motivation.
MediaBlvd> Can you talk about the difference between adapting someone else’s work for TV versus creating your own world? What are some of the challenges of that? And, are there any benefits to coming into something that’s already been set up for you?
Alan> Absolutely, there are benefits! You have a built-in fanbase. In this case, Charlaine’s books work. The world is complete. In a lot of ways, she’s done a lot of the heavy lifting, and I’m really, really indebted to her for that. The challenges are to remain true enough to the material, so that you don’t lose what it was that attracted you to it, in the first place. But, at the same time, you have to open it up and make changes, when you feel like they would improve it. Luckily for me, Charlaine has been a complete sweetheart about it, and she really understands that the medium of television is completely different from the media of the printed page. She’s been really onboard and she’s really enjoying the process, which is not always the case with writers, when their work is taken over by somebody else.
MediaBlvd> How complex is it when you’re adding elements to an existing story?
Alan> It’s all instinctive for me. I work with five writers. They’re really smart and gifted, and they’ll pitch things, and I just instinctively go, “That works. That doesn’t. This makes sense. This is not true to the spirit of Charlaine’s world.” I can’t really say how complex it is because I don’t think in those terms. I think, “Is this fun? Is this keeping my interest? Am I learning something new about this character?” I just trust my instincts and do the show that I would watch.
MediaBlvd> How much fun can you have with vampires in our world?
Alan> You can have a lot of fun! And, when you have actors this talented, you can really have a lot of fun, especially when you put them in this small town. This is the most fun I’ve ever had doing television.
MediaBlvd> What do you feel is the essential thing that you have to have, in a series dealing with vampires, and how far can you play with the vampire theme to put your own twist on it to make it an Alan Ball production?
Alan> I don’t know. The one thing I feel like you have to have is a character. You have to have a specific person that you’re invested in. You have to feel for them. If it’s just a story device with fangs, then I’m just not that interested. I’m not that interested in special effects. We’re trying to really focus on who Bill is. What is his history? What’s the curse of being immortal? How is that a bad thing? What’s it like to be immortal and still yearn to be human? To lose everything that meant something to you? To meet somebody and feel like you have a second beginning? Those are the things that are important to me. In terms of putting my own spin on things, I’m not really that concerned about that. Charlaine created this world and I just responded to it. Certainly, anything that will put my spin on it has to be shared with the other writers I’m working with. I’m not doing this in a room by myself. Also, it comes more from a motivation of, “Yeah, that works. That’s funny. That entertains us.” I get more invested, emotionally, by that.
MediaBlvd> Does not being familiar with things like Buffy and the Twilight book series give you a better perspective, in bringing this show to non-genre fans?
Alan> Theoretically, that makes sense to me. I can’t really answer that because I don’t know. It’s great when you’re working on a TV show and you hire a writer who has never written TV. It’s actually somebody coming in with a fresher perspective that’s not quite as defined. I thought, “This is fun. This is a show I would watch.” I’m really having a good time doing it.
MediaBlvd> Six Feet Under explored life and death, as this show does, although in a very different way. Was that an appealing element that attracted you to the books?
Alan> I don’t think I sat down and thought, “Okay, how can I continue to explore life and death, but from a different angle?” But, when I was 13 years old, my sister was killed in a car accident, in front of me, and death became a big part of my life, on that day, and has always been in the room with me. I’m constantly aware of how short life is and how it can go away, at any moment. So, that’s obviously a resonant theme for me. I do feel like Six Feet Under, in a way, made me more comfortable with the concept of grief. I’m not sure when can ever become 100% comfortable with death, but especially as one gets older, as I’m in the process of doing, it becomes a more real element. I’m sure that had something to do with how Charlaine’s books resonated for me, but I don’t think it’s the most important thing. The most important thing is just the sheer fun, pulpy storytelling nature of it. It’s a big, rollicking yarn. It’s just really, really fun to be a part of something like that.
MediaBlvd> Will there be any explanation as to how history has evolved along this alternative timeline, to get to this point of the wide acceptance and population of vampires?
Alan> A lot of that was done as part of the viral marketing campaign, and that was one of the things we were trying to accomplish through that, in addition to raising awareness about the show. Ultimately, once the show started, I wanted to be able to just jump in and hit the ground running. There is a website, called Blood Copy, that traces the vampires’ decision to make their presence known to humans. And, there is a comic book, which is available online, that traces how the discovery of the synthetic Tru Blood led to the vampires deciding to make their presence known to humans. I preferred just to tell that story in those media because, once we got into the show, I just really wanted it to be about the characters and their relationships, and the serial killer and all that stuff.
MediaBlvd> Vampires are very popular at the moment, with the success of True Blood and then Twilight coming out on November 21st. Why now? Is it just a coincidence?
Alan> As Freud said, there are no coincidences. That being said, I don’t really know what the deeper meaning is. I have not read Twilight, so I don’t really know about it, other than there are vampires, and it’s for young adults. Vampires are obviously a timeless, powerful archetype that really can tap into people’s psyches. They’ve been around forever, even before the redefinition of vampires in the 19th Century with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A lot of world mythologies, all over the globe, have creatures, like the succubus, who feeds on the essence of other people. I don’t really know why there’s so much interest right now, but there seems to be a convergence. I’m just glad it’s happening. I hope it’s going to lead more people to our show. It does seem to be the moment of the vampire.
MediaBlvd> In both True Blood and Twilight, the vampires are somewhat more domesticated than they have been in the past. They seem to be trying to fit into society. Why do you think that might be?
Alan> As far as what the more domesticated vampire means, maybe it means that, as our society becomes more and more multi-cultural, and the new terrain of multi-culturalism is no longer the cities, but it’s the suburban streets in the small towns, it’s a reflection of that. I don’t know. I wish I was more educated in that regard, but unfortunately, I’m just not.
MediaBlvd> True Blood really sets itself up as a parable about these marginalized members of society, and it has echoes of the sensationalist tendencies of our culture. Was that something that you brought to the forefront, or was that present in the books?
Alan> It’s present in the books, in the very beginning. How easy it is to read the vampires as a metaphor for this or that is the least interesting for me. It’s texture, but it’s not what the series is about. When I first pitched this to HBO and somebody asked me what it was about, I said, “It’s about the terrors of intimacy.” At the time, I thought, “Who knows what that means, but it sounds good!” Over time, I’ve really started to believe that that is the deeper meaning of the show, and I would venture to say a lot of horror movies, and is a lot of the reason why the vampire is such a powerful archetype. As far as the sensationalism goes, it was just really fun to do something that was less subdued. Six Feet Under had been all about subduing one’s emotions and being afraid of the primal feelings that we all have, that are the byproduct of being creatures with souls, and having to deal with the fact that we all know we’re going to die. It felt liberating just to get a little crazy. The books had that energy, and I just really responded to that. And, I wanted to do something different, obviously.
MediaBlvd> You’ve said that it’s a mistake to think of vampire culture as stand-ins for the gay community or immigrants, or anybody who is trying to establish a foothold in society, so that they are better accepted. So, what do you want people to see in vampires then?
Alan> I’m not an expert on the symbolism of vampires and what it means. They’re outsiders. I’m an outsider. I’ve always felt like an outsider, my entire life, so I feel a sympathy for them. They’re rock stars. They’re romantic heroes. I don’t think it’s necessarily a mistake to view them as stand-ins for immigrants, or gay and lesbian culture. I just think it’s a little too easy. And, I don’t think it’s the only thing they can be seen as metaphors for, especially in this world. That’s one of the things I really liked about it. It’s a very fluid metaphor. On the one hand, it’s a metaphor for any disenfranchised group, wanting to assimilate and wanting equal rights and power. On the other hand, it’s a terrific metaphor for a shadowy, secret organization that is all about amassing power and, if you get in their way, they will get rid of you. That’s certainly at work in our culture as well. What I like about the vampires-as-metaphor aspect of the show is that it can be different things, at different times, which makes it a much more interesting metaphor. In terms of the appeal, maybe immortality is a part of it. They don’t have to die, in addition to being outsiders and rock stars, and all that stuff.
MediaBlvd> How did Anna Paquin get involved with this show?
Alan> Anna pursued the role. I got a lot of calls from agents, telling me that someone was available, but they would say, “Of course, it would have to be an offer.” And, I’m so sequestered in my world of making television and avoiding the entertainment industry, and living between those two polarities, that I wouldn’t even know who they were talking about. I need to see somebody read because I need to see if the character lives when they act. So, everybody came in and read. We took everybody to the network and they read again. At the beginning, my casting director called me and said, “Are you interested in Anna Paquin?,” and I thought, “Why would Anna want to do TV? She’s got a movie career.” I’m used to American actors especially, who work in movies, thinking that television is beneath them. And then, I thought about it and realized, “Of course she’d like to do this. It’s a fantastic role! Nobody has cast her like this in a movie.” She came in and read, and I worked with her twice, before we went to the network. I was a little worried that she wouldn’t be willing to dye her hair blonde, but she was actually very willing. She said, “It’s something that I would never do, in my real life, because I would think it was superficial, but you gave me an excuse to do it.” I do feel a certain responsibility to be as true as I can be to the nature and the spirit of the books, as long as we strike that balance. There are such legions of fans for these books that you have to strike the balance of being close enough so that they don’t feel like, “It doesn’t make any sense!,” but then also, when you’re casting, physical type is really not the most important thing. The important thing is, “Can this person bring this character to life in a way that is compelling, and makes me care about what happens to them?” I think I just have an instinct for when that happens, and I trust my gut. Luckily, I’m working at HBO, where I’m not being pressured to just cast people with familiar faces. We have a great cast!
MediaBlvd> How did you find Stephen Moyer, and why did you decide to cast him as Bill, the vampire?
Alan> That was a particularly tough role to cast. We saw some really good actors, but for this reason or that reason, it just wasn’t right. I always saw Bill as a really tragic, haunted man, and he also had to really give you the sense that he was from another era. Stephen is British and he’s been through the whole British actor training thing. For whatever reason, he just really captured the right combination of feeling haunted, being able to convey the fact that he was 170 years old, and being really genteel, polite, cultured and refined while being ridiculously handsome, with those crazy blue eyes. The first time I saw him, it was on a tiny little postage stamp-size Quicktime movie that I downloaded from a website, from this casting director in
MediaBlvd> Were you specifically looking abroad for Bill?
Alan> No, but I was willing to go anywhere that we would get the right person who would bring each character alive. So, we’ve ended up with an international cast. Stephen is British, Anna is from
MediaBlvd> Can you talk about casting Alexander Sarsgaard as the vampire, Eric?
Alan> Eric is a really important role in the world of the show. It’s the one that Charlaine’s fans seemed to be most interested in, as far as who was going to get cast, even though they were all pitching professional wrestlers and models. I was very pleased to find Alex, and that he was willing to do the show. He’s been voted the sexiest man in
MediaBlvd> How much of Eric are viewers going to get to see?
Alan> Eric is a 1,000-year-old vampire who is from
MediaBlvd> The series is very sexual and very violent. What’s appealing to you about making a show with so much sex and violence?
Alan> It’s fun! I don’t know if it’s because the fantastic nature of the premise allows me enough of a remove, so that it’s not so upsetting. It’s like popcorn TV. It’s like an amusement park ride. Sexuality is a real window into somebody’s psyche, so I’m not as freaked out by characters being depicted in sexual situations than maybe some other people are. There’s a lot of sex and violence in Charlaine’s books. That’s part of what I responded to. And, I wanted to do something different. Six Feet Under was all about repression, and this seems to me to be about abandon. I find the show really entertaining to produce and to be a part of making, just because it’s escapist. That’s one of the joys of it.
MediaBlvd> What do you think makes vampires so sexy?
Alan> Obviously, the act of feeding is a very blatantly sexual metaphor. There’s penetration. There are bodily fluids exchanged. It is a cathartic, frenzied, physical moment. Also, a lot of people are attracted to the bad boy or the femme fatale -- the hot, sexy, dangerous person that you just know is really not good for you and your conscience mind is going, “Okay, move away. Walk away from that.” The person over here, in the corner, who is really well-adjusted, and has their life together, has a job, isn’t crazy and doesn’t have any substance abuse problem, and that you should want and you know you should want, doesn’t turn you on as much. I don’t know where that comes from. It’s probably a result of living in a world where we’re all socialized to hope to avoid danger, and to function in society and not be an outlaw. Creatures who are basically dangerous outlaws that function on the edges of society appeal to those of us who want to live a more civilized life.
MediaBlvd> How much of the humor will run through the series?
Alan> A lot. Part of what I enjoyed so much about the books, in addition to the romance, the adventure, the intrigue, the danger, the sex and the violence, was that they were funny. These characters were funny without trying to be funny, and that’s definitely something that we really want to keep. We’ve assembled a cast that’s really good at playing the humor straight. Jason is a really tough role because, usually when an actor is playing a character who’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer, a lot of times you have an actor who needs to let the audience know, “By the way, I’m not really this dumb, and I’m going to let you know that I’m not really this dumb,” and then, it becomes really not funny. Whereas, Ryan Kwanten is a really smart guy and he’s really secure in that, so he loves the fact that his character is kind of a dingbat. Everybody really, really believes in this world and commits to it, and that allows the humor that was inherent in Charlaine’s books, and also the stuff that we’ve added to it, to breathe. I still laugh, when I watch episodes that I’ve seen five or six times.
MediaBlvd> How do you see the good vampires and evil vampires playing out?
Alan> It’s like humans. There are people who want to work together to make a better world, and there are people who, forgive my French, want to fuck whoever they can fuck, to get the most that they can get. Vampires are no different.
MediaBlvd> How much will viewers continue to see
Alan> You’ll see him a lot. The guy who is playing
MediaBlvd> Will viewers ever see Bubba on the show?
Alan> We’re not going to see Bubba. There is no way to do it, if it’s not Elvis. There’s just no way to do it without it being lame, so we’re not going to do it. The only way I thought about it was to have a guy who we never saw the face of, but then it felt like that guy from Home Improvement.
MediaBlvd> When the writers’ strike interrupted production of the show, did you take time to rethink things?
Alan> No, because we did not work during the strike. We shut the show down. If anything, all it did was delay the momentum that was building, and it took us a little while to get it back. During the strike, we were on the picket lines. I was one of those people who was very, very adamant about not working. I really believe in labor, and I really think that the big media consolidation giants are squeezing labor, and I wanted to do whatever I could do. I believed in the strike, and I was not going to be one of those people who was on the picket lines, but then secretly went to work.
MediaBlvd> When you came back from the strike, did you look at anything differently?
Alan> I don’t remember there being a fresh look. We immediately jumped back into breaking stories because of how far we would have been, had their not been a strike. I’m a person who feels that I really need to be organized, and I really need to make sure that the director and the actors and all the department heads get a script, 10 days before we start shooting. I just think it’s really disrespectful not to do that. Also, I can’t deal with the stress of everything being at the last moment. I remember that we had to hit the ground running and jump right back into it, and we had to do some re-shoots because the production had gone on and continued to shoot episodes for which scripts had existed, while the writers who serve as the on-set producers were not on the set to make sure that everything was going the way it should be. It’s been such a crazy year. There may have been a moment where we were like, “Hey, during the strike, I thought of this. Maybe we should do that.” But, I don’t really remember.
MediaBlvd> Do you have a favorite character that you personally enjoy writing for?
Alan> I really enjoy writing for all of them, but I definitely enjoy Jason and Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis). I think they’re really funny, and I just find them so entertaining, for completely different reasons. Jason is such a little boy, trapped in a man’s body, and he does the stupidest things. And,
MediaBlvd> Did you get a chance to meet some of the voodoo people, or anybody who really thought they were a vampire, in the towns that you went to in
Alan> I have not gotten into that community. Basically, the only people I met when we went to
MediaBlvd> Did you ever watch Dark Shadows? Was that ever an inspiration for you, at any point?
Alan> When Dark Shadows came on, I was in elementary school. I think it came on at 3:30 or 4 in the afternoon, and my next door neighbors and I would come home from school, and we would rush into either their house, or they’d come over to my house, and we would sit there and, when the theme music came on, we would hold our throats, like we couldn’t breathe. We would sit there and pretend that we were choking until the title sequence was over, and then we would go outside and play. We didn’t really watch it. To an 8-year-old, Dark Shadows was really slow, but certainly the fact that it was a show about vampires was something exciting to us, to make us do this weird little psycho drama, every day, just while that organ music played and those waves crashed against the rocks. I have no idea where that came from, but I remember it very vividly.
MediaBlvd> Do you think kids will have that reaction to True Blood?
Alan> I hope kids don’t watch this show. Frankly, I hope parents know better than to let kids watch this show.
MediaBlvd> Having grown up in Marietta, George, did the Southern Gothic atmosphere of this world intimidate you at all?
Alan> I wasn’t consciously intimidated by it. In fact, because I grew up in the South, I certainly saw a lot of it. My family had some real deep, gothic roots, so I felt like I knew what it was. Having actually grown up in the South, I’m very aware when
MediaBlvd> With the success of things like Buffy and the Twilight book series, the vampire fan community is clearly fanatic. Were you prepared for how dedicated those fans are? Are you affected by what the fans feel?
Alan> I try not to really let that stuff affect me. I feel a responsibility to be true to the spirit of the books, and yet turn it into its own television show. I don’t mean this with any disrespect at all, but the fans are not writing the show. I’m not going to go on the boards and make sure that everybody is happy with what’s being done because I have to trust my own instincts. That feels so narcissistic. When I first started working, I would Google myself, but it got really boring, really fast. I’m a person who works so many hours of the day that, the days when I’m not working, I just really want to get away from my job, so I don’t go on the boards. It’s no coincidence that I stopped going on the boards, as people started writing more and more negative things about me. If I start feeling like I have to please the fans, that’s just like having to please a committee of suits at a studio, and then it becomes a show that is created by committee, and that’s just not the kind of show I’m interested in working on. That being said, I’m a huge fan of Charlaine’s books. I really think that the fans of her books are fans of the show. And, I really hope that the people who come to the show without being aware of her books will pick up the books and read them. But, they are two different things. I have to make sure that I come up with new things to put in the show, otherwise everybody is going to know exactly what’s going to happen because it’s all been published. She has eight books out in the series, and there’s a ninth one coming out, so I have to walk that line. My job is to produce television and work on a show that, in my opinion, and the opinion of the people on my staff whose judgement I trust, is really the best show that we can make. Those are the people I’m going to listen to. I can’t make myself beholden to the fans because they don’t own the material. But, Charlaine, herself, really likes the show. Charlaine owns it, and now HBO owns the rights to create the show. At some point, you just have to make the show that you believe is the best show, and have faith in it.
MediaBlvd> Has your writing process changed in the last 10 years?
Alan> Oh yeah. Ten years ago, I was working on a sitcom. It was all about the jokes. Now, I love the people I work with. I’m having a blast, so it’s terrific.
MediaBlvd> Are you a guy?
Alan> I’m more a guy.
MediaBlvd> But, you’re regimented?
Alan> Yeah. I’m not a big believer in wasting time. If we’re done by three, we go home. Well, the staff goes home, and I go to the stage.
MediaBlvd> Are there any other genres you want to explore in your career?
Alan> Yes. I’d love to do a romantic comedy. I’d love to do a screwball comedy. I’d love to do a mystery thriller. I don’t want to do a comic book movie. And, I don’t really want to do a movie where people get tortured.