We had the pleasure of speaking with Alan Ball, the creator and writer for HBO’s True Blood. He spoke about the second season, Anna and Stephen’s real-life relationship, and the future direction of the series. Here’s part two of our two part interview (Part One):
With Sookie and Bill’s relationship being the core of the show, how do you keep the complications seem natural and not just contrived? How do you do that as a writer?
Alan Ball: Given the source material, there’s a lot going on. This year Sookie goes to Dallas to help Eric find this missing vampire, and ultimately we actually broke down the timeline of the entire season. And season 2 takes place in 12 days, and when a lot of that time is spent running for your lives or trying not to get killed or trying to get past this or that obstacle that keeps you from each other, it’s not really hard. They don’t really have time to run into the same kind of relationship things that us mere mortals do. Like “You know, I really hate it when you do that,” and “I wish you would-“. You know, that kind of thing. They’re basically trying to just get through the day without getting killed.
Now that the show’s a bona fide hit, are you feeling more pressure or less pressure?
Alan Ball:I don’t really think about those things. I feel like that is a real trap, because I just really try to do the best work that I can do and stay out of the results. I’m glad people are watching the show; I always thought that it was a show that a lot of people would have fun with. But, I don’t feel more pressure, and I really work very hard to stay in a little bubble, in that regard. Because otherwise, you’d just go crazy. It doesn’t help.
I want to talk about the characters like Tara and Jessica that really weren’t a part of the book, per se. You’ve done such a wonderful job weaving in all of these different stories with this ensemble. What are some of the things you’re trying to explore with the characters that you’re straying from what the book did? What do you want to explore with those kinds of characters?
Alan Ball: The process that we work with in the room, is very organic, so we never set out and say, like, “Ok, we want to explore this,” or “Let’s create a character in which we can explore that.” Certainly Tara does exist in the books, but she’s not African American and she doesn’t show up until season 2. Thinking about Tara, I did think, “Well, we need another strong woman who is one of our core group of characters.” And I think it’s Louisiana, let’s explore this sort of racial make up of that region, and also this is a small town in Louisiana where they still do things like hang nooses from trees at high schools and that’s based on racial tension. I think it would be silly to do a show set in a small town in Louisiana and just have Caucasian characters. I wanted Tara to be-Tara, definitely, in the books, she does have an alcoholic mother. She was Sookie’s friend, but I wanted to really explore a really strong friendship of two kind of outcasts.
Then Jessica- once we decided to make Bill the guy who stakes Longshadow instead of Eric, which is the way it is in the book, it just felt like it would be really interesting for him to have to do something that he’d never, ever wanted to do; the worst punishment for him would have to be to have turn someone else into a vampire. For him, that was the biggest tragedy of his life. And then once we had a girl who came from a very sheltered home-schooled background and plucked her out of that and put her in this entirely new environment, with entirely new powers, that just opened itself up to all kinds of interesting situations.
I once read an interview where you said that early in your TV writing career you didn’t really have an emotional connection with what you were writing. I was wondering what kind of emotional connection do you have with True Blood?
Alan Ball: The thing about True Blood, the emotional connection, is that it is so much fun. It’s so much fun to work on, and it’s such a fun story. And I feel for all of these characters; they feel real to me. Which may be a subtle form of madness, and if it is, so be it. When we’re breaking stories- we might as well have a sign in the writer’s room that says, “It’s the emotion, stupid!”. Because if you don’t have characters that you care about, if you can’t base their behavior in their own emotional needs, then it’s just a parade of set pieces and special effects. I personally do not respond to that kind of entertainment. I feel like what makes the show special is it has all the trappings of an amusement park ride, fun thrill ride, but at the same time the characters are behaving the way they’re behaving from an organic, emotional way. You know, as much as one can with a show about vampires. But I think it’s really important to keep it rooted in the character’s desires and wants, needs, struggles, and even disappointments, and not just in, “Oh! Bang! Special Effects! Werewolves! Blab bla!” That on it’s own, I don’t think it’s that interesting.
Your last show, Six Feet Under, was a regular at award shows, and I was wondering if you think True Blood will follow that and if you think it will have a more difficult time because it’s a more genre show?
Alan Ball: I don’t really think about those things. The award show stuff- it’s fun; it’s nice; it’s like being prom king. Ultimately, it’s not what it’s all about. I think there are many, many-I just really don’t think about it that much. I’m not that invested in it. I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve won a bunch of awards, more than I ever thought I would, and I’ve got a shelf at home with them all on it. I feel like I personally don’t ever need to win another award. I would rather work on something that I really, really love and enjoy.
Can you talk about a process of going from a regular drama to the genre category? Is it kind of the same writing process for you or do things open up a bit more?
Alan Ball: Well, in a lot of ways the process is the same. Certainly the way that I put shows together with writers and with all the people that I work with is very much the same. I think that Six Feet Under was a very personal show. It was very- it was also- as great as an experience as it was (and I loved every moment of making that show. It was a tremendous personal and professional achievement for me that I’m very proud of), but it was hard. Five years of staring into the abyss kind of- it took its toll. I think that’s one of the things that really appealed to be about Charlaine’s books when I was reading them. Like, this is so much fun and I can’t put it down and it’s really- it has an emotional basis, but it’s also just crazy fun! And I think that’s just what I wanted to do. Something different. I don’t want to do Six Feet Under over again. I remember when I wrote American Beauty I suddenly got offered every mid-life crisis movie that was in development. And I just sort of thought, “Well, why are you giving me this? I did this!” I don’t want to go through life repeating myself. What fun is that?
I was hoping you could talk a little bit about Jason’s character and his arc for the season.
Alan Ball: Jason, in the books, is very much the “hot guy” in town, who basically is a total womanizer, and I think once we started to flesh him out (no pun intended) we started looking at him as, you know, he’s actually compulsive. And what is that about? What is he hiding from? And ultimately at his core, Jason is a scared little boy who’s been abandoned by everybody he’s ever loved. So it was fun writing the horndog aspect of Jason and then getting him involved in an addiction story line. And then also having him fall in love, or what he assumes is love, given that he is mostly high out of his mind at all times, and then losing the woman that he loves.
In the second season I think he really is very much aware of a kind of deep hole that he has in the center of his soul, and he’s looking for something to fill that. And, as many people do, he latches on to religion. And he goes and becomes part of this organization that makes him feel special, makes him feel like he’s really good, and that really means a lot to him. But of course, as time goes on he’s going to realize that not only is the organization that he’s involved not have anything to do with the fundamental message of Jesus, but also, there’s going to be a lot of… let’s just say that Jason can’t keep his clothes on very long.
I was going to ask if he was going to be more buttoned up this season.
Alan Ball: But definitely, we’re trying to explore something about Jason’s character as opposed to just giving Ryan a- just having him have the revolving door of sexual experiences; he’s sort of done that.
When you’re writing the episodes, do you always know where you want to go with them, or do they ever surprise you and take you to a new conclusion than you thought you were going to go to?
Alan Ball: You know what happens, is that we break the entire season at the beginning of our process and then we outline, maybe, the first six episodes and we send people off to write them. They come back in-and then it seems like the last six episodes, it always- by that point the show is becoming what it wants to be for that season, and so you end up making changes. You end up sort of re-breaking the last six episodes because of that. Certainly there are things that do surprise me. I know when I have an episode of my own to write sometimes the scene will be about one particular thing in the outline, but then when I’m actually in the script itself it takes a little turn and becomes something else. And I just feel like that’s part of the process, and with the other writers I work with, when that happens with them as well, I totally respect it.
Has your involvement in True Blood had an affect on how you think about good and evil?
Alan Ball: I tend to think that good and evil are sort of like black and white polarities that we turn to in a very, very grey world. I think that sort of reflects in the show, so I don’t think it changed my views. It certainly hasn’t changed the way I look at good and evil. I certainly see good and evil in (you know, my perceptions of good and evil) day-to-day life, and certainly in the twenty-four hour cable news cycle. I will say there’s a moment in the second episode where Jason goes to church and they’re being greeted by the Newlins, and somebody in the audience yelled out “Die, Fanger!” Well, I would be lying if I didn’t say some of the reactions of the people at the Sarah Palin rallies last fall weren’t behind that.
Charlaine Harris let the back stories of Bill and Eric practically untouched in her books, but in season two, we will learn more about their past. What can you tell us about that?
Alan Ball: I can’t really tell you anything about it, because I can’t give it away. Certainly Bill has been alive since, you know, 1830-something. So, we have 170 years that we can explore. We definitely will see more about him. We saw Bill’s transition to vampire in a flashback last season. We will definitely see Eric’s- we’ll see some parts of his life that are very interesting, and some parts of Bill’s life. But I can’t really tell you what happens, because I don’t want to give anything away.
I’m curious about Evan Rachel Wood’s role. What can you tell me about it?
Alan Ball: She is going to be playing Sophie-Anne Leclerq, and she’s the vampire queen of Louisiana. The vampire political structure in the States is that each state has a king or queen, and they’re sort of like the buck stops there, in terms of vampire politics. She does exist in the books, she doesn’t really show up until the fifth or sixth book, but it turned out that it made sense for her to show up in the second season. And I had actually gotten a call from Evan’s manager last year during season 1, saying she loved the show and she would love to do it sometime. And I thought, “Great! If we find a role that she fits, we’ll definitely make that happen.” And when we decided to actually have the queen appear in season two that was the first person that came to mind. Because in the books she is a young woman- a young looking woman, she’s actually more than four hundred years old- and Evan’s really beautiful and she’s very, very pale and she looks like a vampire to me.
Have you started shooting her episodes yet?
Alan Ball: We have started shooting the episode. We haven’t shot her in it, but I’ve definitely seen photos of her from her costume – really, really fantastic.
What are you guys going to be doing with Comic-Con this year?
Alan Ball: We’re going. We’re going to have a panel discussion. I believe it’s going to be- I think Charlaine might be there; I think she’s going. I’m not sure. I know I’ll be there and Anna, Stephen, Ryan, Sam, Rutina, and I believe Alexander Skarsgard is going to be there… and Deborah Ann Woll, who plays Jessica. And I think Michelle Forbes.
What’s the most difficult part you’ve had with creating True Blood at this point?
Alan Ball: Trying to produce the show on a TV schedule and budget. Trying to fit every- those episodes are packed, and it’s not just people sitting in a room talking. There’s a lot of storyboarded action sequences, there’s special effects, there’s a lot of big sequences in season two with lots of extras. Definitely the hardest part is just getting it done in time and not having the schedule and the budget just explode.
Back at the first TCA press tour session for the show, one of the things you said is that you weren’t viewing vampirism as being a metaphor for anything else. Is that still the way you look at it?
Alan Ball: It’s very easy to look at vampires in the way they exist in their struggle for assimilation and equal rights as a metaphor for gay and lesbians, at this point in history, maybe African Americans fifty years ago. I think I would be naive if I didn’t see that and see that that was easy to look at it that way. For me, it’s a little too easy, and, ultimately, one of the things I like about the show is that it is very complex. You could look at it and say, “Well, if I’m using vampires, these murdering, vicious monsters, as metaphors for gay and lesbians that’s- would I, as a gay man, really do that?” I think it’s sort of very fluid, the metaphor in the show. And I certainly think one of the themes of the show is how difficult it is to coexist with those who are different, but ultimately we have to. But again, I can’t take any of that stuff too seriously, because, well, it’s a show about vampires.
Do you feel like you can sort of have it both ways?
Alan Ball: I think so. I mean, I think there’s definitely something fun about that. There’s definitely fun-you know, it’s fun to create a prop Time magazine that says “Vampire Marriage Here to Stay.” But, ultimately, it’s not really the point of the show, I feel like it’s just texture and detail that’s kind of fun. More than it being an actual comment on any specific struggle that’s going on right now. It’s more a way to try to make the show seem real. Because if vampires were out of the closet and they were struggling for rights, there would be that kind of thing going on.
What’s your favorite episode in the season is so far?
Alan Ball: In this season?
Alan Ball: Oh, that’s really hard, because I’m really, really happy with season 2. I watch these episodes probably forty or fifty times, given the amount of time I spend in editing and post production. And I really can’t say I have a favorite episode. I’ve only seen through episode eight. I’ve seen these episodes so many times, and I still just love them. That is a huge, huge luxury for me, because I’ve worked on shows in the past-not Six Feet Under– but shows in the past where, “Uh! Do I have to watch this again?” And I’ve never had that feeling with True Blood.
How do the actors and actresses in the show perfect their Southern accent? I know a lot of the lead characters are not from America, so do they work with a coach or how do they do that?
Alan Ball: We had a dialect coach for season one. We had a dialect coach available for most of season one, but this year they’ve all pretty much got it down. I am from the south myself, so if I hear something that really, really sounds off to me, I’ll have them correct it in post. But they’ve all gotten really good at it.
You’re finishing up this season; will you take a break and work on something else creatively during the hiatus? When will you go back and start arcing out season three?
Alan Ball: I think what we’re going to do is… we’re going to start arcing out season three while we’re still in post. Then when we break for hiatus I’m going to send out, hopefully, a batch of outline stories for people to start writing scripts. I think we’re going to shoot one episode prior to the Christmas holidays so that we’ll be a little bit ahead of the game next year, because right now, we’re scrambling to get everything done by the time it airs. Those last few episodes. I don’t really have time to go work on something else different during my hiatus. I need to use the hiatus to recharge and rest up.
However, I do have a couple of projects in development at HBO, neither of which I wrote or came up with, but for which I’m serving as executive producer and sort of brought other writers and ideas into the network. I also have a screenplay I wrote years ago which is sort of in the vague process of putting itself together as a movie, but I would not direct that. I would produce it and serve as screenwriter. But my focus is True Blood; it has to be True Blood right now.
You are obviously a fan of Charlaine’s books. Was there anything in the second book or the third book that you were hoping would be included in the season that you just couldn’t work in?
Alan Ball: Actually, no. I’m in this sort of unique position of, like, if there are moments in the book that I just love, they’re going to be in the season. So, my answer’s no.
What’s your greatest fear?
Alan Ball: What’s my greatest fear? Um…America turning into a fascist theocracy.
Have you ever gotten any notes from HBO about the sex or violence?
Alan Ball: You mean, too much? No. I think, honestly, it’s there for a reason. It’s there to tell a part of the story. We’re not like one of those Showtime, after hours shows where there’s a vague plot that’s just an excuse to put together a bunch of soft-core sex scenes. The sex is a very important part of people’s psyches; their sexuality is a way to explore who they are as characters. And I feel like that’s always underlying everything that we do in the show.
It’s also an important part of being a vampire. Vampires kind of are sex.
Interview By: Emma Loggins