Alan Ball Interview

Alan Ball Interview
Creator of HBO’s True Blood Series
By Abbie Bernstein

True Blood, TruBlood, Souther Vampire Series, HBO True Blood

Charlaine Harris’ “Southern Vampire” books concern the goings-on in the small town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, resident telepath waitress Sookie Stackhouse and a whole lot of supernatural beings. These creatures include vampires, who have recently revealed themselves to humans worldwide after the development of the synthetic blood substance Tru Blood. Harris’ books appeal to a wide range of readers. One of these was Alan Ball, an Oscar winner for his original screenplay for American Beauty and creator of HBO’s highly-acclaimed series Six Feet Under, which ran for five seasons.

Ball hadn’t been known previously for fantasy / horror, but after he picked up the first book in Harris’ series, Dead Until Dark, he says he became enthralled. “I got into Sookie and the world and the characters, and I looked forward to going to bed every night, because I knew I was going to read the book before I went to sleep, and I would tell myself, ‘Okay, I’m just going to read two chapters,’ and I would read seven. I just felt, ‘This is kind of a phenomenon.’ I read first four books, [which] at that time [was what] had been published, and I wanted more. So I called [Harris]. At that time, she had given the rights to a film producer, but those rights were set to run out in a couple of months. They ran out and I convinced her to let me take a stab at it.”

The series Ball created based on the books, True Blood, has successfully been set up at HBO and it would be fair to call the results a phenomenon. The cable network is so pleased with Ball and company that, Ball relates, “I just closed a deal to show-run [True Blood] for two more seasons, so I would assume that [the series is at minimum] going through Season Four.”

What does Ball feel is important to preserve from Harris’ books? “The main story is the same. We diverge mostly in the secondary characters. The books are sort of Sookie’s story, what happens to her. The other characters disappear if they’re not in a scene with her. And so we have diverged, certainly in the storylines for Tara [played by Rutina Wesley] and Lafayette [played by Nelsan Ellis], but we’ve tried to remain very true to the spirit of the world.”

The treatment of the supernatural elements in True Blood is fairly naturalistic. Ball explains his thinking on this subject. “Certainly the supernatural element of the show is a character in the show. We didn’t want to make it seem like something that is outside of nature, we wanted to make it seem like it was something that was a more primal aspect of nature. Maybe we’ve just lost a little bit of our perception to see it. It’s right under our noses, but we just don’t know it. [In] the books, but vampires are just the tip of the iceberg. I also like the fact that as writers on the show, it really opens the door for a lot of that in the way that we can create situations that the characters really have to [deal with] who they are and their emotional strength. So I really enjoy that aspect of it and it is something that I’ve never done before.”

The character Lafayette is killed off in Harris’ second book, but as of the end of True Blood’s Season Two, he’s alive and kicking onscreen. “Lafayette is very small in the book,” Ball relates. “Nelsan Ellis, the actor we cast, channeled something from somewhere that is kind of amazing. I definitely knew Jason had to be a great character actor [Ryan Kwanten plays the role]. I think all the major characters I knew were going to be really, really strong and really, really compelling, but I think Nelsan is the one [who was most surprising] – I had no idea that that would happen.”

Have any other characters surprised Ball? “I think the Newlins [the couple who run the anti-vampire Fellowship of the Sun, played by Michael McMillian and Anna Camp] are fantastic. I love Eggs [Tara’s Season Two love interest, played by Mehcad Brooks]. I love Lorena [played by Mariana Klaveno], I think she’s pretty wild, too. For me, they all pop. I love them all.”

Anna Paquin, who won a Golden Globe Award for her portrayal of Sookie, wasn’t on Ball’s radar for the role at first. “I actually didn’t have anybody in mind,” he explains. “And then when the casting director said, ‘Anna Paquin is interested in coming in,’ I thought, ‘Wow! That’s a surprise – I wouldn’t think she would want to do television.’ But she did and she came in and we talked with her, and I’m very glad that she did. Bill was hard to cast. I sent some actors to HBO and they weren’t really on board – as happens sometimes,” he notes with a laugh. “They’re paying for it, so I have to respect [their wishes]. But then – we had a casting director in London [who suggested] Stephen Moyer, and he’s really, really right.”

Sookie’s grandmother Adele is in the series for only the first seven episodes, but her influence on Sookie is felt throughout the series. “I love Lois Smith,” Ball says of the actress who played Adele. “That’s one of those things where when I’m talking to the casting director, I say, ‘I’d like someone like Lois Smith.’ ‘Let’s get Lois Smith!’ ‘You think she’d do this, she’d be willing?’ ‘Yes.’ I was so happy to have her. Anna was, too – Anna was like,” Ball does an impression of Paquin bursting into song, “‘Lois Smith!'”

True Blood the series has startled some of Harris’ fans by being more overtly sexual and violent than the books are. Even in the relatively tender romance between Paquin’s Sookie and Moyer’s vampire Bill Compton, Ball says, “Certainly, the first time that they get together, we made it pretty bloody.” The episodes are indeed harder-edged than Harris’ prose, Ball adds. “It’s a little more violent. The books are violent, but I think it’s one thing to hear about it and another to see it.” So far, he adds, HBO has not objected to what has been depicted on the show. “I have never had a situation where they’ve said, ‘You can’t show that.’ Obviously, there’s a lot of sex in this show, but it’s never going to be pornographic. I’ve never had a situation where [the network has complained]. But I’m sure if I did something graphically pornographic, they would say, ‘Whoa, whoa, what are you doing?'”

Although his work as a director and producer has brought Ball in contact with special effects before, True Blood presented him with new experiences in that arena. He wants the effects to have impact, but not to steal the scenes. “I don’t want it ever to become a show about effects. We don’t have the time or the money to do a show about effects, and I’m getting tired of stuff where it’s all about the CGI and the characters are secondary. I always wanted the effects to be minimal, just enough to suggest. I think a lot of times it’s a little scarier to leave the effects to your imagination. But it is a little bit of a challenge. I just have to really depend on my visual effects people [the team at Todd Masters FX], asking them, ‘What can we do? How can we do it? Show me how it works on the storyboards.’ I said at the very beginning, ‘I don’t want any of that blue light from the Underworld movies, and I’m not going to give the vampires weird contact lenses or have the shape of their heads change when their fangs come out.’ In the future, when we get to other creatures that might appear, I don’t want to do that same old stuff. What’s important is the characters. The effects are just the shorthand to get us from one stage to another. But we will never be about the effects. I mean, it’s less interesting to me how [Bill’s] face might change or what exactly are the mechanics of the fangs coming down – although we have really thought about that – than the fact that he’s been alive for a hundred and seventy years, most of them as a vampire, and his wife and children, who he loved deeply, he outlived them. He’s outlived everybody. He’s in a changing world and he’s given up on the idea of having any sort of love in his life until he meets this girl. That to me is way more interesting than what [growing fangs] looks like.”

Although Bon Temps is in Louisiana, most of True Blood is shot in and around Los Angeles, although there are occasional road trips, Ball relates. “We go to Louisiana maybe four times a year. Certainly, we can find places in L.A. that can pass for Louisiana, especially if it’s night, but you can’t have big palm trees and smog in the air. We have to [make it look hot], so we have makeup people who just have water bottles so they can spray the actors so they look sweaty, [although] not the vamps.”

As True Blood continues, Ball says, “I think we’re always going to use the books as sort of a foundation, but I just don’t see how, as time goes on, you can’t diverge from them a little bit more each season. I don’t know, though. We’re starting to work on Season Three and we actually are really, really sticking to the books, at the beginning at least.”

Anything Ball can tell us about where Season Three is going? “Season Three is a big Eric [the vampire played by Alexander Skarsgard] season and Season Four is really big for Eric’s character, according to the books.”

The fan response to True Blood, Ball says, is “Very enthusiastic, which is fantastic. It’s really good. I wasn’t really expecting it, but I’ve got to say, it feels fantastic. It feels great for people to respond to the show as much as they do. It’s really, really exciting.” At Comic-Con, he adds, “It was like we were rock stars. I don’t think I’ve ever had an experience like that, and I’ve got to say, it was very, very fun.”

Is there anything Ball would like to say in conclusion about True Blood? “That it’s really fun!”

By Abbie Bernstein
Entertainment Reporter – Buzzy Multimedia

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Abbie Bernstein

Abbie Bernstein

Abbie Bernstein is an entertainment journalist, fiction author and filmmaker. Besides Buzzy Multimedia, her work currently appears in Assignment X.
Abbie Bernstein