Alan Ball Sinks His Teeth Into 'True Blood' After creating the HBO series Six Feet Under, about a family who runs a funeral home, writer Alan Ball moved on to the undead in his latest series, True Blood.
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Alan Ball Sinks His Teeth Into 'True Blood'

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Alan Ball Sinks His Teeth Into 'True Blood'

Alan Ball Sinks His Teeth Into 'True Blood'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross.

After creating the HBO series "Six Feet Under" about a family that runs a funeral home and is steeped in death, Alan Ball created a new HBO series about the undead.

"True Blood" is about vampires who have returned from the grave and live on a newly developed synthetic blood called True Blood. Their presence is so new, no one knows what to make of them. Some people find them sexy, many fear them, and some are just curious. The vampires have formed their own lobbying group, which is pushing for passage of a Vampire Rights Act. In this scene, one of the vampires is trying to convince a skeptical Bill Maher that the vampires should have the same rights as any other American.

(Soundbite of TV show, "True Blood")

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. JESSICA TUCK (Actor): (as Nan Flanagan) We're citizens. We pay taxes. We deserve basic civil rights, just like everyone else.

Mr. BILL MAHER (Talk Show Host): (As himself) Yeah, but, I mean, come on. Doesn't your race have a rather sordid history of exploiting and feeding off innocent people for centuries?

Ms. TUCK: (as Nan Flanagan) Three points. Number one, show me documentation. It doesn't exist. Number two, doesn't your race have a history of exploitation? We never owned slaves, Bill, or detonated nuclear weapons. And most importantly, point number three, now that the Japanese have perfected synthetic blood which satisfies all of our nutritional needs, there is no reason for anyone to fear us.

DAVIES: "True Blood" is based on Charlaine Harris' "Southern Vampire" series of novels. The second season of "True Blood" premieres June 14, and the DVD of the first season will be out later this month.

Alan Ball also directed the movie "Towelhead" and won an Oscar for his screenplay of "American Beauty." Terry spoke to Alan Ball last fall, when the first season of "True Blood" premiered.


Alan Ball, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with some of the basic plot points for "True Blood." Why have the vampires come out of their coffins and returned?

Mr. ALAN BALL (Writer, Director, "True Blood"): The vampires have made their presence known to humans because there's been a development of synthetic blood by a Japanese biotech firm for medical purposes, which the vampires claim satisfies all their nutritional requirements, and so there's no reason for humans to fear them.

And they've put together a lobbying organization, and they're lobbying for equal rights. And ultimately, what is at the root of everything, which is not very clear at this point in the show, is they want ownership. They want to be able to own things. And whether or not vampires can actually survive on True Blood alone is also something we just sort of have to take their word for -although in this world, there are plenty of people who are willing to let vampires feed on them.

GROSS: Yeah, because it's kind of a kick for people. It's like wow, they're vampires.

Mr. BALL: It's a kick. It usually is accompanied by sex, and apparently vampires are pretty good at sex, according to…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah, and where does that come from? Where does that part of the lore come from?

Mr. BALL: You know, I wondered about that, and I think - well, certainly if you've been around 100 years, you'd have time to perfect your technique. But I also think - and part of the way, we're playing vampires and the supernatural in general is that it's not something that exists outside of nature. It's actually a deeper, more primal manifestation of nature, so deep and primal sometimes that we as humans don't even have the perception to see it or feel it.

GROSS: You know, it's funny. In the original Bram Stoker "Dracula" novel, the novel seems to be so much about sexual fear, you know, sexual attraction and sexual fear, and it's almost like, you know, a metaphor for sexually transmitted disease.

Mr. BALL: Well, I think also - I mean, it certainly took on that characteristic during the AIDS, you know, once the AIDS epidemic hit, but it's also just a metaphor for sex. You know, someone is penetrated, and bodily fluids are exchanged. There is a sort of surrender. So it's a pretty potent - no pun intended - metaphor for just sex in and of itself, I think, and has been ever since Bram Stoker's "Dracula."

GROSS: And in your series, "True Blood," there's a big connection between sex and danger, and there's several characters in it who really like sex and danger combined.

Mr. BALL: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And sometimes it gets more dangerous than they expected. But why was that interesting for you to - exploring that connection that exists for some people?

Mr. BALL: I don't really know. I think it was just a visceral thing. I think when I started reading the books, they had a sort of pulpy sensibility. Everything was heightened, and each chapter ended with a cliffhanger. And there was - you know, there's a big body count, and danger lurks around every corner, as does romance, as does, you know, finding someone you love or meeting your maker, and, you know, however you choose to interpret that. And when I pitched it to HBO for the first time, I said this is popcorn television. You know, this is a popcorn TV show.

GROSS: What else did you tell them?

Mr. BALL: Well, they asked me, well, what is the show about? And I had no answer, but being, you know, the Hollywood person that I have become in some ways, unfortunately, over the years, I just started talking and hoped that something would come out of my mouth that sounded vaguely coherent.

I think I talked about the, you know, the fears that we project onto any minority group that is misunderstood or feared, and then I said at the heart of it, though, it is a show about the terrors of intimacy.

And I heard myself say that, and I thought well, that sounds pretty good. And actually, the more that I look at it, I can sort of see that it is, in a sense, about the terrors of intimacy, about breaking that wall that keeps you separate and safe from a sometimes savage and dangerous world and letting another person in ultimately is a terrifying act.

GROSS: Especially when you're just meeting the person, and you don't really know who they are. And you know, in a metaphorical way, it's done in "True Blood" because the main female character is telepathic. She can read people's minds, but not the mind of the vampire that she's falling in love with.

And so in this - she's meeting this vampire and not really sure, like is he good or evil or a combination of both, or can she trust him or not.

Mr. BALL: Right. But at the same time, she can relax and just be herself without putting up this guard that she has to work at.

GROSS: Yeah, so she guards against other people because reading their minds really complicates things.

Mr. BALL: She doesn't want to hear other people's thoughts.

GROSS: Yes. They're usually not good thoughts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BALL: And it's a really - it's a really sort of seductive space for her to just relax like that.

GROSS: My guest is Alan Ball, and his new series, "True Blood," is about vampires who come out of their graves because synthetic blood is now available. So they no longer have to feed on humans.

Did you grow up with any vampire movies or books?

Mr. BALL: You know, when I was a kid, "Dark Shadows" started airing, and me and some of the neighborhood kids would rush home from school so that we could be there when it started. And when that organ music came on or whatever the music was - it was kind of spooky, and there were shots of waves crashing against rocks - we would hold our necks like we couldn't breathe while the music was on. And then once the music was over, we'd leave and go outside and play because the show itself was kind of boring to us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BALL: But that was - I mean, I knew what vampires were, but I've never really - I'm not what one would call a vampire aficionado. I don't really - you know, I haven't read a lot of the popular vampire fiction. There are movies and television shows I've never even seen.

GROSS: Have you seen the Bela Legosi "Dracula," or…

Mr. BALL: Yes, of course, I've seen that.

GROSS: …"Nosferatu," the Klaus Kinski "Nosferatu"?

Mr. BALL: I have seen the Klaus Kinski "Nosferatu."

GROSS: In the Klaus Kinski "Nosferatu," there's so much brooding about the curse of eternal life.

Mr. BALL: Yeah.

GROSS: People think they'd love to live eternally, but if you ask the Klaus Kinski Nosferatu, he would see it as a curse.

Mr. BALL: Yeah. I would imagine that there is a curse aspect to it. Because if you live forever, then why is this day important? You know, you lose everything. Everything you have, you lose eventually, unless there are other vampires, and I don't know. I just feel like the finite nature of life is kind of what makes it important.

GROSS: You had to think a lot about blood in making this, both how you wanted - like what kind of stage blood you wanted to use, what color it should be, what thickness it should be. You had to think about how it should taste to people. So what kind of things did you do, blood-wise, to prepare for making "True Blood"?

Mr. BALL: Well, in the world of "True Blood," there is human blood, and there's vampire blood. Human blood is the blood that flows through all of our veins. It's the same color. It's the same thickness. It's the same viscosity.

Vampire blood is a highly volatile, organic substance that, when ingested by humans, can have aphrodisiac qualities. It can have increased strength, increased senses as a byproduct. It can also be hallucinogenic. It can be a doorway into other perceptions. And so we wanted to make that very different and very sort of really decadent. So we made it darker and thicker. It's almost like molasses, and it's a really dark, brownish red.

As far as what it tastes like, I never really even thought of that. We certainly have - I just let the actors act, you know, how they seem to enjoy it when they start drinking it. And we have dialogue referring to how True Blood, the synthetic blood, is a poor substitute for refined vampire palates.

DAVIES: Alan Ball, speaking with Terry Gross. His HBO series, "True Blood," will begin its second season in June. The first season will be out on DVD later this month. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're listening to an interview with Alan Ball, who created the HBO series, "True Blood." It's about vampires who want to rejoin society and live among the living. Here's a scene from the first episode. Anna Paquin plays a waitress in a small, Louisiana town, where many of the vampires reside. A handsome and mysterious stranger has walked in, and she's ready to take his order.

(Soundbite of TV show, "True Blood")

Ms. ANNA PAQUIN (Actor): (As Sookie Stackhouse) Hi, what can I get for you tonight?

Mr. STEPHEN MOYER (Actor): (As Bill Compton) Do you have any of that synthetic, bottled blood?

Ms. PAQUIN: (As Sookie Stackhouse) No, I'm so sorry. Sam got some a year ago, but nobody ever ordered it. So it went bad. You're our first vampire.

Mr. MOYER: (As Bill Compton) Am I that obvious?

Ms. PAQUIN: (As Sookie Stackhouse) I knew the minute you came in. I can't believe nobody else around here seems to.

Mr. MOYER: (As Bill Compton) He does.

Ms. PAQUIN: (As Sookie Stackhouse) Oh, don't worry about Sam. He's cool. I know for a fact he supports the Vampire Rights Amendment.

Mr. MOYER: (As Bill Compton) How progressive of him.

Ms. PAQUIN: (As Sookie Stackhouse) Well, anything else you drink?

Mr. MOYER: (As Bill Compton) Actually, no, but you can get me a glass of red wine so I have a reason to be here.

Ms. PAQUIN: (As Sookie Stackhouse) Well, whatever the reason, I'm glad you are.

GROSS: I'd love to hear what casting was like, how people showed up, especially, like, for the lead vampire role, the role that Steve Moyer plays. Like, how do people show up for the role? Were they wearing what they thought would be appropriate? Yeah.

Mr. BALL: A lot of people came in wearing all black. You know, there's - I've learned, now that I've done a season of the show, you know, you've got to be careful when you give an actor fangs, because their tendency is to go mad immediately and start doing vampire acting, which I really wanted to avoid.

I didn't want to have any of the strange contact lenses that, like, come into -that all of a sudden their eyes change when their fangs come out, or there's any sort of prosthesis change in their facial structure. I just wanted to give them fangs and let them act.

It was a really hard role to cast. We saw a lot of men. There were people that I took to the network that the network was not crazy about. There were people the network wanted to see that I was not crazy about. And then Stephen I saw off a video that a casting director in London had made, and I watched in a tiny, little, postage-stamp-sized video on my computer, and there was something so - for lack of a better word - real about him and this sort of world-weary-but-tragic feeling that he brought to it - aside from being really, really handsome, which helps.

GROSS: In a worn-out way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BALL: Yeah, exactly, like he's been through hell. And there's actually a great line in one of the episodes where Sookie says how old are you? And he said I was 30 human years when I was made vampire. And she goes, wow, you look older than that. And he says well, life was harder then.

But he really brought - for me, what he brings to the role is the sense of it's tragic. It's tragic what happened to him. He did not ask to be made vampire. He lost his family and his children. He lost his life, and now he's condemned to wandering the world at night, not being a part of the world that he was so much a part of before he was made vampire, before he went off to fight in the Civil War.

So we brought Stephen over, and I worked with him for a day, and then we went into HBO, and it became very obvious very fast that this was the guy we'd been waiting for.

GROSS: So did he not dress in all black for the audition?

Mr. BALL: You know, he wore jeans and, like, a blazer.

GROSS: No chains or anything?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BALL: No, he didn't come in all black and he didn't come in with, you know, the sort of extreme eyebrows and that kind of thing. I like that about him because I want Bill to, you know, just be a guy who is a vampire.

GROSS: You said you wanted to just give your actors fangs and let them act, and so talk about the fangs.

Mr. BALL: Well, in keeping with our idea about the supernatural being a deeper, more profound manifestation of nature, we really thought a lot about the physiology of the fangs, and we created fangs that actually lie flat along the roof of the mouth and then click into place when a vampire is in danger or aroused or ready to feed, much like a rattlesnake's fangs click into place. And we actually created a model of teeth with showing how the fangs click in and click out, and then we put the fangs, not on the - not with the four front teeth between them, but with only two because it worked better for the physiology of the rattlesnake, the snake fang working.

And I like that, because it looks a little different. It doesn't look like the classic thing. And I like the fact that it's not just like the supernatural teeth morph into fangs, you know. It's actually part of their physiology, and there's a sound they make when they click, which is kind of like a weapon being loaded. So it really worked. It helps - you know, it works well for the show in that regard, I think.

GROSS: Did you have to work with a dentist in order to get them made?

Mr. BALL: Oh, yeah. Everyone - and even when we cast, you know, a guest vampire for one episode, they have to go off and get impressions made of their teeth and they make fangs. And it's hilarious to watch the dailies because the actors will, like, make a face, and then we'll stop, and everybody will go get their little plastic cup with their fangs and put their fangs in and, you know, make sure they're fit, and then the scene keeps going.

GROSS: So can the actors activate the fangs by pressing a button in their mouth?

Mr. BALL: No, no, no. They have to - that has to be done with visual effects. They actually - the fangs are just the actual fangs that they place on their teeth once they've extended. But the extending and the retracting of fangs we have to do as a visual effect, and we have to putt little dots on the actor's face as tracking marks.

GROSS: I see.

Mr. BALL: So if you ever watch an unfinished cut of our show, there's some unintentional humor in those moments.

GROSS: So we talked a little bit about casting Stephen Moyer as the lead vampire. Anna Paquin plays a waitress who is telepathic and starts to fall in love with a vampire and he with her - or at least that's the way it's looking. So talk about why you cast her. People will probably know her from "The Piano."

Mr. BALL: And the X-Men movies.

GROSS: And the X-Men movies, yeah. And in "The Piano," she was, like what…

Mr. BALL: Eleven.

GROSS: Yeah, she was really young.

Mr. BALL: Yeah. When I heard that Anna wanted to come in and read for Sookie, I was surprised. I felt, well, why does she want to do this? She's a movie star. But she aggressively pursued it, and then I thought about it, and I thought well, it makes perfect sense. It's a great role. It's the lead of the show. She's sexy and she's a romantic heroine and she's strong and she's - you know, she gets to play the gamut of human emotion and also have all these great chase scenes and fight sequences. And it actually makes perfect sense to me.

And I wasn't too sold on the idea at first because Sookie is described in the books as being blonde and blue-eyed, and I had only known Anna with dark hair, which is her natural hair color. But, you know, once she came and she started reading and I started working with her, what she was playing and what I really thought made the character really interesting was I could see that this is a woman who had been hearing other people's thoughts her entire life and that she was kind of skittish and nervous and jumpy and a little angry. And it kept her from being - you know, a lot of girls came in, and they were like sorority girls.

You know, they overdid the Southern accent, or they sort of came in dressed like Daisy Mae, and I was like oh, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BALL: And the character just came alive in a way with Anna that was the most interesting. And so that's who we cast. Because I always feel like I don't - you know, I will have a clear idea of what I think a character looks like when I write it, but the minute I start going into casting I let it go because you don't want to - you want to be open to people coming in and doing different interpretations because sometimes those interpretations are going to be better, and they're going to work better and they're going to make the character live more.

GROSS: Well, Alan Ball, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. BALL: Thank you, Terry. I really loved talking to you. Let's do it again.

DAVIES: Alan Ball, speaking with Terry Gross. The second season of Ball's series "True Blood," premieres June 14th on HBO. The DVD of the first season will be out later this month. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

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