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From Dusk Til Dawn: Talking with Alan Ball about "True Blood" Season Two

Make no mistake: the swirl of mystery surrounding the second season of HBO's vampire drama series True Blood is a very intentional thing.

Series creator Alan Ball (Six Feet Under), who developed the series based on the novels of Charlaine Harris, has asked that all journalists who have seen the first four episodes of Season Two (myself included) keep its secrets just that... a secret. And the fact that no one has spilled their guts (pun intended) about the series' second season plot twists make me think perhaps Ball had glamoured us over the telephone.

Ball, speaking to select journalists in support of True Blood's second season, offered up some clues about what viewers can expect to encounter in Season Two, whether Northman-obsessed fans can expect "moar" Eric, why Bubba won't be turning up, those mysterious Newlins, and Charlaine Harris, among other things.

So why not pour yourself a nice warm Tru Blood, settle in, and see what Ball has to say about what's to come in True Blood.

Many fans are wondering just how closely Season Two of True Blood will follow the plot of Charlaine Harris' "Living Dead in Dallas."

"Well, the challenge with all of the books is that they are basically Sookie's story," said Ball. "And so I feel like my job and the job of the writers is to remain true to the spirit of the books but basically we are creating stories for the other characters who are not Sookie and Bill. That said, I feel like one of the reasons the books are so popular is because they work. So I would say we're remaining relatively faithful to the Sookie/Bill story from 'Living Dead in Dallas,' we're certainly trying to find ways to get our other characters involved in everything that's going on. I think we were probably more faithful to the first book than we are being to the second but we are still pretty faithful."

"I don't think we'll ever veer away from the books entirely," said Ball. "One of the reasons that I love these books is that the story works. I think, yes, obviously we took some liberties, like creating Jessica. Originally, in the books, Eric is the one who stakes Longshadow, but for the most part we basically tell the same story, maybe not quite as much in Season One but in Season Two... Obviously, we're going always going to have to sort of juggle those things and eventually the more books that Charlaine publishes the more I think it will probably diverge more but I do feel a real responsibility to stay true to the world Charlaine created."

One character that Harris' readers shouldn't ever expect to see turn up in HBO's True Blood, however, is that of Bubba, the books series' vampiric Elvis.

"There's no way to do it without it being hokey," said Ball. "You can do it in the books because you can imagine that it is actually Elvis, but there's no way we can do it without it being like an Elvis impersonator and there's just no way to do it unless you never see his face or something like that. But it felt like something that one can accomplish in a book but you really can't accomplish on screen."

Is there an overall theme for Season Two? And does it connect to Sookie's speech to Bill in the season premiere where she says, "I'm stronger than you think"?

"I would say the overall theme is the power of cults, whether that is a strange, neo-Greco pagan cult or a church, organized religion," said Ball. "And Sookie is on a journey of self-discovery over this season and over what I see for the arc of the show. Particularly, she's learning a lot of new things about herself--I can't really get into the way--but she is a lot stronger than anyone thinks, actually even herself. I think that's kind of an unintended thematic thing."

"When we wrote that episode where she said that we were just basically thinking, it's a young woman who is in a relationship with a man who has somewhat chauvinistic ideas about women because of where he came from and how old he is and when his ideas about women and relationships were formed. It was her just basically saying, I would rather you tell me the truth, even if it's something that's going to hurt me, than not tell me because you're trying to protect me, because ultimately that's really kind of condescending."

Still, despite mentioning Sookie's journey as a major overall arc, Ball says that he doesn't have a firm idea about how many seasons True Blood could run... and that's a Good Thing.

"No," said Ball. "Basically, any kind of big, collaborative adventure like this, the one thing you really want to happen is for it to start to assume its one life and sort of let you know what it wants to be and that definitely happened with this show the first season. And this season, it's really making it clear what it really is. I know that sounds kind of crazy and flaky but that's just the way I work. I don't know how many seasons it could last. My instincts with this one is that it could last for a long time. At least to the point where we have to ignore that the vampires are, you know (laughs), looking older."

Viewers might be disconcerted at first about the seeming disconnect between the second season's overall plot and the separate story threads involving Jason and Tara but Ball says that it's intentional and everything comes together by the end of the season.

"It goes back to the books and the source material, [which] are basically Sookie and Bill stories," he explained. "So the other characters don't really exist unless they are in the same room with Sookie and Bill. We didn't make a conscious decision to showcase everyone separately but just focusing on the source material and Sookie going off to Dallas and then trying to find ways to get Jason and Tara and Sam for that matter all married to that story eventually it just sort of worked its way out. You can't really have Tara and Jason going with Sookie on her mission so it just sort of worked its way that it starts with all these separate strands that sort of come together towards the end of the season."

In the meantime, Season Two gives audiences a slew of familiar faces as well as a new batch of exciting guest stars, including Evan Rachel Wood, who will turn up toward the end of the season.

"[Evan Rachel Wood] is appearing in the last two episodes as, everyone knows, the Vampire Queen of Louisiana, a very powerful vampire and a very interesting character," said Ball. "I can't really give much more away than that right now. The other guest stars that you've seen: Michelle Forbes is playing a character Maryann who is definitely bringing something new and interesting to Bon Temps, Michael McMillan and Anna Camp are playing Steve and Sarah Newlin, very, very interesting religious figures... they're not really religious figures but they are extremely powerful in a religious organization. There's Ashley Jones, who plays Daphne, a new waitress at Merlotte's, Wes Brown who plays Luke, a friend of Jason's in the Fellowship of the Sun... And Mehcad Brooks, who is Tara's love interest [Eggs "Benedict"]."

So how did Wood's casting come about? Did Ball approach Evan Rachel Wood or was it vice-versa?

"I got a call from Evan's manager during the first season saying that she loved the show and wanted to be a part of it and of course I was thrilled," remembered Ball. "I said, yeah, well if something comes together and something presents itself and she'd be right for it, I'd love to have her. I don't really create roles for actors; I just don't work that way, I just create characters first but then as we were breaking stories for this season and we decided we wanted to meet the Queen--who actually you don't see until later in the books, although do you meet her in a short story that Charlaine publishes that takes place between the books--and we decided to use her, I thought, wow. She'd be great for that."

Ball has been quoted as saying that Season Two of True Blood will be "scarier and sexier" than Season One. Yet many are bewildered how it could be even sexier than the envelope-pushing first season.

"No, I'm never going to go into porn," said Ball. "I've gotten a note about one specific sequence that said, it could be a little hotter. By me saying it's sexier, when I saw the first episode, I said, 'Oh, okay, wow.' It's very sexy. It's not a show for children, let's just say."

Speaking of those vampires, what's Ball's take on that vampire rights advocacy group that we've seen since the beginning of the series? Are most vampires living crime-free lives or are majority engaging in major crimes?

"Definitely, the vampires we meet this season... We really meet both ends of the spectrum," mused Ball. "I would assume given the availability of Tru Blood and the availability of humans who are willing to get bitten that most vampires don't really have to resort to crime. Those vampires are probably not the most interesting characters, dramatically. Certainly, I've never really thought about the percentages of the vampire population [and the crime rates]."

"I think that the American Vampire League is a lobbying organization and so they are advocating for a particular group," he continued. "I don't think the vampires are ever going to [organize]. They have an agenda. What that agenda is probably in their own self-interest, which is usually the case with any lobbying group. I think the vampires are rather like humans in many ways. There are a lot of peaceful, law-abiding vampires that no longer have to hunt humans and then there are those for whom they just want everything. They want power, they want control, they want money. And they'll do what they have to do to get it."

Still, said Ball, drawing a direct connection between the series' vampires and the gay rights movement is "lazy"... and wrong. "Ultimately, if you latch onto that metaphor and become really serious about it, it would make the show was extremely homophobic," he said. "Because vampires are dangerous, they kill, they're amoral, a lot of them. I don't think that's what it is. I think that's just a nice little detail in what is hopefully a big popcorn thrill ride. It's a scary romance at the heart of it. Granted, we get very much more into the culture war aspect of things this season, with the Fellowship of the Sun church and we find out much more about vampire politics... I just hope people can remember that."

So what is Ball's biggest challenge for this season, both as a writer and the series' executive producer?

"As a writer, the biggest challenge is trying to keep all of the separate storylines balanced until they all start to converge toward the end of the season. We don't have a sign in the writers room that says, 'It's the characters, stupid!' or 'It's the emotions, stupid!' but we might as well because that's our whole approach. We don't have the time or the money to do special-effects and ultimately, I think the show works because the characters are fascinating and with what they're doing through we care about them. And as a producer, my biggest challenge is just making the show on a TV budget and schedule. The show is gigantic and it's just sort of bursting at the seams."

Has he been surprised by how well show was received in its first season?

"I really don't think about those things," he admitted. "Over the years, I've developed a philosophy of just focusing on the work and staying out of the results. Working at HBO is such a fantastic experience that I'm in a little bit of a bubble. I don't have to worry about ratings in the same way that shows on networks do. It's not like if the show doesn't do well on the first outing they are doing to cancel it. Obviously, they are going to air the whole first season and allow time for the audience to find the show. The only way I know how to work is to create work that I myself would respond to. I always thought that the books were wildly entertaining and wanted to do a show that was really entertaining as well as interesting in the way that speculative fiction can be interesting and outlandish with dark situations but you are still basically still exploring humanity with characters that are not entirely human."

"I always thought that the show was a hoot and the fact that so many other people get it is fantastic," continued Ball, "but I don't feel like I have any more freedom this season than I did before because again that's one of the great things about working with HBO... because when they buy a project, they want you to bring your vision to it, there's not a lot of people all over trying to turn it into something different, which is exactly what the networks do, based on my own experiences working there. I'm thrilled that people love the show. The show is so much fun to work on and make and that translates to the screen; it's a really fun program to watch. I always thought there would be an audience for the show and the fact that there is makes me say, well, I wasn't wrong this time. (Laughs) There have been plenty of other times where I have been wrong."

Given the proliferation of vampires in popular culture, with things like Twilight, True Blood, Vampire Diaries, etc., Ball has his own theories about why vampires have such a hold on society's imagination.

"Vampires are sex," said Ball. "Vampires basically arose in our time as a metaphor for sex. I mean, vampires are sort of the ultimate Romantic rock star, bad boy or girl fantasy. One thing that I've learned, both in the way the show has been received and in the way that Charlaine's books have been received and the fact that there is such a thriving sub-genre of supernatural romance, is that [for] a lot of people the idea of being bitten by a vampire is a big turn-on. You can also sort of set yourself up as a vampire so you get to live this existence above the law, there's a lot of really gratifying elements to the fantasy but it's so outlandish that there's that remove so you have permission; you can get excited about it because it's not real. (Laughs) I'm just basically making this up as I go along, I don't really know why vampires have such a powerful place in the cultural psyche but I am glad they do."

"Vampires being a way to explore our fear of The Other as a sort of a cultural xenophobia is a really interesting take on this and [demonstrates] the difficulties of co-existence with people who are not like us," explained Ball. "I think that's incredibly timely because of all of the ways that fears and anxieties are projected onto Others. I would say that's what makes this particularly timely but then there's also a lot timeless about it. There's a big part of the show that's a sort of Saturday afternoon matinee with cliffhangers and fun... Ultimately, it's a thrill-ride."

As for Twilight, Ball was frank about this feelings about the franchise and underplayed any connections to True Blood.

"I can't really talk that much about Twilight because I haven't read any of the books and I didn't see the movie," he said, almost shrugging. "I personally don't really understand why you would have vampires in a something that is basically about abstinence. But I guess it makes the case for young girls to fantasize about vampires in a way that isn't really threatening. I'm not the audience for that so I can't really comment on that. But as long as people love vampires and that helps bring them to our show, then I am really happy."

So what else can viewers expect to encounter during Season Two of True Blood?

"[Steve and Sarah Newlin] both see a lot of potential in Jason and there is definitely some random erotic energy flying around with the juxtaposition of him [entering] into their lives... (laughs) it's uncomfortable and it will take us into some surprising places. But I love those three characters together. Whenever we get them together on screen, I just want to watch that show. I mean, I want to watch all the shows in the show, but that show is really, really fun and we spend a lot of time watching the show in editing over and over and over again and that one never gets old."

How will the writers use Eric this year? And will it be different than he was handled in Season One, where he seemed to flit in and out of the action?

"Well, it's very similar to Eric's role in the books," said Ball. "Yes, he gets introduced in Book One but he's not really a big player. He's a big player this year. He is a motivating force and he becomes much more of a thorn in the side for Bill and for Sookie in some surprising ways, that Bill definitely does not like, that he is ambivalent about."

And "we'll see a much more human side to Eric" this season as well.

Don't look for any explanation of why all of these supernatural creatures seem to be descending on Bon Temps. (In other words: there's no Hellmouth here.) "There seems to be a large convergence of supernatural energy in this small town," said Ball, "but that's just the nature of the series." He went onto to say that supernatural creatures exist everywhere within the world depicted in the series.

Meanwhile, Ball teased that there are some major flashbacks slated for the season's fifth episode involving a whole slew of characters. "We do get out of Bon Temps and we do this season," said Ball, "so we do learn that they are everywhere... We also do go back in time and learn that they have been everywhere, always."

Plus, at some point this season, we'll meet "the oldest vampire we've ever met and the most human" so far on the show: Godric, who will be played by Danish actor Allan Hyde.

Also look for True Blood author Charlaine Harris to turn up in a cameo this season, likely in the second season finale. "There's a certain boundary that has to exist," said Ball. "But I do remain in contact with Charlaine. She's actually going to come out and have a cameo on the show, probably in the last episode of the season. She said she's ninety percent happy with the show."

Season Two of True Blood launches Sunday evening at 9 pm ET/PT on HBO. (You can read my advance review of the first four episodes here.)

Comments

Jenni Lou said…
LOVE IT! Thanks for the fabulous interview, Jace!
Heatherette said…
Evan Rachel Wood will be fabulous. I can't wait!
Annie said…
Great interview! Can't wait until tomorrow night!

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