True Blood Radio: We Chat With Alan Ball
Have you recovered from last week’s exclusive interview with Alexander Skarsgard yet? We hope so, because this week we have another exclusive: our interview with True Blood executive producer Alan Ball! You don’t want to miss this as he talks about bringing the books to the screen, teases a bit for season 2, and drops a spoiler bombshell that made us gasp, then cheer.
Join us Friday, February 13 at 10AM CST for True-Blood.net Radio.
UPDATE: We now have the transcript of our interview with Alan Ball, thanks to our friend and True-Blood.net member, McM. Thanks tons!
(Mel) This is Mel and Liz with True-Blood.net and today we are here with Alan Ball, the mastermind behind True Blood. How are you today?
(Alan) I’m very good. How are you guys doing?
(Mel) Great! We are so excited to get to talk to you.
(Alan) Well I’m excited to talk to you guys.
(Mel) The man who brought it to the big – to the small screen I guess, depending on how big your television is but –
(Alan) (laughing) Right! These days there’s not much difference.
(Mel) – Not really! So, what we want to know first off is what can you tell us about season 2? What can you set up for us as we endure this long wait?
(Alan) Hmmnnn…well we are using the second book, ah, as the basis for season 2. It’s a very exciting season. It’s very, um, there’s a lot going on with The Fellowship of the Sun, there’s a lot going on with the maenad, it’s you know – we’re just trying to remain as true to the books as we can and keep Charlaine’s world and spirit as intact as possible, and just keep doing, you know, doing what we did last year.
(Mel) Well it worked pretty well the first year.
(Mel) …if it ain’t broke, right?
(Alan) (laughing) …yeah!
(Liz) While the basic plot of season 1 followed the first novel, you really ramped up the character development for the supporting roles to the point where we were second-guessing the identity of the serial killer.
(Alan) Oh, well that’s good! (laughs)
(Mel) And we even read the books. I mean, we are huge fans of the books and we’re sitting here going, “OK now wait a second…it is Rene? I don’t know!” (Alan laughs) We had pros and cons….
(Alan) Good, ‘cuz we were trying to do that. Because you know when you’re dealing with material that’s already out there, you want to, um, you don’t want to just transcribe it. You want to maybe make people who are familiar with the books think, you know, exactly that. So we were definitely doing – we were purposely setting up Sam as a possible, you know…maybe it was Sam, maybe it was Terry…I think what we wanted people to think early in the season is that it was Sam, then think no, it can’t be him, and then think oh, must be Terry. [For] people who hadn’t read the books, of course. And we were hoping that it was the kind of thing where if you weren’t familiar with the books, you would think it was – Rene was really not somebody who you’d think it was but then when you go back and watch the DVD’s you’re like, “Oh yeah, I see it now.”
(Liz) Yeah – we did, too.
(Liz) There were very, very subtle clues dropped, and uh- but we were still guessing, you know? Whenever we saw something that, you know, you had said in an interview, we were telling people, “Now, you’d better be careful, this is Alan Ball.” (laughs)
(Liz) “Don’t trust him! He’s a sneaky, sneaky man!”
(Alan) (laughs harder)
(Liz) Yeah and maybe we can expect more of that in season 2, correct?
(Alan) Yes, definitely.
(Mel) I have to admit you had me really worried because I’m a huge Sam fan.
(Mel)…and so as we’re going through each episode I’m like, “No! No! It’s not Sam! It’s NOT SAM!”
(Alan) Exactly, exactly.
(Mel) And speaking of Sam, we were introduced to a lot of relative newcomers – actors like Sam Trammel, Ryan Kwanten and Rutina Wesley – in season 1, and they just wowed us. I mean, every person who was a part of that cast –
(Alan) Yeah, it’s an amazing cast. I feel so blessed to be working with such great actors, cuz they really – they get the tone of the show, and usually you just basically have to point a camera at them and they know exactly how to play it.
(Mel) Yeah, they all seem really well acquainted with their characters.
(Alan) Yeah…they’re just a joy to work with.
(Mel) Alexander Skarsgard –
(Alan) Yeah Alex is great.
(Mel) Anna and Stephen of course, in the lead roles – we just love ‘em.
(Alan) Yep, they’re fantastic.
(Mel) So who do you think is going to break out in season 2? If you could predict…
(Alan) Hoooo…well we have some…
(Mel) Who will we be obsessing over?
(Alan) Some new characters – Jessica, the vampire that Bill was forced to turn…
(Mel) Oh, my gosh!
(Alan)…she’s really good…
(Mel) She’s so funny!
(Liz) She’s fabulous!
(Alan) …she’s really good. Michelle Forbes is terrific as Maryann. Steve and Sarah Newlin have a lot more to do in season 2 and they’re SO funny, and such great actors. Michael McMillion and Anna Camp. Eggs, he’s really good. I don’t know, I don’t know, I can’t…I’m always wrong! (laughs) I think they’ll all sort of pop, if you ask me.
(Mel) I’d say that’s probably a good prediction because quite frankly if you look back at season 1 I can’t think of any single person who really – I was gonna say who really really stood out – but as fans of the books I think Liz and I have both decided that Ryan Kwanten is the real stand out.
(Alan) He’s pretty great, he’s pretty great.
(Mel) Bringing Jason Stackhouse.
(Alan) What I love about Ryan is that he’s…willing to play a stupid character, stupidly. A lot of times actors who are smart – and Ryan’s very smart in real life, he’s not like Jason at all – he’s such a good actor and he doesn’t have the need to let the audience know “I, Ryan Kwanten the actor, am not as dumb as this character I’m playing.” And I just think he’s a really, really, really strong actor and sometimes people might not see that because of the character he’s playing, but knowing him as I do – he’s spectacular. And he’s game for anything, you know, he’s fearless.
(Liz) He is – my goodness, some of the things he had to do on the show – wow!
(Alan) (laughing) I know!
(Mel) You put him through his paces!
(Alan) I know, and we’ll see a little more of Jason’s vulnerable side this year and he’s really up for that.
(Liz) Is he gonna make us cry?
(Alan) I hope so! (laughs)
(Mel) I was just gonna bring that up, Liz, that scene where he’s – who was it he was with?
(Alan) Randi Sue.
(Mel) Yes, Randi Sue, and they’re in bed together and the look on his face – oh my gosh, it just killed me.
(Liz) When Gran died…
(Alan) Yeah…it’s heartbreaking.
(Mel) Bless his heart. And it’s moments like that when you’re like, “Holy crap, this guy is good!”
(Alan)…yeah, he’s really good.
(Liz) Music plays an important part in each episode too, including providing the episode titles. Can you talk us through how that happens? Do you and the writers have a song in mind before you start writing a particular episode, or does it spring up from the creative process?
(Alan) I usually let the writers make that choice. We break the story in the room, the writers go off to write the episode, and you know I just started – I wrote the first 3 episodes and I had to give them titles, and that’s my sort of peccadillo as a writer is I will pepper the script with all the songs I think should be playing in every scene. And it just sort of organically grew out of the first 3 episodes, that each episode would be named after a song that you would hear in it, but also that the title of the song would be dramatically appropriate for the episode. And the writers I’m working with, just ah – they all sort of picked up on that. So the main thing we do now is when a script comes in, I let the music supervisor know what the title of the script is, so he can get on that right away and start clearing that song. And if we find out that, you know, it’s incredibly expensive – like, some songs, you know, can be ridiculously expensive, like Beatles songs or really, really well known songs. And if I find out, oh, that song’s going to cost $70,000, I have to go “OK, we’re gonna change the title.” (laughs)
But, you know, now every script comes in it’s got all kinds of songs in there, and it’s really a fun part for me of the writing process. It’s a fun part to just sort of do the research. ‘Cuz I wasn’t really – I didn’t dislike country music, but it wasn’t a genre that I spent a lot of time listening to myself. And now, I’ve discovered all these really, really fantastic musicians. And then when new scripts come in I immediately go on iTunes and download the songs, so it’s really kind of expanding my horizons as just an appreciater of music.
(Liz) Well we’re getting to know some of those musicians too because they keep sending us all their video clips. (all laugh) “Can you get this on the show?” “No, we’re not HBO.” Flattering but, you know – it’s kind of fun.
(Alan) (laughing) Yeah.
(Liz) So what’s in your iPod, Alan?
(Alan) What’s in my iPod?
(Alan) Well I have, like – I’m one of those crazy people who has an iPod library so big that I can’t even really answer that. You know one of my ways of procrastinating when writing is like, “Oh, I have to find the perfect song for this scene,” and I’ll go onto iTunes. And then 3 hours later I’ve downloaded $200 worth of music and I’m like, “Oh yeah, I have a script to write.” (all laugh) I have very, very eclectic musical tastes so there’s a lot of stuff on there.
(Mel) We’ve been introduced to a lot of really excellent musicians through the show, the fans, you know in general, so that’s been a lot of fun. Every week we’re thinking “OK, what are we getting to be opened up to this week?”…
(Mel) …so that’s been fun. I really liked “Alligator Stew”.
(Alan) Oh yeah, that’s a great song.
(Mel) What were some of your most difficult scenes to shoot in season 1?
(Alan) Umm…difficult to shoot…let’s see, what was difficult? Well, any time you have a vampire getting staked or people getting beat up or thrown in the air (laughs) or across the room or things like that, that’s pretty difficult. Burning that house down in Shreveport was ah – it wasn’t difficult for me but I know it was really difficult on everybody involved, because basically you have one shot, you know? You don’t really get to do it more than once.
(Alan) I think ah…difficult…certainly it is, you know – I directed the pilot and I directed the last episode so Sookie’s chase – Rene chasing Sookie – that was difficult. In the pilot, I think probably…a lot of times we’re, you know, confined by the weather. In fact, we’re rescheduling all the stuff we’re doing this week because it’s raining in LA. It’s difficult, you know – obviously we do a lot of night shoots, and obviously, you know, it gets to be about 3:00 in the morning and we’re like, “We only have an hour and a half of night!” It’s usually different on film crews, usually you’re trying to beat, you know, to beat the sun going down. But we have a tendency to have to beat the sun coming up. (laughs)
(Alan) …umm…I can’t remember! ‘Cuz now I’m so consumed by season 2, I’m trying to think back on season 1, and umm…any time there’s a big crown scene, it’s hard, the vampire trial was hard. Fangtasia’s usually hard ‘cuz you have so many extras that you sort of have to shepherd around. Umm…what are some of the scenes you think would have been difficult and I can tell you if they were or they weren’t.
(Mel) Well one that we’re pretty sure was difficult was the scene in the alley behind Fangtasia.
(Alan) Yes. That was hard, ‘cuz we didn’t really know exactly what to – how to sort of reference Eric’s otherworldly vampire talents. And it was a combination of our special effects people and also just putting them ah, on a skateboard… (laughs)
(Mel and Liz) uh-huh… (laughing)
(Alan) …like a really big skateboard, and just sending them off and pointing a fan at their hair so it would blow in the wind.
(Mel) Yeah we’ve heard from reliable sources that that was perhaps the worst scene for Kristin and Alexander to –
(Alan) (laughing) …yes I know it was really hard for them.
(Mel) Of course they had the added benefit of being terribly jet-lagged at the time so…
(Alan) Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly!
(Mel) We got the chance to chat with the both here in the past month so we got to talk to them about that.
(Alan) Aren’t they great?
(Mel) Oh my gosh! They are so cool.
(Liz) How do you keep a straight face with Kristin Bauer around?
(Alan) It’s pretty hard, you know, but then again, she sets the tone ‘cuz she’s so deadpan which is so perfect for Pam…
(Liz) She’s perfect!
(Alan) …but uh, it’s pretty hard. It’s a really funny cast as well. Everybody’s really nice, and they love the show, and they love their jobs, and it’s one of those rare instances where, you know, it really does feel like a family. I know that’s a big cliché, but it really does feel like that.
(Mel) Well it comes across on screen, and you can kind of see that there are connections. You know, as a viewer you are to assume that these people have a background, that they have a history together, and it seems like that has coalesced off screen so that we, we get that sense during the show itself.
(Alan) Yeah, absolutely, yeah. And you know we spend so much time out in the woods when it’s night, and it’s cold, and you’re sitting around waiting for, you know, the lighting setup. You know, you get to feel a certain kind of intimacy with these people.
(Mel) Nothing like a spooky night in the woods to make you close.
(Alan) Yeah, yeah.
(Liz) Does anything about last season particularly that you like to reminisce about? That you love to think on?
(Alan) You know, the trips to Shreveport were fun. We’ve lost the location of Bill’s house, we won’t be shooting the exteriors of Bill’s house because the owners were kind of shocked by the content of the show. (laughs)
(Mel and Liz) Oh! Oh, my! (laughing)
(Alan) I’m sorry?
(Mel) Oh my!
(Alan) Yeah! It’s like, when we got in touch with them this year, they’re like, “No. No.” I was like, “Oh, uh…OK!” (laughs)
(Mel) Did they not realize this was going to be on HBO?
(Alan) I guess they didn’t! I guess, you know, they thought – I don’t know what they thought! They had copies of the pages we were shooting there, but they didn’t have copies of the rest of the content of the show. And they just feel like they don’t want to be part of such filthiness. So, we’re working around that.
(Liz) I’d offer you my house but it’s too doggone cold up here. (laughs)
(Alan) (Laughs) Yeah…I don’t know, we’re – we don’t have any upcoming plans to come to Shreveport any time soon, but we are definitely coming down once or twice during the season.
(Mel) What parts of the show to you film in Shreveport?
(Alan) We filmed the exterior of Bill’s house, we film any kind of exteriors in town, we shot, um, a road crew scene down there, we shot some stuff on Lake Bisteneau (sp?) last season. When Rene was driving Sookie home from Sam’s, before he started chasing her, that was all on a highway in Shreveport. We shot Tara’s mother in the bank in Shreveport…
(Mel) Oh, really?
(Alan) Yeah, we shot the bus, Miss Jeanette’s bus, that exists down there in Shreveport, so…we shot a lot there last year, we went down 3 times.
(Mel) I’ve just driven through, I’m not very familiar with the landscape, but it looked Louisiana-ish to me.
(Alan) Well definitely, it’s great to go down there to really give that, um, you know that authenticity to the show. A lot of the stuff we shoot, we shoot here. Sookie’s house is here, Merlotte’s is here. There are various areas that we work at, and…but you know, in Louisiana, in the south, it’s just – it’s different terrain, the vegetation is different, the quality of the light is different because of the humidity in the air. So you know, I try to balance getting down there enough to get all that stuff in the show, to keep it authentic, but at the same time – you know, the financial reality is that the show is based in LA, and this is where everybody lives, and we’ll try to do as much here as we can.
(Mel) I’m surprised that Sookie’s house is in LA, I would have expected that to be down there. It seems so, ah, part of the landscape.
(Alan) I know! We actually built that house at a place where we do a lot of the shooting. Sookie’s house is there, LaFayette’s house is there, the cemetery is there, we shot the Civil War flashbacks there. You know, when you shoot a lot at night you can get away with a lot more.
(Mel) That’s a good point, yes…
(Mel) Now we see your clever plan! (laughs)
(Mel) Well we were talking a couple of weeks ago on our show about spoilers and what’s available for season 2, and how far we would go with spoilers. We’re trying to be very respectful of what you guys are working on, because of course, you know, spoilers are sort of your nemesis as a show runner. But how challenging is it to maintain a sense of mystery and anticipation for a show that’s based on novels that millions of people have read?
(Alan) Well obviously, for the stuff in the novels, um, you’re not going to be able to keep secret. I am – I have been surprised by how quickly audition sides for scenes show up on the internet. You know, I understand that people are excited about the show, and they want to feel like they’re a part of it. But I have taken to – we are actually, you know – we’re writing scenes that don’t exist…
(Alan)…in an effort to actively mislead people…
(Mel and Liz GASP)
(Alan) …I am actually putting information in those sides that is never going to be on the show. And sometimes, it goes directly opposed to what’s gonna be on the show. Just because, I feel like the element of surprise is really an important part of this particular story. So…whatever ends up on the internet from our casting sessions, audition sides – just let there be a caveat that we know people are posting it, and we are, um, actively planting misinformation.
(Liz) We suspected that!
(Alan laughs, loudly) I mean, we’re not the only show that does that.
(Mel and Liz – in stereo) No, you’re not!
(Mel) We’ve been reading through some of them, going, “I don’t know about this…”
(Mel) Now we know!
(Alan) Now you know, yes, exactly!
(Mel) You are sneaky, sneaky man. I love it!
(Liz) I know, it’s great.
(Mel) It’s awesome!
(Liz) We don’t want to know it all! Honestly, I’m not a spoiler-type person, I don’t want to know.
(Alan) You know my casting director is like, I ask, “Have you read episode 5?” And she says “No, I don’t want to! I want to see it!” (laughs)
(Liz) I don’t want to know! I know what Charlaine Harris wrote, but I don’t know what Alan Ball is gonna do, I just don’t want to know yet.
(Mel) Wow, I think you just blew a lot of minds with that, though.
(Alan) Oh! Well…
(Mel)…I think a lot of fans just went, “…what?”
(Alan) …yeah, yeah…
(Mel) …so, awesome!
(Alan) What are you gonna do? You have to try to protect the element of surprise in the show, so uh…
(Liz) Exactly, that’s part of the success of the show. And that’s enhanced by the way you end each episode. The cliffhanger to end all cliffhangers – I mean, how cliffhanger-y can you get than to end it in the middle of the scene?
(Alan) I know. Well, you know, part of that is my memory of when I first discovered the books, I would literally say to myself “OK, I’m just going to read one chapter and then I’m gonna go to bed, because I have a huge day tomorrow, I have to get up at 6…” And I would read, you know, 6 chapters. And Charlaine does that a lot in the books, she’ll end the chapter with this moment and you’re like, “What??? What??? I want to find out what happens!” (laughs)
(Liz) Yeah, exactly. You read the books like I did, Alan. I did a marathon.
(Alan) You know, I bought that first book and I went through it in a day. And then I was like, “Wait, what? Oh, there’s more!” And then I immediately went through them all very quickly. Now, I’m like everybody else, I have to wait. Wait until Charlaine publishes the next one.
(Liz) Same here. Very little got done that week here in this house.
(Alan) Yeah, exactly.
(Mel) I started reading them when the second book had just been published. So, I have been sitting here twiddling my thumbs off and on for the last, what, 7 or 8 years.
(Alan) Yeah I had 4 that I could go through pretty much one right after another, and then I had to wait for the 5th one.
(Mel) So how anxious are you for book 9?
(Alan) Very, yeah!
(Mel) From what we hear, um, certain relationships are going to be fraught with tension.
(Alan) Well, I would expect nothing less.
(Mel) Exactly, we’re looking forward to that. We’re trying to stay spoiler-free, here, so – all right, yeah.
(Liz) Alan, you’ve mentioned in past interviews that you like to make shows that you like to watch. So what’s on your TiVo?
(Alan) Well, I’m a big fan of Dexter, I love Mad Men, I’m still a huge South Park fan. Let’s see…you know those are pretty much my big 3 since the Sopranos has gone off the air. I love Lost, but I’m way behind in it. I have like, 2 whole seasons I haven’t see yet.
I watch a lot of – you know what I watch a lot of? Animal Planet, like, Animal Cops, ‘cuz I’m a crazy animal person. I have a lot of dogs…
(Liz) Oh my gosh!
(Alan)…and you know they have like 7 or 8 different shows that take place in various cities, where they have the Humane Society cops, and they go and they rescue cats from hoarders, and they convict people for cruelty to animals, and that’s kind of what I watch at night before I go to bed.
(Liz) Lovely for dreams…
(Liz) You know it’s funny – my household is into those shows too. In fact, my daughter has watched them so much that she has decided she’s going to be an animal cop when she grows up. She’s 12.
(Alan) Well you know – I totally watch them and I think, “You know, if I wasn’t doing this, I would want to do that.” Then I start thinking, “This would make a great character in a show or a movie or something, someone who’s an animal cop.” I really get into those.
(Liz) It would! But how do you watch those without – with a dry eye? Do you? I can’t.
(Alan) Well of course you don’t when something bad happens, but they also have, you know, inspirational moments in every in every episode as well.
(Liz) I know, that makes me cry too.
(Alan) But it breaks my heart when they have to put a dog down because he can’t be socialized because he has food aggression. It breaks my heart.
(Mel) So…speaking of a new project with an animal cop, what is your dream project?
(Alan) Well this pretty much is my dream project.
(Mel) True Blood?
(Alan) Yeah! I mean, it’s so much fun! I had a great time on Six Feet Under, but I have to admit after 5 years of Six Feet Under, it – it got a little depressing.
(Mel and Liz laugh)
(Alan) True Blood is so much fun and we have so much fun making the show I really have to pinch myself. I feel like I’m so lucky I get to do this for a living, and I’m so lucky that Charlaine wrote these books, and that she trusted me to, you know, translate them into this other medium. Because it is such a luxury to drive onto the lot every morning and think, “I’m really happy to be here.” This doesn’t feel like work, it feels like I’m playing. And that kind of spirit is pretty endemic throughout the cast and crew. Everybody really, really has great time doing this show, and I think it’s a show that we all like to work on and we like to be a part of. And uh, I don’t know that it could get much better than that. I have some movies that I’ve written, and I have some ideas for movies I’d like to be involved in, but ah – I never thought I would go back to TV after Six Feet Under, I thought I would just try to focus on features. But when I read Charlaine’s books, um, I just thought, you know, in the middle of the 3rd book or so, I was thinking, “This is too big for a movie. This would make a great TV show, and I would watch this show.” So I have to say this kinda is – at this point in my life, at least – pretty much is my dream project.
(Mel) Well we’re so glad you had a chance to do your dream, ‘cuz we love it.
(Alan) Oh yeah, it’s just so much fun! And you know…I’m all for the fun.
(Mel and Liz) Me too! Me too!
(Liz) So then that brings up another question – and you’re going to have to think about this Alan, because we are just so excited about something like this – on the DVD set, please put some bloopers!
(Alan) Oh OK! I don’t know if we have…we did a gag reel for the wrap party, but I don’t know if that’s supposed to be on the DVD or not. I’ll have to, like, call and find out. You know, HBO is in charge of all that, so I’ll see what they have to say. But there were some pretty funny bloopers, definitely.
(Mel) We particularly would like to see when Kristin tried to speak for the first time with her teeth in.
(Alan laughs) They all have a hard time with that. The first time they put their teeth in they start lisping. They can’t help it, and they sort of have to work on – sometimes we have to go back and ADR the dialogue just because there’s some words that’s really hard to get out when you have those fangs in your mouth.
(Mel) Like Sookie Stackhouse?
(Alan laughs) Exactly!
(Mel) I mean, theriouthly!
(Alan) Thookie! Thookie! (he says low and sexy-like [ed.])
(Mel) So romantic! (laughs)
(Liz) Stephen seems to have mastered it.
(Alan) Yeah he has, yeah. He was a pretty quick study. He’s played a vampire before, I think.
(Liz) Yeah – and he’s got his own set of fangs…
(Alan) Yes, exactly.
(Liz) …which he mentions often, so I don’t feel bad about mentioning it here.
(Mel) OK! Well, I think we’re going to let you get back to your busy, busy day.
(Alan) Well thank you guys so much for letting me talk to you! It was real pleasure.
(Mel) Thank you!
(Liz) Alan, promise to come back and talk to us again!
(Alan) I’d be happy to!
(Liz) Oh, great! We love ya.
(Alan) Oh, well thank you so much! And keep up the good work at the web site.
(Mel) Thank you.
(Liz) Thank you.
(Alan) Take care, you guys!
(Mel and Liz) You too!