‘True Blood’ runs through Alan Ball
Stephen Moyer is baring his fangs like he means it. Over and over and over again. In character as the 173-year-old vampire Bill Compton, the star of HBO’s campy drama “True Blood” is hovering midair, poised for a real throw-down.
Fans won’t see this scene for several more weeks, so revealing the bizarre and complex events that have led to it would only spoil the fun. In this densely plotted series, which recently garnered its first Emmy nomination in the drama series category, each episode is so revelatory that HBO has built its own wiki to help fans keep up. So far, 11.7 million of them are up to the task, tuning in each week for what show creator Alan Ball calls the “ ‘I can’t believe I’m watching this’ moments.”
On this massive West Hollywood soundstage, the mood grows tense as Moyer’s flying rig repeatedly sends him swaying ever so slightly off his mark. The crew eventually pulls it together. And to his credit, Moyer is believably vicious every time. After all, in the “True Blood” universe, the timing of a “fang bare” can make or break a scene.
Soon, everyone is off to the commissary for lunch, trailing that subtle air of self-satisfaction that comes with working on an Emmy-winning hit HBO show. It’s evident in Ball’s stride as he meanders around in his red lumberjack shirt, like a burly and beloved maestro. It’s there inside Evan Rachel Wood’s trailer where the elegant vampire queen Sophie-Anne perfects her undead pallor with a bit of powder, quipping, “It’s fun being evil.” It also lingers in Moyer’s own wry observations over a plate of sausage and peppers. They all seem to know they’ve pulled off yet another spectacularly weird season.
“We do things that you’ve never imagined,” said Moyer, his fingernails still stained red with fake blood. “I love it. The darker, the odder, the weirder, the better for me.”
“True Blood” is the cable network’s biggest hit since “The Sopranos.” Its success has transformed child star Anna Paquin from a brooding indie darling to the leggy blond telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse, whose on-screen love affair spilled into real life when Paquin and Moyer got engaged. And it has cemented Ball as the creative hero of HBO.
In two years, the show has inspired a sort of grown-up answer to the “Twilight” phenomenon, albeit one with a good sense of humor and buckets’ more blood. Its fans might be equally ardent though — a panel devoted to the series at last year’s Comic-Con International in San Diego was brimming with hundreds of devoted viewers lining up to query the cast and crew, and this year an even bigger crowd is likely to turn up for a late Friday afternoon session at which Ball, Moyer and a handful of other actors are scheduled to appear.
The show, inspired by Charlaine Harris’ bestselling “Southern Vampire Mysteries” novels, came at a precarious moment for HBO. In fall 2008, the cable network had ended two Emmy-winning series, “The Sopranos” and, earlier, Ball’s “Six Feet Under,” and endured an embarrassing fumble by passing on “Mad Men” for the disappointing “John From Cincinnati.”
At the time, Ball was looking for a project with levity after five seasons ensconced in the existential milieu of the Fisher family’s funeral home. He stumbled on Harris’ novels in a Barnes and Noble in 2005 and devoured all her books. But the series had already been optioned for a film. So he waited a year until it expired and snapped up the rights, convincing Harris that the epic material was best suited to TV.
HBO executives embraced the idea solely “because of the creative vision of Alan Ball,” said Michael Lombardo, the network’s president of programming. No one predicted this gothic Southern satire populated by goblin ladies, werewolves, vampires, “fang-bangers” and shape-shifters would have such broad appeal. But it ultimately became what Ball likes to call “popcorn for smart people.”
“This is not a show that just appeals to younger viewers,” said Lombardo. “It appeals to men, women, almost all age groups. It’s sexy. It’s exciting. And it has the ability to feel dangerous and funny at the same time.”
Just last month, HBO announced a fourth season of “True Blood.” And as Lombardo eagerly pointed out, there’s no dearth of material. If Ball kept pace with Harris’ novels, the show could go on for a decade.
For his part, Ball has been circumspect about whether he’ll stay after his contract expires next year — he just sold a pilot to HBO based on Charlie Huston’s 2009 novel “The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death,” and that project certainly will demand his time and attention. Still, he said, “having this much fun in your job is rare. And I know it. I don’t know if that’s something I would necessarily walk away from.”
A quick tour of the “True Blood” set articulates Ball’s hesitancy to leave. HBO has thrown a lot of money at this production. There have been location shoots in Mississippi and Louisiana. And then in Calabasas, there’s the custom-built cemetery (sans corpses) and a custom-built home that doubles as Sookie’s grandmother’s place.
The show also has consumed all but two of the seven soundstages on The Lot, a historic compound off Formosa Avenue. Here, each interior has been lovingly and meticulously dressed by Ball’s longtime production designer Suzuki Ingerslev — down to the fully operational kitchen in the local pub Merlotte’s and the hot rollers on Sookie’s tiled bathroom counter that are mysteriously still warm.
Inside Bill’s antebellum manse, Moyer and Wood chatted between takes. She swished around in what she called her black satin “Dracula cape” skirt and then peeled off a kid glove to give her costar a glimpse of her engagement ring, a gift from fiancé Marilyn Manson. “He picked it out,” she said, as Moyer nodded approvingly. Gothic romance seemed to ooze out of every corner of this place.
Which is apropos, considering “True Blood’s” heart lies with the love story of a Civil War-era vampire and the buxom barmaid in tiny Bon Temps, La., who enchants him. The lives of these two intersect just as a Japanese soft drink company starts selling synthetic blood (known as “Tru Blood”) and vampires everywhere come out of the coffin.
Of course, Harris has packed her books with good old-fashioned horror too. And it turns out they read especially well on cable TV. “There’s a big body count,” said Ball. “And there’s a lot of blood. But we try to make it not just gratuitous killing.”
For the most part, the show succeeds, thanks to one of the most daring and inventive team of scribes in Hollywood, a team that brings a cheeky sensibility to scenes of outrageous sex and abundant viscera and somehow frame these moments with real pathos. For instance, this season, after Bill feeds on a lonely, sick old lady, he hands her a wad of cash and hypnotizes her into thinking he’s her long-lost son. It’s deeply disturbing and also strangely poignant.
“Under somebody else’s guidance it might veer too far, [become] too campy or too gory or too serious,” said Paquin by phone a few days after the shoot. “The tone is so crucial and someone like [Ball] is able to guide us all through that fine line.”
From the beginning, Ball has used “True Blood” vampires as stand-ins for every genre of the disenfranchised. Nearly all the characters grapple with shame and struggle against their instincts. Occasionally, remnants of Ball’s own Buddhist faith influence the plot. “Certainly, people’s desires get them in trouble on the show,” he said. “That’s definitely a Buddhist concept.”
This season, every major character, including ancient vampire sheriff Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgärd) and Sookie’s womanizing brother Jason ( Ryan Kwanten), is in the throes of an identity crisis. Sookie herself will soon learn shocking details about her own formidable power. Interspecies love triangles — and love squares — intensify. And the Machiavellian games played by the vampire royals get really nasty.
“As we get deeper and deeper into the hierarchy of the vampire political system, it in some way raises some interesting questions that I think might be appropriate to our own political system,” mused Ball. “Where is the power really concentrated?”
In the season’s third episode, Ball posed this question in the most shocking way with a depiction of what he called “vampire hate sex” but that some viewers would call “vampire rape.” The mechanics are too graphic to be detailed here, but they surely merit some kind of technical award.
Moyer played the aggressor; Mariana Klaveno portrayed his partner/victim, the ravishing vampire Lorena. The scene demanded, among other things, a team of puppeteers to operate both life-size and miniature puppet versions of Klaveno. The emotions involved were equally complex, with both characters caught between rage and desire. From another perspective, though, the acrobatic episode was simply ridiculous, another example of how “True Blood” can find the chuckle in the most grotesque scenario.
“There is,” said Ball, “an absurdist comedy to that scene.”
“It can be pure chewing gum for the audience if you want it to be,” said Moyer, spearing a morsel of sausage. “If you want to look deeper, it’s all under there.”