Benji Wilson – The Telegraph
’True Blood’ is sexy, violent and aimed squarely at adults. The creator Alan Ball talks about American TV’s latest vampire romance.
The idea for True Blood, a new US television series about vampires commingling with ordinary small-town folk in the Deep South, came to creator Alan Ball at the dentist. It would be nice to think it might have been when he was having his canines polished, or drooling blood after a botched extraction, but in fact he was in the waiting room.
“I saw a book. The tag-line was ‘Maybe having a vampire for a boyfriend wasn’t such a good idea’. And I thought it was really funny. I bought the book and I couldn’t put it down. About midway through the second book in the series, I thought this might make a good television show. You just want more of this world and these characters,” he says.
The books were Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries and True Blood is the resulting adaptation. Across 12 parts, with a second series to follow, it tells the story of Sookie, a barmaid in the fictional Louisiana backwater of Bon Temps, who can hear people’s thoughts. She falls for Bill, the apocryphal man-who-walks-in-to-a-bar, except that he’s not a man, he’s a vampire. Times have changed for vampires. The Japanese have manufactured synthetic blood, meaning toothy immortals have been able to come out of the coffin and live without killing. Bill is Bon Temps’ first vampiric visitor, and he becomes Sookie’s first truelove.
Series one of True Blood began last year on the premium cable channel HBO to a mixed reception – the combination of heightened Southern Gothic, vampires, a mind-reading waitress and synthetic blood left some a little goggle-eyed. But as the series went on it grew in popularity with both critics and viewers alike, to the point where it is now HBO’s biggest hit since the much-missed Sopranos.
Given that vampires come with layers of mythology accreted over centuries via Bram Stoker, Anne Rice and, most recently, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, it might seem odd that Ball, a storyteller who documented the shackles of suburban ennui with such intricacy in American Beauty and then Six Feet Under, would choose to give his next project fangs.
But he sees True Blood as a story about characters first, and bloodsuckers thereafter.
“I have never seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel and I’ve never read the Anne Rice books. This was my first foray into the world of vampires,” he says.
Rather than have to explain to HBO why he now wanted to do a series that sounded like a comic-book clunker, he simply took Harris’s books to Chris Albrecht, then head of HBO. Albrecht agreed the books were fun, but wanted to know what Ball’s series would be about.
“I thought, ‘OK, he wants one of those one-sentence sum-it-all-up things and I don’t really have one.’ So I said, ‘Well, you know Chris, it’s about the terrors of intimacy.’ And he went, ‘OK, we’ll do it.’”
Ball laughs, but he also stands by his description: “In a way vampires are a metaphor for the terrors of intimacy – for opening yourself up to another creature and allowing them to have that kind of power over you. That is basically what we all go through when we form romantic relationships with anybody.”
There are vampires in Bon Temps who do play to type – outlaws who can and do kill. And then there is Bill, played by the English actor Stephen Moyer. “He’s this tortured, tragic man who’s lost everything that ever meant anything to him,” Moyer says. “He’s 173 years old, he fought in the Civil War, had children, was married… now, all of a sudden, he’s given a new chance to have a meaningful life, all through the healing power of the love of a good woman.”
If that sounds like a consoling myth from Victorian romance, don’t look to True Blood for swooning or billets-doux. Sex, often violent and explicit, is front and centre, which is exactly where Alan Ball wanted it.
“I think as a culture we’re still very puritanical about sex, but vampires? I mean vampires are sex. I don’t really understand why one would do a vampire thing and not have it be sexual. I know that Twilight was a huge hit for 14-year-old girls who were a little terrified of the actuality of sex, but with True Blood it’s like, ‘OK, you know the fantasy of being taken by the vampire? We’re going to show it to you.’”
Anna Paquin, who, aged 11, won the 1994 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Jane Campion’s The Piano, plays Sookie, the girl taken by the vampire. It’s a wicked piece of casting and its significance is lost on neither Ball nor Paquin, now 26.
“Anna and I would joke about how, over the course of season one, Sookie goes from innocent virgin to murdering whore,” Ball says.
“There was something kind of liberating,” Paquin adds, “about the fact there was this ‘innocent’ virgin at the centre of the story and she is only able to achieve a sexual awakening experience… with a dead guy. There’s something wrong about it but there’s something also very, very right – you’re rooting for her.”
Paquin died her hair blonde, worked on her tan and taught herself a full Southern drawl for the role. “There is a kind of music to the Southern dialect that is very much, from my outsider’s perspective [she is Canadian-born], a product of the overwhelming heat and the laid back attitude that brings. Things move at a different pace there: that was a huge part of becoming the character.”
Sookie, says Paquin, is a complex mixture of naïvety and intelligence, resourceful and open-minded where most of Bon Temps is distrustful and brusque. “She’s tough and she’s courageous, and she’s smart, but she’s sweet and she’s innocent, and she’s quite sheltered. I feel like that’s real, to be all of those things rolled into one. You can be sweet and treat people the way you want to be treated, even if that’s not the way you’ve been treated. She’s not a victim, though, and I love that about her – mostly she just kicks ass.”