‘In Conversation’ with Alan Ball in Melbourne: Creator talks books, eye candy, supes…Bachmann?

By Jess on Sep 11 2011 | 11 Comments »

alanballgl 205x300 alan ball This weekend here in Melbourne I had the opportunity of hearing Alan Ball speak at an ‘In Conversation’ event put on by the Wheeler Centre, a great venue and organization that is part of the State Library and showcases everything to do with writing and storytelling. As Alan is the creator of two of my favourite TV shows and a successful creative mind whose skill and imagination I greatly admire as a student of writing myself, this was a real treat for me. Alan’s co-converser for the evening was another Alan B, local media personality Alan Brough, who was an enthusiastic and well-researched interviewer.

Mr Ball was relaxed, entertaining and informative throughout the hour that he was onstage as he and Brough discussed his career so far in a chronological fashion, a sizable chunk of course dedicated to True Blood. Alan discussed things like adapting a television series from a book series, what they changed from the books and what they will continue to change, sex, nudity and ‘male eye candy’, the show’s passionate fans and their opinions, and also some very small details of what we may see in season five. Here are some of the main areas Alan covered concerning True Blood.

Adapting the novels to a television series and pre-production process:

-Alan told the story about being early for the dentist and picking up the first book, saying ‘If I believed in fate I would say it was fate. But I don’t.’ While reading the first book he had no plans to develop it as the rights were not yet available, but he was thinking ‘If this was a TV show I would watch it.’

-He gave some insight into the pre-production process for a season, saying it was a new experience doing the process from a source material. On a board they draw twelve columns, one for every episode of the season, and within the columns they have space for each character where they write their ideas and arcs.

-They always have a ‘grand plan’ for the whole season that gets laid out, which usually goes to plan until around the shooting of episode six or seven, then things start to be changed.

-The popularity of DVD box sets has changed the way episodes are written, with each episode now being more like a chapter of a book, which was something Alan wanted to do anyway as he loved how Charlaine’s chapters always end with a shocking moment.

Book to show changes:

-Season Five will start to combine elements from all the books much more than what has been done previously.

-The writers on the show feel liberated getting to create storylines for the other characters that are not Sookie and not having to stick to her point of view like the books.

-Alan discussed a couple of the major changes they made from Book 1 to Season 1. He said the decision to not kill off Lafayette became obvious when he saw Nelsan Ellis work for the first time and he was ‘just channelling from Planet Lafayette.’ He also talked about Bill being the one to stake Longshadow instead of Eric. He says that it made sense for Bill, as Sookie’s lover and protector, to be the one to save her, and also that having to turn a human was an appropriate punishment for a vampire always struggling with his loss of humanity. In the book it was only briefly touched on that Eric would have some kind of trial, and they also got a new character (Jessica) out of the change.

Sex, nudity, hot shirtless dudes and ‘lady porn’:

-Brough rather cheekily asked if all the ‘male eye candy’ and the fact that they are naked a lot is simply for Alan’s own enjoyment or if he’s now objectifying men after so long of it being done to women. Alan said ‘Both’, but I don’t know how serious he was being.

-Referred to the books as ‘lady porn’, and told how surprised he was when he first found out there was an entire genre (paranormal romance) where a human heroine is being pursued by vamps, werewolves, fairies, angels, demons, and all kinds of stuff. He says that even though they try to have something for all demographics, women would probably be the target audience.

-On the amount of sex: ‘The heart of True Blood is the primal muck that souls grow out of, and sex is a big part of that.’

-Talked a bit about Jason’s first sex scene with Maudette. Jason is ‘a wounded little boy at heart who uses sex to try to heal those wounds’, so it made sense for his first ever scene to be a sex scene. Alan said he did feel very awkward being on set that first time when Ryan and the actress took their robes off.

-The actors’ comfort dictates the level of nudity, and many of the girls on the show are not comfortable taking their clothes off. Alan says if they were, we would be seeing just as many naked girls as we do naked guys. He gave a specific example about Joe Mangianello being especially keen to get naked. The scene where Alcide gets into bed with Debbie in 409 was just in the script as something like ‘He strips down to his boxers and gets into bed’, but Joe was adamant that ‘No, he sleeps naked!’

-They don’t write detailed descriptions of sex scenes in the script, just something like ‘they make love.’ There are days when Alan is not on set when they film a sex scene, and when he sees the footage he’s surprised at just how intense or risqué or crazy they’ve taken it.

Vampires as an allegory for gays:

-Yes, it can be applied but it’s too simplistic. Vampires are outsiders, but they’re also dead and bloodthirsty monsters. When they won the award from GLAAD for most gay-friendly TV show, Alan couldn’t attend so sent Denis O’Hare to accept it. He jokingly told Denis to say ‘Thanks for giving us an award for portraying gays as bloodthirsty monsters’, and apparently that’s what Denis actually said! (btw, he accidentally called Denis’s character ‘the King of Louisiana’. Thank Godric he was not at Comic-Con. People get crucified for slip-ups there.)

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Stephen Moyer, Alan Ball & Anna Paquin - photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Writing strong female characters, and the type of characters he’s drawn to:

-Repeated the quote from the Sydney event and said he has ‘a big girl inside of him.’ But also said that ‘characters are characters’ and that gender doesn’t really matter.

-The women on the writing staff will often stand up for the girl characters when the guys want to push them around.

-He is drawn to characters who are ‘struggling on a journey to be authentic in an inauthentic world’, and what he wants from his own characters is that ‘they refuse to be a victim’ as in real life he has seen people ‘cling to victimhood’ and it’s not pretty.

-Thinks conventional heroes and villains are boring, and functional is also boring. His characters will usually be ‘messed up, but trying to have meaningful lives.’

True Blood’s crazy fans and online comments:

-Brough said that the show has some very passionate fans, and Alan agreed that we are indeed a crazy, fanatical bunch.

-Alan said he no longer reads any online comments because they are not good either way. He got a lot of positive, hyperbolic feedback after American Beauty, but stopped reading lest he be tempted to start believing his own hype. Then after Towelhead was released he read a comment where someone hated it so much they encouraged everyone who saw Alan on the street to punch him in the face, which hurt his feelings. ‘No matter what you do, there’s always somebody that will hate it and hate you, and vice versa’ and now he ‘just tries to do his best work and stay out of the results.’

Drum roll…what we’ll see (or won’t see) in Season Five:

-No zombies, as another show (I assume he meant The Walking Dead) is already doing them and it’s just ‘not really True Blood.’

-They have been doing research on some ‘lesser known’ supernatural creatures that will appear in the next season, but of course didn’t reveal what they are.

-A chap in the audience asked if Alan had noticed the resemblance of Michelle Bachmann to the character of Nan. He said yes, and that season five will have something that is ‘loosely based’ on Bachmann because she is ‘epic crazy’ and they have to use it some way.

All in all quite an enlightening and fun night. Thanks Alan!

11 Responses to “‘In Conversation’ with Alan Ball in Melbourne: Creator talks books, eye candy, supes…Bachmann?”

  1. Acanthus says:

    Grasping at the usual straw, I’m hoping that AB’s S5 inclusion of something Bachmann-esque vis vis Nan is a guarantee that Nan doesn’t die in in tonight’s finale. Then again, straws is straws…

  2. ZZ says:

    Thank you Jess for the great report! I feel curious about “Season Five will start to combine elements from all the books much more than what has been done previously.” Do you think this means S5 will be a mix of the rest of the books and then he will completely go away from them?

    Alan always does good interviews.

  3. Persephone says:

    It’s interesting, regarding the objectification thing, but I’ve never really felt like the show really objectifies any of the characters, even with their clothes off for whatever meaningless reason. Maybe male viewers might feel differently, but to me the nudity seems more like an appreciation of the physicality of the person onscreen. The character is still what’s present and important, not whatever part of their anatomy we’re looking at. Maybe it’s just me, I dunno.

    Having said that, I also get why so many of the actresses are reluctant to get naked on camera. Not because I feel it’s used differently in the context of the show but just because there’s a different kind of baggage that comes with it.

  4. Acanthus says:

    Jess, thanks so much for reporting back from Melbourne. We couldn’t have had a better writer or more eye-for-detail correspondent than you.

    So, lemme ask: What was the audience like? Demographics? Were there many obvious TB fans; if so were they prepared with any other good questions. I loved the Bachmann one; were there more of that calibre, or was the dickhead element out in force?

    (Oh wait, you were in chic Melbourne aka the Oz St Petersburg, not my yobbo Sydney, aka the Emerald City of Oz).

    • Jess says:

      Ah, but in addition to being chic Melbourne is also the ‘aren’t we so young and cool, but we are also pseudo-intellectuals which makes us cooler’ capital of Oz, and there was definitely a few of them out in force last night going by some of the audience questions. ‘Are you afraid of becoming ideologically corrupt in the mainstream medium of television?’ Puh-leeze. So there was a bit of a dickhead element. One poor girl was also borderline panic attack nervous when she asked her question, so we’re a unique bunch down here!

      Didn’t see any ‘obvious’ fangbanger types, though I was at the front of the theatre and didn’t really get a good look around. Quite a few people seemed to be around my age, early and mid twenties, but I’d say most of the audience would have been a decade or more older than that, and very even with men and women. They didn’t get time for a lot of audience questions, probably around 6 or so, but that Bachmann thing was the only TB related question. So going by that and the older audience I’m gonna say it was more SFU fans than TB.

      And thanks for the kind words on my ‘roving reporter’ effort!

      • Louise says:

        Hi Jess,

        I was one of the ‘oh so cool’ Melbournians who attended!! Early 30′s and a fan of SFU and TB. I thought the demographic attending was 25 to 45, fairly even numbers of male and females and sexual orientations (although I wouldn’t want to make rash generalisations!!).

        I would have liked to hear more about Alan and his influences and entertainment interests, but found his early recollections on his career fasinating!! More auidence questions would have been nice too but don’t know how they would have filtered out the ‘bullshit factor’!! And as for panic attack girl, when I met Alan after the event, I stammered like a schoolgirl saying ‘Hi, I’m Louise,……….I’m a really big fan’ !!!! How totally uncool. But he was gracious and kind and met all of my expectations of meeting such a talented and humble man!

        Thanks again Jess for representing us Aussie True Blood fans xxx

  5. Lividity says:

    Thanks for giving us the lowdown Jess. Great reporting! I find it interesting about the no scripting for sex scenes concept. I wonder how that works exactly. Does the director tell them how to do it or do the actors themselves come up with what they think works for their characters, or a bit of both?

  6. Katherine says:

    I hate AB this season!

  7. Sarah says:

    It’ll be interesting. I felt this season was one of those inbetween seasons and progressed rather slow and it’s like all the good stuff happened at the very end which sucks because you have to wait for another season. I was outraged how the season ended with Sookie holding Tara after being shot right in the head. I’m praying that they don’t kill her off on the series because she’s my favorite character, her and Laffayette. It will be very hard on him after loosing his cousin and his boyfriend.

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