In regards to death, writer/director/creator Alan Ball admits during his recent interview with our Jim Halterman that "it's always been in the room with me. I'm constantly aware of how short life is and how it can go away at any moment. So that's obviously a resonant theme for me." Like his acclaimed HBO series "Six Feet Under," Ball continues to explore the effects of the afterlife but on a very different terrain beginning this Sunday night when "True Blood" makes it series debut on (where else?) HBO.
Based on the popular series of books by Charlaine Harris, "True Blood" focuses on Sookie Stackhouse, a young woman with telepathic abilities and the connection she forms with Bill Compton, who just happens to be a 173-year old vampire. In the world of "True Blood," vampires live among the humans thanks to a produced synthetic blood drink called True Blood that supposedly keeps the need to kill humans dormant. Anna Paquin ("X Men") and Stephen Moyer ("88 Minutes") star as lead characters Sookie and Bill and it's their unconventional relationship that drives much of the action in "True Blood."
In turning the books into a television series, Ball shares that he did "feel a certain responsibility to be as true as I can be to the nature and the spirit of the books." But he is the first to point out that there are benefits to adaptation over creating everything firsthand. "You have a built in fan base," Ball said. "As was the case with Charlaine's books, they work. The world is complete... in a lot of ways she [has] done a lot of the heavy lifting and I'm really, really indebted to her for that. I think the challenges are to remain true enough to the material so you don't lose what it was that attracted you to it in the first place, but at the same time, to open it up and make changes when you feel like they would improve it." Ball added that Harris, who has credited as one of the writers for the series, has been supportive of Ball's take on her world. "Charlaine has been a complete sweetheart about this and she really understands that the medium of television is completely different than the medium of the printed page and she's been really on board."
One of Ball's first tasks when the project began was finding the right actors to inhabit the very distinct roles of Harris's books. The character of Sookie Stackhouse is one of the most important in the novel and series since it's Sookie who we experience this new world through. Ball and his casting crew didn't pursue Paquin, though. "Anna pursued the role... and I was a little worried that she wouldn't be willing to dye her hair blonde and actually, she was very willing. She said, �You know it's something that I would never do in my real life because I would think it was superficial but you gave me an excuse to do it so it's really fun.'"
Ball also explains that he wants to make sure he has honored the characterization that Harris provided in the eight � soon to be nine - books. "Ultimately when you're casting, physical type is really not the most important thing. The important thing is can this person bring this character to life in a way that is compelling and makes me care about what happens to them. And I think I just have an instinct for when that happens and I just trust my gut." Ball also added that being at HBO is a beneficial thing because, "I'm not being pressured to cast people with familiar faces."
Also difficult to cast was the character of Bill Compton, played by British actor Stephen Moyer. "I always saw [Bill] as a really sort of tragic, haunted man and he also had to really give you the sense that he was from another time, that he was from another era." Thankfully, Moyer, Ball shares, "just really captured the right combination of feeling haunted and being able to convey the fact that he was 170 years old and being really gentile and polite and cultured and refined and also ridiculously handsome, with those crazy blue eyes."
Ball admits that although he wasn't looking specifically for non-Americans, it's exactly what he got with many of the prominent roles. "I was willing to go anywhere where we would get the right person who would bring each role alive and so we've ended up with an international cast. Stephen's British, Anna's from New Zealand, Ryan [Kwanten, who plays Sookie's brother, Jason] is from Australia... I just always want to find the actor who makes the character breathe."
The importance of casting, Ball adds, feeds into the importance of character because, he says, "you have to have a specific person that you're invested in. You have to feel for them. If it's just a story device with fangs, than I'm just not that interested. I'm not that interested in special effects. We're really trying to focus on... who Bill is, what's his history, what is the curse of being immortal, how is that a bad thing, what's it like to be immortal and still yearn to be human, to have lost everything that meant something to you."
In giving his impressions on what the underlying meaning of "True Blood" is, Ball candidly reveals that "ultimately the series is about � when I first pitched it to HBO and somebody asked me what it was about � I said it's about the terrors of intimacy and at the time I thought, well, who knows what that means but it sounds good." Another appealing facet of the new series is the change of pace from his Emmy-winning former series. Ball offers that "it was really fun to do something that was less subdued because �Six Feet Under' had been all about subduing one's emotions and being afraid of the primal feelings that we all have that are a byproduct of being creatures with souls and having to deal with the fact that we all know we're going to die. If felt sort of liberating just to get a little crazy and the [Charlaine Harris] books... had that energy and I just really responded to it."
For fans of the Harris books, the character of Eric plays a huge role so Ball addresses how that character would fit into the "True Blood" series. "Eric was a Viking who came to America about 1,000 years ago and was made a vampire either on the voyage over or once he landed in America. He is a huge character in the series. He was the character for whom Charlaine's fans I think were most obsessed about how he would be cast. He is definitely a big part of the show. He is a series regular." Though Eric is not a part of the pilot, viewers can expect to see him before the first season ends.
Anyone who knows the Harris books is familiar with the great amount of sex and violence that exists in the world. Ball doesn't steer clear of those elements in his television adaptation and admits, "I don't know if it's because the fantastic nature of the premise allows me enough of a remove so that it's not so upsetting because... it's like popcorn TV, it's like an amusement park ride for me. Certainly, sexuality, I think, is a real window into somebody's psyche so I'm not as freaked out by characters being depicted in sexual situations than maybe some other people are." And, once again, Ball compares his new series to "Six Feet Under," which, he feels was "all about repression and this seems to me to be something that's about abandon and... I find the show really entertaining to produce and to be part of making. And just because it's so escapist and, for me, that's one of the joys of it."
"True Blood" premieres Sunday on HBO at 9:00/8:00c with multiple re-airings throughout the week.