Since 2008, summer has meant more than just beach parties, sunburns, disappointing blockbuster movies, and daily opportunities to watch female pedestrians rocking short skirts and meager tops. For the past three years, Sunday nights from June through September have been dedicated to horny vampires, gleeful bloodshed, and soft-core erotica for the horror sect—we’re talking about HBO’s pleasurable hit show True Blood, of course.
Based on author Charlaine Harris’ series of novels dubbed The Southern Vampire Mysteries, the most perverse, and, yes, sexiest, show on TV returns for a fourth season this Sunday night, and fans’ expectations are sky-high. Last year, True Blood increased its grown-up appeal in ways that were unabashedly cheap (shirtless men, who turn into werewolves, for the ladies), shockingly gruesome (head-twisting sex), and thematically intelligent (a new political edge added to the bloodsucker mythology, via actor Denis O’Hare’s dynamic “King of Mississippi” character).
Late last month, True Blood: The Complete Third Season arrived on DVD and Blu-ray, affording viewers both faithful and new to familiarize themselves with all of the sordidness, which should come in handy, since creator Alan Ball promises that Season Four will take the sex, gore, and fascinating characters even further over the edge.
Ball, who previously won an Academy Award for writing American Beauty and created HBO’s beloved Six Feet Under (the show that brought us Dexter’s great Michael C. Hall), took some time out of his hectic schedule, leading up this weekend’s True Blood season debut, to chat with Complex about how DVDs have changed the television experience, why it’s important to use sex for psychological character development, what’s in store for Season Four, and the rap’s world love for star Anna Paquin.
Complex: Revisiting True Blood’s third season through the DVD set, it struck me that the show really expanded itself last year, taking most of the action outside of Bon Temps and into Mississippi and Arkansas. The two previous seasons kept things inside Bon Temps for the most part. Why was it important for the show to widen its scope last season?
Alan Ball: Well, that was based on the books. In the books, Sookie does go to Mississippi to look for Bill, who was missing. So we just sort of used that as a jumping-off point. We didn’t really sit down and say to one another, “Oh, let’s see what’s going on outside of Louisiana.” We look at the books. The show had already established the vampire world in Louisiana, and we needed to open things up a little, but that’s how it plays out in Charlaine’s books, so the timing worked itself out nicely.
Did you see the new locations as an opportunity to increase the show’s scope, in any ways?
Yeah, it’s great, because the books are all narrated by Sookie, so the books are basically Sookie’s story. It’s not really anybody else’s story, so if they don’t exist in the room with Sookie, then they’re not in the story at that time, at all. So, that allows us to be really true to the books, but at the same time to be really creative, in terms of developing everybody else’s story.
We try to give every other character a compelling story that we can also weave into the material from the books. If we’re not true specifically to the plot of the books, we still try to remain very true to the spirit of the books.
In doing so, the show introduced a huge amount of new characters last season. Is it difficult to establish stories for the new characters without lessening the arcs of the show’s primary ones, fan favorites like Sookie (Anna Paquin), Bill (Stephen Moyer), and Eric (Alexander Skarsgard), for example?
It is difficult, but I do believe that that’s part of what makes the show so much fun for the audience. There’s such a crazy, big cast of characters, and I think that there’s somebody in that mix for everybody to identify with, but it is hard. We only have 60 minutes per episode, and we’re servicing about 20 different characters. [Laughs.]
Charlaine Harris has the luxury of developing as many characters as she wants throughout as many pages as she can fill up, whereas you only get twelve 60-minute episodes per season to do the same thing. How jealous are you of her?
[Laughs.] That must be pretty nice, yeah. It’s daunting for us, sure, but you don’t think about it. It’s challenging, and that’s what our job is—that’s what we try to do.
Oh, of course. I think all of the characters are so much fun—I would love to spend more time with all of them. And that’s one of the reasons why I like the additional content in the DVD, because you do get to spend a little more time with certain characters outside of the context of the show itself.
For me, this show is really my first time working in something that’s so “genre.” I’m learning all kinds of geeky genre terms, like “the canon.” [Laughs.] And we’re always adding to the show’s canon. It’s very interesting, and it is daunting, but that’s just sort of the nature of what the show has evolved into. That’s what it comes with.
A few of the new characters in Season Three were received incredibly well, namely Russell Edgington (Denis O’Hare) and Alcide (Joe Manganiello). As you and your staff are writing episodes, does a character’s involvement increase at all based on the actor’s performance, in ways that you might not have foreseen entering the season?
Absolutely. With last season specifically, we knew, going in, that Russell was going to be our big villain, and we just basically said, “Who would be a great actor for this?” We all knew Dennis already, and we knew that he’s a brilliant actor, so I just called him and gauged his interest, and thankfully he was all for it. So once you have an actor of that caliber on board, and you have a character who’s 3,000 years old or whatever, you can just really start to relax and have fun. We knew that Russell would really stand out, so it was clear that we needed to devote as much attention to the character as possible.
Alcide is a really beloved character in the books; that was a very difficult character to cast. And, again, the goal was to keep his own story alive, where it’s not just about being a possible love interest for Sookie. And we get more into that during this new season, making him a developed character in his own light. Sometimes, some of the characters in the books—especially due to the fact that they don’t really exist unless they’re in Sookie’s story—tend to come across as just a hot guy waiting in the wings, or something to that effect. But that’s not very interesting when you put that up on screen, so we try to find ways to give them all their own stuff and give the actors something to play.
Speaking of Alcide, who’s a werewolf, one of the DVD’s bonus features shows how the werewolf scenes were shot using real wolves, and not goofy-looking CGI creations. Why, for you, is it important to go with a more realistic approach to the show’s supernatural elements whenever possible?
Well, first of all, we’re a TV show—we don’t have a movie budget. [Laughs.] I’ve always sort of looked at the supernatural as being a deeper manifestation of nature than something that exists outside of nature. So, when you have a werewolf, it’s really important to me that it be a wolf. I agree with you, those CGI wolves you see in movies look ridiculous. There was something kind of great about using real wolves; occasionally we would augment their facial expressions, and of course we did their eyes with CGI. And in only one occasion, where a wolf had to chase a person down, did we use CGI, but it was a very wide shot so it wouldn’t be as obvious.
I find the same thing, when I go to movies and I see the animals that are supposed to be so scary are CGI—they’re just not scary at all. They’re silly and they completely take you out of the story. I think there was something kind of cool for all the actors and for everyone in the crew to know that we were out in the woods with real wolves. It’s partially budgetary, and it’s partially that you just want to keep it…. I try to stay away from CGI as much as can, because it’s hard to do really, really well. A movie can be all about CGI, but that’s going to cost a gazillion dollars and take forever to happen; we just don’t have that luxury. It helps us to focus on the story.
What’s interesting about DVDs these days is that many people just wait for a TV show’s latest season to arrive on home video before they start watching, to avoid the gaps between new episodes when they air on television. I know several people who do that with True Blood specifically.
Yeah, it’s a whole different way to watch TV. I have a few shows that I love and watch week-to-week, but then I also have some shows that I wait for the DVDs to watch over the course of a weekend. And there’s something really kind of satisfying about that; it’s like reading a book.
It’s especially useful with True Blood, though, because you guys love to end episodes with these crazy “Oh shit!” moments, and it’s often a pain to have to wait a week to see what happens next.
[Laughs.] With those moments, we don’t think in terms of, “OK, now we have to top how the last episode ended”; we pay more attention to the organic moment where it’s like, “Oh my God, I really want to see what happens next!” You can say that True Blood is a metaphor for this, or it’s a metaphor for that, but ultimately the show is just entertainment. So, at the risk of sounding hokey, you want to leave people wanting more, because you want them to come back the next weekend. Even when they bought the DVD set, you want them to think, “Oh, man, I have to watch the next episode immediately!”
I remember when I read the books, I would read before I went to bed at night. I’d think, “OK, I have to get up for a six o’clock production meeting tomorrow morning, so I can only read one chapter.” Then, I’d get to the end of that chapter and it’d be, like, And Gram’s dead. [Laughs.] And I’m sitting there, in bed, thinking, “No way, motherfucker! What am I gonna do?” Then I’d end up reading seven chapters, and I’d look at the clock and it’d be one in the morning, and I’d think, “Oh well.”
There’s something kind of cool about being sucked into a story that intensely, no pun intended. But I loved that, and I really felt that it’s such an important element of the books that we needed to capture in the show as organically as possible.
And last season had a few whoppers of episode-enders, specifically the last scene of Episode Three, “It Hurts Me, Too,” where Bill twists Lorena’s (Mariana Klaveno) head into a pretzel as they’re having extremely rough sex.
Yeah, you’ve got to love vampire hate sex. [Laughs.] With that, I don’t think we were trying to freak people out; even that, as outlandish as it is, did have a psychological basis. I was thinking, Bill had such a love/hate relationship with Lorena, and she had just basically ruined things between he and Sookie forever, supposedly. So it was like hate sex, and you’re thinking, “Well, how would that be different for vampires?” We were in the writers’ room, and I said, “He should just, you know, strangle her, and literally break her neck.” But for her that’s just really good sex, because she’s going to heal. [Laughs.]
That’s the thing that vampires would experience that we can’t, and it’s surreal but also taps into their emotions and is entertaining as hell to watch. I don’t think we ever sit around and think, “What’s the most outlandish thing we can do?” I love the outlandish moments if we can root them in some sort of psychology, so there’s always that struggle to keep the more fantastic elements of the show somehow still married to the characters’ psyches and their emotional lives.
Going into this new season, Season Four, it seems like you’re taking it back to the more Bon Temps-based nature of Season Two, with a new character coming into the town and raising all kinds of hell.
Well, it is like that, in that there is some person shaking things up at home, and all of Season Four takes place in Bon Temps or Shreveport; nobody goes anywhere. In Season Two, the vampires did go to Dallas, and there was all of the stuff with the Fellowship of the Sun, but everybody ended up in Bon Temps; this year, everybody pretty much stays at home.
There are less new characters then there were last season probably. And there’s something kind of fun about taking some of your characters, sticking them in a plane, and flying them off somewhere new, where they’re sort of fish out of water. But I basically just go wherever the story takes us. I work with five other writers, and we try to figure out interesting stories that will challenge all of our regular characters in new and interesting ways, and force them to change and grow, sometimes for the better and sometimes not. We always want to keep the show fresh and not make it seem like we’re just treading water.
She has very big shoes to fill, yeah. We were very fortunate that we got the great Irish actress Fiona Shaw, who is one of the premier Shakespearean actresses of hers and any other generation. We needed somebody of that depth, because her character starts off very mousy and unassuming but all kinds of stuff happens to her, and we needed somebody who could go to these epic places, and she totally does that.
Through her character, True Blood will explore the world of witches this season, coming off last season’s werewolf angle and the previous one’s maenad. You mentioned earlier that you’re becoming well-versed in genre terms and monsters. Looking ahead, are there any creatures or supernatural villains that you’d particularly like to introduce, even if they’re not featured in the books?
Yeah, absolutely. We’ve done a lot of the familiar ones, but one of the things I loved about the second book was the idea of the maenad, and what that was. You don’t really hear much about maenads and what they are, so I’m hoping in seasons hence that we’ll find some more lesser-known supernatural creatures, to figure out what’s going on with them.
But this year, actually, we have a whole bunch of them; we have witches, an interesting twist on shape-shifting that gets played out over the course of the season. There are disembodied spirits; I hesitate to call them “ghosts,” so I call them “spirits without hosts.” The magic demon that overtook Jesus (Kevin Alejandro) last season and scared the hell out of Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) comes back a bit more. So there’s all kinds of fun stuff this year, in addition to werewolves and vampires.
One of this season’s new characters that plays into the shape-shifter plotline is played by Janina Gavankar, who we recently shot in a rather sexy graveyard set-up. What struck you about her?
She’s great. We were casting a love interest for Sam (Sam Trammell), and so we were definitely looking for attractive women. We wanted a woman who’d have some Hispanic/Native American characteristics, and, even though I believe Janina is more Indian, she had the right physical characteristics. She’s really good—she has a really nice mix of total backbone and vulnerability. She fit right into the show from day one, and she’s also beautiful.
Indeed. A lot of the focus amongst fans is on how the show casts hunky guys for female viewers to swoon over, but True Blood definitely deserves more credit for casting tons of hot chicks for us male viewers. Deborah Ann Woll, Anna Paquin, Evan Rachel Wood—the list goes on. Much appreciated, sir.
Absolutely. We’re always aware of giving the men something, as well. [Laughs.]
Last year, unexpectedly, the show also contributed something to the hip-hop culture, with Snoop Dogg’s bizarre yet funny “Oh Sookie” music video, which is included on the DVD set. How the hell did that happen?
[Laughs.] My music supervisor called me and said, “Snoop Dogg is a big fan of the show, and he’s written a song and he’d like do a video for us—how do you feel about that?” I was like, “Are you kidding? That’s fantastic!” Because I’m so busy running the show, it basically happened without my direct involvement. Somebody would tell me, “Oh, they’re shooting that video this weekend.” It was really sort of off my radar, and then all of the sudden it was in my inbox and I was watching it on my computer. I had to watch it like six times in a row because it’s so hilarious. [Laughs.]
Oddly enough, Sookie’s name popped up in other rap songs recently, namely ones by Jim Jones, who’s cited her name in a couple of his verses. Are there any other rappers you’d like to see make True Blood music videos?
Well, I’m always happy when my music supervisor calls and tells me that Dwight Yoakam and Beck are working on a song, but they’re definitely not rappers. [Laughs.] I’m afraid that I’m not as well-versed in the popular music scene today that the kids are listening to, because now I’m a middle-aged old fart. I’ve sort of turned into my dad. [Laughs.] And it’s not because I don’t like the music—I just never hear it because I work too much. But if any rappers ever want to do something like “Oh Sookie,” I’d love to hear it!