As Season 1 of True Blood is set to air on October 7 on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom, Chris Ayres of TimesOnline met with Alan Ball and asked him to share information about his past and why the vampire series was the perfect next step.
When he was 13, Alan Ball was a passenger in a car driven by his older sister — it was her 22nd birthday — when she was killed in an accident. “She drove off the highway, there was a blind spot, and she pulled out,” he recalls, still flinching slightly. “The impact broke her neck. It was very bloody. At that impressionable age, Death came and stuck its ugly old face in mine, and said: ‘Hello, here I am.’ ” Ball escaped without a scrape.
It was that terrible event perhaps more than any other that shaped Ball, who ultimately went on to become a playwright, sit-com producer and Oscar-winning screenplay writer — he was responsible for the 1999 Kevin Spacey masterpiece American Beauty — and at the age of 52 has emerged as one of the most unusual and unsettling creative forces in American television.
But as much as he might still look as though the weight of several planets is upon him — on the morning we meet he sports a greying beard with hiking boots, jeans and a woodcutter shirt — Ball claims that True Blood is his way of lightening up. “Six Feet Under was about life in the presence of death,” he says. “But after that show ended I thought to myself: ‘OK, I’m done looking into the abyss now. I’m ready for a theme park ride.’ ”
Based on the Southern Vampire Mysteries novel series by Charlene Harris, True Blood is certainly a change of tempo. The title sequence, set to Jace Everett’s country stompalong Bad Things, features pole dancers, faith-healers and close-ups of blood-red lips and roadkill. The plot centres on a telepathic waitress named Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) and her vampire love interest, Bill Compton (played by the British actor Stephen Moyer, now engaged to Paquin in real life).
“I was never into the vampire thing,” Ball says. “I never saw Buffy. I never read any Anne Rice novels. But vampires are sexy: it’s the penetration, the exchange of fluids … they’re a very potent metaphor, especially for people who like to fantasise about being taken. What makes it OK is that vampires aren’t real. No one wants to fantasise about being taken by a real human being because that’s terrifying.”
He adds that when he first picked up one of Harris’s books, “I promised myself I’d read a chapter before I went to bed, and before I switched out the light I’d read seven.”
The son of a Lockheed quality control inspector from the Atlanta suburb of Marietta, Georgia, Ball clearly has a nostalgia for what he calls the “gothic sensibility of the South”, and it seeps through every beautifully shot HD frame of True Blood.
He contends that in spite of his sister’s death he had a “pretty standard” childhood. That is, if being 19 years the junior of your parents’ first child counts as “standard” (he has two brothers, the other 15 years older than him). Not to mention realising at a young age that he was gay.
“I was always very aware of that,” he concedes. “I mean, when I was 8 and went to see Goldfinger I found myself being turned on by Sean Connery. I was also very aware that it was something I had to keep a secret. I thought it meant you were relegated for ever to the outside fringes of society. I tried to be straight. I even had a teenage girlfriend — who I really ought to apologise to — before I came out in my thirties.”
But it was the aftermath of the car accident, not Ball’s sexuality, that made his early life most difficult. “It blew my family apart. My mother became very religious and struggled with depression — she’d take us to this church where people spoke in tongues — so for a long time it seemed like it was just me and my dad, but he was drinking and withdrew into himself. We’d go out to eat at night and he’d be swerving all over the road and I’d be thinking: ‘Hey, Dad, maybe this isn’t the best thing to do when you’ve got a kid who’s been in a fatal car accident.’
“Then my mother really got into Revelations and the end of the world. When I was 14 I’d come home and the first thing she’d say would be: ‘Well, another prophecy came true today.’ ”
It wasn’t until years later that he was finally able to grieve for his sister. “For six months I thought I was going crazy. I’d walk through the streets crying. It was lucky I was living in New York at the time: in New York no one pays you any attention if you’re walking through the streets crying.”
It was also in New York that Ball founded a theatre outfit, the Alarm Dog Repertory Company, while paying the rent with various artdirecting jobs at trade magazines including Adweek and Inside PR (the inspiration for the souldevouring position held by Lester Burnham, the antihero of American Beauty).
Then one of Ball’s plays, Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, caught the attention of the Hollywood producers Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey. They invited him out to Los Angeles to become a staff writer for the sit-com Grace Under Fire, starring the comedienne Brett Butler.
“At first I thought LA was appalling, disgusting,” Ball says. Getting another job writing for Cybill, starring Cybill Shepherd, didn’t do much to change his mind. “After a while I became a bit of a hack. In every episode there was a part where one of the characters would have to learn a lesson from what had just happened. I used to call it ‘the moment of shit’, because it just trivialised everything.”
In the end, Ball stayed with Cybill until its fourth and final season in 1998, becoming the executive producer. “By the third season I really wanted to leave, but they backed the money truck up to my house and I stayed,” he says. “But I felt like such a whore, and at nights I dumped all of my frustration into the script of American Beauty. It’s a very angry script. It’s what you get when you’ve been working with a crazy person who walks into the room and says: ‘I got a bad haircut, let’s write a show about that.’ ”
Everything changed after American Beauty earned Ball an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards (the movie cost £9.5 million to make and earned £225 million). Fortunately, it overshadowed the failure of his first solo television effort, Oh Grow Up — about three male Brooklyn housemates, two straight, one gay — that was cancelled by the ABC network.
Then an executive for the prestigious, subscription-only HBO channel mentioned to Ball at a lunch meeting that she’d always been fascinated by funeral homes. That provided the inspiration for Six Feet Under, a kind of existential soap opera about a family that runs a Los Angeles funeral home.
At first, Ball feared having to write schmaltzy storylines again. But he needn’t have worried: “After HBO saw the pilot, they sent me a note saying: ‘Can you make this more f***ed-up?’ ”
The show became a cult hit, although some critics poked fun at it for its relentlessly bleak plot. “That’s where it needed to go,” Ball shrugs, adding that he found it therapeutic. “It made death and grief less frightening to me. When my mother died I knew what grief was, so it didn’t freak me out.”
Although Ball says his family could never be described as close, he at least came to a kind of peace with his mother before she passed away. “When I came out to her, she said: ‘God has dealt me some blows in this life. I blame your father, because I think he was that way, too.’ But she eventually came around and accepted me, and met my partner. It was tough, but thank God I did it, because we ended up having a real relationship.”
Ironically enough, Ball and his partner didn’t get any such acceptance from their 80-year-old next-door neighbour in the Hollywood Hills: every day he would empty his rubbish into their driveway, until they finally took out a restraining order. The old man has since died and his property was torn down to make way for a mansion, but then the stock exchange crashed and the new owner pulled out. “It’s all wild and overgrown now,” Ball says. “It’s kind of beautiful. There are deer living there.”
Asked about California’s recent overturning of the law allowing same-sex marriage, Ball says it turns gays into “second-class citizens”, but that “it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what’s wrong with America”.
Still, Ball appears to have finally found a kind of of peace in Los Angeles. He says he loves the city now, particularly the space to walk his dogs at Runyon Canyon, a nearby park. He’s also become a Buddhist, because “it’s about love and not denouncing others, like the Christianity of my childhood”.
“I’m a fairly happy person,” he says. “I’m content. I really like my life. But for some reason I still get people coming up to me and saying, ‘Cheer up’.”
Perhaps that’s because Ball’s happiness isn’t exactly conventional: for example, he reveals that his idea of a good night is “a Vicodin [a highly addictive prescription painkiller] and a pay-per-view movie.”
As for his career, Ball has signed a deal with HBO to do two more seasons of True Blood. He also has two other shows in the works, including an adaptation of the British series Bad Girls, along with several movie projects. But his heart seems to be more in the small screen.
“I could never have sold Six Feet Under as movie,” he argues. “It’s just the nature of the medium: a movie is like a short story, while a TV series is like a novel. And what I love about Six Feet Under is that it really touched people, personally.”
Alas, not always in the most obviously gratifying ways. For example, Ball recalls one fan he met shortly after his mother died. “I was at the funeral home and the mortician came up to me and said: ‘I’m in this business because of you’.”
It was enough to render Ball speechless for a moment. “Then I was like: ‘Is that a good thing?’ ”