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Exclusive: Alan Ball at the Virginia Film Festival

Exclusive: Alan Ball at the Virginia Film Festival


“This Show Is Such A Big Tease”
“Give Them Fangs and Let Them Act”

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA, November 8th, 2009 – The 22nd Annual Virginia Film Festival’s theme, “Funny Business,” attracted the likes of John Waters, Norman Jewison and Matthew Broderick, but the most eagerly anticipated guest was likely Academy Award winning screenwriter, director – and former disillusioned sitcom pro – Alan Ball. Sunday at 10:30 a.m., Culbreth Theatre’s 595 seats were packed with an audience thirsty for something, anything, to tide them over until June 2010 when True Blood Season 3 airs on HBO. Mr. Ball did not disappoint. The event lasted over an hour and after, the satisfied audience streamed out into the unusually warm and sunny November afternoon probably wondering what other dark, “sweet little moments” True Blood had in store. Great talent, insight, wit and dish – Alan Ball definitely gets a seat at my next fantasy dinner party.

Alan Ball

Alan Ball

I was lucky enough to have a moment with Mr. Ball prior to the talk, approaching him in the lobby, and was immediately put at ease by his affable manner. Casually dressed in jeans and a leather jacket – and very tall – Mr. Ball, when told I was there on behalf of The Vault/BillsBabes, smiled and exclaimed, “You’re everywhere!” After telling him how much I loved his work, I asked, “Do you think your True Blood characters have a healthier attitude toward death than your Six Feet Under characters?” He paused and answered thoughtfully, “Well, it’s heightened and it’s in your face, so it’s different than Six Feet Under, which was more realistic.” Later at the American Beauty screening, he elaborated further on the theme of death in his work, commenting that, “Culturally, we go out of our way to deny the reality of death as a part of life. Accepting mortality, life becomes precious. It’s an opening moment; it opens the soul up to experience life at a deeper level.”

Mr. Ball took the stage to a heavy round of appreciative applause. He described his start in New York and said matter-of-factly, “I didn’t go to film school, I don’t know about camera lenses; so I might ask ‘can she look lonely?’ and the cinematographer makes that happen.” Regarding the writing process, he lauded his smart five-person writer’s room and described a democratic approach. “I don’t feel I have to write every word,” joking, “I don’t want to work that hard, they’d need to supplement with pharmaceuticals!” Mr. Ball tries to make sure the script is available to all the actors and all the departments two weeks ahead of shooting, so that location scenes can be combined to make full use of a location and a day’s shoot, and so the actors can ask questions about lines or motivation. If someone comes to him the day of shooting, then, he shrugged, “it’s too late,” but it’s usually not a problem because “they’re such great actors.” He has the writer of the episode act as the writing producer on the set all the time in order to keep the story intact. “True Blood is a huge story, complicated and it takes 13 days to shoot each episode.”

Preparing the audience for what would be a partial screening of Episode 2 (“Keep This Party Going”) and Episode 4 (“Shake and Fingerpop”), Mr. Ball demonstrated affection and respect for the True Blood family. “This won’t be a technical commentary, but I can talk about story, and gossip about the characters and the characters that play the characters.” Here are some excerpts of his spontaneous riffing, which were both deeply insightful and delightfully snarky (from my feverish notes scribbled in the darkened theatre):

Title Sequence (Digital Kitchen, Seattle) – “I didn’t want actors’ faces paraded in front of me.” He described trying to evoke “a sense of tension” of “getting drunk and doing something with someone you wouldn’t normally do” and the craziness of the Bible Belt. That tension between the religious/spiritual and our primal natures. “Both represent a longing for a transcendent experience.” As for those critters and nature shots, Mr. Ball suggests that here, “the supernatural is a deeper manifestation of Nature, and that humans have lost the ability to receive.”

Anna Paquin (Sookie Stackhouse) (with Bill and Jessica; kissing Sam; at the Dallas hotel) – “Anna came up to me later and said ‘Thank you! I’ve never been this happy!’ Anna also said ‘I love how you’ve taken this sweet, innocent girl and in the course of 12 episodes turned her into a murdering whore!’ and I said ‘You’re welcome!’ Sookie has a moment of weakness when she makes out with Sam, and some people sent emails saying ‘SLUT! – we want her to make out with Eric!’”

Stephen Moyer (Bill Compton) – “Stephen is very funny in real life” and Alexander Skarsgard (Eric Northman) – “I think something opened up when we got rid of that wig.”
Bill and Eric at the hotel bar – “The subtext of this scene is:
‘I’m really handsome.’
‘No, I’m really handsome.’
‘I am Nordic perfection.’
‘I am more handsome of vampires – go f#$% yourself!’”

Ryan Kwanten (Jason Stackhouse) (Jason walks in for some “good-natured hazing by some Christian boys”; at lunch with the Fellowship boys; shooting vamp targets from the jeep) – “He’s really an amazing actor, you don’t see it. Nothing is extraneous; everything he does tells you something going on. He doesn’t have that kind of vanity [to worry about playing a dim character]. He’s not a great shot, everything was done in post-production.”

Sam Trammell (Sam Merlotte) (with Ashley Jones (Daphne) – “I love Sam Trammell, he is so expressive and subtle. I know there is a lot of Team Bill/Team Eric, but I’m on Team Sam. He’s mostly human and he’s not going to bite you. This cement pond is on the back lot of Warners lot, with heated water. We do a lot with sound design, trying to give the illusion of the South, with bugs and humidity – 1000 ft away is an interstate highway. He’s wearing flesh colored diving pants.”

Nelsan Ellis (Lafayette)(scene when Eric visits Lafayette and his leg is restored) – “He channels genius. I’m not a fan of actors, who improvise, but in the pilot, he went off and I said ‘Let him go.’ He goes to some other dimension. The script says ‘and he starts to dance’ – it was all Nelsan.”

Rutina Wesley (Tara Thornton) (sitting w/Sookie on the couch; birthday party scene; love scene with Eggs) – “It is a challenge to keep Tara and Sookie’s friendship alive, but they have a bond because they are both sort of outcasts, freaks, ever since they were young. Rutina is a fantastic dancer; she was in “How She Move.” She had never done a sex scene.”

Mehcad Brooks (Eggs) (various; Tara and Eggs making love) – “He seems like the perfect guy. It’s ridiculous how sexy the two of them are – lots of screen captures on the web! It’s rare to see an African-American couple making love on TV. I’m sort of proud of that.”

Deborah Ann Woll (Jessica Hamby) (Bill and Sookie walk in on Jessica and Hoyt making out; Bill and Sookie sit on the stairs and talk; Bill teaches Jessica how to glamour the guy in the hotel) – “She was so sick this day. Everyone lisps with fangs the first time. We yell ‘reset’ and they go get fangs. This is a sweet little dynamic, Bill and Sookie are defacto step-parents, he is Jessica’s sire and she is his progeny. Bill is the angry father and Sookie the stepmom with sense. This is the vampire version of the ‘you kids have it so good’ speech. Bill the Dad teaching daughter to hunt and kill, such a sweet little moment.”

Michelle Forbes (Maryann Forrester) (various scenes) – “The divine Maryann Forrester. Someone said she’s like Alexis from Dynasty, and I said ‘exactly!’ She looks like that 70’s commercial, ‘it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.’ She started out as a dancer, such grace. I love her, she’s so committed.”

Carrie Preston (Arlene Fowler) – “I skew towards Juilliard people. She’s wearing Gwyneth Paltrow’s wig from Ironman, so she never gets recognized.”

Todd Lowe (Terry Bellefleur) – Lowe is from Texas. “I try to give Terry [someone with PTSD] dignity.”

Adina Porter (Lettie Mae Thornton) – “I adore Adina. She plays one of the Top 10 Worst Mothers, so narcissistic, yet she does not judge the character. Some people have a hard time playing someone unlikable [but not her].”

Michael McMillian (Rev. Steve Newlin) – “Genius.”

Anna Camp (Sarah Newlin) (cooking burgers for Jason and Steve; visiting Jason in her “virginal sex outfit”) – “She was just on Broadway with Daniel Radcliffe in Equus. She was the runner up for Sookie, so I knew she’d do a great job as Sarah. In this scene, she’s got sort of a porno mouth! She loves playing this hypocritical character. Something tells me the Newlin’s sex life is not exactly satisfying.”

Jim Parrack (Hoyt Fortenberry) – “I don’t want to make fun of Christians – Hoyt exemplifies love, acceptance, forgiveness – ‘what Jesus said’ – all the others – nut cases!”

William Sanderson (Sheriff Bud Dearborne) – “Great actor, from the old Bob Newhart Show.”

Chris Bauer (Detective Andy Bellefleur) – “He’s also great in The Wire. When Charlaine met Chris, she said ‘you look exactly the way I pictured you.’ Andy is so insecure, he’s basically a terrible cop, but he ends up being right.”

Music, Props & Extras

Song, Shake & Finger Pop – Jr. Walker song, Keith Strickland of B52’s – “I worship at the shrine of B52’s.”
“Dig” – “We wanted to use Tone-Loc’s “Wild Thing” but it was too expensive, so I wrote this song.” Mr. Ball sings his rendition of Dig at the end credits.

Vamp coffins – snowboard things you put on top of cars.
Extras in the party scene were cast according to their dance talents, if they looked like they might be from a place like Bon Temps, and comfort with taking off their shirts.
The woman at the party scene writhing and eating mud is actually in chocolate graham cracker crumbs.
“I knew I wanted to avoid three things, (1) opera, (2) techno blue-light instrumentals, (3) contact lens & prosthetics.” “Give them fangs and let them act!”

The Q & A was brief, moderated by Brendan Fitzgerald of the weekly newspaper, C’ville:

On how to become a screenwriter:
“I worked as a playwright in NY, in a small theater company. I asked my agent for good screenplays and I studied ones I admired. I wanted to teach myself. Discover what works for you, discover the inner voice. Don’t take experts’ advice as gospel. Take it; work it, if it feels right. For me, it was Do It Yourself. It has to be an organic story I really want to tell. When I did Six Feet Under, I had never run a show; when I did the pilot of True Blood, I had never directed.” [Note: Later at the American Beauty Q & A, Mr. Ball expressed his absolute conviction that a writer must be emotionally connected to the story and not chase trends or produce a copycat story for the marketplace].

(I asked) how much came from the books, and what was dreamed up at the writers’ table:
Mr. Ball remarked that while they have the rights, and thus can take liberties, he tries to keep to the spirit of the books and most of the characters and vamp/non-human mythology comes from Charlaine. For an example of something they changed, he brought up Eric staking Longshadow so that they could explore the idea of vampire justice, get Bill out of the way, and get Sookie back to Bon Temps. The bleeding from the ears came up at the writers table, to show the physical effect of staying awake. Regarding Godric and multiple storylines, Mr. Ball said in juggling characters, “it’s often difficult to have everything be clean, symmetrical. It’s sometimes messy, but I want to embrace that.”

On the Maryann storyline going on too long:
“In Season 3, we’re trying not to have the whole season be one arc, instead, there will be 3-4 stories reaching climax at varying points, still connected, but a slightly different approach.”

Brendan Fitzgerald and Alan Ball

Brendan Fitzgerald and Alan Ball


Mr. Ball was clearly having fun with the audience when he professed what might happen in Season 3. “I will be happy to tell you everything, but I’ll be lying through my teeth!”

• Cell phone in Dallas plays a part in Season 3
• There will be werewolves
• We’ll meet Alcide
• We’ll meet Russell Edgington –played by the great Denis O’Hare – “he’s older than in the books, but I don’t care”
• Someone dies – “someone we’ve seen before, not a guest star, seen a lot of, they will bite the dust”
• We’ll meet Franklin Mott
• Sam will meet his biological family
• Bill and Eric are gonna sleep together
• Lafayette gets a boyfriend – “he doesn’t know a lot about him but finds out fast”
• Jessica and Hoyt – other competing love interests
• Pam – a new dancer will arrive that both Eric and Pam will be fond of – Czech human
• Tornado destroys the town
• Vamp convention in Las Vegas
• Eric will be naked the entire season! [Hoots from audience] • In Episode 3, 4, 11 the entire cast will be naked, in every other episode, they’ll be dressed in heavy wool
• Sookie buys a strip bar with Bill, Eric, Lafayette and Sookie as the star attractions
• Angry fairy witches shut it down and cast a spell and everyone goes to sleep for 100 years

Someone brought up the “God Hates Fangs” marquee and asked what it represented to him. Mr. Ball said it obviously could stand for the gay/lesbian struggle for equal rights, or the struggle of African-Americans 50 years ago, or that of women 100 years ago, or any immigrants’ struggle. And, as he noted earlier, “all the characters are orphans in a sense.” But he prefers that the social commentary be used as texture, not as a central theme. “If it’s too big a deal, it falls apart.” The simple truth in the world of True Blood is that it’s hard to be different. “It’s difficult, but then you have Superpowers!”

© The Vault –

Written by Shadaliza

Shadaliza loves the Internet, film and TV shows, writing, running websites and charity fundraising; she has found the perfect combo in the fansites to express her creativity and passion. Shadaliza is Dutch, but has lived in Italy for many years and works as Marketing Executive for an Internet hosting company.