Written by Shadaliza for The Vault
Raelle Tucker is one of the writers in Alan Ball’s creative team. Last season she wrote the script for the episodes “Cold Ground” and “You’ll Be the Death of Me”, in season 2 she is the creative force behind last week’s episode “Scratches” and “Release Me”.
I asked her how she became a Hollywood script writer, her creative writing process and how much creative freedom she has with a show that is based on books. Raelle spent time in many different places in this world and now I understand the Ibiza reference in the scene where Maryann rolls the “cigarette”. She seems like the kind of gal you would want to have with you on a night on the town or to have your back in a bar fight.
I started my round of questions with the storylines of Jason and Tara. Some fans find these characters and theirs storylines the less interesting, personally I am fascinated with the psychology of these two lost souls who are looking for love and acceptance.
Jason is quickly becoming a very interesting character in season 2. But why does he hate vampires so much? No vampire has ever done him harm, humans have caused him pain. Or doesn’t he really hate them and is he just lost and an easy target for manipulation?
Jason’s scared and alone and he has lost virtually everyone he’s ever loved. He’s desperate to find some kind of explanation – some way to make sense of that. It’s one of the biggest reasons people turn to religion, isn’t it? To answer that question: why do bad things happen? Where do we go when we die? Jason’s struggling with these things, and the Fellowship takes advantage of that… gives him their answers. Sure, they aren’t the right answers, but it’s a way to organize the horrible shit that happened in his head. The Fellowship gives him a focus, a place to direct his pain and anger. But ultimately, Jason isn’t malicious or violent. He may be wielding some weapons this season, but in the end he’s a lover not a fighter.
Tara has been through some huge changes and she is really showing her softer side and maybe she is getting too soft for her own good. She is suspicious of Maryann, but why doesn’t she hear all kinds of alarm bells ringing?
I think she’s been hearing the bells loud and clear. She’s told Sookie it seems too good to be true. She’s questioned Eggs at every turn. But what Maryann’s offering is unbelievably seductive to Tara. I mean, imagine someone bailed you out of jail, took you home when you had nowhere to go… gave you this incredible place to stay with this hunky guy to hang out with. And a sense of family – of parenting you never had growing up in your abusive dirt-poor childhood. Sure, you’d know better than to believe there won’t be a price to pay at some point… but what’s the alternative? Walk away from all that… even though Maryann has done nothing to Tara (in Tara’s eyes) but care for her and support her? I think Tara’s keeping her eyes open… but she also desperately wants Maryann and Eggs to be the real deal. She’s ready to open herself up to people… unfortunately, like Jason, she’s trusting the wrong ones.
Continue reading after the break
Raelle, do you come from a creative family?
“Creative” is probably an understatement. Among other things, my mother was a designer – she made leather fringed, beaded “wearable art”. Including some famous jackets for Jimi Hendrix. My father was a playwright and “self massage” guru (don’t ask what that means, you don’t want to know). I was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. But I grew up traveling – we lived in London, Greece, Mexico and a hippie commune in Los Angeles, before we finally settled in Ibiza, Spain. If you never caught “Wild on E” Ibiza is a tiny Mediterranean island best known for its giant nightclubs, foam parties and topless beaches. I lived there until I was seventeen. It was an amazing and weird place to grow up. Kind of like one of Maryann’s parties 24 hours a day.
How did you become a professional script writer? Were you a story writer as a child?
I always knew I wanted to write. I also wanted to sing, dance, act and be a trapeze artist in the circus. But writing was the only thing I was ever any good at. I started writing, directing and producing plays when I was twelve. I opened a little theatre company in Ibiza with all my hippie kid friends and we’d put on these really elaborate preachy plays about God and drug addiction and AIDS. Things I knew nothing about of course. With dance numbers that I choreographed… badly. We’d sell out the local theatre ‘cause all our parents would come – and there really wasn’t any competition on this tiny island. So it was easy to become a local celebrity. Which was hugely empowering for me – to have an audience that cared enough to sit through my terrible 3 hour performances and tell me I was awesome. By the time I was seventeen I was convinced I must be a genius, and I was going to take Hollywood by storm. So I dropped out of high school and moved to Los Angeles… where I quickly realized that not only was I not a genius, but I was actually pretty awful. Luckily I was young enough and determined enough to keep working at it until I got to be somewhat decent… which took over a decade.
When was the first time that you “got paid for it”? What was the experience like and what was its title?
The first time I got paid was for a play I co-wrote “Will Strip for Food”. It was an autobiographical piece based on my (and 4 other actress/writers) experiences working as exotic dancers. It did really well when it premiered in LA – which is practically a miracle since most Angelinos would rather go get a root canal than see small LA theatre… maybe it had something to do with the cast of naked girls. But anyway, some producers from Dublin heard about the show and brought us all to Ireland to do an eight week run. They put us up in these amazing apartments overlooking the whole city, and paid us like 1000 a week – which to a little hippie girl, seemed like a fortune to do theatre. I’m not sure the Irish were quite ready for our pro-sex feminist manifesto with its “meaningful” striptease numbers (choreographed badly by me). But the experience was incredible. Getting to travel, and perform in a play that I wrote about my life was a pretty powerful thing at 24.
How long did it take before you could make a living out of writing? What other jobs did you do to support yourself?
I was in Los Angeles 11 years before I got my first TV writing job – on a great show that no one’s heard of called “Eyes” – which ABC canceled after four episodes. Before that there were all the typical jobs a high school drop-out in their 20’s can get: I was a waitress, worked in retail, and as I mentioned a minute ago – became a stripper. Which was actually a great gig for me. The hours were fantastic – I basically made my own. My days were free to write. It was good exercise. I grew up in Europe, so dancing around topless just didn’t seem like a big deal. It gave me a great deal of independence and taught me a lot about myself. Of course the experience was a lot more complex than that… but I wrote a whole play about that, so I’ve already said everything I ever need to say about it.
About True Blood. From idea to treatment to script – what is your writing process like?
After figuring out the general beats of the story in the room with Alan and the other writers, we usually get about two weeks to write a first draft. I spend those weeks locked in my office at home, in my bathrobe, repeating the mantra: “You don’t suck you don’t suck you don’t suck”. You’d think after all these years – after all the scripts I’ve written that it would get easier. It doesn’t. I still agonize over every word. I still stare at the same sentence for hours. I still have to trick myself into writing with fatty foods and cigarettes. And I’m still certain, every time, that this will be the time I won’t be able to finish it, and everyone will realize I’m a total fraud. But by the end of the two weeks there’s always a script. And usually it doesn’t suck as badly as I thought it would.
During the initial writing process, I read the sections in Charlaine’s books that apply to the story I’m working on over and over. I try to use as much of her original detail as I can.
Are you granted some leeway with their storylines or has the entire season been hashed out in a meeting preproduction with the creative team and Alan Ball?
Well, ultimately Alan is the showrunner, so if the 5 writers on his staff can’t come to an agreement on a story point, then Alan makes the final decision. But that rarely happens. For the most part we all get along great, and it’s a pretty even collaboration. All of the writers on staff have a voice in terms of structuring the season, character arcs, creating creatures, etc. Alan’s really incredible at that: at making sure everyone gets heard… at encouraging us to bring ourselves and our life experience to the table. He’s open to discussing and debating anything. If someone thinks they have a better way of doing something he wants to hear it. I think Alan’s confident in his own abilities as a writer: he doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone. So he’s not afraid to be wrong, or to empower his staff.
In terms of leeway, Alan puts a lot of trust in us: if a story idea isn’t working out while I’m writing the script, and I have a better solution, I let Alan know the changes I want to make. So far he’s always let me run with it. Some of my favorite scenes in my episodes were not things we discussed in the writers room: the scene with Lafayette and Tara about “bad juju” jello in “Cold Ground”, and a scene in “Release Me” with Arlene making a bizarre confession in the ladies room, were both just wacky moments I threw in at the last minute. Neither of those moments would have happened if Alan didn’t give me the freedom to play the way he does.
Which True Blood character is your favorite to write for?
That’s like asking which of your 18 (or whatever) kids you love the most. I love them all equally for totally different reasons. I never approach a script with: “Yay, I get to write Tara!” It’s more like: “What are the scenes that make me want to cry?” And those scenes are usually what inspire the rest of the episode. The most difficult thing for me to write is the humor. It’s one of my favorite things about the show, but it doesn’t come naturally for me. I really have to work at those moments. As a writer I’m just not that funny. As a person I think I’m fucking hysterical.
Alan Ball: Evil Genius or Mad Man?
Neither. I don’t think the man has an evil bone in his body and he’s shockingly sane. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t repress his dark, twisted thoughts – he shares them with millions of people. Maybe it’s ‘cause he loves what he does more than pretty much anyone I know. But he also realizes he’s not curing cancer or saving the planet. He doesn’t take it too seriously. He shows up every day, gives it his best – which is typically pretty great – then goes home at 6pm and has a personal life. If he weren’t one of the loveliest human beings I’ve ever met I would hate him.
Sometimes it almost feels like cheating – because Charlaine’s novels are so cinematic, a lot can be translated to screen, which is tremendously helpful. Whenever I can slip in a line of her dialogue or a shout out to the fans of the books I do. Because I started as a fan of the books too – I devoured the first 6 before ever meeting Alan – so I’m as attached as any fan would be to preserving the essence of Charlaine’s vision.
At the same time – this is Alan’s adaptation. The novels already exist, and they will be there for fans forever. True Blood is a television show for HBO – ideally it needs to speak to the HBO audience as well as the fans of the books. And if my job as a writer was just to adapt every line Charlaine wrote, without being able to bring any of myself to the work, I would be bored to death. That would be a waste of my abilities, and Alan’s unique vision, and the incredible cast of actors who all bring something new to the characters Charlaine created.
How much creative freedom do you have with a show that is based on books?
We have more creative freedom on this show than I ever thought was possible on TV. Alan’s at peace with making changes from the books if he feels they enhance the characters/story. No idea is too wacky. No story line is too weird. If my pitch starts with: “I know we can probably never do this but…” Alan usually finds a way to get it done. Right when I think we’ve gone too far, Alan or one of the other writers takes it even farther. There are a lot of moments this season that make me squirm, blush, cover my eyes, or go: what the fuck?! I think we’re really pushing the envelope this year. Love it or hate it, it feels totally unique. Unlike anything I’ve ever seen on television. And I’m so proud of that.
True Blood is set in Louisiana, how good is your knowledge of the South? Did you go visit?
My mother’s from Tennessee, but I’m ashamed to say I’ve spent very little time in the South. We only film a handful of scenes there every season, and so far they haven’t been scenes from my episodes. Even though production always seems to end up there in the middle of summer and all I hear from the crew is how unbearably hot and humid it is, I’m dying to go. Maybe next season I’ll write a whole episode that takes place in the middle of the town’s square in Bon Temps, or some other place they can’t possibly fake with Los Angeles, then they’ll have no choice but to take me along.
How is your relationship with the cast?
I hate them all. Bitches, all of ‘em. Kidding, of course. They are all lovely. And I don’t even have to lie about that. Not a diva in the bunch, which is sadly incredibly rare (or so they tell me) on a successful show. Every few weeks we have a table read – where the whole cast gets together to read the episode that’s about to be produced. That’s one of my favorite days on the job, because the cast is so enormous that we almost never see them all at once. And the energy of having that many talented… and let’s just say it: ridiculously gorgeous people in one room is an awesome thing. After the readings no one ever wants to leave – we’re all so excited to see each other and catch up and just to be a part of this show… they really are one giant, twisted, sickeningly pretty family.
You wrote the episodes “Cold Ground”, “You’ll Be the Death of Me”, “Scratches” and “Release Me” – What did you have to cut out that you wanted to keep in?
Nothing. At least nothing that I miss enough to remember. Wow, I feel so lucky being able to say that. When I care about something I fight for it pretty hard. It’s gotten me into trouble in other situations. But Alan seems to recognize it for what it is: I’m just ridiculously passionate and invested in what I do. It’s a huge gift to work for someone who encourages me to stand up for my work, to take ownership and responsibility for what I do, even if it’s not “my show” per se. So, I’ve been lucky enough not to have to cut anything that mattered to me.
You have worked on two of the most successful shows on TV… Supernatural and True Blood, which one is your favorite and why?
There’s no comparison. I think Supernatural is a really fun show. I learned a lot working on it… and I would not be the writer I am today if I hadn’t had that experience. But there wasn’t room for me to tell the kinds of stories I wanted to on that show. I think my sensibility was way too dark, twisted and girly for Supernatural. For the two years I worked there I felt like my showrunner and I were communicating like people on a first date… who didn’t speak the same language. It was just awkward… not a good fit. And there was personal-death-in-the-family shit going on in my life… and I was splitting up with my writing partner of 9 years, which was basically like getting a divorce… so overall, not good times.
Coming to True Blood kind of saved my life. Or at least my career. I loved everything about it: the world, the characters, Alan, the other writers… it was just everything I’d ever dreamed a television show could be and more. I love my job every day. I am thrilled to show up every day. Even when I’m writing, and it’s hard, and I think I’m terrible, at least I’m writing for a show I’m a fan of, that I could not be more fucking proud to be a part of. I’m fully aware that these are the best years of my life, and I am enjoying the hell out of them.
You have to shift hats with True Blood from Producer to Writer – can you tell us a little bit about what your day is like on/off set?
It doesn’t feel like “shifting hats”. Maybe that’s because I come from directing and producing theatre. But producing TV just feels like a natural progression from writing. Basically my job is to babysit my episode through every step until it’s finished. Alan can’t be everywhere at once. So the idea is that since I’ve been a part of figuring out the whole season, and I’ve written the episode, I should know better than anyone what details are important – what to focus on, what we need to set up future episodes, and all that. So I sit in with the guest director in casting… in art department, wardrobe, hair and makeup, special effect meetings, etc. I’m on set while my episode is shooting. I collaborate with the director to make sure we have the performances and nuances that we need. In post production I help select the music, weigh in on the CGI effects and score. And Alan and I make the final cut in editing. Every day is different – there’s never a routine… which is yet another thing I love about the job.
What is the best piece of advice/inspiration on writing that you’ve ever received? What advise can you give our readers that are aspiring writers?
It’s nothing you haven’t heard before: write what you know. Write about something that scares you to talk about. Write something so personal that you are the only writer who could ever have written it. If you don’t have something like that to write about then you might consider doing something else for a living. Because there are more than enough “hacks” (for lack of a better word) who have gotten pretty damn good at copying the same formula over and over. And yeah, they might make a great living doing that… but in the end what are they contributing? How will they be remembered? Every time a young writer tells me they have an amazing commercial idea for a romantic comedy, or an awesome summer blockbuster about robots, my shoulders just sag. Look, there’s nothing wrong with a romantic comedy or robots … except that it’s been done a million times and probably done better than you – little wide-eyed newbie – will ever be capable of. What hasn’t been done is YOUR story. Not in the way you will tell it. I don’t care if it’s about sitting behind a desk at a crappy job you hate, or about your annoying aunt, or your secret addiction to Sarah Lee cheesecakes– if it’s something that MATTERS to you, and you feel the drive and urgency to tell that story, those who read it will feel it too.
And in a business this competitive, there’s no room for “another so-and-so” who writes just like “such and such”. Everybody wants the next new thing: the next Alan Ball, Tarantino, Diablo Cody. You can’t be the next new thing, if you don’t have your own voice. So stop writing that spec script of True Blood and write your own pilot…
And one more thing: write every day. For at least two hours. Don’t be lazy. Because even though you might think your first script is genius, odds are it isn’t. It takes a lot of time, and a lot of bad writing to get to something good. Most people who attempt it fail. Not because they aren’t capable, but because they can’t put in the time. Okay, that’s it… stepping down off my soap box now.
What do you do when you are procrastinating or have writer’s block?
I give myself the speech I just gave you. Then I bribe myself with things like pecan pie or spicy pasta. Then I go on the message boards and try and find something nice someone’s said about me – which usually backfires horribly. Then I cry. Finally I just yell at myself to stop being such a fucking baby and get to work! I force myself to sit there for at least two hours even if I don’t write anything. Eventually I’ll start to write out of sheer boredom. Writers block is a terrifying feeling. But I realized recently that I only get blocked when I CAN. If there’s a deadline I always make it. If something HAS to get done, it gets done. So I’m trying not to take it so seriously any more – it’s basically just the little insecure brat in my brain throwing a tantrum.
What else is in the pipeline for you when True Blood wraps in July?
I’m working on a pilot for HBO which Alan and Nancy Oliver are executive producing with me. It’s based on a British show called “Bad Girls” about women in prison. It’s early days – I just started the script a couple weeks ago, so I can’t say too much about it. Other than it’s really hard to write about real people living in the real world after two seasons of vampires, shapeshifters and mud sex! The real world is way scarier.
Will you be back for Season 3 in December?
I certainly hope so! As far as I know, yes.