True Blood: A love that never dies
Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball’s new TV vampire drama, True Blood, proves there’s life in the undead yet. By Gerard Gilbert
AMPIRES. When was the last time anyone felt genuinely afraid of screen vampires? Frankly, it has all been downhill since Max Schreck’s Count Orlok in F W Murnau’s 1922 classic, Nosferatu. As one critic put it: “To watch Nosferatu is to see the vampire movie before it had really seen itself... before it was buried alive in clichés, jokes, TV skits, cartoons and 30 other films.”
Even Werner Herzog, Teutonic heir to Murnau, was unable to add much to the genre in his 1979 film, Nosferatu, Phantom der Nacht.
Then, in the 1980s, Aids – and an attendant fear of blood – provided a fillip to a genre that still proves irresistible to film and TV-makers.
There have been at least three major new North American television dramas this century ( Moonlight, Blood Ties and Angel, the Buffy spin-off), but none has supplied the dread or, indeed, the pity that could raise the subject above its genre roots. There was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon’s witty, even profound take on the subject.
I was intrigued to learn that the Oscar-winning screenwriter Alan
VBall, who has been adapting Charlaine Harris’s best-selling Southern Vampire Mysteries novels with True Blood, had never watched even a single episode of Buffy.
“No, never, or read an Anne Rice book either,” says Ball, the writer of American Beauty and creator of Six Feet Under, the morbidly funny mortician saga. So why has Ball gone from burying the dead in HBO’s Six Feet Under to raising the undead in True Blood?
“I got into Charlaine’s books quite by accident,” he says, “while waiting for a dentist’s appointment, in fact. It was just a little paperback, and on the cover the tag line said, ‘Maybe having a vampire for a boyfriend wasn’t such a good idea’. I thought it was kind of funny.
“I started reading and I couldn’t put it down, and the minute I was done with it, I wanted to read the next one. I was in the middle of the fourth one when I thought they would make a great TV series, so I called HBO. After both American Beauty and Six Feet Under, I think I was just done. Especially after Six Feet Under, five years of staring into the abyss (was) enough.” Ball was, in short, ready to have a ball.
“Frankly, I never expected to do another TV series after Six Feet Under until I came across these books,” he says. “HBO asked ‘What do you think this series is about?’ And I knew they wanted some sort of one-sentence theme and I had nothing, so I just kind of opened my mouth and ‘It’s about the terrors of intimacy’ just came out. And they kind of liked that.”
Set in the deepest Deep South, (Ball is from Georgia), True Blood is also located in a world where vampires have made their presence known to humans (“They’ve come out of the coffin”) because of the development by a Japanese biotech firm of synthetic blood, which the vampires claim fulfils their nutritional needs. Anna Paquin plays Sookie Stackhouse, a human with telepathic powers who has fallen for a 173-year-old vampire, Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer).
“Because technically Bill has no brainwaves, Sookie doesn’t really hear his thoughts,” explains Ball. “So for the first time in her life she can relax and not be on her guard against people’s innermost thoughts.” However, prejudice against vampires is still strong, and Sookie’s family disapproves of her boyfriend. There are plenty of little jokes studded around (one bumper sticker reads “God hates fangs”) and, with Ball himself being gay, I wondered whether he was writing an extended metaphor about the struggle for gay and lesbian rights.
“Obviously, there is a metaphor there. But that’s because of where we are in history now. If it was 50 years ago, it would have been civil rights for African-Americans. If it was 100 years ago, it would have been equal rights for women.
“Certainly, vampires seem to be going through a lot of things that gays are going through.
“To me, though, it’s window dressing, a fun slant on the culture wars. To me, True Blood is a love story, it’s adventure, it’s sexy, it’s scary.”
One of the novel things about True Blood is the notion of “vampire sex”, an energetic form of love-making that can prove fatal.
“There are people who are called ‘fang bangers’ who hook up with vampires because sex with vampires is really good,” says Ball.
“Vampire blood is a kind of hot black-market drug – a combination of ecstasy and Viagra.”
Ball says he worked hard to keep the more baroque kind of cliché at bay. “No opera music. And no stupid contact lenses.”
The sort of trailer-park environment that the show takes place in also helps in avoiding a lot of those clichés, he adds. “But you can’t avoid them altogether – they still have fangs and they still bite people. We actually made a big point of designing the vampire fangs so that there is a physiological basis for them. They are very similar to rattlesnake fangs and they lay flat along the roof of the mouth until the vampire is hungry or aroused.”
The centre of the show is the romance between Sookie and her boyfriend, who happens to be a century and a half older than her. “I wanted to explore what it means to be in a relationship that entails being fed upon,” says Ball.
There’s no disguising the very real chemistry that exists between Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer, who have been an item since they started filming. “Anna pursued this role aggressively,” says Ball. “She even went blonde for it.
“Bill was harder to cast. Most people, you give them fangs and they go mad – mimicking things they’ve seen already. The thing about Bill I wanted to capture is that he’s a traditional tragic romantic hero, not unlike Mr Darcy.”
True Blood has been a hit in the US, drawing more viewers than the cultish Six Feet Under. Is it attracting a different sort of viewer? “I think it will attract a lot of the same audience, but there are definitely people who might not respond to Six Feet Under.
“Our fans are a mix of very young people, of course, but also some goth people, and a lot of middle-aged women. Actually, when HBO tested the pilot, they said to me this is the highest-testing pilot since The Sopranos. Basically, women love the romance and men love the sex and violence.” – The Independent
● True Blood season 2 , is on M-Net, Tuesday, at 9.30pm.