The line wrapped around the hall at Comic-Con International in San Diego with throngs of fans hoping to get a glimpse at the enthusiastically anticipated new HBO vampire series, “True Blood.” From Alan Ball, creator of the Emmy-winning series “Six Feet Under,” and based on the popular books by Charlaine Harris, the duo didn’t disappoint the crowd with their presentation of a plethora of clips and details on the upcoming new series.
Panelists also included a large portion of the cast of the show, including Anna Paquin playing Sookie Stackhouse, Stephen Moyer as Bill Compton, Ryan Kwanten portraying Jason Stackhouse, Rutina Wesley as Tara Thorton, Sam Trammell playing Sam Merlotte, and finally Nelsan Ellis in the role of Lafayette Reynolds.
Alan Ball presented a run of clips introducing many of the first-season themes. Demonstrating a civil rights movement for vampire rights by use of the real world Bill Maher’s “Real Time” show and fictional politicians, the tension between advocates and opponents of vampire equality was presented in a series of clips on that theme.
Bringing the conflict down to ground level, the debate is picked up by ordinary people in a bar debating the impact of the revelation that vampires and the supernatural are real and becoming a part of everyday society.
That same small town bar becomes one of the primary focuses for the show’s drama. Anna Paquin, playing the show’s female lead as Sookie Stackhouse, a human with the unusual supernatural ability of telepathy, faces her first vampire in the form of Bill Compton, portrayed by Stephen Moyer. The two begin to flirt, and the theme of relationships and sexuality between humans and vampires is introduced.
Moyer’s character is seen taking Sookie Stackhouse to a vampire bar named Fantasia, where the marketing of products and services specifically to a vampire population, and the conflict between those vampires who do not want to “moderate their behavior now that they are out in the open”, and those who do, is briefly played out for the audience.
Ball and Harris then took the audience through the process of coming up with the television series based on the books, and those themes presented in the clips. Ball said that the inspiration for the television show came “about half way through book number three. I thought, you know this would make a really good show. At first I considered a movie, but in order to condense it into two hours wouldn’t do justice, so asked Charlaine do you see this as a movie or a television series and she said I see this as a series for HBO.”
Harris, who is on book number nine now in the “Southern Vampire” series, said, “Several had approached me about working with the material [in film], and I read one movie treatment and…it was very werewolf in London, which I really couldn’t get into…Alan understood the agenda of the books…and I just felt very comfortable trusting my babies to him.”
Ball agreed. “I feel a real responsibility to remain true to the books, and in places… to the spirit of the books.”
Asked later how close Harris felt the show was to her books, Harris said, “Of course my version is going to be different than Alan’s. He’s got different demands. I have the luxury of sitting around and establishing the world myself and I can tell everything from the first person point of view, which is not something that can be done on television. The books are different, they have a different tone but similar.”
On the impact of fan input to changes in the show, Ball said, “I feel a responsibility to be true to the books. And when not, then to the spirit. I’m going to try very hard to be true to Charlaine’s vision. But ultimately I have found in my career I do best when I write what I would respond to, not what I think others would respond to.”
On the difficulty in serializing the books for television, and the need for catching missing episodes, Ball said, “Each chapter would end with a cliffhanger [in the book] and I wanted to keep that. A lot happens every episode, but I’m assuming you will be able to download episodes on the HBO website, download on demand, and you can definitely Tivo it.”
Speaking to the theme of the supernatural found in both the books and the television show, and the difficulty in adapting those concepts to television, Ball said “We’re a television show, not a movie. We have to shoot an episode every ten days. One of the things I love about Charlaine’s books is that the supernatural is very off-hand, deeper, more primal. We humans with our way of seeing things have lost our perception [to the supernatural].”
Speaking to the broader aspects of the supernatural, Paquin then described how her character deals with the supernatural power of telepathy. “You do see in the second episode of the series flashbacks to bad dates that she has gone on where unfortunately you can hear exactly what her companion is thinking and it sort of devolves into why she doesn’t have a social life so to speak. She works in a bar so imagine how many people’s incredibly annoying internal dialog she has to hear or block out…and then with her friends she sort of faces the unethical question.”
|Author Charlaine Harris at Comic-Con International 2008|
Harris had her own views on the Sookie character she wrote. “She has sort of this naughty cheerleader thing going on for her. She enjoys being young, she enjoys being pretty, she knows she is sexy, and it’s constantly frustrating that she knows she can’t do anything about it…she enjoys being who she is, she enjoys being a woman, she wants to have a relationship she’s just got to find a guy she can tolerate.”
Paquin agreed, saying that her character “hasn’t been close enough to anyone to lose her virginity.”
Turning to the subject of that potential relationship, Stephen Moyer spoke of his role as the vampire Bill Compton. “He’s coming back to this town of his ancestors, just to come and live a good life mainstreaming on this synthetic blood. This girl he doesn’t understand why she is different than everyone else, doesn’t understand that she is telepathic, there is just something about her that is different and he is taken over by her otherness and wants to see what she has.”
Ball revealed that the Sookie/Bill relationship theme will serve as “a core, but there are other relationships and cores.”
Will that relationship become sexual in the first season? Ball said, “Yes, I’m not saying how long it’s going to last, but there will be several episodes where you’re thinking are they going to do it?”
Responding to the greater question of human/vampire sexual relations and the violence found in some scenes in Harris’s books, Ball said “Yes, their sexuality and thirst for blood kind of intertwines. In the world that Charlaine has created vampires are now part of culture… exotic, to some sexy creatures…and there are many who really want to hook up with vampires, they’re called Fangbangers. As Charlene made clear in her books, sex with vampires is really kind of great.”
“If you survive,” Harris cut in.
Ball expanded on the concept. “You can imagine if you’ve had hundreds of years to perfect your technique and are attractive. You’d be quite a catch.”
Ball then mentioned the sexually violent scenes found in the books, saying, “We see a little bit more of that than in the TV show, we also see a lot of very romantic sex. When you have sex with a vampire it doesn’t have to be violent, it depends on the vampire.”
|Actor Sam Trammell at Comic-Con International 2008|
Sam Trammell hinted at his role as the human Sam Merlotte and his characters view of vampires, saying, “Sam really doesn’t like vampires, sort of has knowledge of vampires that others in town really don’t have.”
Asked further about that hint, and whether Trammell’s character has supernatural powers like the Sookie Stackhouse character, Harris said, “Yes you see that in the first season. It’s something entirely different [than Sookie’s power].”
Ryan Kwanten spoke briefly of his role of Sookie’s brother Jason Stackhouse. “He loves to be Jason. His love for women takes him to that dark side. He enjoys that dark side. Yes, there’s redeeming qualities, but you would have to look really hard [to see them].”
Rutina Wesley spoke of the driving motivation behind her character Tara Thorton, “She’s just a girl, um, who, I don’t think anything is wrong with her, but her life has been hard. She can’t get over her past, she can’t let go of it.”
Nelsan Ellis was fairly forthcoming on the darker aspects of the character he portrays, Lafayette Reynolds. “He sells [illegal] vampire blood. He has a gay porn web site, and he escorts. So he’s an entrepreneur, is his thing,” he said, to rousing laughter from the audience.
Mentioning that illegal sale of vampire blood, Ball said, “Vampire blood is a powerful drug. You never know what it is, it depends on who you are, what vampire it came from, how it reacts with your physiology.”
The planned portion of the presentation completed, the panel accepted questions from audience members, starting with Ball’s work on the “Six Feet Under” television show and it’s relationship with this show as far as rooting things in reality. “We are not winking at the cameras, we all take this show very seriously. It’s a show about relationships, and I think it’s actually going to be a lot closer to that aspect of ‘Six Feet Under’ than people expect.”
On the “Six Feet Under” themes that spoke so closely to the gay community, Ball spoke at length on such concepts. “Well it’s very easy to look at the metaphor of vampires trying to assimilate into the world, but I think it’s a metaphor for any people’s trying to assimilate. We have gay characters, both human and vampire. I don’t think this show will speak as closely to the gay community as ‘Six Feet Under,’ but it will speak to that issue.”
Talent was also borrowed from that prior show, and Ball explained that “Two of the writers are from ‘Six Feet Under,’ Daniel Minahan directed one episode. But I’d say there’s more fresh blood than old blood.”
Closing out his comments about “Six Feet Under”, Ball said, “I’ve had more fun working on [‘True Blood’] than I’ve had working on anything else in my career.”
On future characters taken from Harris’s book, Ball and Harris were asked about the character’s Quinn and Bubba, and the prospect for casting the Quinn character. Ball said ” I don’t think that way, I don’t think of who would be ideal to cast.”
Harris explained that “Quinn is a weretiger. He shaves his head, is big and buff. My personal homage to Vin Diesel.”
As for Bubba, Ball said, “It’s hard for me to answer that question because I don’t want to give that away.”
Concerning the complex pre-release marketing for the show and extensive viral marketing on the web, Ball said, “Part of the marketing for the show has been to sort of create the reality of the world. So there is a lot online. I don’t know if you noticed it but there are posters of Tru Blood the synthetic blood. In fact, Tru Blood is an official sponsor here at comic con. You can got to lovebitten.net which is a human vampire introduction service. There’s also a blog called Blood Copy which sort of traces the evolution of the vampires making their presence known to the world. It’s very clever. I was kind of floored how good they are. [It was all] done by the people who did Blaire Witch Project. We review it and give them notes and I think they’ve done a really terrific job.”
The panel laughed over the fact that the viral marketing was so realistic that HBO had received emails from people seeking to become distributors for the Tru Blood drink. When asked by an audience member if there were plans for a real drink, Ball joked, “Yes it’s going to be a combination of V8, Valium, Vicodin, and Viagra. Unfortunately you’ll have to go to your pharmacist to prescribe it.”
The boundaries of the first season, where things start and stop, was a topic of concern for some audience questioners. Ball explained that they have “Three more days of shooting in Shreveport, and then we will be wrapped. Basically what we do is we tell the story of the first book in the first season, the identity of the person who is doing the terrible things is revealed in the first season, and then we lay some groundwork for the next season as well. Eric is introduced in the first season, and we do find out he is Sheriff of area five.”
Speaking to the fact that the books start pre-Katrina hurricane, and eventually take place after that disaster, Ball said, “We just start the show post-Katrina. There’s a mention of Katrina in the pilot. I just felt like there would be no way for us to recreate [Katrina] and I don’t know what would be gained by doing it. When we hit book five we’ll figure out a way to address that.”
Hinting at the second season and the prevalence of the supernatural, Ball said, “The Meanaid appears in the second season…definitely werewolves exist in the world. I believe Sookie becomes aware of their existence in book two. They will definitely make an appearance, as will all the supernatural things in the book.”
Returning finally to the cast of the show, each actor was asked if he or she found similarities to themselves in their characters, or anything different that they wanted to conquer when taking on the role.
Paquin said of her Sookie character, “I love how tough Sookie is. I love how good she is, and her core value system. And she is curious and interested in what else is out there. And I just think that is beautiful combination. And I like being blonde!”
Moyer appreciated some of the darker aspects of his character Bill Compton, saying, “What I loved about Bill is that there is a slight melancholy edge to him, and one thing we talked about is there is no need for extraneous movement. He doesn’t have a heart beat. He has no ticks, no little movements that we all have as humans. He’s still. And for me, that was something to latch on to.”
Kwanten saw differences between himself and his character Jason, saying, “Jason sort of wears his heart on his sleeve, he sort of acts before he thinks. That’s different from me, I’m sort of more analytical.”
Wesley identified with her character Tara Thorton, explaining, “There’s just something about Tara that for me that I can’t just explain but it sort of fits in my heart. I understand her, I had my moments in childhood. I just sort of get, she has so many different levels and nuances to her.”
Sam Trammell laughed about his character Sam Merlotte, stating, “I was drawn to my characters name which is the same first name. I’m actually from Louisiana and it happened in this area I was born in. The thing I like about Sam, he’s very protective of his waitresses and everyone in his apartment building and he has to keep his whole person a secret so there is this whole thing that I have to keep a secret and yet bring people into my place.”
Nelsan Ellis grinned about his character Lafayette Reynolds, saying, “I think it was a potential to show some new colors in this dude. He can be feminine one minute and masculine in the next and dangerous he has no definable boundaries, he just moves where he wants to move.”
On the topic of whether any of the cast have read the books, or read ahead for their character, Paquin said, “I’ve read some, not all of them, but I think as far as reading ahead in what free time we have I think it’s helpful. So that you can be playing things or adding things to your character that maybe the audience won’t know for four seasons.”
Ball didn’t mind the cast reading ahead, and mentioned that he is “Actually respectful of every actor’s process. I don’t mind if they read ahead, or if they choose not to.”
The panel closed with a loud round of applause, and announcement that a “True Blood” gift bag would be handed out in the fulfillment room.
Now discuss this story in CBR’s TV/Film forum.