More than he can chew
After five seasons of sex and vampires on 'True Blood', head writer Alan Ball is stepping aside
Alan Ball walked into a bar, leading a contingent of foreign journalists.
"When's happy hour?" asked one journo as he perched on a barstool.
"Is there any Tru Blood?" wondered another, asking for the beverage favoured by vampires on the HBO series of the same name.
Ball, taking his place behind the bar, peered into the cooler. "No, there's just beer."
And the beer was warm, because, after all, it wasn't a real bar.
It was perhaps the last time Ball, as head writer, would be taking a spin around the set of Merlotte's Bar and Grill, a popular local hangout for the characters on "True Blood".
After five seasons, Ball is relinquishing his role as show-runner.
He appeared wistful as he guided reporters around the building inside a building at The Lot, a West Hollywood studio where "True Blood" takes up six soundstages.
"A lot of bad stuff has happened here," Ball says, gesturing toward a spot on the floor where a red plastic mat might have been laid to mimic a blood spill.
Back in the kitchen, the shelves are lined with dummy containers of Cajun seasoning and staple dishes popular in the show's setting in present-day small-town Louisiana. He cracked open the door to the walk-in freezer. Full of fake food, a corpse was found in there in one episode.
"I'm taking a step back because I'm on the verge of seriously burning out," Ball says. "I'm going to take some time off and try to chill and recharge and think about what I want to do next."
A playwright and staff writer on such TV shows as "Cybill" and "Grace Under Fire", Ball won the Academy Award for his screenplay of 1999's "American Beauty". He's been working without much of a break since then, having created the hit HBO series "Six Feet Under", which ran from 2001 to 2005, directed the 2007 film "Towelhead" and returned to the New York stage with the 2007 play "All That I Will Ever Be".
He's also executive-produced the crime-drama series "Banshee" for HBO's sister channel Cinemax, and has another HBO show in the works, the medical drama "Wichita".
"'True Blood' is still going to be 'True Blood'," Ball says of the series that's based on "The Southern Vampire Mysteries" by Charlaine Harris and paved the way for other popular vampire novel series, movies and TV shows. "I'm not the face of 'True Blood' - it's a huge collaboration," he adds, citing the show's five other writers.
"I'm taking a back seat and Mark Hudis is going to step into the show-runner role. But the show almost runs itself at this point, because everybody knows it so well."
With Season 5's production about wrapped up and starting to air this week, HBO has announced there will definitely be a sixth season.
Meanwhile, what can viewers expect this year?
"Politics and religion," says Ball, citing the two topics that are taboo at the dinner table but are perfectly okay for the series that mixes lots of sex with such supernatural creatures as vampires, werewolves and fairies.
"There's a fantastic sex scene. Maybe the best sex scene we've ever done," Ball teases, without elaborating which characters will be involved, other than they will be "two very good-looking people".
Viewers can expect to learn more about the Authority, described by Ball as "the vampire Catholic Church", which has been behind "mainstreaming" - vampires "coming out of the casket" to assimilate with human society.
Sex, as ever, will remain a big part of the show, Ball says.
"It's the primalness of the human psyche, out of which monsters and desire springs," he says. "It's not just about getting some naked skin out there so you can look at naked skin, because there's pornography for that. But I've always tried to keep it from being that coy way sex is on American TV, that seems so idealised and overblown and ridiculous, whereas in other cultures, in film and TV, sex seems more natural and real.
"Now, granted, it's going to be overblown and ridiculous when somebody's biting somebody, but for the most part we just try to be as matter-of-fact about it as we can. And luckily we have a cast that doesn't have a problem going there - many of whom aren't American, I might add. I think they set the tone at the beginning, because they weren't nervous about it."
Ball, whose work frequently addresses sexuality and gay issues, says he finds vampires "very sexy and very forbidden".
"They're immortal - they're dead but they're alive. So there's the sexy life drive. There's something about an immortal creature who only comes out at night, who has these phallic fangs. There's the exchange of body fluids. It's a huge metaphor for sexuality and I think it has been for centuries, since it first appeared in various mythologies.
"They all seem to be fairly bisexual because they're beyond regular moral constraints. They don't have to worry about what happens to them when they die because they're going to be alive forever. So any religious or puritanical thing, you can just let go of.
"There's something aphrodisiac about it. I don't know what it is, but there you go."
Anna's next big project
Reporters interviewing "True Blood" star Anna Paquin at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills have been told not to ask the Canadian-New Zealander actress about her pregnancy courtesy of her co-star, British actor Stephen Moyer.
But they ask anyway. And it's difficult for Paquin, who prefers to keep her personal life private, to ignore the subject.
"Sookie was actually not scheduled to have a boyfriend this year. So the recent occurrences in my personal life, actually, have nothing to do with how naked or not naked Sookie is this season," she says of her character, the telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse.
In real life she's married to Moyer, who plays the vampire Bill Compton, a former love interest of Sookie's.
Maintaining the illusion of a non-pregnant Sookie comes down to "clothing and camera", says Paquin, who at age 11 won the Oscar for best supporting actress in 1994's "The Piano".
"There will be fewer shots of me actually getting my ass kicked. My stunt double is getting more of a workout this year."
And, while co-stars like Moyer and Alexander Sarsgaard will seek work on other films when the season wraps up, "I have my own project," she says. "Hopefully it'll be human, but you never know."
GET YOUR BLOOD UP
Season 5 of "True Blood" premieres at 7pm on HBO HD and at 8 on HBO on TrueVisions.