Alan Ball is in the dungeon underneath Fangtasia, the vampire-owned strip club on HBO’s True Blood, and it’s as cold and creepy as it looks on TV. It’s the place where the bad vampires chain and shackle humans they can torture, then exsanguinate; in one scene last year, a townie named Royce was ripped to shreds, literally. Ball is unsuccessfully trying to turn on the lights, but instead feels his way to a corner to study a mysterious piece of machinery—what looks like an antique boiler. “I’ve never seen this here before,” says Ball excitedly. “It’s gnarly. I’ve got to figure out how to use it.”
Whatever he decides to do, it won’t end well. Few auteurs are as comfortable with death and darkness as Ball, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for American Beauty; whose first series for HBO, Six Feet Under, was about a family of morticians; and whose current show fetishizes the undead. “After Six Feet Under ended, I wanted a change,” he says, “and True Blood seemed so fun and bright.”
Perhaps he means bright as in quick-witted. True Blood, which begins its third season June 13, is set mostly at night; the action, design, and even the acting are steeped in an unrelenting (albeit often mordantly comic) murk. Most sets are located in West Hollywood; the exteriors are shot in Mississippi and Louisiana, where the show takes place, in the fictional town of Bon Temps.
Ball says if he weren’t a writer, “I’d want to be in the art department.” He works with the show’s production designer, Suzuki Ingerslev, as though he were “the owner of the house and she’s the interior designer.” Ingerslev, says Ball, travels to the Deep South to research and buy set pieces, creating a believable world of run-down décor within the larger fantastical elements of the show. “I’m always amazed by the level of detail in the sets,” says Ball. Now he is upstairs in Fangtasia, “where we’ve been filming a lot this season.” He points to a large portrait of a vampire. “See that guy? That’s Gregg Fienberg, one of our executive producers. Isn’t that funny?” We move to the bedroom of Sookie Stackhouse (the show’s central human character, played by Anna Paquin), where the floor is strewn with clothes and spattered with blood. “We’re putting people in more situations where they have to fight for what they want or for survival,” he explains cryptically.
The show has been criticized for excessive blood and gore, but, as Ball points out, the fine detailing of the sets extends to character development. “It’s so ingrained in us,” he says. “We might as well have a sign in the writers’ room that says, ‘It’s the emotions, stupid.’ And we have such a great cast that we want to give them stuff to play with, not just like, ‘Go get ’em!’ … ‘Watch out!’ … ‘Incoming!’ ”
The stresses of creating another groundbreaking series for HBO have eased up now that True Blood is a hit. “My mantra is, ‘This is just a TV show. It’s not worth going crazy, getting sick over, or becoming a drug addict for.’ ” He pauses, perhaps reconsidering the rest of his day, which includes writing the season finale, editing three episodes, and shooting another. “Okay, it feels like I’m closer to the ideal of relative sanity, rather than a person who’s consumed by what is ultimately not real.”