Alan Ball Talks About The Writing Behind True Blood

‘True Blood’ fans would give up their own blood to be a fly on the wall of the show’s writers’ room. Season three’s plot twists are a closely guarded secret. Many have wondered what mysterious alchemy transforms Charlaine Harris’s best selling Sookie Stackhouse books into the brilliant insanity of ‘True Blood.’ Series creator and showrunner Alan Ball shined enough light to incinerate a vampire on the writing process in time for Sunday’s premiere (HBO, 9/8c).

Step 1: It All Begins With the Books:
“We always start with the books. We have been sort of focusing on one of Charlaine’s books per season so we started with the third book, which is called Club Dead. As always, our big challenge in translating books to the series is to open up the world outside of Sookie’s experience because Sookie [Anna Paquin] is the narrator of the books so the books are basically her story. So we look at what the books have and figure out a way to give all of other major characters stories that will somehow fold into the main story, the Sookie/Bill story. That’s what we did, just like we did the first two seasons.”

Deciding when to deviate from the Books:
“It’s a totally organic process. A lot of times there are a lot of people pitching ideas. A lot of times we’ll find if we totally stick to the books here, how is that going to affect later on because we’re breaking the story three of four episodes down the line. It’s like well what if he wasn’t this but he was this instead? There’s not a formula. It’s pretty much gut instinct.”

Step 2: Bring on the Dry Erase Boards
“We have two big dry erase boards and they are divided into twelve columns, one for each episode. We have assigned each one of the characters a different color dry erase marker ink and we just write little one-liners as to what the story is like,’Sookie looks for Bill,’ that kind of thing. And we fill up all of those columns for at least the first seven or eight [episodes]. We try to have some sort of sense of how it’s all going to end in the last episode and then when we’re happy that we have a general shape for the season for pretty much everyone, then we sit down and start breaking individual stories.”

The dry erase markers as window into the characters souls:
“There’s only so much you can do. We did give Lafayette [Nelsan Ellis] purple. We did give Bill [Stephen Moyer] red. Jessica’s (Deborah Ann Woll) is orange because it matches her hair. Some of the other ones are just totally random.”

Step 4: Keeping HBO In the Loop
“We do not get micromanaged. I don’t have to pitch outlines. At the beginning of the season we have a big meeting where all the L.A. people are at the table and at the end of the table is a big TV screen with all the New York people and what I do is talk through the whole season. But that’s less about pitching the season and more about getting everybody excited about what’s going to happen in the season. I’ve never gotten any notes from those meetings. When I worked at some other networks I would have to get approval for just the story ideas and then we’d have to write an outline and get their input on that. HBO basically gets the script right before it gets into prep. They of course get dailies and then they get a cut a producer’s cut of the episode and then they weigh in on that’ but it’s a total joy to work for HBO because they don’t micromanage. It’s not like there’s 20 people who have to give notes just to justify why they exist at the company. And the notes that we get are smart. They make sense. There’s also a sort of unspoken thing of like, ‘Here’s our notes. You don’t have to take them,’ which is pretty rare for TV. Anything that makes the show better, I’m happy.”

Step 5: A Detour into Minisodes
‘It was HBO’s idea. They called and talked to me about them and what they were thinking of. I sort of weighed in on what I thought, ‘Maybe instead of that, do this.’ And then I said, ‘Why don’t I just write them, rather than you guys write them and I give a bunch of notes. We’re not that busy and it’s not going to be that hard for me to write a two or three page script for all these major characters.’ But I had a lot of fun doing it. Shooting them was just like shooting the show. The only difference is that they were not edited by our editors. They were edited in New York by HBO’s people. But I thought they did a phenomenal job. And of course we got to give notes on them. In a way, it was like the shoe was on the other foot.’

Step 6: The Joys of Writing
“Writing is not the painful process for me that it is for a lot of other writers. It’s hard work but I don’t agonize over it. I enjoy it. Sometimes I waffle between,’This is really good, the best thing I’ve ever written,’ to, ‘Wow, I suck. I really suck and it’s all smoke and mirrors. I don’t really deserve to be doing this.’ That’s just my own ego beating itself up or inflating itself. I try to ignore that as much as I can.”

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