|“Vampires are sex”, explains scriptwriter Alan Ball when asked to explain the appeal of his bloodsucker-centric, smash-hit HBO TV series, True Blood. For once self-confessed “super fan” Wil Anderson, who’s been asking the questions tonight, is stumped. But judging by the deafening applause coming from the crowd at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall – a motley crew of aspiring writers, hardcore Fang bangers (aka True Blooddiehards) and curious onlookers – there’s no need to elaborate. The attraction for audiences worldwide to Ball’s supernatural series set in the fictional town of Bon Temps, in America’s Deep South is obvious; it’s that whole sex and death thing, plain and simple. Or as Ball likes to put it, “it’s lady porn”.For the uninitiated, Alan Ball is only the god of screenwriting for both TV and film on the face of the planet right now. From his unconventional, Emmy Award-winning family drama set in a funeral home, Six Feet Under, to that plastic bag that made us gasp at the enormity of just being alive in the Oscar-winning American Beauty, when Alan Ball writes, people can’t help but pay attention. Tonight is all about trying to find out exactly how he does it.
Hard work seems to be the short answer. An off-Broadway play he wrote back in the early ’90s, Five Women Wearing The Same Dress became his entrée into TV writing for Grace Under Fire. Next came three years of what Ball describes as a living hell writing “moments of shit” for actress Cybill Sepherd’s eponymous sitcom. What could have easily become a plodding career as a hack (including a stint on a show writing dialogue for a talking dog) was miraculously turned around when Ball stayed up late at night after coming home from frustrating days on Cybill and hammered out a very angry draft of the script that would change everything, American Beauty. Flash forward to Ball at the Oscars for said script plying himself with a hipflask of scotch just to keep it together. Thankfully he did, and went on to create the moving, funny and disfunctionally charming Six Feet Under, and now the raunchy, darkly witty and riveting vamp-fest True Blood.
The key to his works’ appeal, he says, is his ability to combine death and humour. It’s a coping mechanism he learnt when he came face to face with the grim reaper, when his sister died, as he puts it, “literally all over me” in a car accident. The experience changed everything, setting him on the path to taking from life and working “organically”, letting his characters guide the way.
While the night is mostly a series of questions from Anderson and film clips bringing everyone up to speed on Ball’s career, the best bits (like Ball’s work itself) are in the details. We discover how he gets his dialogue to work so well: he writes it aloud, while listening to music that gets him in the zone. He reveals the joy of writing characters that explore murky emotional territory – they are neither victims nor villains, but instead an imperfect mingling of both. He shares his innovative approach to structuring satisfying TV: the more characters and the more diverse they are the merrier. That way everyone can find someone to relate to.
Ultimately though, what’s really satisfying about being here for Vampires, Death & The Mundane is hearing Ball so enthused about TV as a medium. For unlike a two-hour film that by necessity must stick to a finite amount of character developments and a limited number of plot points, TV offers a “broad canvas” on which to play. The result is characters that can, and often do, believably pull off 180-degree turns over the course of a season, surprising us with the unthinkable. And Ball is positive about the future of TV, pointing to the kind of challenging stuff being produced now. He mentions Breaking Bad and Dexter and even South Park as proof that we are in a “Golden Age”. It’s stimulating stuff, and with any luck his message will inspire the next generation of TV writers to think well beyond the confines that were once prescribed to the box.
ALAN BALL: VAMPIRES, DEATH & THE MUNDANE
Venue: Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
This review first appeared on Australian Stage September 2011