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True Blood Producer Shares Secrets of Show’s Success

Gregg Fienberg talks tonight at COM

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Gregg Fienberg, co–executive producer of HBO’s True Blood, speaks tonight at 7 p.m. as part of COM’s Cinematheque series. Photo by Doug Hyun

HBO took a gamble when it gave the green light to a show about vampires three years ago. With its critically lauded smash hit The Sopranos about to end, the cable network was in desperate need of another hit.

But Alan Ball, True Blood’s other executive producer, who had scored a hit series for HBO with Six Feet Under, believed that a sexy show about vampires who have come back to live among regular people would work. The rest, as they say, is history. True Blood launched in 2008. The show, set in the fictional town of Bon Temps, La., is about vampires who have come “out of the coffin” and live among the town’s residents.

The series, as any fan will tell you, centers around sweet young waitress Sookie Stackhouse, played by Oscar-winner Anna Paquin. She has the helpful ability to read minds. Then there’s Bill Compton, a 173-year-old vampire. They are joined by one of the quirkiest casts in television history

After a slow start, True Blood has become a monster.

Tonight, students will get a rare glimpse into how an episode of the hit series is put together, when Gregg Fienberg, an executive producer of the show, comes to campus as part of the BU Cinematheque series, a College of Communication program that screens and discusses the work of accomplished filmmakers.

In a career spanning more than 25 years, Fienberg has compiled an extraordinary résumé: producer of the groundbreaking Twin Peaks series, co–executive producer of the HBO series Big Love, and executive producer of HBO’s Deadwood and John from Cincinnati. He has also won a distinguished Directors Guild of America award for an episode of Deadwood and has produced feature films, including Gods and Monsters.

The event takes place at 7 p.m. in COM Room 101.

BU Today talked with the Emmy-nominated producer about the show, his career, and what advice he would give those aspiring to work in TV.

BU Today: What do you think is the reason behind True Blood’s enormous success?
Fienberg:
Alan Ball is a brilliant creative mind. He has one of the most free minds I have ever met. He’s having fun with the show, and I believe that attitude is pervasive throughout everything we do. So he is the ultimate underlying reason why the show is so successful (and of course, as an extension of him, we also have to credit his brilliant and multitalented writers).

The more overt reason is pretty simple: sex and violence, mixed with intense emotion and fun. The show shifts tones between all of these things, and I think that keeps audiences engaged. We like to call it “popcorn for adults.” We know we are making pure entertainment, and we keep that in mind all the time.

Why does the show resonate so much with college students?
Sex and violence and hot bodies. And I think it’s just a damn good show, and today’s young audiences are extremely aware of what is genuine and what is crap. These days it’s not easy to be good enough to satisfy the audience (note the current network TV season). They have too many options. I think they recognize and appreciate the quality of what we are doing. And I think they are responding to the idea of a show that’s just pure fun to watch.

You’re going to show an episode from season two this evening and describe the script’s evolution. Why did you select this particular episode?
I was asked by Paul Schneider, COM film and television chairman, to teach how an episode evolves. Episode 210 was the most difficult episode to wrangle creatively during season two. It was a turning point in the story. The first drafts of the script had a multitude of problematic production and creative issues (which is not unusual for scripts that come later in the season). Alan and I spent a lot of time together figuring out solutions, and the final draft was much different than the original. The final cut also reflects further changes we came up with after the episode was shot. On top of all that, the script was written by writers new to the show, we had a director who hadn’t done an episode of the show before, and we had a new cameraman. It was a unique episode, to say the least.

How did you break into the television and film industry?
I started working with friends on American Film Institute student projects. One of those friends got a job on a Roger Corman film and hired me as a production assistant. (Incidentally, to take the gig, I had to postpone a meeting for a job with a Big 8 accounting firm set up through UCLA’s business school, where I was studying as a business major). One job led to another, and I just rose through the ranks. I had a knack for producing and just kept getting hired. I never did take the meeting at the accounting firm.

You’ve produced both feature films and television series. How are the two different?
Film is for a day, TV is for a lifetime. What I mean by that is film is a unique, one-off production, a slice of time in which you tell a story. A series is like having a baby: it’s born and you nurture it and hope it lives a good, long life. The storytelling is open-ended (usually). They are completely different from both storytelling and production points of view.

You’ve had a long association with HBO—The Mind of the Married Man, Carnivale, Big Love, Deadwood, John from Cincinnati, and now True Blood. Why has this been such a good fit for your work?
I like to believe that I’ve learned a certain set of high-level skills over the years, especially from having the good fortune to work with some of the best creative minds in the industry. HBO’s brand is such that they work with some of the best people in the world. I have learned somehow to balance the financial and creative sides in a way that helps create an environment that allows the great showrunners I’ve worked with to roam freely. That’s the key to HBO’s success: once they decide to do a show, they brilliantly leave their showrunners alone to a large degree (i.e., lots of support without lots of notes). I believe I help them set up shows in a way that allows for that freedom within the financial constraints that all businesses must have.

Over the course of your career you’ve worn many hats—producer, director, unit manager—do you prefer one?
Well, I’m told I smile a lot more as a director, so I would pick that hat if I had only one choice. But my main skillset is as a producer.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned working in Hollywood?
Spending quality, focused time with your family is far more important than any project.

Do you have any advice for students who hope to produce and/or direct one day?
Pick your projects wisely and go for the top as soon as you can.

What are you currently watching on television?
I’m watching football and soccer. Also The Herd with Colin Cowherd on ESPN in the morning. And The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. And Boardwalk Empire (Tivo’d). I don’t have a lot of time for TV.

Gregg Fienberg will present an episode from season two of True Blood and share the backstory of how it evolved from its first script tonight, Thursday, October 21, at 7 p.m. in COM Room 101, 640 Commonwealth Ave. The event, part of BU Cinematheque, is free and open to the public.

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

2 Comments

2 Comments on True Blood Producer Shares Secrets of Show’s Success

  • Lynn Dougherty on 10.21.2010 at 1:30 am

    streaming video of event

    Will this event with Mr. Fienberg be provided as a video streaming on the internet?

    I’d love to be at the event, but since I live in California, can’t see it.

    Thank you.

    Sincerley,
    Lynn Dougherty

  • Animal Rescuer on 12.05.2010 at 12:17 am

    Disturbing Episodes of True Blood w Pit Bulls

    I became a “fan” of really “tasteful” vampire productions after watching Tom Cruise or Christian Slater in one of my alltime favorite vampire movies. I’ve been trying to become a regular enthusiast of True Blood, but I’ve seen a few episodes that are very disturbing: One would think seeing the blood and gutts of True Blood would toughen me up. Human blood sucking is one thing, but my concern is: WHY DO I CONTINUE TO SEE PIT BULLS BEING PORTRAYED AS HUMAN AGGRESSIVE BLOOD SUCKING ANIMALS ON EPISODES OF TRUE BLOOD? Just tonight, Sat night, I see an episode of a gorgeous bluenose pit streaming out of the woods attacking a human, going straight for his neck. An episode in the past, I saw an episode where pit bulls were thrown in the ring to fight. WHY MUST YOU BE BAD DAWG KENNELZ, why not stick to vampire and human slaughter? Why the negative pit bull media?

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