True Blood scribe and producer, Alexander Woo, visited USC for a conversation with MPW faculty member Prince Gomolvilas, as part of MPW's panel and discussion series featuring prominent professional writers in different genres and form. On his way to the discussion, Woo graciously stopped by to chat with Asia Pacific Arts about his experience as a playwright, his journey into television writing, and his adventures in the world of Southern vampers and mythical critters.
APA: Tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up, and how did you get your start as a writer?
Alexander Woo: My family is Cantonese from Hong Kong, and they came to the United States in the 50s. I was born and raised in New York and suburban New Jersey, and I was in the Creative Writing Program at Princeton, and that's where I first got the idea that I could possibly write professionally. Then, I attended drama school at Yale, and for the next seven years after that, I was "working" as a playwright. I use the term loosely, because no one actually earns an income strictly from playwriting, but that's how I met Prince [Gomolvilas] around 1999.
There was a certain kind of parallel kinship in our styles of writing. We both like to use humor, and at the time, not that many Asian American playwrights used comedy in their work. Back in the day, most of the work I was seeing was quite humorless. When I think about Asian American theatre then, I see a stage, four pools of light, and four Asian women crying: "Why are you doing this to me?!" [he says in a pitch-perfect Cantonese accent, while lifting his chin up to the ceiling and waving his fists in the air]
APA: Your plays, The Murphy Game and Debunked, are hilarious pieces that feature Chinese American characters and reference events and issues related to Chinese Americans during the mid and late 1800s. Why did you gravitate towards humor while approaching these topics?
AW: I did that not only because I can entertain myself if it’s funny, but also, an audience’s defenses are let down when they’re laughing. I think that if you have something that is too strident, people will be repelled by it. Also, I think my personality has a tendency to approach serious and often dark subject matter in a comedic way.
APA: This year you were nominated for an NAACP Image Award for your work on True Blood for the episode "Beyond Here Lies Nothing." Congratulations! Can you tell us how you ended up on the show?
AW: I was unemployed [laughs]. The show that I had been working on, Sleeper Cell, had been cancelled, and I was available. It's strokes of luck, really. This career path and this business are filled with strokes of dumb luck. It just all happened to line up. If Sleeper Cell had been slightly more popular and had been renewed for a third season, I would not have been available for True Blood. The show I was on before Sleeper Cell was LAX, and if it hadn't been cancelled so quickly, I would not have been available for Sleeper Cell, and who knows where I would have ended up. So I was just lucky to be available at the right time for the right show.
APA: Your work on Sleeper Cell is a huge departure from True Blood. When you interviewed for True Blood, did they reference your previous television work or did they look at your plays?
AW: Every show is different, in terms of the kind of sample work they request from a writer. Luckily, Alan Ball is also a playwright and comes from a theatre background, so he requested to read my original plays. He read Debunked, which is set in the American South during the 1800s, and I guess it showcased my ability to write in dialect and in period. Also, with original work, a writer's voice is more prominent than in a television spec script, and Alan must have seen something compatible with my voice as a writer and the kind of voice he wanted for the show.
APA: Before you started the show, did you get a chance to read the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris on which True Blood is based on?
AW: I did. I read the novels and then made sure that I brought the novels to the interview to make sure Alan knew I read all the novels. [laughs]
APA: Do you and the writing team still reference the books?
AW: We do, as a jumping off point for storylines, but we don't strictly adhere to them -- which is interesting to us as writers and we hope to the fans as well. You get an idea of what might happen from the books, but you never quite know because True Blood is its own world.
APA: Can you tell us a little bit about how the writer's room works on True Blood?
AW: Every writer's room is different. True Blood has a relatively small writing team, so the chemistry between the writers is crucial to the style and tone of the show. It's kind of like being on a jury, where you are sequestered together for long hours and many days and you figure things out together. Our team is a wonderful group of people, and even though the hours are long we all work really well and the hours just fly by.
APA: Is the entire season's plot determined in the room?
AW: We outline the episodes together, and then each writer is assigned an episode, and they flesh out the first draft with scenes and dialogue on their own. Then the script is brought back to the room, and we go page by page and help each other revise the script with notes. Our writer's room is a very democratic environment, so everyone gets to provide their input. Then you go off and write your second draft. Right before this interview, I just sent off my own second draft.
The outline for our show is very loose, and it affords the writer of the episode more creative freedom, which, to me, is the fun of it. You get more opportunities to explore and play with your story. Possibly because of my experience as a playwright, I get the most excited about working on this part of the process, getting to write the actual script. The way I see it, the outline process is like designing the menu, and the writing process is doing the actual cooking. Even if you're given the best recipe in the world, it's the execution of creating the dish that matters.
APA: Speaking about the "dishes" you've created, what is your favorite episode that you've written?
AW: I like elements of almost all of them. I certainly liked episode 105 ["Sparks Fly Out"], because it was an introduction to Bill and the first sense of his humanity. And really, it's also Lafayette's first breakout scene with the three rednecks who send back a burger because it might have AIDS. This past season, the scene that I couldn't wait to get to the set and watch come to life was the scene where Russell Edgington kills the newscaster [in "Everything Is Broken"], by yanking out his spine on live television and then sitting down and addressing America. Denis O'Hare is such an extraordinary actor, so you knew that was going to be fun. I was really pleased with that scene as well.
APA: How many takes did you get on that [spine yanking] scene?
AW: We only got four takes, because we only made four spines. We had a chest piece rigged on the newscaster, so the fist appears to punch through his body, and the piece of spine was essentially strapped with Velcro on the newscaster's back. It was a very elaborate shot, and it had no CGI in it except for some small effects with Edgington zooming into the scene.
APA: In the last few seasons, the show has covered subjects such as family history and ancestry, hate crimes perpetuated by fear mongering, class and caste systems -- what other themes and issues are you interested in exploring through this world, perhaps in Season 4?
AW: It's interesting because all of those themes you mentioned kind of developed organically -- which is what's interesting and unique about television, as opposed to theatre or film, where it's close-ended, you know what the ending is by the time you go into rehearsal, and the story is not going to change. Television is unique because the story is developed as it is told. We have an idea of where it's going, and we have some idea of an end point, but if it wants to shift, you can honor that.
Certainly in the first three seasons, the story always ended up in a different place than where we thought it would go, and some of the themes that developed surprised even the writers. So we have some ideas of where the themes might be in Season 4, but at the time of this interview, we only have two scripts written. By the time we get to episodes four, five and six, we might be going in a completely different direction. But that's part of the exciting thing about doing TV. It's a little scary and a little strange, but then it becomes this intensely collaborative experience, where you might see something that happens on set, you might see a story want to go a certain way, or you might see a certain chemistry between two characters. If the boat wants to sail that way, you can let it. So some of the themes that end up being played out in Season 4, we may not even be aware of yet.
For more information on True Blood, go to the official website.