Gregg Fienberg, the executive producer of HBO’s hit vampire saga “True Blood,” is nicknamed “Captain Chaos” by his cast and crew. It’s a nod to his knack for juggling myriad obstacles to bring the campy-sexy (and very expensive) supernatural thriller to the screen.
Based on the “Southern Vampire Mysteries” novels by Charlaine Harris and now in its seventh and final season, the lavish show is set in the fictional swampy hamlet of Bon Temps, La., and has primarily revolved around the on-again, off-again romance between mind-reading part-fairy Sookie Stackhouse and the almost-200-year-old vampire Bill Compton (played by real-life married couple Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer).
Bon Temps has also been home to a menagerie of other creatures including werewolves, werepanthers, witches, maenads (female followers of the Greek wine god Dionysus) and an Arabic smoke monster called an ifrit. The biblical creation story and Jewish folklore partly inspired last season’s baddie, a vampire god named Lilith, who is said to have been created before Adam and Eve, with Earth’s first humans intended as her food.
During a recent interview in his Hollywood office, Fienberg, 53, lounged in faded jeans and exuded a laid-back vibe that contrasted with the intense energy with which he brings the vampy, Southern Gothic series to life. He oversees every element of the show’s production, from shooting to editing to sound mixing. (Executive producer Brian Buckner, who took over from series creator Alan Ball two years ago, leads the writers’ room, among other tasks.)
Posters and mementos in Fienberg’s office suggest his past tenure on series such as the quirky murder mystery “Twin Peaks” and HBO’s “Carnivale” and “Deadwood.”
One image that does not hang on the walls is a velvet portrait of Fienberg — with fangs — that the “True Blood” art department surprised him with several years ago.
“I despise it; it makes me look like a chipmunk,” he said with a laugh. “So I kept hiding it. Then finally someone grabbed it and put it up in [the series’ vampire bar] Fangtasia, and they shot it before I could do anything about it. I’ll definitely take it with me when the show ends, but I’ll probably burn it,” he quipped.
While growing up in Woodland Hills, Fienberg attended Valley Beth Shalom, where he became a bar mitzvah, and also Taft High School, where his passions were surfing and riding motorcycles rather than monsters. He meandered into show business almost by accident while studying business at UCLA in the late 1970s, when his friends at the American Film Institute enlisted him to work on their student films.
“Then, after UCLA, I was supposed to have a meeting with one of the Big 8 accountant firms, but I literally got a call the day before to go work on a Roger Corman movie,” he said, referring to the producer of such films as “Little Shop of Horrors.” “So I skipped the meeting and never turned back.”
In 2009, Fienberg got a call from Ball that one of the series’ producers was leaving, and would he step in to help run the show? His answer was an enthusiastic yes.
“Alan liked to call ‘True Blood’ a ‘popcorn show for adults,’ ” Fienberg said. “But, like every great show, it has something much deeper underneath.”
One premise of “True Blood” is that vampires have recently revealed their existence to humans, only to face vicious prejudice from some segments of society. Thus, the series functions in part as an allegory “about the rights of minorities, whether gay, Jewish or African-American,” Fienberg said.
The stories have followed vampires as they’ve struggled to be allowed to marry and to dwell among humans, as well as their often-messy process of assimilation. There’s even a vampire rights organization that is reminiscent of GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) and the Anti-Defamation League.
Last season, jackbooted humans rounded up vampires and spirited them to a concentration camp, where a Dr. Mengele type experimented with pulling out their fangs as well as injecting them with a fatal synthetic virus, hepatitis V.
“We weren’t trying to say, ‘This is the Holocaust,’ ” Fienberg said of the vamp-camp. “But isn’t that the extreme outcome of how we deal with people we don’t understand?
“ ‘True Blood’ has always dealt with the dangers of religious fundamentalism in one way or another,” Fienberg added. “In almost every case of minority versus majority, you’ll find religion-based excuses for the behavior of the majority, and that’s fraught throughout ‘True Blood.’ ”
In Season 6, Lilith, who came complete with her own bible, preached of vamps’ superiority over the human race, which she dubbed merely chattel for feeding. One scene depicted vampires drinking her blood as they chanted verses in Aramaic, which some critics denounced for conjuring up images of the ancient Jewish slur of blood libel.
“The writers of the show surely know that Jews, like vampires, have historically been accused of drinking blood as part of religious rituals,” Tablet’s Marjorie Ingall charged last year. “Hearing [Aramaic]-spiked prayer in any ritualistic blood-drinking context … made me wince.”
In response, Fienberg insisted the reference “was unintentional because, certainly, invoking blood libel would not have been a good thing.” And, he added, “We’re just not that clever.”
Deeper issues aside, Fienberg said, there’s a simpler reason “True Blood” has become such a runaway hit: the series’ explicit sex and its thwarting of sexual norms. The most recent episode, for instance, opened with a steamy sex scene between two lead male characters, Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) and Jason (Ryan Kwanten). “On Sunday nights, there haven’t been a lot of shows that were really taking advantage of what cable television allows us to do, which is to get our characters naked and to be brazen and even shocking in that way,” he explained. “It’s a hot show.
“But we’ve never had a sex scene that was done just for sex’s sake,” he added. “It’s not porn. If we’re doing it right, then every time we’re showing nudity it’s for the growth of the characters. Like in the maenad season, her orgies were about her hedonism and her madness, so it was OK that everyone was running around naked.”
While various sorts of dastardly creatures have threatened Bon Temps in seasons past, the “big bad” of this season is the burgeoning hepatitis V epidemic, Fienberg said. We’ll also see Vampire Bill again longing to recover his humanity (and also some semblance of his relationship with Sookie) after his previous descent into Lilith-madness; and the bodacious Nordic vampire Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) is back after seeming to have suffered a fiery death at the end of last season.
“The idea behind this season is to try to refocus the show back to Sookie, Bill and Eric and the main characters we love,” Fienberg said.
Ending the show for good first came up in discussions with HBO executives last year: “Sometimes you just feel creatively that you’ve been stretching it in a way,” he said. “So Brian and I felt it was time to bring the characters home.”
Fienberg is now working on ideas for new shows for HBO and elsewhere, but he won’t be involved in a proposed musical theater version of “True Blood.” As for featuring vampires on any of his future work, he said, he’s done with those creatures — “probably forever.”
“My genre is, hopefully, great storytelling, and that can come in many different forms,” he said.
“True Blood” airs on HBO Sundays at 9 p.m. The season finale airs Aug. 24.
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