Brian Buckner: Interview with True Blood Showrunner

Brian Buckner is a celebrated American television writer, mostly known for his work on mega-hit TV shows such as Spin City, Friends and most recently, the vampire series, True Blood where he served as the showrunner. True Blood, one of HBO’s top performing shows, is based on the novels by Charlaine Harris centered on the adventures of Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), a telepathic waitress with an otherworldly quality. Brian has won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series and was nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series. He speaks to Fergus Hay at Social Matters about trends in Hollywood storytelling and how social media impacts that.


Fergus: We’re joined today by Brian Buckner. Brian was the writer and producer on ‘Friends’, he covered the final episode with 50 million viewers watching it. He is also the showrunner on the mega-series, True Blood, which has had 80 episodes running across the planet, garnering infatuation, loyalty and bloodshed around the world, following the trials and tribulations of wolves and vampires, and Brian is here to share his insights into the entertainment industry and what effect social media is having on it. < True blood clip> Fergus: So Brian, thank you for coming. Vampires, witches, bloodshed, incest, sex, she loves him, she hates him, she kills him, he comes back from the dead, he kills her, she comes back from the dead, they love each other again, they kill their mother, they then turn into wolves, they kill the small wolves, they eat the small wolves…what the hell is this show all about? Brian: Love! It is everything and the kitchen sink kind of thrill-ride. It was always intended to be fun. Everything you just mentioned sounds like a lot of fun. It’s fan-food. Fergus: What do you mean by fan-food? Brian: I just think that people want to have a good time. I think TV shows need to have all these moments that get people talking. I don’t mean to jump out of order here but on Friends, we named all the episodes….. ‘The one with’ or ‘The one where’ and the idea was that people going to talk about around the water-cooler. It’s really not that much different, you know. I mean, the kinds of shows are different but we did a pretty good job at True Blood of having a couple of moments in every episode where people were like…what the f&*!? Fergus: So, when you look back, what do you think the defining characteristics were about True Blood that made people fall in love with it so much? Brian: I think that it was wish-fulfillment. I think a lot of fans wanted to be Sookie. Both men and women…or women and men I should say. I think the idea of immortality is appealing. I think that all these people with these special powers are appealing. There is something almost iconic about some of the themes in the show. It’s about, well…. for Sookie, she is a girl who feels nobody can love her and then she meets this world of vampires and werewolves and shape-shifters and other freaks that are just like her. I think we can all feel like freaks in our lives and we all dream of somebody who can come along and become our perfect fit. Fergus: So was Friends successful because of the human stories? Brian: It was. I remember an episode where Phoebe talked about how lobsters mated for life and she was just looking for her lobster. Of course, there are universal themes for sure, because it’s one thing for a show to make it in America, it’s another thing for a show to have that kind of universal appeal and I guess what we are really talking about are the things that make us the same not the things that make us different. So, female fantasies about a vampire…I mean..that’s gonna work! Fergus: Okay, so Friends was written in the 90s and different contexts, and hugely, hugely successful but True Blood, you wrote in the 21st century where you had the impact of social media. So how do you feel social made a difference to the creative process in writing for True Blood compared to Friends? Brian: We had a lot more input from social. I think we are writing to smaller audiences…. still big audiences, obviously, the network has one of the biggest audiences we can get, but what I think is it lets us know who’s watching? Not just like how Neilson told us how many, but social tells us who. So, I think that shows can get narrower in their focus; I think that we can be edgier if we’re speaking to an audience who can take it. I think that social has actually driven the media business and there are more people in the game because they know that they can match their brand and their content to an audience that seems built-in. More people are willing to take risks being content-creators. I think I can be reasonably certain that I can find an audience with an idea or a different audience with another idea, whereas before, it was like a shot in the dark. Fergus: Was there a moment in your career where social blindsided you or surprised you out of the blue? Brian: It would be this season on True Blood where we were trying to tell a story about Sookie’s future and Bill, who has done a lot of horrific shit, as you sort-of mentioned in your intro, realises that she can never have any of the things that she wants in her life, the normal things that makes us all human, you know, finding love, having children, growing old with somebody, dying a natural death, cycle of life stuff that his being immortal and dead don’t allow for. I thought I was telling a story about a dead person telling Sookie I’m a dead person. There was a certain amount of buzz in the Twitterverse that said, how dare they…..or how dare Buckner make an argument for suicide. I didn’t think I was. So yes, I was absolutely blindsided because I thought he was dead. Already. Fergus: So do you think that social has confused the lines or blurred the lines between real people in life and the fake characters that have come out of sit-coms and shows? Brian: If I have a thesis here, it would be exactly that, we are watching current events the same way we are watching television. We’re tweeting about them as we’re watching them. If you were to say #suicide, it would turn up Robin Williams and it could turn up Bill Compton. And so, I do think that the lines are getting blurred for sure in terms of art and life and the conversations become one conversation. Fergus: So can you think of a way that social media has enhanced the creative product? Brian: I think knowing what your audience wants is an incredibly powerful tool. They help promote the shows that we write….you know they’re ultimately patient zero for our paychecks. The other thing is that social is helping drive the business so that they do some of the work of advertising for you. There’s no way to ignore it. So, you have to embrace it. Fergus: So do you think the metrics of success in the entertainment industry are changing and previously it was all about viewing figures on networks and cable TV but I guess now the social graph gives us data about how people are reacting to the different shows? Brian: I think it’s an incredibly powerful information for a network to have…not just how many people are watching or how old they are but what their spending habits are, I mean they know who the audience is in a way that they never knew before. For me, as a writer, that means that I can use that information and write shows that are much more interesting to me as long as I am able to match a network who wants to sell to those people and it’s totally opened up the business in terms of number of buyers. I think it’s almost undeniable that social has everything to do with why there are so many new places to sell to. Fergus: NetFlix is taking quite a different approach to it at the moment. They are using their data ability to identify what story themes people engage with or what times in the evening and what demographic profile. That’s quite scientific and rational. Do you feel like the use of social data is suffocating creativity? Brian: I’ve never worked at Netflix but I don’t find it suffocating. One thing is that writers are flocking to Netflix, I think, because there’s incredible freedom there. Now, I don’t think that somebody being able to tell me what world I should be in is limiting to me. My job is to create a world of characters and put them in conflict with each other and dramatize their lives. That’s where I want to live. That’s the bubble I live in. I don’t think that stifles anything. That’s the world you’re going to be writing about but that’s not telling you who the characters are. If anything, the business model is saying these people can do horrible things to each other and it’s ok. So that’s fun. Nothing stifling in that. Fergus: Brian, thank you very, very much. It’s been wonderful having you here. It’s clear from listening to Brian that there are really good trends in the entertainment industry about great storytelling. It’s rooted in human stories, universally told in ways that make you want to be like them and be part of their own narratives and that’s enduring…clearly. What’s interesting is that social media is starting to affect that. It’s providing information and intelligence for writers to write different stories and better stories but it’s also a scary mirror for Hollywood to see how people are actually reacting to them on a day-to-day basis that they’ve never had before. That is going to undoubtedly change the entertainment industry going forward and it’ll be fascinating to watch what creative product Hollywood comes up with the likes of Brian…and in fact what consumers want to engage with.
For other interviews in The Creators series, click here.

There are no comments

Add yours