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INSIGHT: Gregg Fienberg

(L-R) Stephen Moyer, Alexander Skarsgard, Lucy Griffiths of True Blood (photo: Lacey Terrell/ HBO)
Gregg Fienberg

On HBO‘s True Blood, vampires are just another misunderstood minority. And the visuals are one key to success.

Producer Gregg Fienberg’s credits include some of the most visually innovative and memorable television productions of the last two decades, including Twin Peaks, Deadwood, John from Cincinnati and Carnivàle. His current production, True Blood, is the latest in his 13-year association with HBO. Every show he has done at HBO has been originated on film.

Fienberg earned a degree in economics at UCLA, and one day he had to choose between an interview at a Big 8 accounting firm and a PA gig on a Roger Corman film. He took the filmmaking path, and today he says that his academic training helped prepare him for the interdependent complexities of television production. True Blood was originally based on a series of novels called “The Southern Vampire Mysteries.” Viewership started modestly, but soon the show was a smash, earning a dozen EMMY® nominations and becoming the highest-rated HBO series since The Sopranos. The show begins its sixth season in June.

Why is film important to you on True Blood?
We’ve chosen to stay on film for a couple of reasons. The first is that the show has an amazing look. That truly is a big part of our success. Film gives us a certain feel, and I don’t want to mess with that. Film also gives us range. We use several different stocks each season, depending on the type of scene we’re doing, to help us achieve a specific look. Our cinematographers have both expressed a desire to continue shooting film. I can’t speak very well about video, because the only video I’ve ever shot is of my kids’ soccer games.

You’ve been working with David Klein, ASC and Romeo Tirone, ASC, who alternate episodes. Why does your collaboration work with them?
They’re different cameramen with different styles. I think the key for me, regardless of the medium, is telling our story and telling it appropriately – not having the camera tell the story, but having the actors tell it with the cameras capturing that. That’s something we talk about a lot, especially when we get into some of the crazier things that we do, like the different visions or planes of existence. The guys get to have fun giving life to these worlds with different stocks and lenses. We describe these realms, and they come back to us with looks that really surprise us. At the same time, we try to keep the show grounded and maintain a consistent overall look. We call it a popcorn movie for adults. We want to create an everyday look that people can believe in, so that when a crazy creature or weird world comes along, we give the audience a chance to go along for the ride. I think David and Romeo are both very good at helping the directors achieve what’s most important – which is the storytelling – and then letting their style help inform that.

Is the long term archival stability of True Blood a concern for you?
Certainly, for us, it’s nice to know that film is where we started. If we decide to go in and do anything down the road, we’ll have the film to do it with. Usually, once you’re done with the final version, that’s what you live with forever. But certainly our dailies won’t be disintegrating anytime soon. I do think that, ultimately, content is king. What we create will live on whether a studio lives or dies. Desilu doesn’t exist anymore, but I Love Lucy certainly does, and most likely it will forever. So there must be a way of keeping content alive and looking great, especially as time goes on. Who knows what the next generation of big screen televisions will look like? So we must keep our images as pristine as possible. At this point in time, film most definitely is the best medium to achieve that.

What’s your sense of the future of film?
I’ve seen a lot of different things come and go over the years. In the beginning of my career, when I was doing music videos, I remember delving into Super 8. I still own the camera. I’ve heard predictions about the demise of film, but my sense of it is that every medium, even black and white, has a place, and that all of the different looks help tell stories. My hope is that film is here, along with all the other tools that are available to filmmakers, for a long, long time to come.

Can you give us any inside info on what’s coming up in season six of True Blood?
You’ll have to watch and see.