BATON ROUGE, La. | Sookie Stackhouse and her brother Jason are returning from Dallas to the tiny Louisiana town of Bon Temps. But something is wrong: Newspapers drift in the steamy air; fruit stands and flower stalls are overturned; graffiti assaults signs and a courthouse statue; and trash and clothes litter streets and lawns.
A force of nature? Or something brewed by Maryann, the dark, mysterious newcomer in HBO's hit vampire drama, "True Blood"?
Cast and crew of the show, based on Charlaine Harris' best-selling Sookie Stackhouse stories, were in Louisiana to soak up the antebellum atmosphere of Clinton, a community of 2,000 people, 30 miles north of Baton Rouge. Main Street and the town's courthouse, surrounded by sprawling, moss-covered oak trees, were perfect as backdrops for the tale of vampires living among humans, thanks to the invention of mass-produced synthetic blood.
The sticky heat, mossy greenery, white columned houses and slow-moving lifestyle also added to the allure, and gave a dimension and authenticity to the series that can only be captured here.
"The moment you step off the plane, you feel you're in the world of the show," said "True Blood" writer Alexander Woo. "You don't have to imagine you're there."
The series, from "Six Feet Under" creator Alan Ball, opened last year and slowly began building an audience, gaining a cultlike following among Sookie Stackhouse fans. Its second season began airing June 14. "True Blood" enjoyed a series high last Sunday night with 3.9 million viewers, according to HBO, and averages a gross audience - which factors in linear network airings, HBO On Demand and DVR viewership - of 10.8 million viewers an episode, up 39 percent from last season.
But despite its critical acclaim and strong fan base, the show got only three Emmy nominations last week, for outstanding art direction, casting and title design. Nothing for star Anna Paquin, who picked up a Golden Globe for her role as Sookie, or for Ball. Fans Twittered and blogged their outrage. "It is rather frustrating that the Emmys have continued their tradition of ignoring genre work except in the technical departments. ... We can only hope that next year is the year that finally brings down the wall," one blog read.
"True Blood" blends murder, mystery, drama, comedy and romance. Though vampires and humans live together, some - including religious humans - don't believe they should coexist. The series centers on Sookie, a waitress with telepathic powers who falls in love with 173-year-old vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer).
In season one, the plot revolved around the murders of women strangled shortly after being alone with Jason (Ryan Kwanten). The second season has several overlapping plots and a mysterious new creature whose motives are unknown.
Shooting the series in Louisiana, where temperatures soared to nearly 100 degrees, helped the actors get into character.
"It makes you move slower, which is interesting for character," Moyer said. "I understand now why people move so slow down here."
"You have to move slower, or you'll pass out," Paquin said, laughing.
Because of the heat, a medic was on hand to give out water and Gatorade, and the cast had to be transported by van the few blocks between base camp and the shooting location in Clinton because it was too hot to walk.
Still, said the show's executive producer, Gregg Fienberg, "It was a great town. It worked really well for what we needed."
Chris Stelly, head of the state film office, acknowledged that the summer may be uncomfortable for filming, but that's not usually a deterrent to companies coming to Louisiana. Higher insurance costs during hurricane season, which includes the summer months, are more likely to keep productions away than the temperatures, he said.
"True Blood" is one of about 30 productions to film in Louisiana this year. Stelly was happy to see the activity after what's been a slow start for 2009 compared to the record filming year Louisiana had in 2008 with more than 80 film and TV projects. He said the slow start this year can be attributed to a number of things, including competition from other states and the troubled economy. But Stelly expects filming to pick up after Louisiana's Legislature proposed raising the state's current tax credit for movie makers from 25 percent to 30 percent.
After the Clinton shoot, production shifted indoors to the Stockade Bed and Breakfast in Baton Rouge. Once a Civil War stockade, the B&B is listed on the National Register of Historical Places as an archaeological site.
The Stockade's great room - an open space with a balcony, baby grand piano, large wood-burning fireplace and floor-to-ceiling glass wall - was transformed into a restaurant for the shoot. A nearby breakfast room, filled with antiques and hummingbird and botanical prints, became a makeshift studio for directors and script supervisors to watch the scenes unfold on monitors.
The sequence shot on this day was a dance scene. Paquin, in a sundress with her hair in a sleek up-do, and Moyer in black suit, do a modified jitterbug to the Jerry Lee Lewis song "Before the Night Is Over." Between takes, the actors chill out in a back room at the B&B where stylists touch up their makeup.
Footage from the Louisiana shoot will appear in upcoming episodes and the season finale, set to air on Sept. 13, which is expected to include the dance scene.
HBO will be back in Louisiana in the fall for the filming of "Treme," a new series by David Simon named after a Creole neighborhood with a rich musical tradition. The show, which will begin airing in late 2010, focuses on New Orleans and its ongoing effort to recover from Hurricane Katrina.
"True Blood" airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on HBO.