Nic Pizzolatto: It was a combination of a couple of things. In the summer of 2010, I was working on a version of “True Detective” that I was thinking might be my next novel, and it was told in these two first-person voices; Cohle and Hart’s voices. They just alternated chapters, telling the story of their 17-year partnership. It was a lot different. There was a lot of changes in that one and it was going to be a massive book, but when I became interested in breaking into television, I began to think how it might play as a television show and that it might actually work better as a television show, given the time shifts and the amount of cues simply having a visual image affords you. In July of 2010, I wrote six scripts, and one of them was the pilot for “True Detective.” I just held on to it for a while until I knew enough and we were in a position to go out and sell it so that we could be assured of making it the way we wanted.
Nic Pizzolatto: Pretty much. I wanted him to play Cohle. I was really excited about Matthew playing Cohle, but the truth is, Woody was already on a very short list of men we wanted to approach. He had just come off of “Rampart” and “Game Change,” which are two incredible performances and incredibly different performances. So we always had Woody in mind as someone to approach. And when Matthew asked if we considered him, we were like, “Yeah, of course, and maybe you could help with that, since you guys are friends.”
Nic Pizzolatto: Oh, yeah, I think that would be great. And I love working with those guys, and we loved working together, and we’re looking for things to do together in the future. I think for cinema actors, it’s a very grueling thing. It takes up half their year at least, when they might usually be able to make two movies, or make one movie and enjoy downtime with their family. I would be completely open to anything those guys would want to do. People have asked about them coming back and I just have to say I think that would completely depend upon our actors, and if they wanted to I would of course jump on board. I feel like watching them, it made me say, “Why hasn’t anyone put these guys together before in a serious film?” They just play so well off each other. The highest compliment I can give their performances is I think it’s impossible to imagine two other guys in these roles after you see them.
Nic Pizzolatto: Not really. I think it was new for both of them. They were both just real pros about it. There were times I would think, “Jesus Christ, they’ve gotta be getting exhausted.” And they would just keep going. It was different for them, but I stand by the results. These guys certainly brought it home. And if you could catch them looking like they’re slacking off at any point, let me know, ’cause I couldn’t.
Nic Pizzolatto: I wrote the pilot for “True Detective” before I took “The Killing” job. It was one of the samples that got me the job. I moved my family to Los Angeles to take that job, and the great thing about it was that Veena (Sud) would allow the writers to go to the set and for all intents and purposes produce their episodes. So in that way, it was a fantastic crash course in the nuts and bolts of how television gets made and who does what and what a show runner needs to be able to do and all sorts of things. As far as pragmatic career-based things, that was the main thing I took from the experience. It might have been coming from life as a novelist, but after it aired, I had a lot of mixed feelings about what ended up on the screen. I just realized if I was going to put my name on something, I needed to try to make it my own, so I could at least control its outcome a little bit. So I ended up resigning right at the start of season 2. But I have to say it was a great experience for me, in the sense that four months before, I was teaching college literature, and suddenly, I’m on a TV set. That was pretty invaluable. By the time I was pitching this show and we actually got around to production, I understood everything involved, and I felt, “Yeah, I can do this.”
Nic Pizzolatto: It’s weird. When I’ve thought about this, I mean, some of these influences are incredibly diffuse: stuff like “Playhouse 90” and “The Twilight Zone” and “The Untouchables,” all the old black and white shows. But as far as the specific form the narrative takes, this isn’t flippant at all, but it may be that I was inspired by Errol Morris more than anybody. Maybe Errol Morris and Mike Leigh are the two filmmakers who tend to, within a single movie, achieve the greatest level of characterization for me. Character is everything for me, which is why I prefer television to movies, because you get to live with people. The great thing about Errol Morris and how he accomplishes these perfect character portraits is he tends to let people just talk. Everybody has this urge to, when telling their stories, to also explain their stories, to explain the decisions they made and to recolor the past, so it’s more suitable to the present narrative. And these things are very interesting to me: memory and the idea of an objective truth. These are some of my governing obsessions. And I’m also really attracted to the idea of just give a great role to a great actor and just leave a camera on him. You don’t need any fireworks. The performance is the fireworks. It might come back from my love of theater, too: just the idea of the monologue. If you can be innovative, there are ways to incorporate the theatrical idea of the monologue into the realistic idea of television so that it’s organic and fits the world. That’s attractive to me. I like characters to have a chance to account for themselves.
Nic Pizzolatto: I was never conscious of an ethical line. I just knew what Cohle’s boundaries were, so to speak. He told me his boundaries, in the sense that, imaginatively, he never tried to do anything. The ethical lines weren”t built around an audience”s perception, they’re built around Cohle’s personal sense of honor. Everything is character me character to me so what decides how far Cohle goes is Cohle’s character. And he has a very black and white perception of right and wrong that in some ways –I find his spirit, his character, although very harsh, also quite noble. And he’s uncompromising. And at least courageous enough to legitimately try to see himself and his life without illusion, even though that itself is an illusion. And the way it came about is early summer of 2010, I was just writing and working on some stuff and thinking about what my next book would be. I don’t read much fiction anymore. I tend to read philosophy and non-fiction more lately. And I was writing longhand in a moleskine, and Cohle’s voice started coming out right away. And he was telling the story of a date, and this was the voice it was going to be in a novel, and you didn’t hear the interrogators, and Cohle just started telling the story of catching this body, and it was the same day as his daughter’s birthday. And he described some things, and was instantly describing these existential and metaphysical concerns that completely captivated me. I found that notebook a couple of months ago, and I was looking through it, and some of those very first things I wrote down, almost three years later made their way into Matthew’s mouth. So I guess what appealed to me about Cohle was that voice. It captured something that is very personal to me. Here was a character who could actually articulate a lot of my own obsessions, while not being me in any way. He just had the outlook and the disposition to do it.
Nic Pizzolatto: I think it was a combination of those things. I wanted it to be about 17 years, because I wanted to give it a look at a long expanse of characters’ lives and be able to watch the various arcs and nuances and how they change or don’t change, but also in the mid-90s, I was still in Louisiana in 95, so I felt very at home in the landscape, in the time period there, and it also practically served the purpose of giving us this 17-year timespan in which we can look at these major and sometimes minor-seeming events in these characters’ lives. It gives you more space to actually walk around the various rooms of a character”s house, so to speak.
Nic Pizzolatto: If they let us do another one, I’m already working on stuff. I’ve been told not to talk about that very much. But I’ll tell you what I would plan in a vague way. I see the show, if it got to continue, it being set in a different place every year with new characters, I would see it owning its landscape as an integral part of the show, and I believe I would continue to make use of the narrative conceit of a story being told, at least for some part of a season. Again, for all the reasons I”ve talked about: you get a great actor and you just let ’em talk and you just keep the camera on him. But also, the dissonance between the story being told and what really happened. You’ll see that the voices telling the story may lie, but the image never will. . So I think you can be very effective juxtaposition of things happening that are not what is being described. And there’s all kinds of reasons why people may not be telling the truth. It may not be intentional at all. And those things don’t have to take the form of a police interrogation. , if you think about all the various possibilities it could be somebody laying down a confession, it could be somebody taking over a radio station, I don’t know, it’s kind of endless. So I think those things would remain the consistent branding of the show.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com