‘True Detective’ creator Nic Pizzolatto talks season 1

Earlier tonight, “True Detective” concluded its first season – and, with it, the stories of Rust Cohle and Marty Hart. I reviewed the finale here, and as a bookend to a conversation we had before the season started, I spoke with the show’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto, about the finale and the season as a whole (along with a vague but intriguing hint about season 2, which hasn’t been officially ordered yet, but only because I suspect HBO is waiting until they’ve signed the actors they want before announcing). That’s coming up just as soon as I strike you as more of a talker than a doer…

The structure of the series means you could have done anything with the ending, up to and including killing the two leads, because you get a clean slate with the next season. Why did you choose this particular way to end the story?

Nic Pizzolatto: This is a story that began with its ending in mind, that Cohle would be articulating, without sentimentality or illusion, an actual kind of optimism. That line, you ask me, the light’s winning, that was one of the key pieces of dialogue that existed at the very beginning of the series’ conception. For me as a storyteller, I want to follow the characters and the story through what they organically demand. And it would have been the easiest thing in the world to kill one or both of these guys. I even had an idea where something more mysterious happened to them, where they vanished into the unknown and Gilbough and Papania had to clean up the mess and nobody knows what happens to them. Or it could have gone full blown supernatural. But I think both of those things would have been easy, and they would have denied the sort of realist questions the show had been asking all along. To retreat to the supernatural, or to take the easy dramatic route of killing a character in order to achieve an emotional response from the audience, I thought would have been a disservice to the story. What was more interesting to me is that both these men are left in a place of deliverance, a place where even Cohle might be able to acknowledge the possibility of grace in the world. Because one way both men were alike in their failures was that neither man could admit the possibility of grace. I don’t mean that in a religious sense. Where we leave Cohle, this man hasn’t made a 180 change or anything like that. He’s moved maybe 5 degrees on the meter, but the optimistic metaphor he makes at the end, it’s not sentimental; it’s purely based on physics. Considering what these characters had been through, it seemed hard to me to work out a way where they both live and they both exit the show to live better lives beyond the boundaries of these eight episodes. Now they are going to go on and live forever beyond the margins of the show, and our sense, at least, is they haven’t changed in any black to white way, but there is a sense that they have been delivered from the heart of darkness. They did not avert their eyes, whatever their failings as men. And that when they exit, they are in a different place.

About the epiphany Cohle has at the end, this is a show that has dealt an awful lot with the abuses that can sometimes come from organized religion, and half of it’s been told from the point of view of a man who believes in no faith and is very eloquent and passionate in the way in which he describes the meaningless of our existence.

Nic Pizzolatto: And yet he protests too much. I think he does. I would refrain from some of the questions about some of Cohle’s psychology and beliefs. And this is a necessary part of the format, but it felt that chapters of a book are being reviewed before the whole book has been revealed. I don’t think Cohle is ever lying. I just think he wants that ultimate nullity to be true in the way that a born again Christian might want the transubstantiation of Christ to be true, right? It’s the kind of thing where if you know this, then you don’t have to go around saying it all the time, do you?

You gave Cohle a lot of opportunities, especially in the first five episodes, to express a lot of his belief system. Reading much of the commentary on the show, there were some people who were really impressed by what Cohle had to say and some who were thinking the entire time that he’s full of crap, and some people insisting the show thinks he’s brilliant and others feeling that the show is well aware that he’s full of crap. How did you want people to take all of the things Cohle was saying to us?

Nic Pizzolatto: I don’t want to restrict an audience by telling them that “this means this” and “this means this.” My intentions are the inalterable definition of things. For people who thought Cohle’s philosophy was simply hogwash, be aware that you’re calling Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche hogwash. Just be aware of that. That is not, in fact, a college freshman stoned eating a pizza talking about life; that’s Arthur Schopenhauer’s thoughts on life. But I thought that was part of the tension within Cohle. It might not all fall into relief until you’ve watched all eight episodes, but yes, these things are eloquently stated, and they do make sense, and they are no more or less true than the story Preacher Theriot is telling you during the tent revival service. Somebody asked me, “Well, what does this all mean?” Obviously, as an artist, I hate questions like that, but I could tell they were asking for a governing theme that could encompass everything else that happened. And so I had to think about it. And to me, if there’s one governing thing in “True Detective” that encompasses everything that is happening in “True Detective,” and that the show is telling you – constantly, the show keeps telling you – is that everything is a story. Cohle tells you that who you think you are, your identity, is a story you tell yourself. He tells us that religion and philosophy are stories we tell ourselves. Cohle describes them as cathartic narratives, but in confession he’s so good at getting confessions from suspects because he gives them room to create a cathartic narrative. Hart says an investigation is the act of trying to put together a story after the fact, and when he goes over his story in episode 5, you can tell that Hart used to tell himself one story and now he tells himself another story. The show was never concerned with the supernatural, but it was concerned with supernatural thought, and it was concerned with supernatural thinking to the degree that it was concerned with storytelling. So if there was one overarching theme to “True Detective,” I would say it was that as human beings, we are nothing but the stories we live and die by – so you’d better be careful what stories you tell yourself.

I keep thinking back to the interview we did before the season, and the moment when I was asking you about comparisons to other serial killer shows, and you said that you couldn’t care less about serial killers. How seriously were we ultimately meant to take the actual Dora Lange investigation, and how much of it was just a line to hang the character examination on?

Nic Pizzolatto: I don’t think it was an empty vehicle, is what I guess I would say there. I don’t think it could have been just anything that these guys were working on. I think it’s relevant that the person they’re chasing is both the victim of an historical evil and the perpetrator of an historical evil. The killer in that way is a physical articulation of cultural aspects that have sat behind the scenes, even informing that polluted landscape that provides so much of the background. If you go from the idea of something being in its natural state and then being perverted, and that this particular villain, for lack of a better word, is a killer of women and children, and his methodology is intimately tied to a mythology of belief – I do think if you want to go back and watch 7 and 8, there’s enough given in the fragments that everyone states, there’s enough that you can actually piece together historically, how Sam Tuttle in the early ’30s led to Errol Childress in the first decade of the new millennium. I would say it wasn’t an empty vehicle at all. I think the killer, his methodology and his actual crimes were endemic, not only to our characters, but to the world we were dealing with. It wouldn’t have worked to have a robbery that didn’t get solved properly in 1995. There’s almost a way that Cohle, Hart and Errol, these men are in some ways the creations of their fathers, if you pay attention to their backstories.

All of the things that, in the previous episode, Cohle was telling Marty that he had uncovered, and what we saw on the videotape, pointed to a larger group of men working on these things. But we get to the end, and it’s just Errol left, along with his father in the shed. How many other people were involved in the specific things that Cohle and Hart were investigating?

Nic Pizzolatto: There’s the men in the video, and there’s about 10 of them. Then you can begin to look at that as if that cult began to disintegrate shortly afterwards, and then there were always revenants existing on a local level. If you track the name Childress, you realize Sheriff Childress was the sheriff when Marie Fontenot disappeared, an Officer Childress was attending to Guy Francis in 2002 when he committed suicide. The conspiracies that I’ve researched and encountered, they seem to happen very ad hoc: they become conspiracies when it’s necessary to have a conspiracy. I think it would have rang false to have Hart and Cohle suddenly clean up 50 years of the culture history that led to Errol Childress, or to get all the men in that video. It’s important to me, I think, that Cohle says, “We didn’t get em all, Marty,” and Marty says, “We ain’t going to. This isn’t that kind of world.” This isn’t the kind of world where you mop up everything. We discharged our duty, but of course there are levels and wheels and historical contexts to what happened that we’ll never be able to touch.

Early in the episode, we see Errol come into the big house, “North by Northwest” is playing and he starts doing a James Mason voice. Then he slips into a number of other accents. What was behind that?

Nic Pizzolatto: That was part of his creation as a character. There was this idea that when he talks in his real voice, it’s very slurred because of the scarring. My background for him was that he learned how to enunciate properly through watching all these old VCR movies. And that brings us back to the idea of storytelling, right? At one minute he can affect this Andy Griffith good ol’ boy voice, the next he can sound like James Mason, and when he wants to use his real voice, he sounds like something wounded and damaged. And then when Cohle is in Carcosa, he sounds like something entirely different.

This has been the story of these two guys, and we get to know them incredibly well. None of the other characters really exist as anything but mirrors to reflect some aspect of Rust or Marty. How challenging is it to populate a world in which the only two characters who really matter are these two guys?

Nic Pizzolatto: That was really challenging. That was one of the most challenging things. Had this been an ensemble, that would have made it much much easier. In an ensemble, you can always cut to someone else’s story. You have at least half a dozen characters going through individual problems. But this was very much about tracking two personalities and two points of view. The significant change in the final scene is that a point of view has shifted. After we’ve been told via Hart that there’s no such thing as absolute justice – that’s a story we tell ourselves, the real guilty don’t get punished. It was very hard. If someone were, I think, to read my prose, they would find it populated with rich female characters. My challenge was, if somebody only exists in relation to Cohle and Hart, so they’re only going to get one or two lines, they need to become vivid and imply a history and dimensionality in one or two lines.

I don’t know where you are in working on season 2, but has any of the reaction to this season informed what you’re doing with the next?

Nic Pizzolatto: It’s informed exactly one thing. It’s that I realize I need to keep being strange. Don’t play the next one straight.

Can you tell me anything at all about season 2?

Nic Pizzolatto: Okay. This is really early, but I’ll tell you (it’s about) hard women, bad men and the secret occult history of the United States transportation system.

Finally, you wrote this entire thing in a vacuum, as someone relatively new to television, not knowing how it was received. And the show comes on, and people go nuts about it, they are penning raves, coming up with elaborate theories about the Yellow King and Lovecraft and everything else. How did it feel to see your creation being received in all of these ways?

Nic Pizzolatto: I felt like, look, it’s all good, and I really mean that. To me, that is what it means to connect and resonate with people. It means that they are going to project onto the work. There’s never been anything I didn’t love that I didn’t connect with on a personal level because to some degree, I projected upon it. That said, I think I’ve made clear that my only interest in the Chambers stuff (Robert W. Chambers wrote “The King in Yellow”) is as a story that has a place in American myth. And it’s a story about a story that drives people into madness. That was mainly it. Beyond that, I’m interested in the atmosphere of cosmic horror, but that’s about all I have to say about weird fiction. I did feel the perception was tilted more towards weird fiction than perhaps it should have been. For instance, if someone needs a book to read along with season 1 of “True Detective,” I would recommend the King James Old Testament. I wouldn’t tell anyone to go buy Robert Chambers. It’s not that great a book. Joseph Conrad and William Faulkner I think are in there far more than Chambers or Lovecraft. But again, I guess I hope that these 8 chapters, once the totality of it is evident, it might provoke a re-evaluation. But if it doesn’t, I’m very happy with the reaction we’ve had. It couldn’t have been better. I’m just surprised by it. I remember talking to you three months ago and having to convince you: “This just sounds like every other show,” “I know, I know.” And now my wife read a comment the other day that said I live out in the desert, and I run some kind of cult. (laughs) I don’t know what I can say about that. I think this show answers everything it told you to ask. The questions it didn’t tell you to ask are questions best left to one’s self.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com