‘True Detective’ creator on his gripping new HBO series

Before creating the new HBO mystery series “True Detective,” Nic Pizzolatto“s only produced scripts were a pair of episodes from “The Killing” season 1. That is not a resume that will generally lead to a writer being given control of an expensive, ambitious series for pay cable”s gold standard, featuring a pair of movie stars in Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, in which he would write all eight episodes himself.
But “True Detective” isn”t an ordinary project, and the brilliant results – I”ll have a review of it tomorrow, but it”s among the most gripping shows I”ve watched in years – speak for themselves. Like “American Horror Story,” it”s set up as a collection of anthology seasons, starting off with the tale of Louisana cops Rustin “Rust” Cohle (McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Harrelson) investigating a serial killer case that winds up spanning 17 years, from 1995 until 2012. In Cohle, an impossibly damaged philosopher with an aptitude for this kind of case, Pizzolatto and McConaughey have created a mesmerizing new character, and Harrelson matches his old friend beat for beat as the more straightforward Hart. Not only did Pizzolatto write every episode, but all were directed by Cary Fukunaga (the 2011 “Jane Eyre”), giving the project a unified, tragically beautiful look and feel.
I spoke with Pizzolatto, a novelist from Louisiana, about the origins of the show, what he learned from (and what he didn”t like about) his time on “The Killing,” what a second season of “True Detective” might look like, and more.
How on earth does a guy with as little TV experience as you have had get the keys to a show like this?
Nic Pizzolatto: I think it was a combination of me being the guy who created the material and owned it, so if you wanted to make it, it had to be with me. Before we took this out to pitch, I had been out west for maybe a year and a half or a little longer. I understood how television gets made, and I knew it was a job I could do. So part of my job in pitching the show is to convince people of my abilities. And, to be fair, something that involves this much talent and this much money, I think if I’d ever done a poor job or been dissatisfactory, I don’t I don’t think they would have had a problem sidelining me, but maybe I’m wrong about that. Which is only to say that your day-to-day performance is what lets you keep going, I guess.
Before that, where did you get the idea to do this and to specifically do an anthology?

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.

The anthology idea came from a couple of things. I enjoy a third act and I like stories with ending. A lot of my frustration with serialized storytelling is a lot of shows don’t have a third act. They have an endless second act, and then they find out it’s their last year and often have to hustle to invest a third act, but they were never necessarily organically meaning to to begin with. So I wanted to tell something with a complete story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And a way a lot of those anthology programs from the previous golden age of television influenced me was that we might be able to tap in to real cinematic talent if the material’s good enough. Most television shows are going to require an actor sign up from four to six years, but an anthology show really amounts to five or six months at the most. I thought serious actors might be attracted to that. In cinema, the opportunities for them to do serious adult work are just disappearing day by day, so if they’re not interested in playing a superhero, I thought this might be a place where they can come do something that really interested them and engage their craft. In a kind of long-form storytelling, the movie actors don’t get to experience a lot of but without requiring the commitments of them that television usually requires, the multi-year contract thing.
My understanding is that McConnaughey was originally approached to play Hart and he said, “No, I want to play Cohle, and you should talk to Woody about playing Hart.” Is that actually what happened?

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.”

Seeing how good both of them are in these roles, but also thinking about the other kinds of characters they’ve played over their careers, I kind of want to see a second season that”s just this all over again with them swapping parts, because I think they could do it.

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.

Woody has TV experience, but it was 20 years ago and it was on a multi-cam sitcom, which is pretty cushy compared to this. Over the course of the production, did you get a sense that it was easier on him than it was on Matthew or was it new for both of 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.

You were only on “The Killing” writing staff briefly. What was that experience like, and how useful, if at all, was that in the process of doing this?

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.”

Did you have any particular stylistic templates you were looking at when you set out to do this or any particular kind of TV shows or films in the past that you looked at and admired and said, “I would love for some of that to be in here”?

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.

The Cohle character, through these early episodes I’ve seen, he is much more attuned to a lot of what’s going on with the serial killer. He has a lot of theories. He uses a lot of words that drive Marty nuts over the course of things. We’re going back to Thomas Harris in terms of this pop culture idea of the serial killer profiler and the guy who speaks in this way. How did you try to approach this so that it didn’t just feel like a copy of a copy of 16 other things?
Nic Pizzolatto: The reviews aren’t in, so I might get hit with nothing but this being a copy of a copy of a copy. But the difference for me came from my personal obsessions and the things I wanted to investigate and explore that basically, in a larger sense have nothing to do with a serial killer. I have literally no interest in serial killers, and I have no interest in trying to shock or gross people out with a portrayal of gore. Serial killers, the way they’re depicted in pop culture is more or less a fantasy. For me, the sorts of familiar tropes you see, particularly in the first episode, we begin with the finding of the body, and the two cops who don’t quite get along, and they”ve got to ride around in a car and talk. These are very familiar tropes. What I think occurs, though, is that every time we encounter a familiar trope, the show’s real concerns then subvert that trope. Things never quite go the way we’ve been trained to think they’ll go. Those aren’t empty reversals. The reason things don’t go quite the way we expect them to go is due to actions of characters, and the actions of characters are born out of their personality. I was going to take some familiar elements, use them to ground the viewer in a kind of genre, in a series of narrative tropes they’re familiar with, and hopefully in anchoring them in these things, I can do stuff that’s much more unusual for a so-called procedural.
The rhythm of the show actually changes quite a bit after episode 3, but I think you can see in the first few episodes, where it takes its best effects, isn’t from the places a procedural usually takes its effect. It tends to be most powerful in the scenes where it’s just between characters, or it”s just the characters living their lives. in that way, I’m not interested in serial killers, and I’m not interested in getting into some creative contest over who can come up with the grossest variation of a serial killer. In any genre – science fiction, romance, literary – my main concern is generally the humanism of the characters occupying the scenario. I think our investigation and our procedural aspects fulfill all the surface requirements of the genre, in that, yes, there’s suspense, yes there’s a very real danger, yes the investigation is actually the unraveling of a legit mystery that coils back on itself and I believe has an organic and satisfying resolution. But all that stuff amounts to is a series of pressures and a narrative structure in which the show can get about its true business, which is the investigation of these two men and these two characters. The anthology format isn’t tied to a serial killer. The only rule is that there’s going to be a mystery and someone’s going to do some detecting. This particular season just happens to take the form of this manhunt for an unknown killer, but it’s a criminal investigation disguising the an investigation of these group of characters by these two men I think. Or at least that was the ambition.

Over the course of these early episodes, we learn a lot about Cohle, and he has been through an awful lot in his life and as a result has come out the other side as a very strange character. How did you come up with him and how did you know what was the line which you couldn’t push him past in terms of either the things in his history or the things that he says and believes in?

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.

And then it’s almost like, ‘Well, if you care to, if you want to make something for populist consumption, it would be good to have a story to attach it to, right?’ If I just had two guys driving around in a car all day talking about shit I don’t think that would get us very far. So then, if my fundamental concern is an investigation of character, and I want to sell this in such a way that it has a chance to find a widescale audience, what better genre for an investigation into character than a genre whose narrative structure is itself investigation. The two things just seem to fit really well. And then when we took it out, HBO has a really good track record for reinventing typical American genres in new lights. If you think of “The Sopranos” as the American family soap opera, or “Deadwood” as a reconfiguration of a Western, “The Wire” as a reconfiguration of an urban procedural.
In terms of the period in which the initial investigation was set, was there something you particularly liked about the mid-’90s or was it simply you wanted this to be roughly this many years ago and so this was when the story would have to happen?

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.

How many ideas do you have at this point for what the second season would be, assuming HBO wants to do more?

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 sepinwall@hitfix.com