Few recent shows have made a lasting impression so quickly as “True Detective.” The police psychodrama, with star turns by Matthew McConaughey as troubled detective Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson as his beleaguered partner Marty Hart, drew 12 Emmy nominations, including best actor nods for both leads, along with best dramatic series and an outstanding writing credit for creator Nic Pizzolatto.
The show’s dark atmosphere and hyperverbal dialogue have earned it devoted fans, and earned Pizzolatto a reputation as a rising force of sharp writing and intriguing plots. He has built a place where Schopenhauer, Cormac McCarthy and H.P. Lovecraft meet police procedurals, and where humanity itself is the prime suspect.
The show will return to HBO next spring with another eight episodes, though with an entirely different cast and directors. Casting for Season Two has been daily star-studded grist for the rumor mill. While many A-list names have been bandied about, none have been confirmed as of press time. This we do know. The series will be “set in California, not Los Angeles. Viewers should expect a very strict character point-of-view, and a similar aesthetic, genre and authorial voice as Season One,” said Pizzolatto, who has called Ojai home for nearly three years.
Pizzolatto is also the author of the novel “Galveston,” a finalist for an Edgar Award as best mystery novel. The film version will start shooting in October with actor Matthias Schoenarts, the Belgian star of “Bullhead” and “Rust and Bone” as the lead.
The OQ interviewed Pizzolatto in person and by email. Here’s a few excerpts from our wide-ranging discussion.
OQ: Let’s begin at the ending. As a viewer, the final scene of season one of “True Detective” felt like a gut punch. Visceral. It was so unexpected, and yet, upon further reflection, it seems as if all eight episodes were leading up to it. Was that the ending you had in mind from the start, or did the characters reveal it to you as you were writing?
NP: The story was built toward that ending, and it was the one that was always intended. I think it’s important to have an ending in mind, and that it’s just as important to be fluid and willing to change your ending if characters and circumstance dictate something other. To begin a difficult journey with no destination in mind seems fairly foolish to me. The ending returns us to the intimate depiction of a character relationship which has been the entire subject of the season, while refining the various juxtapositions and mirror-reflections that layer the series into their most fundamental binary incarnation: dark versus light.
OQ: Ojai has long been a retreat for writers. Writer Mark Lewis made a persuasive case that Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” was influenced by his stay in Ojai, for example. Authors Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley and Bertolt Brecht wrote some of their major works here. Blacklisted screenwriters Dalton Trumbo and Michael Wilson wrote epic films like “Spartacus” and “Lawrence of Arabia” at least in part while living in Ojai.
What all these very different works share is that they are deeply human. The characters, even the antagonists, have depth and complexity. So the question is, do you find that “far from the madding crowds,” with its endless distractions, you can tap into something universal about the human experience. Has it helped your writing — its depth and flow?
NP: I love it here. I need nature and sunlight, and I don’t like crowds or feeling fenced, can’t stand congestion. I like open space, peaceful routine. The calmer and more regulated my life is, the more I’m free to indulge myself and go wild on the page. You can really adjust your reality here, and I prefer the pace of life as opposed to the pace of business. I haven’t done great in cities, traditionally. Paris strikes me as the only city in which I could conceivably be happy and at peace for any length of time. It seems like writers have always sought retreats — peaceful, bucolic settings with a contemplative rhythm that’s in tune with the natural order. There’s a number of them in our country, and writers flock to them. So maybe it’s the same urge; I just live in my writer’s retreat.
OQ: Is it a challenge to write with such great familiarity with the darkness, while living in this beautiful place with all this glorious sunshine? I’m reminded of that Spanish aphorism, “La mejor parte del sol es una la sombre.” The best part of the sun is in the shade.
NP: I don’t find it hard at all, to tell you the truth. Which perhaps speaks more to the specific nature of my imagination than anything else. The inner darkness of certain knowledge never goes away, and the brightness of a light correlates to the darkness of its shade, so even metaphorically, it’s fine. Perhaps it can be a good idea to work in juxtaposition to one’s surroundings. Or maybe the peace and tranquility free the mind to go places it would ordinarily not be open to imagining.
OQ: Does that particular ending, that optimistic note, give us clues to the next season? Or will we be back in the dark and delicious murk this coming season?
NP: The optimistic note at the end is extremely cautious. Maybe even false, given that the historical perpetrators of the crimes from which (serial killer) Childress resulted and which he was enacting are all free from prosecution.
In “True Detective,” the world is the crime. That’s why the level of texture and attention to detail. Characters exist against the backdrop of a malignant universe, and yet that universe, that world is a reflection of those characters, and they are a reflection of it. And at the end of the day, you don’t beat the world.
The show suggests a poisoned garden, but the root of the poison is humanity. We corrupted the world, it’s suggesting, and now we live in the ruins of our fall, in a place where perfidy can enter every crack of our lives like smoke. These characters are a coagulation of historical culture and crimes.
So [McConaughey’s character Rust)] Cohle’s cautious optimism is no more valid, and perhaps less valid, than Cohle’s pessimism. It is only important for the character that his perspective widened enough to admit the unknowing, and the potential of love. The character earned that. Certainly he didn’t find anything like ‘god’ or ‘heaven’ — he just remembered the experience of love, and so was able, finally, to unleash the pure grief which sat at the heart of his hard-boiled pessimism. The stars are fading, too, at the end.
That’s a long way of saying, ‘optimism’ is a little strong. And Season Two will involve the dark and murky parts of human character and civilization, but still with the possibility of redemption and, I hope, humor.
OQ: The show became part of the national conversation quickly (President Obama is among “True Detective” fans, for example.) How does that feel as a writer to know you’ve entered, even helped create, this zeitgeist?
NP: I don’t know, really. I don’t know how true any of that is, although it’s very flattering. I’m not online much, and I have trouble calling what I find there ‘conversation.’ Definitely don’t read blogs and only take my news from a couple places. Add to that that I don’t live in L.A., but in a small town in the mountains, and it hasn’t been difficult to escape the noise. I’ve been kind of a recluse, too, just enjoying my family and working, so my day-to-day reality hasn’t had much to do with the show or people’s reactions to it. But I and every artist I respect just want to keep doing our work, and whatever noise it creates isn’t really our province.
OQ: Any future collaborations with Matt McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in the works?
NP: Matthew and I are going to be working together in the future, we just haven’t decided on what. But that is definitely a relationship to keep active — he’s a good muse for me, and I really like working with the guy. So I’d bet you see the two of us together at some point.
And I’d work with Woody anytime, of course. I have a one-man play I want to do with Woody one day.
OQ: Any anecdotes about working with them that you can share?
NP: Plenty of anecdotes. None to share. That’s what friendships are for.
OQ: Do you see your role as a showrunner along the lines of Matthew Weiner (“Mad Men”) with meticulous attention to detail, or more of a David Milch (“Deadwood”) type, who focuses on great writing and so lets the memorable characters emerge from that?
NP: That doesn’t describe Milch, who is as attentive to detail as any TV creator in history; and Milch works closely with actors on set, which not all showrunners do. My role is as the overall voice, vision and decider. I was on set the entire time, worked closely with the actors on set, had approval over every creative decision, including casting and the hiring of [Season One director)] Cary [Fukanaga], and I took my own edits. The writing of the scripts actually represents maybe 30 percent of my total work on the series. So the only word I think for it is “showrunner,” but without a writer’s room.
OQ: Who are your influences or people who you respect in the business? Screenwriters, genre writers, directors, actors?
NP: In television it’s Dennis Potter (“Singing Detective”) more than anyone, and I have an intense respect for David Milch and a love for all his work.
OQ: What do you find compelling about Dennis Potter? (I’ll bet Michael Gambon hasn’t had so much fun before or since “The Singing Detective.”) Potter was definitely not afraid to mix things up. Is that what you identify with? Can we expect to see you break the 4th wall in future seasons of “True Detective?”
NP: The uniqueness and uncompromising nature of his vision is very compelling to me; his work is as personal and layered as any great novelist’s, these psychosexual melodramas full of such human pathos and love. He broke open what television can do and created works that are only at their most effective as serialized television, and he was a great writer in many forms, not just television, but he made this populist art for the most inclusive medium there is.
OQ: Some call this the “Golden Age of Television.” But doesn’t it seem like those things can only be judged in retrospect? By the time our cultural awareness catches up with the moment, it’s passed?
NP: No idea. I don’t know about Ages of anything, but I think television is on average far better and smarter than movies right now.
OQ: Do you ever see us going back to the tepid five-camera sitcoms of “Happy Days?” Or is television now and in the future the metiér of choice for our best and brightest talents?
NP: I think television is the place to be if you’re a writer-producer, absolutely. It’s an auteur medium for storytellers. I’ll be honest, I’d love to do a series set in a closed set with just a couple cameras. I know just what it would be. But I can’t see the future, and I can’t even guess how long television and film have left as viable mediums for artists.
OQ: Any new projects you can talk about?
NP: “True Detective” is taking up all my bandwidth right now. But there’s at least a few more shows I’d like to make, and a couple films I’d like to make. Whether I get to do any of that is, of course, unknown. But lots of stories to tell, lots of characters to portray.