Novelist Nic Pizzolatto makes use of his outsider’s perspective to bring a fresh depth to HBO’s new hit series True Detective, a darkly existential crime drama featuring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
(January 31, 2014)
HBO’s raved new drama True Detective stakes itself at the heart of modern American crime noir but sprawls further out into philosophy, theology and European existentialism – all touchstones of the broader genre, but facets often lost when TV attempts to handle the dark diamond. Key to this high-cut gem of a show is the first-time showrunner who scripted all eight episodes of the first season, creator Nic Pizzolatto, an award-winning novelist and very recently ex teacher of fiction and literature.
Being an outsider to scriptwriting prior to 2010 (Pizzolatto performed a brief stint as a staffer on AMC’s The Killing) has proved an asset. His literary background – sometimes a hindrance when it comes to the economy and precision demanded of screenwriters – has so far been a boon, bringing fresh depth to the show that otherwise might rank as just another crime series.
Pizzolatto’s main vessel for thoughts both dark and deep is Matthew McConaughey in a role so juicy he almost needs a bib. He plays Rust Cohle, a murder investigator whose only remaining connections to humanity are his obsession with deciphering the work of killers and his homespun partner, Martin Hart, played with heartland authenticity by Woody Harrelson. While Hart struggles not to screw up the American life one is expected to live – nice home, beautiful wife and adoring daughter – Cohle is long awake from any such illusions and would fit as well alone in a dank, cellar café in Berlin re-reading Camus or Beckett. Somewhere in between the two lies the real Pizzolatto, who seems to have wandered down a few dark roads of his own. He’s well-versed in the existentialists and a huge fan of Beckett, but is also an utterly unassuming, plain-spoken Louisiana-born guy’s guy.
Photo: © 2014 HBO
Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in True Detective.
He spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the unique structure of the anthology series, which will feature a different story each season, the time-jumping narrative device he used for the show, and how having his words brought to life by the likes of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson has changed his writing.
Can you just give some descriptors for your fiction for those who haven’t read it – just a nutshell? Do you call it neo-noir?
I don’t know, you know? I don’t call it anything because I just kind of fell into this crime writing thing. I mean I didn’t fall into it, it was obviously a choice, and it involved tons of research and the types of people I’m interested in. But my first collection of stories was just kind of straight ahead, nothing really crime or noir about it.
Is that before From Here to the Yellow Sea?
Yeah. I think it’s existential fiction that often takes the guise of a more easily classifiable genre.
It’s got strains of noir, obviously.
Yeah, and when people talk to me about that, I always say that to me, noir – and to the French who coined the term as a way of describing the post-war mindset – is an existential condition, right? We, as human beings, I mean you’re born into the world, you know nothing. You’re awash in sensation, and the only certainty you have about anything is that you’re going to die. I mean that sounds pretty noir. Not to say there’s not butterflies and children and good music and good friends, but, that is sort of all you’re allowed to know about life.
True. Well, this show is very much in keeping with your writing style. Can you give me a logline for True Detective for those who haven’t seen it, who are thinking about getting into it?
True Detective’s an anthology series that projects telling a different story with new cinematic talent every year. The first season traces the lives of two CID detectives, played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson across 17 years and a hunt for a killer. And the story loops back on itself and is framed by a 2012 narration as the older version of the men have been called in to recount their original investigation. Episodes one through three are our first act. They all have a similar rhythm. Episodes four through six are our second act, and episodes seven and eight are our third act.
When you say “anthology,” that means the following season will go on to a new story?
Yeah, it’s projected that every season would tell a sort of epic self-contained crime story.
So it’s sort of like novelistic film played out over a season?
Yeah it’s something like that. People say “a novel for TV” a lot, and that applies to the literary density of our best television shows. Even then, you know, novels have endings. Novels have third acts. I have always liked the idea of telling a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The downside is that you have to reinvent the wheel every year and then you find guys like Matthew and Woody who you just love and would actually like to keep doing things with if you could...
To that point, you’ve written in a solitary manner a lot as a novelist, a short story writer, never having seen your works performed. How much has seeing the likes of McConaughey and Harrelson bring life to your words affected you as a writer?
That’s a great question. Working with great actors who are honest and hard working is one of the best gifts a writer can have to learn from, because you don’t have to believe that I know what I’m doing but you better believe Matthew and Woody do. They’re not going to let a false line fly. So getting in there with those guys and digging into the words, communicating the intention behind them, that’s incredibly valuable. I’ve found I really love working with actors, and it seems to me that most writers would because actors are the only people who care about characters as much as we do, you know? I mean, they want to know everything, and that’s great. Then when you have an actor, for instance, like Matthew who can handle anything you throw at him, well, why not push that character’s diction if it’s authentic to the character because your actor can handle it.
He’s kind of taken it to another level, showing you that the words can go even further in a way.
Yeah, I think so, too. But, you know, however good they looked on the page, they become something else in the mouth of a great actor. They become an embodiment and a part of a living creature almost.
Is that something you think you can take with you when you’re writing your new dialogue for your next thing?
Oh yeah. I’ve never written a character who talked like Rust Cohle. It’s not like everybody I write talks like Cohle. Cohle’s the only person in the show who talks like Cohle. I wouldn’t imagine my next story in this venue would have a detective who is speaking at length about space-time theory and the inevitable fate of all life and stuff like that.
One of your biggest jobs as a dramatist is to be able to write towards your actors, to make sure that the intentions of the dialogue are still there but that you’re not throwing anything out there that isn’t authentic or true to the character.
And there’s two Cohles in a way, at least two…
Yeah, there’s at least three, keep watching.
The most diametric being the earliest years at the scene of the crime and at the end of the chronological span, this testimonial, beer-drinking, long-haired dude who’s like post-furnace. They are very much connected, but it’s like two characters.
Yeah, you get the sense that everything Cohle was sort of on the edge of in ’95, he’s now gone way beyond. Like if he was always standing on the rim of a kind of crater, now he’s down in the very bottom on it.
That is exactly how it seems. I’ve read some interviews with you, and you’ve spoken about finding the restriction of scripts appealing.
It wasn’t that I found them appealing at first. It was that when I first engaged them in 2010, I found them freeing in the sense that if you’re working in fiction or prose you’re really unconstrained by anything except your imagination. That’s fantastic, but it also leaves you this sort of infinitude of possibility at any given moment.
So it’s overwhelming?
Yeah it can be. I mean it’s just very difficult to learn the craft to the degree that you can reliably see the forest for the trees. Because in prose you get lost in the trees. It’s really easy. In drama or screenwriting, everything is really brought down to character and action. I had those same long descriptions of the south Louisiana landscape that are in my fictions. Those were in the scripts, but that’s just setting, you know? Everything is characters acting.
So that brings it all down to a really finite amount of choices, and you can’t get lost in yourself or in any sort of flights of fancy. You have to stay focused on your characters and on what they’re doing to the story and what the story is doing to them.
It’s the freedom of limitation, weirdly. There’s a great quote about that I can’t remember…
Yeah, I really think it’s true. As an artist in any form, you can look at restrictions as either an obstacle or a cause for innovation. In an art form that costs as much as this one does, well, of course, there are going to be restrictions on you all over the place. So innovate, figure out ways around these restrictions if it’s something you really feel is worthwhile.
What more than anything do you think your work writing and teaching fiction has brought to your television writing? If you could distill it to the most important thing, what do you think it would be?
Well, the prose training helped me acquire a deep sense of character. The teaching and lecturing actually really helped me to be able to communicate with both the studio and my creative colleagues in the sense of just making sure everybody understands what the intention is. Beyond that, I guess that it was just that I wasn’t trained and didn’t really come up inside the Hollywood system. So I didn’t really get shaped by it and I feel like that has proven to be an asset over the last couple of years.
And conversely, do you think this sojourn into TV has forever changed the way you write fiction?
Yes, I believe it’s made me a better writer. I believe being a screenwriter has made me a better fiction writer and being a fiction writer has made me a better screenwriter. It all works together.
On the former, do you think it’s because of that discipline and limitation that you were talking about?
Yes I do. I think I have a new focus and a new capacity for taking on bigger more complicated stories and being able to keep them organized than I had. I mean I’d like to think I would have written two more novels at least if I hadn’t been out here doing this.
To that point, speaking frankly, TV is a lucrative business, and it’s market-driven. Coming from the background you come from, are you ever concerned that those market motives and the lure of the money that can be made and the prestige…
That the materialism will corrupt your artistic sense…
I know it’s kind of a hackneyed idea but…
No, I don’t think it is. I mean it’d be nice to think it’s a hackneyed idea, yet don’t we see it happen all the time?
How are you grappling with that?
Well, you know, I guess I just haven’t changed at all. The one thing we’ve done is buy a house, and we bought it 70 miles outside of Los Angeles next to the Los Padres National Forest. I spend all my time when I’m not working or with friends with my wife and daughter. I’m not part of any kind of scene. I have no desire to get in some kind of steeplechase… if I was really interested in that stuff above all else, I don’t think I ever would have become a prose writer. I would have beelined for screenwriting from the beginning. I guess it’s just something you have to watch out for. Your own personality and the world are constantly trying to cripple you in a thousand different ways and you just have to watch out for it, and the best way to do that is to stay centered in what your real aims are. I don’t take anything for granted. I don’t take it for granted that I’ll be doing this in five years or even two. This is a very hard, fickle business, but I’m going to do it as long as they let me. If they stop letting me, I don’t think I’d be chasing stuff. I would gracefully exit the stage and return to the books that are waiting to be written.