True Detective creator on season 3, being 'blown away' by Mahershala Ali
In his first one-on-one interview in four years, True Detective‘s creator Nic Pizzolatto discusses his return-to-form new season of the HBO anthology drama in a spoiler-free Q&A.
Pizzolatto’s journey to make the show’s new installment has been a long, unusual and rocky road. True Detective exploded onto the pop culture landscape when it debuted in 2014 and was lavished with praise and award nominations. Then came the show’s much-anticipated 2015 follow-up, which was critically drubbed as a step-down.
After that, the showrunner went quiet, and the future of True Detective became uncertain.
On Sunday, the series returns for its third season. Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali stars as Det. Wayne Hays, who investigates the 1980 disappearance of two children across three different time periods. The season intercuts between Hays as an Arkansas State Police Detective at age 35, as a desk-bound cop of 45 in 1990 and as a 70-year-old retiree in 2015 whose memory is afflicted by the early stages of dementia.
Many critics have praised the new season, noting it harkens back what made the show a hit the first time around. Yet Pizzolatto himself is coming across a bit differently. The writer known for his philosophical and complex narratives along with a reputation for combativeness is showing his humility, such as when he recently addressed the season 2 backlash at a press conference: “I learned and understood there was a lot of stuff in season 2 that people hadn’t really wanted to see,” he said. “I just try to keep getting better at what I do, moving forward, and I think the criticism is a big part of that.” Or at various moments during our chat below.
Here Pizzolatto discusses his inspiration for the season, working with David Milch, how Ali convinced him to reconceive the lead role (which was originally written for a white actor) and why a fourth season might happen sooner than you think.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Just broadly, what excites you about this new season?
NIC PIZZOLATTO: The performances most of all, and especially what Mahershala does. I’ve been watching him since last February, and then in the editing room, and every time I watch him I catch another nuance of what he’s doing. It’s so subtle and so controlled. I’m blown away. I really think what he does here — as far as degree of difficulty for an actor, and how he pulled it off — is just amazing. And I’m excited by the story. It came to me spontaneously and organically and maybe moves towards a different sort of place and effect than the other seasons. But I just really think everyone’s performances are just off the charts with Mahershala doing stuff I’ve never seen before.
What was that spontaneous moment of inspiration? What sparked it off?
I was thinking about a couple people close to me who have been touched by this affliction [dementia] and I was wondering if it would be possible to tell a man’s life story in the form of a detective story. What if the detective’s ultimate mystery is: “Who am I?” And: “What did my life mean?” I didn’t know it would be a True Detective, I just had this idea. It felt like an impossible math problem at first. Well, how do you do that? How would you make [the narrative] conform to the genre expectations for it to be successful while still trying to fulfill these larger ambitions? When I started writing, I didn’t know if it would be a movie or something else. Once I was 40 pages in, and I was starting to see how this puzzle would fit together, I was like, “Oh, this is a True Detective.”
Obviously, in terms of its setting, structure and tone, the new season feels closer to season 1 than season 2. Was that a deliberate choice to get back to the show’s roots?
It was somewhat deliberate without being forced. Because of the ambition to spread this person’s life over three time periods, that lent itself to using two of the time periods as narrative framing devices and then moving out of them as those time periods become their own stories. I felt like there were ways I could harken back to structural devices from season 1 while letting them evolve — not repeating things but using what had been set down before to do something new. It all kind of fit together — the atmosphere and the partnership. [The season 1 similarities] felt organic, they didn’t feel calculated. And I was pleased to see them because I thought the audience would be pleased by them.
People have noted the comparison to the West Memphis 3 “Satanic panic” case, how of much of that is an inspiration if any?
Not at all. You’re moved off that pretty quickly. It’s really not informed by that.
Mahershala Ali has said that he was originally offered the secondary role, now played by Stephen Dorff. He lobbied you for the lead role and then, after some consideration, you agreed. How did that go on your end? What won you over and how did his casting change the role?
He talked to me and I just listened. I think I had felt that maybe, in the modern landscape, that I would need to make race the forefront of the story if I were to [cast Ali as the main character in a show set a Southern town in 1980]. And I asked Mahershala, I said, “The story is about time and love and memory. I don’t want to ignore race, but I would hate for those larger themes to be subsumed because we’re suddenly telling a story that’s mostly about race.” And he said he didn’t want that. He said a lot of the roles that he’s offered — and that a lot of actors of color are offered — are centered around race. What he liked about this was this is a fully formed character who wasn’t defined by that. And I knew I’d be lucky to have an actor of his caliber.
So then I just went back to the first two episodes and looked at how to switch it around. It’s almost like he gave me permission to enter this character’s mind. And I found that [changing Wanye Hays’ race] worked, and it opened up new dimensions in the character. Suddenly that existential isolation that’s endemic to the character of The Detective in popular culture really came out to the forefront when you can see what an outsider he is in this world, and how that would allow him a quality of observation that others would lack who are more comfortable, and how controlled he would have to be in his responses and interactions with the public and his superiors. [Hays’ partner] Roland can be emotive, and Wayne is very controlled and modulates himself with this kind of guarded vigilance.
And then in 1990, you can see how the character has changed, having been married for 10 years, having two kids, he’s been at a desk, so he’s a bit more emotive and reactive and desperate. Once I made those changes and saw Mahershala’s performance I couldn’t imagine it being any other way. I felt like he gave me a great gift that opened up my work and allowed me the freedom of imagination that I had been unknowingly been previously constricting myself.
As an audience, we’re obviously not being shown certain things that happen in earlier timelines in early episodes to maintain the mystery. But given Hays’ memory problem can we even trust the accuracy of what we are seeing? Or is even that unreliable and suspect?
If you’re seeing it, it’s reliable. I’m not playing those sorts of games with the audience, where you find out what you saw didn’t really happen, or it was a dream within a dream or something. So he is a reliable narrator. When he doesn’t know something, we know it. The times when Wayne has a full-on episode of something uncanny, like the hallucination in episode 3, you know it. In order to tell such a complicated story across three timelines, you have to have those rules, otherwise there wouldn’t be anything for the audience to hang their hat on … memory and time have always been one of my obsessive subjects in most of what I’ve done. The fluidity and mercurial quality of memory, how it can’t be fully trusted. It colors the present and we in the present, in turn, color our memories; always looking for a way to do the past, present and future as all of one thing.
Even though he only co-wrote one episode, there’s been speculation about David Milch’s level of contribution to the season as he has such a distinctive voice and was previously announced as joining the team. Can you give a sense of what he brought to the show?
He came in for a few weeks of work on episode four and brought his amazing insight, ear for character, and great sense of dramaturgy. A fantastic experience on every level.
Jeremy Saulnier directed the first two episodes and was reportedly originally was supposed to direct more when he left. What was it that creatively important to you that went into that your decision to take over the next episodes yourself?
Well, I just did four and five and I was always scheduled to do four and five. And Dan Sackheim did 3, 6, 7, and 8. It was always the plan that I was going to do two middle episodes. And as far as, aesthetically, I guess it’s just about listening to the script, listening to the characters and the performances you’re getting and capturing them in the most effective way without overwriting them with aesthetic. And Arkansas was this great aesthetic gift for us, everywhere you pointed the camera you had something lush and foreboding and unique. It was sort of like where we were in South Louisiana in season 1; it felt like it hadn’t been photographed before.
When you heard Netflix had their crime show Ozark coming when you were developing the new season, did you consider changing your show’s location?
No, I didn’t. I didn’t think [the show] took place in the same [region of the Ozarks as True Detective], is my understanding. And I knew this part of the country and was really comfortable writing towards it, and I was aware of what we would find there. I think you just got to follow the vision. You can’t worry too much about what’s been done or what’s coming.
You have the meta bit in the season about having a documentary called True Criminal within the show. The detective show is TV’s most popular and most well-worn drama genre. How much of a challenge is it to break any kind of new ground nowadays?
You’re right, it’s the most worn genre there is. It’s a big challenge. You have to aim so that, even if you’re not successful, you at least have a chance of transcending the genre limitations. Just the idea of this [season] is very challenging. How do you put all the pieces together and not be cutesy with the audience? To not lie, not show something that you would have seen given the visual language and rules of the show? To keep everything above board, with no tricks up your sleeve?
You talked about narrative reliability. The show is telling you most of what is going to happen before it happens — given that you’re also seeing the 2015 story and the 1990 story. I wanted to play this straightforward, yet hope the audience is still engaged enough by the story that they still want to know how something happened, even if they have an idea of what might have happened. Like in episode 1, there’s a reference to [a certain event] but you’re not clear what that thing is until the end of episode 4.
There’s one non-spoiler scene I was going to cite in particular, from an episode you directed. The moment when present-day Wayne has a vision of his past self in bed with his family reading a story. Then it cuts to his 1990 self who sees the bedroom door open a bit on its own. You get this sense of the younger man, perhaps taking what he has for granted, not realizing the loneliness and horror that awaits — unknowingly haunted by his future self. I found that sad and powerful.
Thank you. What I was hoping for was some kind of sense that you can be haunted by the future, as well as the past. You could feel reverberations of something that has yet to happen. Thanks, I’m really glad that stuck to you.
Is this season a mystery that’s actually solvable by the audience with all the pieces that are given by the finale?
I don’t know. I think you could have an idea of what happened before those events are dramatized. But the full solution to everything that happened … maybe somebody could. I don’t think I could, but I’m not that smart.
You probably hate being asked this at this stage, but do you plan to do a fourth season? How long do we have to wait this time?
I dream of making a TV show where you have recurring characters and don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. After one of these I always feel so depleted. But I have to say … I have an idea.
Yeah, and it’s wild. It’s really, really wild. Where do you even go after this [season]? I just had a lead character who’s 35, 45 and 70 all at the same time and this mystery that has to reach false resolutions and keep going into the future without cheating the audience and all these complicated structural elements. But I have an idea that’s kind of crazy. I think it needs to percolate for a while. I was looking to do another series, maybe a movie, in the meantime, but yeah. I have an idea…
Is it fair to say that your success with this season, after taking time away from the show, has reinvigorated your interest to do more?
Yeah, I think so. There was just a lot of stuff going on with me, health-wise and personally, during and after season 2. I had sort of put True Detective on a shelf. I was working on something else for HBO during most of 2016. Then I had this idea and just started writing on it and stepped away from the other thing and told them, “I think this is what I should be doing,” and showed them some scripts. So I was working, I just wasn’t working on True Detective. But I would say now I’m feeling generative and want to keep that momentum going — if I’m allowed to.
True Detective returns Sunday, Jan. 13 to HBO.