Inside the Obsessive, Strange Mind of True Detective’s Nic Pizzolatto
Nic Pizzolatto was a college writing professor who’d never penned a TV script. Now, as the creator of HBO’s revolutionary True Detective, he’s the hottest showrunner in Hollywood.
Four years ago, Nic Pizzolatto was a college writing professor with one little-known collection of short stories to his name. He’d never written a single TV script. Now, as the creator of HBO’s True Detective, he’s the hottest new showrunner in Hollywood.
How did he do it?
When I meet Pizzolatto one recent Wednesday afternoon at a quiet Italian restaurant in Malibu, that’s the mystery I’m hoping to solve.
In my opinion, True Detective—the story of a pair of retired Louisiana cops and the sinister murder investigation that forever changed their lives—is not only one of the most riveting and provocative series I've seen in the last few years. It's one of the most riveting and provocative series I've ever seen. Period. The acting is brilliant. The plot is addictive. The allusions are rich. The philosophy is mind-bending.
And the auteur-anthology format—one writer, one director, two movie stars, and one story per season, with a beginning, middle, and end—could be revolutionary. As I wrote last month, “not every narrative is best created by committee or best told as an open-ended epic. … For a certain kind of plot-centric series, the True Detective model could alleviate some of television's muddling structural issues and liberate showrunners to take full advantage of the medium's greatest asset: time. Some characters deserve eight hours on screen. In a theater, you can't do that. On TV, you can.”
Despite being a relatively recent California transplant—he moved west in 2010—Pizzolatto, 38, looks more camera-ready than most TV writers. Grey leather jacket. Black unbuttoned henley. White undershirt. Aviators. Careful stubble. He resembles celebrity chef Rocco Di Spirito, or perhaps Tom Ford in landscape mode.
He orders the whole branzino. I get the linguine vongole con bottarga. After exchanging a few pleasantries about the weather and our respective journeys to Malibu, we finally get down to business. For the next two hours, Pizzolatto reveals the secrets of his creative process—and tells me what to expect from future episodes (and seasons) of True Detective.
Let’s start with Matthew McConaughey. As Rust Cohle, McConaughey gives what I consider the best performance of his career.
Matthew just got it—the dialogue especially, as baroque as it is. He was like, “No, no, this is the way this man talks.” And the 2012 Cohle talks differently than the 1995 Cohle. Matthew has this incredibly complicated chart of where Rust Cohle is emotionally and physically at every beat of those 17 years.
A written chart?
A map of his mental and emotional state. That’s why you notice that Cohle’s delivery in 2012 and 1995 is different. And that’s significant. If we’d had a lesser actor than Matthew playing Cohle, I would have had to rewrite the role. Not every actor can handle dialogue of this verbal complexity, and even fewer actors can understand the ideas and intentions hiding behind those verbal complexities.
But if you have thoroughbreds, let ‘em run. You don’t try to make your dialogue more common. You gauge exactly how great their skill is and you try to use that skill. To me, it would have been misuse of actors like Matthew and Woody to do something safer—to not give these guys steak to chew all the time.
Part of what I think is so interesting about True Detective is that it’s an even purer form of auteur TV than, say, Deadwood—a show that was scripted in a writer’s room and realized by multiple directors. True Detective is one writer, one director, one story per season. You control the story and tell it from beginning to end.
I was on set the entire time. I worked closely with the actors. And what’s airing are the cuts I’m very happy with. I think you can have the writer’s room and still have the auteur experience, and you can still have that auteur experience with multiple directors. But for me it was just more of a question of, do I want to spend my days in my place of interiority actually creating, or do I want to be sitting at a table talking about creating? And for the first season I was already too far ahead to bring anyone else in, and I couldn’t see a way it would help me.
I don’t know that I’ll write every episode in the future. But then again, I might. Even with what I’m writing now, I’m already at the point where a) how do I explain this to anybody else? and b) do I really want anybody else to touch this?
I take it that you’ve started to write the second season.
That’s what I’m writing now. But we don’t know if we’re going to go ahead and do it.
I thought HBO was onboard.
I have a deal with them, and that doesn’t change. And I think everybody’s hope is the next thing I do with them is True Detective. But if I write scripts that nobody likes, I don’t think we’ll be doing True Detective.
I just don’t take anything for granted. I made True Detective like it was going to be the only thing I ever made for television. So put in everything and the kitchen sink. Everything. You have to be able to enjoy it as a rollicking story with compelling, authentic characters, but if you can enjoy it on that level, it can just keep going. There are multiple associations, multiple layers. It was madness. It was just crazy. I’d work for 48 hours at time and then I’d sleep for 20 hours.
Why were you so possessed?
It’s like, you got one shot, man. Don’t you want to swing for the fences? And in an industry like this, it’s one kind of heartbreaking if something is exactly what you wanted and people don’t connect to it. But it’s a much greater heartbreak if something doesn’t end up how you wanted it to be and then people don’t connect to it. Because then you’re like, “What am I even doing?”
You were really haunted by that idea.
I’ve talked to other showrunners. If there’s one who’s more involved, I haven’t heard of it. For my sanity’s sake I’m going to have to think of a way to pull back. I was having conversations in my head 24 hours a day. I had Maggie and Marty and Rust in my head 24 hours a day.
You came into television as a novelist. Was writing something you always wanted to do?
Sort of. I was raised by television. It was my first cultural window. It was a constant companion.
What shows did you watch?
When I was a very little kid, we didn’t have cable. So we had three channels. I remember the stuff that was most inspiring to me as a kid, that I would actually sit down and watch, was a lot of the stuff from the Golden Age. They would rerun it at night. It might be on PBS. I’m not quite sure where, but I remember seeing a couple of Playhouse 90s. And the Twilight Zone and The Untouchables would get rerun. But I was a visual artist for a long time before I even took up writing. That’s how I got to go to college.
Painting and drawing. A lot of it was narrative-based, sequential art. But I’m an autodidact film buff. I always had the rhythms and the language in my head.
What I could never stand, though, was the idea of putting your heart and soul into something, then having somebody else screw it up. Handing it over. It sounds like a nice way to make money, but I wouldn’t do it with anything I genuinely cared about as an artist.
Why didn’t you go straight into television?
The idea of doing something like that for a guy with my class background? It’s ludicrous. You might as well say you want to be a movie star.
Tell me about your class background.
Just growing up in south Louisiana, going to state school for college, and working two jobs. I spent four years bartending in Austin. I never had any money or any window into the world of TV.
So how did you break in?
One of the things with writing is that you don’t need money to do it, and you don’t need other people to do it. You just need paper and a pen. And if you can learn how to do it well enough…
How did you learn?
In 2004, I was in grad school, and Deadwood, The Wire, and The Sopranos were all on HBO. Those shows were actually filling my hunger for fiction as an audience more than the contemporary fiction that I was reading. They seemed very much like auteur works—but the auteur works of a writer, not the auteur works of a director. Then I learned what a showrunner was and I was like, “Wow, that actually sounds like the perfect job for me.” But the idea of getting to do it was just silly, so I stuck with what I knew and just kept going with that.
You mean writing fiction.
I was working on the stories that would become my collection. When that got no attention, it was like starting back at square one. I had a novel that I had written for the same publisher that I pulled from publication. Then I wrote my novel Galveston in about three months, when my wife was in the last trimester of pregnancy. That was a breakthrough for me.
It must have been tough to give up on the other book, though.
Yeah, but spending two years on the bad one taught me how to write Galveston. With Galveston, I wanted to write a book that I wanted to read. And the lesson there was that it came much easier. It felt truer and more real, and the response was much more immediate.
How did TV enter the picture?
At a conference in Aspen I ran into some people in the TV business. I’d never met anyone who did TV professionally at that point. So I was like, “How do you break into TV?” And they said, “If you write a really good spec script and a really good pilot script for a show, then you can start to get work in this business.” After the conference, I told my wife that the first chance I got to speak to somebody from Los Angeles, I was going to move us out there and we were going to be in the film and TV business and I was not going to be a professor anymore. I knew I could do it.
So you had this idea in your heard from earlier, from watching Deadwood…
That I should be doing this. I could not only make the scripts, I could manage the show and make sure that we ended up with what the scripts were. That’s where a lot of stuff goes off the rails: you start out with something and what you get on the screen is not at all what you started with.
A year later Galveston got published, and it was optioned for very little money. But I got to talk to two agents finally—the agents who had done the option. And they were like, “Do you have any ideas for shows?” And I was like, “Yeah, I’ve got 30 ideas for shows.” And they were like, “Well, you should write some screenplays—have you ever written a screenplay?” And I was like, “No.” And I could tell that they maybe weren’t taking me very seriously. Every novelist they option a novel from, the novelist then asks how he gets to write the script. And they say, “Well, write us some scripts.” And then maybe months go by and they never hear anything.
But before a week was out I’d already sent them two scripts—a spec script and a pilot. I wrote one in two days and one in three days.
This was in the summer of 2010. You ended up writing six scripts that summer.
Six TV scripts. Three pilots for original shows, one of which was True Detective.
Where did True Detective start for you? What was the first germ of the idea?
Probably May or June of 2010, when I was working on what I wanted my next novel to be. I wanted it to be really big. I was going to use certain conventions of the procedural crime novel—and I don’t say those things with any kind of haughtiness. I love these conventions. I love them. I love a good plot. But I wanted to use them to try to write a literary police novel that also kind of encapsulated 17 years in the life of South Louisiana.
You were doing a lot of writing.
I guess. But a lot of it was desperate. I really wanted to change my life. Having a kid made me serious about my life in a way that I hadn’t been before.
You felt like you were complacent before?
Yeah. I wasn’t serious. I had no stake in the world, so my ambitions tended to be tamped down because at the end of the day I didn’t give a shit.
Teaching wasn’t your great ambition.
No. That’s just one of those things that you fall into, really, because it’s the only thing you’re trained for.
So you’re accustomed to disappointment.
Oh yeah. Thirty years worth, baby.
Is it frustrating when people assume that your success is a sudden thing?
I just feel I need to put an asterisk there. There were 30 years of Chef Boyardee and no money that none of you are hearing about. And then years of being a published writer who just goes unnoticed. There were those years, too.
Was that hard? The idea that you put so much time and energy into something that not many people even read?
Yeah. I don’t think art is about expression. I don’t think that’s its primary motive. The primary motivation is communion with your fellow human beings. So it’s very frustrating to make something and nobody notices it. If you put on a play and nobody comes to it, did you really put on a play? But you just keep going. You remind yourself that people have been doing this as long as there have been people. And your frustrations and disappointments are nothing new. And you go back to the wheel.
Do you think part of the reason why television had so much appeal for you was that you knew you’d be able to reach an audience? Everyone has a TV in the living room. Not everyone reads literary novels.
That’s a great point. I think, with myself, growing up in rural Louisiana but having TV—TV jumps all these class boundaries. For a kid to even have a disposition to be willing to sit down and read literary fiction and not regard it as a waste of time—that requires a certain amount of cultural influence and education. But TV sneaks in, no matter what. I really like that. And the idea that you could put your heart and soul and every bit of yourself into it, the same way you could a novel, and stay there and make sure it was done right? That was all appealing.
When you wrote the True Detective pilot, did you know it was the one?
Yeah. I just held onto it until I knew enough and could make it the way I wanted to. I had producers who wanted to buy the format. There is a way you could franchise it. You really could. You could have True FBI, True DA. Like Law & Order, just using the dual interrogation format to tell a story. But I wouldn’t sell it.
The jackpot hit when Matthew McConaughey read the script and said, “I want to do this.” Then we were all off to the races.
What can you reveal about episode four, which is airing on Sunday?
Episode four is the beginning of Act Two. Suddenly, the rhythm of the entire show changes. The slow part is over now. The first three episodes move at a very deliberate, almost funereal cadence, like you’re marching toward something. And what you’re marching toward is that final image in episode three.
Of Reggie Ledoux in his underwear.
Right. Then in episodes four, five, and six, the rhythm is much more varied. They’re like children. I love them all for different reasons. But five for me is like the most special of the children. Then seven and eight are the third act—and the less said about that, the better.
I will say this: if someone likes True Detective after three episodes, I can guarantee we didn’t drop the ball. And if you don’t like it based on the first three episodes, you should stop now. Plenty of other stuff on TV.
I’m sure that’s what HBO wants you to say.
Did you know from the beginning how Season One would end?
I knew what the last scene was. I wasn’t entirely sure how we were going to get ourselves there, but I knew what it was. And if the last scene had to change because the characters revealed something to me, then it would change. But actually the last scene is the last scene that was always intended to be.
I’ve enjoyed reading people theorize about what’s going to happen because it’s a sign that you’re connecting. But I’m also sort of surprised by how far afield they’re getting. Like, why do you think we’re tricking you? It’s because you’ve been abused as an audience for more than 20 years. The show’s not trying to outsmart you. And really if you pay attention… if someone watches the first episode and really listens, it tells you 85 percent of the story of the first six episodes.
I imagine the Hart and Cohle story is over at the end of Act Three, though.
Yeah. But I retain the literary rights to them. I could always go and write some Cohle and Hart novels. [Laughs]
You’ve said before that you don’t care about serial killers, and yet you’ve created a very compelling narrative around one.
I think my serial killer’s personal pathology is wrapped in very culturally relevant symbols that may not be immediately apparent. Not just hunting, but the idea of woman as trophy to be stuffed and displayed. The idea of prayer, and one of the necessities of the prayer pose being the blindfold: in order to effectively pray you’re going to have to ignore some very basic facts about the world.
So to me it’s not just that Cohle and Hart are hunting for their savage id or their most destructive portion. It’s that the killer has some resonance in the kinds of shows we’re talking about. We only have the one murdered woman at the crime scene in the entire series. It’s not an unrelenting horror show. It’s meant to stand in for the universal victim in this type of drama. Because while I think we’re doing a good job of telling the story that this genre demands, I think we’re also poking certain holes in it and looking at where these instincts begin, both in the type of men that Hart and Cohle represent—and in ourselves as an audience.
What’s an example of that?
Episode Five. I’ve just read a couple pieces where the critic tries to dismiss Cohle’s monologues as “the sort of half-baked loopiness you’d get in freshman year philosophy,” and that’s not true at all. If you pay attention to Cohle’s philosophies they’re actually much deeper and more nuanced and grounded in legitimate scientific and philosophical thought than some asshole getting stoned and talking about the meaning of life.
So in episode five—not to spoil anything—Cohle gives one of his metaphysical addresses. And you can see it as Job crying out to an uncaring God—or you could see it as a character trapped in a TV show yelling at the audience. I think that much, at least, is safe to print.
Did you ever get any pressure to cut McConaughey’s monologues? Some critics have complained about them.
Yeah. I was told that we needed to get rid of the monologues and make True Detective more like one of the shows that everyone was saying we were like before we premiered. And I just said no: that’s not the show we set out to make. This isn’t CSI: Louisiana. This isn’t Law & Order: McConaughey and Harrelson. What you’re describing is not something I will allow my name to be on. And I think you have to be willing to do that. I have a choice between seeing something done wrong or making an enemy, introduce me to my new enemy. You have to be diplomat and fighter.
Is it hard writing the second season after putting everything and the kitchen sink into the first?
Now I feel like I’m in a really sweet spot where I can really go nuts. Like, I bought myself some credibility. One of my goals for Season Two is more authentic, faster—and stranger. It’s going to get stranger.
I’ll be honest, though: if I get to do this two more times, I could see calling it a day. Because I basically have to reinvent the wheel every new season. Every first episode is a pilot. I’ve got to win people over again.
Has it been challenging to create a new character who can stand toe to toe with Cohle?
I got him.
That’s when I start to know when I’m off to the races—when I’m in love again. And it’s not in love with an idea. I’m in love with a character. A character just did something on a page that made me sit up and go, “Now you’re becoming a dimensional human being to me, and I’m interested.”
When did that happen with Cohle?
With Cohle it happened almost instantly, when I was writing his voice. He was describing that crime scene and what they found, and I’m going along with him. And then his partner decides, for whatever reason, that this is a good time to invite him to dinner. And then the voice tells me that he says “OK.” But he’s thinking about his own daughter, and Hart’s wife and kids, and he knows maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but there’s nothing he can do: “I’m gonna have a drink.” And I remember writing that freehand and going, “OK. Interested in YOU.” I’ll let this guy keep talking and see what else he tells me.
Tell me about the character you’re excited about for Season Two.
I’ve got three characters I like, actually.
And they’re nothing like Rust Cohle?
Nothing. I’ve been told not to reveal anything else about Season Two because none of this is approved. I might hand it in to my paymasters and they’ll be like, “What the hell is this?”
I have lived for two years with this show. Now that it’s out, I’m able to look back on and think, “God that was crazy. What was I thinking?” If I had know the sheer amount of work that would have been entailed, I would have been like, “Fuck yeah, I need a couple of other writers, a good supervising producer, I need this, I need that…”
And yet you’re doing it the same way again.
Yeah, because I have to live up to Season One. Because people liked it. It would be a different story if nobody had noticed True Detective, or if it just had a small cult following. But in order to make the second season as full and dense and rich as the first … I don’t know any other way to do it. So I think I’m going to have to do it again.