When the first episode of True Detective aired on HBO on January 14, writer and creator Nic Pizzolatto was a little-known novelist and college fiction professor.
Now he’s an Emmy nominee.
Pizzolatto’s existential mystery series about a pair of Louisiana detectives investigating a disturbing ritualistic murder over the course of 17 years was nominated Wednesday morning for a dozen dramatic Emmy awards, including Outstanding Series, Outstanding Writing (for Pizzolatto), Outstanding Directing (for sole director Cary Fukunaga), and Outstanding Actor (for both Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, who played Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, the show’s titular detectives).
Pizzolatto received the good news just as work on True Detective’s hotly anticipated Season 2—which will feature new characters, new actors, a new setting, and a new story—was getting underway. He was gracious enough to get on the line with The Daily Beast to address the criticisms lobbed at his show so far, to discuss the challenges of starting from scratch after such a successful season—and to reveal brand new details about where True Detective is heading next.
You must be feeling pretty happy this morning. How many nominations was it?
You know, I don’t really know. [Laughs] Maybe 12?
Not bad for a rookie.
I’m extremely grateful and humbled. I’m just honored to be on a list of such great television.
So is Season 2 written at this point? Where are you in the process?
I’m hitting the halfway mark on the scripts.
What else can you tell us?
Not much. We’re not keeping any secrets, so when something concrete develops, we’ll announce it to everybody. But everything has just been empty rumors so far.
Can we dismiss some of those rumors? Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, Joaquin Phoenix, Christian Bale, and Josh Brolin have been mentioned as potential stars. Have you started casting for Season 2 yet?
Some viewers wish McConaughey and Harrelson were coming back for Season 2. Do you?
I mean, I miss them as human beings. But the plan was always to tell a different story.
Do you think their example has made it easier to convince big-name actors to cross over to television?
Seems like it.
Cary Fukunaga directed every episode of Season 1. Will be there multiple directors this time around?
You’ve said the show is set in California and it’s about the “secret occult history” of the U.S. transportation system.
I would actually just stick with “set in California.”
So it’s not about the U.S. transportation system?
I’d rather not to elaborate on that.
When we spoke during Season 1, you told me that you already had characters for Season 2 that you loved as much as Rust and Marty. Are you still working with the same characters?
Yep, but since then they’ve deepened and become richer. Creating new characters for Season 2 was the same experience as creating Rust and Marty. They didn’t exist until I created them, then in their creation I developed a personal attachment to them. I think it’s the same in anything you write. It’s your job to come up with compelling characters who speak to an individual authenticity. If I’m not interested in the characters I can’t go on. I have to be fascinated by them. It’s the same job as Season 1 to me.
You said at the time that Season 2 would center around three main characters. Is that still the case?
That ballooned a little bit. I would say there are four central roles.
Are any of them women?
You’ll have to wait and see.
Regarding the gender question: Did the criticism you received about “underwriting” women characters affect your approach to Season 2?
I think it affected me a little bit in my conception of Season 2, but then not at all. I realized I was listening to things I didn’t agree with and taking cues from the wrong places. I just put it out of my mind.
What do you mean by “taking cues from the wrong places?”
I mean that writing towards what I consider an insubstantial criticism isn’t a good way to create.
No one else in TV has had to follow up a runaway success like Season 1 of True Detective by starting over from scratch. Who was more scared by the prospect: you or HBO?
I don’t think either of us were daunted by it. HBO has been nothing but supportive of whatever I want to do next. The work is where I tend to feel pressure—not so much in the reaction to it.
Let’s talk about what makes True Detective True Detective. When you have new characters, a new setting, and a new story, what’s the consistent through-line? Why isn’t it just a different show from season to season?
I guess it’s the authorial voice and sensibility. True Detective is a densely layered work with resonant details and symbology and rich characterization under the guise of one of the forms of this mystery genre. That’s what we shoot for.
Do you see that weird-fiction or existential-horror vibe as part of the show’s signature as well?
I think there’s a certain atmosphere that you’ll find is a consistent element in True Detective going forward.
When the Season 1 finale aired in March, some people were upset. Why? Do you think they misunderstood the show?
When you say people, I think you’re talking about a small percentage of the audience. I’m extremely happy with the finale. It was exactly the finale I wanted the show to have. And that in no way means the details or symbology of True Detective were irrelevant or meaningless—it merely means they were misread by a certain percentage [of viewers].
What do you mean by “misread”? I always thought the show was about the dangers of storytelling itself—as opposed to the particulars of the story that was being told.
Right. The symbology and details were pointing towards resonances in the themes and characters of the show rather than being a trail of breadcrumbs in a kind of…game.
How long can you keep writing every episode and overseeing a series all by yourself? I’ve heard you say that you’ve got three seasons in you, max.
So far, yeah. There are lots of other TV shows I’d like to do—more traditional TV shows. This one is making a whole new TV show every year.
So you’re not bringing in other writers to help out.
It’s my mandate as a writer to not let the success of Season 1 change my process. However we got here has been shown to work, so I’ll probably stick with those methods.
As long as you can keep it up.
That’s right. Until I drop dead.