‘True Detective’ Writer Nic Pizzolatto Tells Tall Tales

Matthew McConaughey, left, and Woody Harrelson star in 'True Detective,' a new series on HBO.
Matthew McConaughey, left, and Woody Harrelson star in 'True Detective,' a new series on HBO.Michele K. Short / HBO

Born in Louisiana, Nic Pizzolatto is a southern writer of southern fictions. His debut short story collection ‘Between Here and the Yellow Sea‘ won acclaim and his first novel, ‘Galveston : a Novel,’ won awards. That’s when television came calling. ‘True Detective,’ Pizzolatto’s first original series, is HBO’s latest attempt to make the silver screen irrelevant. Starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, the show follows two cops hunting a serial killer.

Pizzolatto talked to ‘Men’s Journal’ about his new gig, his characters, and what makes a great story.

How did you become a storyteller?
We’re all born storytellers. It’s part of the species. But, more specifically, I suppose a particular combination of sensitivity and trauma made me a writer, an essential disquiet with reality, which required exploration through portrayal.

You followed up an acclaimed short-story collection with an award-winning novel. Why shift into script writing?
Practically, the desire to leave academia behind was a strong motivator. I just couldn’t be part of academic bureaucracy anymore. TV and film were always governing passions of mine, and that first wave of great HBO shows in the early years of the millennium was feeding my desire for fiction more than the books I was reading. And I learned that the writer is in control in television, whereas film tends to exclude the writer, which is one of the main reasons television has been better than movies for at least 10 years. The idea of being a show runner was very attractive to me, to create and control something.

Descriptive passages are one of the defining characteristics of your fiction. Have you been at all frustrated by losing that tool or are there other ways to incorporate that atmosphere?
The scripts definitely had their long descriptive passages of South Louisiana, but in the main, you find your locations and trust the camera to capture their essence. I find the constraints of drama actually freeing: It brings everything down to character and action. But I think if you watch our show, you’ll see a lot of the landscape described in ‘Galveston.’

True Detective,’ like your other work, treats its male protagonists roughly. What are you saying about the lives of men?
I do think the unifying theme of season one of the show is the damage that men do – to themselves and particularly to women and children. But, within this, I do think I’m always just as concerned with how people wait out darkness, with courage and hope and love. I think, in the end, the total piece points toward a kind of optimism that’s hard-earned and redemptive.

TV scripts are often products of collaboration, but ‘True Detective’ is all you all the time. Did you consider working with anyone or did you want complete ownership?
It was pitched as a solo gig. I wasn’t averse to getting some help, but it never came to that. Honestly, the only way I knew to approach such a massive amount of writing was to write it. I couldn’t figure any way I could also manage a group of writers and get the material I wanted.

I think if you read my novel, you would recognize the same authorial voice in the show. We very much made these scripts, and I’m very proud of the work of everybody – especially the incredible work of our two leads.

Having had the freedom of a fiction writer, what is it like to work with directors, actors, and producers?
Any film or television show is a collaboration. As creator and show runner, I was on set the entire time, worked with the actors, and no creative decision could be made without my consent. I also had my own cut of each episode, so there was never a time where I was separate from any part of the show. If there’s a way to be more involved as a show runner, I haven’t heard of it. I think all our processes cross – mine, the director’s, the actors’. That’s the collaboration. The writing itself was done in isolation before we went into production, but once in production, it was communal.

What makes a good story? 
Authentic, vivid characters drive any story. After that, we look for refinements in language and detail, effective structure, the originality of the author’s imagination, etc. But I think it probably all starts with character.

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