HBO’s True Detective has quickly established itself as a show that must be watched—or at least DVR’d—on Sunday nights. The moody detective series, starring Matthew McConnaughey and Woody Harrelson, takes the simplest premise—two cops chasing a serial killer –and renders it compelling with its evocative Louisiana setting, rich dialogue, and distinctive, cinematic look.
Much of the credit for that goes to director Cary Joji Fukunaga. In television, unlike films, directors tend to be hired guns, working on one episode at a time while the showrunner and the cinematographer maintain the tone from episode to episode. True Detective was unique in that Fukunaga, a feature film director who made an acclaimed 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre, directed all eight episodes.
While putting the finishing touches on the final episodes in post-production, Fukunaga took some time out to discuss the intense schedule, the happy accidents that give a show life, and when, in telling a story, less truly is more.
So how did you get involved in the True Detective project?
I got involved about two years ago. I was sent the first two scripts by my manager, and he asked if I was interested in doing long-form television. I thought about doing pilots before but I liked the idea of a mini series, or a complete long-form project.
This kind of came at the right time, just as I was finishing up Jane Eyre, having to collapse a 700-plus page novel into less than two hours, which is a special exercise.
I read the episodes and I really liked the imagery, the dialogue, the characters who were starting to take shape. I wanted to know more, so I met up with the writer and started talking about it, about films we liked and we decided to work together on the show.
You’ve used the term mini series, but HBO never calls True Detective that.
I think the semantics of mini-series for a network is that it has an end. And I think HBO wants people to know that this is something branded, and there’ll be another season of this. But essentially it’s a long format story that has a beginning, a middle and an end and doesn’t continue on over multiple seasons.
We’re at a point in television where that’s become a hallmark of the very best series, that there’s a strong narrative arc working toward a definite ending.
In terms of the television series I’ve gravitated towards, there’s a chronological development of a series which is different than shows we might have grown up with, where you could mix and match the order and it didn’t matter. Now we’re forced to watch in a certain order, and that creates a different kind of investment.
And the audience makes that investment with the assurance that they’re not going to be left hanging at the end of the story line.
Talk about the challenges of directing eight hours of content.
It’s the nature of being excited by the material, the visualization of it and what it can become, versus the realization of what it’s going to take to put that material on screen and all that entails. The script is over 500 pages long. You can imagine the mammoth effort prepping that, or even prepping half of that.
It’s not a two-hour film. You can’t think about an eight hour miniseries as having the same three-act structure—even though it has a beginning, middle, and end—as a two-hour film. It’s trying to figure out where to begin and end each episode, so that it feels more like narrative chapters. Each episode has its own tone that sort of builds and grows off the previous one, and sets you up for the next one.
How were you able to convince HBO that you should do all eight episodes given that you had never done a television series before?
I didn’t have to try hard to convince anyone, actually. I came on when the project was being packaged, and when we went out to pitch, I don’t think anyone really considered whether I, on my own, could do this. We had a veteran line producer and a top notch production team. Was there ever question of whether I’m biting off more than I can chew? I don’t think that every really came into consideration.
What was a typical day like?
I’m still not done, I’ve still another week and change. It’ll be two years and seven months working on it.
Once production began, from then to now it’s been non stop: 12-14 hour long shooting days, location scouting before or after to try to get caught up, production meetings during lunch, editing at night, and probably shooting until Saturday morning most weeks. A day to relax and then get back into it. Post production has been the same thing, non stop.
That’s the schedule of the television, having one director. If there were four directors the work would have been one fourth as strenuous.
How many days per episode?
It probably broke down to 12 days an episode.
Making friends with directors who work on other shows like Tim Van Patten on Boardwalk Empire, [I learned that] those teams are very well established and work well together. They’ve created a shorthand.
We were going to create one thing, in and out. The cast, the crew, everyone was going to be doing this one project and then everyone’s gone again. So there was no chance to build that continuity.
So in that sense [it was helpful] to have one director to unify and control that vision over the course of eight episodes rather than just doing the pilot, walking away and hoping the rest of the season turns out great.
So you were involved from the very beginning, to the point of even getting involved in the casting? I understand that the original idea was to have Matthew McConaughey play Hart, rather than Cohle.
It’s one of the things that I enjoy most. When you have a script and you’re discussing what it can be, and who going to play what role, that’s a kind of like a fantasy football game. You can imagine these different dream teams interpreting these characters that only exist in your head.
McConaughey came up pretty early on, and when we found out he wanted to play Cohle, we had a phone conversation, thinking about what that meant and about how it would change how we would envision the show. At that moment it was still a reach from what we imagined, but that was before he did Killer Joe or the hard dramas he’s done more recently.
How long ago did you do the casting?
January or February of 201[(??) sic]
One of the things that’s great about the show is the little details, like the way Matthew makes the little man out of the Lone Star can and the world Lone ends up right across his chest.
Did you notice the Big Hug Mug?
Oh, yeah. I love it. When are you going to start selling them?
We’re striking a deal with Hasbro right now.
The production designer and the location manager and I spent hours on the road in Southern Louisiana, scouting, getting a feel of that world. There were 300 plus locations, and sometimes you’re looking at 10 different locations before you find the right one. It’s a thousand plus stops in people’s homes and businesses.
So there’s a cultural element. You can’t just show up and look at it and walk away. You have to say hello and people love to talk a little. And details you see in people’s homes and their wardrobe that made their way into the fabric of show.
Each one is a layer of detail. What’s that German dessert which is basically pancakes with a layer of cream? [Black forest pancakes.] It’s like that. It doesn’t seem overly complicated but there’s a lot of depth there.
Is there a particular little thing that brings a smile to your face every time you watch in post-production?
In Episode Three when Cohle and Hart take off from the revival tent and the car gets stuck, I love that. When the camera kinds of rotates around and you see the guys pushing them out? That wasn’t scripted. That just happened. Everyone was living in the moment so completely.
Shea Wigham, who was playing the preacher, tells his guys to push them out of the mud and Adam our cinematographer was able to pin the camera around to get them pushing the car in that beautiful sunset light.
It’s little accidents like that I wanted to keep in so that it doesn’t seem 100 percent perfectly constructed. Things that seem slightly odd. Not perfectly sanded. It has burrs.
I like the car casting, too.
We did a lot of research on the cop cars, Crown Vic vs the Impala. By 2012, it’s a Charger. In Episode 3, there’s a truck in the background that comes back later in episodes seven and eight. It’s my truck. It’s a 1963 Ford F-100.
I love the box within a box structure, where Michael Potts and Tory Kittles are sitting there listening, but also moving the plot forward in very subtle ways. The cool dynamic of the guy who works the box—Potts–questioning the guy who works the box—McConaughey.
I think Potts asks the questions we want to ask. They’re not giving away anything, in terms of what they think, as they’re processing the information, deciding who they trust and don’t trust. And narratively speaking, taking the story from the present tense to the past tense, I enjoy it. As storytellers you’re always somehow creating history. When you’re looking at what happened in 1995, and hearing them describe it, when [the two versions] differ it’s always really enjoyable. It tells a lot about character.
There’s a lot of restraint in this approach, that you’re willing to tell a lot of the story instead of show it?
I think McConaughey, especially, was really excited about that.
In Episode 2, there was a flashback which I cut out of the screenplay before we started shooting. Cohle [was talking about his time as] an undercover narcotics cop. I didn’t think it was necessary to see what he was describing. I thought [it made sense to let] Matthew be a storyteller, which he is in real life, just tell his story in front of the camera, uncut. If you notice, we don’t cut away, we let him go through the whole story. It’s just one long take.
I think McConaughey was excited about playing 1995 Cohle and 2012 Cohle, being the same person with different degrees of acceptance, but also buttoning up certain parts of himself. I think it’s a fun exercise for a character. We talked about cues, where he was in ’95, where he was in 2012, but it was up to Matthew to embody it and he knocked it out.
Some of the very best moments of the show so far are the quietest.
I think I learned discipline on Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte’s dialogue, the intellectual duel between Rochester and Jane Eyre’s character is so compelling that you didn’t have to do much with the placement of cameras. It was up to the actors to do most of it. The tete a tete they have by the fireplace I literally just put the camera over each actor’s shoulder and let them do their best work. At times it felt like I should be doing something else instead of just sitting there. But it was the right thing.
I knew that what was going on in these interrogations was going to be really interesting. Especially contextualized and juxtaposed with the past. So my idea was to be as simple as possible. No reason for shaky hand-held cameras. Just set the camera down and let the actors do their work.
How much of it was shot on location and how much of it was on soundstages?
We didn’t have one soundstage. We had a warehouse we used as a stage, but if there was an airplane or a thunderstorm with rainwater hitting the roof you got to hear it. Our main set was in Harahan, an old lightbulb factory. There was no insulation, so if someone was working on construction, they had to stop, even the people prepping the next sets.
We shot as much as we could on location, but if we were doing interiors, we tried to build the set just to save ourselves the time moving around. It was 100 days of shooting, but a couple of those were rain days, weather days that we lost. It was just non stop.
I gather you had some snake wranglers on the set to keep things safe. Not so much of that in Jane Eyre, I gather.
Not a lot of poisonous snakes in Northern England.
What’s next for you?
I’m in the midst of it. I’m rewriting a [feature film] screenplay called Beasts of No Nation. We’re shooting that in Africa. With Idris Elba playing the lead. No rest for the wicked.
You had Lester Freeman and Brother Mouzone in True Detective, and now you’ve got Stringer Bell.
This might sound like sacrilege but I’ve never seen The Wire.
Was that a Breaking Bad homage at the end of Episode Three with our monster walking around in his tighty whiteys?
They had that in season one? It’s not an homage. It’s what you do when you work in a meth lab. The chemicals are so toxic that you just leave your clothes behind. And it’s so hot down there. I love Breaking Bad, but it’s just what you do when you’re making meth.
Who's ready for some TRUE DETECTIVE tonight??