While the networks drown in derivative, probe-by-number cop procedurals, HBO has given its viewers a substantial criminal drama to sink their proverbial teeth into this winter: True Detective. Starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as bickersome Louisiana State Police detectives, the anthology series’ first season follows the duo as they track a serial killer, navigate their own demons, and weave unreliable yarns about some of their rogue tactics in an interrogation room 17 years later.
Following the show’s latest installment this past Sunday, we connected with Cary Fukunaga, who directed all eight episodes of the season, to discuss Yellow King mythology, that epic six-minute tracking shot, and why he decided to show this week’s gruesome deaths.
Julie Miller: First order of business: Whose idea was it for Matthew McConaughey’s character to be ashing his cigarette into the Big Hug mug during those interrogation scenes?
Cary Fukunaga: The prop department gave me a bunch of options for mugs and that’s just the one I chose. It’s funny that it’s become a big deal now . . . even my editor, Alex Hall, got a Big Hug mug for his birthday. The original is in my cupboard.
You cast Matthew McConaughey at the beginning of his “McConaissance”—before seeing any of his more recent dramatic performances in Killer Joe, Mud, or Dallas Buyers Club. Were you surprised by how well he was able to inhabit such a tortured character?
I wasn’t surprised as much as I was thoroughly entertained. We did the interrogation scenes in two or three days . . . before we did the rest of the 2012 scenes. We actually did 30 pages [of dialogue] in one day. It was pretty badass to watch him monologue and go off into the camera. Up to that point, he had been playing a more buttoned-up [version of his] character [in the flashbacks], intense still but like a boiling pot of water.
Did you have conversations with him about how he was going to mentally prepare for the character?
We had conversations about the nature of the character but you can’t micromanage a performance like that. The actor has to bring it. Matthew had his own preparation and he kind of looks at scenes like music. He has his own ways of locating his character, bringing himself into character and letting himself out of it. All of those interrogation scenes were on his shoulders—I just let the camera go.
I love McConaughey’s long hair and mustache in the interrogation scenes. How did that look come about?
That was in collaboration with [series writer/creator] Nic [Pizzolatto] and hair and makeup, just getting a sense of what this guy might look like if he is working in a rural bar in the middle of nowhere and wasn’t working too hard to maintain his physical or outward appearance. I had long hair at the time, so we played with the idea of him having a topknot but decided that just wasn’t the right look.
You’re coming off of back-to-back powerhouse episodes, between “Who Goes There” with that six-minute drug-den tracking shot, and “The Secret Fate of All Life” with the so-called shootout at Ledoux’s. Can you talk about prepping last week’s tracking shot a little?
I had a vague mapping of what I wanted to do for that sequence. But it took awhile to get to the actual housing project where we filmed, just because there was so much red tape to get permits. Once we got to the houses, we were able to copy the interior and create a really simple version on what of our sets—where we ate lunch and stored all of our props and furniture—we dug out a corner of that room and built the interior of that house so we could figure how that would work and we were able to rehearse that a lot. But the neighborhood itself, we didn’t get access to until about a weekend or two before. I went through there with the first A.D. and the stunt coordinator. We did a bunch of runs to figure out what the path would be. We had a day and a half to rehearse while we were shooting so there was not much preparation.
And the shootout in this past Sunday’s episode?
We built the set pretty close to a road—we learned our lesson early in filming about building our sets too far away from roads because it would rain and everything would be bogged down in mud. So we built this right behind set, we covered it with greens. In terms of coordinating the action, we brought out Matthew and Woody, we walked through the whole scene, and talked through some of the questions we might have. Those are some of the things that might slow you down in a fast-paced shoot.
What about the actual murders of Ledoux and DeWall? Had you always planned on showing them onscreen in all of their gruesome glory?
I didn’t actually plan on shooting Ledoux’s head getting blown up [when Hart shoots him]. [B]ut it seemed like [viewers] wanted to see this guy, this awful human being, taken down. Same thing with his cousin, who is blown up with the “Bouncing Betty.” I get tired of watching movies where you see a landmine and it seems really fake. So a “Bouncing Betty” seemed like something that hadn’t been done before. We actually constructed basically copies of [the landmines] . . . they would not blow up but they would spring up.
And what goes into making a guy’s head explode on camera?
It’s a mixture of the actor doing the action, a whole bunch of blood and brains, and then a little bit of painting of skull fragments. And someone created the prosthetic brain by hand. I wanted a skull fragment that felt like a swinging door, like a shutter, still on his head. That was pretty awesome too.
Were there any unscripted moments in this episode that made their way to the final cut?
Not really. . . we stuck to the script pretty closely. [Pauses to think] There were little ad libs, like when Cohle was talking about hunting and Woody adds in those little lines about tracking. Woody does that a lot.
The story switches back and forth so much between years, actual events, and Cohle and Hart’s versions of the actual events they are telling the detectives. Did you have a massive storyboard that everyone was constantly referencing on set?
You start to grasp it after awhile. We knew those scripts inside and out. We had already done the interrogations so when it came time to film the scenes, we knew which were being remembered by an unreliable narrator. I knew what the action was supposed to look like and what they were describing, so we set it up so it would play against that as best as possible.
The show is so unpredictable, complex, and a contrast to all of these cop procedural shows on television where the investigation is so formulaic that it is almost predictable. Were you conscious of that while making the show?
I don’t think I would have signed on if it was just a normal cop procedural. That’s just not the kind of show I’ve ever watched. I’m attracted to a project because of the layers involved in a story. More layers means it is more of a challenge when making them.
What about all of this Yellow King mythology that’s been spun out on the Internet, about the show’s references to Robert W. Chambers’s book of short stories The King in Yellow? How closely did you consider The King in Yellow when shooting these episodes?
I have the book. It’s a great nod to those books and those kinds of authors. It’s always nice when there are references to literature in anything. They’re like Easter eggs, right? They’re just little bits that add to the complexity and the reception and conception of a show.
I know that you aren’t directing the next season (</3), but are there two actors who you’d love to see in the next iteration of True Detective?
I have no idea . . . I guess it depends on what the story is.
Lastly, I read that you thought the title True Detective was “too pulpy” for the series. What were some of the other titles you guys bounced around?
I think Nic and I both liked this one version called The Murder Ballads, but he was more in love with True Detective in terms of the broadness of the anthology. Since we were creating a brand, as much as we were creating a title for this series, we had to go more broad. Titles are tough. It’s hard to find something that everyone likes. We spent hours trying to do just that.