"True Detective" director Cary Fukunaga explains the show's dark humor

The HBO show's director spoke to Salon about working with McConaughey and Harrelson, and comparisons to "The Wire"

Published January 9, 2014 11:59PM (EST)

Cary Fukunaga    (Reuters/Gus Ruelas)
Cary Fukunaga (Reuters/Gus Ruelas)

"True Detective," one of the more highly anticipated new shows of the year, premieres Sunday night. The first eight episodes -- the primary installment of an anthology similar to the "American Horror Story" model -- focus on two homicide police as they try to track down a serial killer in coastal Louisiana. Years after the investigation originally took place, detectives Rust Cole and Martin Hart are independently interrogated by two other officers seeking to suss out hidden details of the seemingly closed case.

This raw, deliciously tense drama is as much an examination of Cole (Matthew McConaughey) and Hart's (Woody Harrelson) clashing methods, personalities and beliefs as it is a serpentine cop quest. The story, by writer and creator Nic Pizzolatto, is smartly layered and gripping. The setting is uniquely beautiful. Both McConaughey and Harrelson are riveting. And the filmmaking by award-winning cinematographer, director and now executive producer Cary Fukunaga ("Sin Nombre," "Jane Eyre") is as powerful as anything I have seen since "Breaking Bad." I talked to Fukunaga this week -- after having received a somewhat disturbing package from the show's publicists -- about bringing this stunningly realized work to the small screen.

At 8:30 this morning, my buzzer rang and I was hand-delivered one of those creepy twig sculptures from the show. It scared the crap out of me.

It’s not a subliminal message that we’re trying to kill you. It doesn’t have any black magic, so don’t worry -- unless you write something bad about me.

I remember seeing "Sin Nombre" at Sundance and it was one of my favorite films that year.

Thank you. As Sundance comes around again this year I’ve started getting nostalgic. It was five years ago that "Sin Nombre" was there, and it’s just crazy that so much time has gone by.

So is this your first foray into television?

Yeah, I mean commercial work aside, this is the first time I’ve ever done a television show.

How did that come about?

With "Sin Nombre," there are parts that I wish were longer. And with "Jane Eyre" especially there were parts that I had to compress that I thought it would have been really nice to spend more time with -- to spend with the characters. So, the idea of doing a long-form story is something that’s been appealing to me for a while. My manager sent me the first two scripts for "True Detective," and I just thought they were so interesting and that the world they were depicting was so titillating to me. I just kind of got attached then. And when you attach yourself to a project you’re not really thinking long-term -- you’re just thinking, “This is a story I like, here’s the visuals, do you think you can make this?” None of the realities of what that really would mean, sort of -- well, I think now they would be clear, but my motto was, “That sounds cool, let’s do it.”

And then suddenly it was happening. I got Matthew McConaughey attached, Matthew got Woody attached, and we were out making this eight-hour-long epic. Then you start to realize the amount of work you’re facing, doing something that long in the TV sort of schedule, which is a much faster clip, and all the other sort of logistical and political machinations that come with that. But it’s been an interesting journey, that’s for sure.

I saw an interview that McConaughey said he started out reading for the role of Martin, and then became interested in Rust Cole. When you came on board, how in flux was that decision and how much influence did you have on it?

We were still throwing around a lot of names when I came on board. That’s actually one of the funnest parts of development: just kind of throwing around names and imagining what that show would look like with those different faces and personalities, with the different energies that each of these actors bring to the show. When Matthew’s name came up, we said, “Yeah, sure, hire him on, he’s a good old American dude.” And I hadn’t seen any of his new work that was coming out -- I’d just seen "Lincoln Lawyer." There was talk about a couple of other projects he was doing, and they all sounded really interesting. So we got on the phone with him just to hear what he had to say, and he had a really compelling argument for why he wanted to play Cole. And it was like, “OK, let’s go with that.”

Then the question was who will be the Martin to a Matthew McConaughey Cole, and Matthew was the one that came up with the idea of Woody. So, I was in New York and Woody was in town doing press for something -- I don’t remember what it was -- and we met up at the Soho Grand and just had some tea and talked about it. It took a little bit of convincing, and I think if Matthew McConaughey wasn’t part of the project then Woody wouldn’t have come on board, but he did, and the two of them together, I think, have an amazing chemistry, which is pretty captivating.

This is not to reduce either of these two actors -- I like them both -- but when I first heard of the show and saw the promo art, I wondered if their being in the same place at the same time might cause the universe to explode. That's how much I connect them in my mind.

It’s funny, I was talking to somebody about this yesterday; a lot of people think they look the same. I don’t think that at all, but do you think they kind of look the same?

I feel like I thought they did until I watched the show, and then it became very obvious to me that they don’t look anything alike. I think it’s just the sort of roles that they both took earlier in their careers, and I think I connect them in my mind because of what they represented early on.

They’re kind of like surfer dudes, aren’t they?

Yeah, and they sort of have a Southern gentility to them. Woody Harrelson was the Southern boy in Boston on "Cheers," and they just kind of have that good ole boy quality to them. You drag some of that information along with you no matter how many different projects you take on. I think people will probably refer to that when writing about this show, but I don’t think anyone is going to think that way anymore.

When they watch it? Yeah.

A lot of times, recently, with these kind of high-profile cable dramas, there’s a variety of directors. What was behind the decision to stick to one? Is that because you were involved in the conception?

Yeah, I was involved in the conception, and the idea was -- as it was pitched at the time -- that they wanted to combine the best of independent cinema with television. We didn’t have a network yet. We didn’t know we were going to be with HBO. We did know that we wanted to bring in feature film talent, and they wanted one director, one vision, to put the whole thing together. And that was a choice we made. Because, like I said, I could experiment with long format and it could be all mine, whereas I think when you share it with multiple directors it’s more the writers’ vision and you’re servicing the writers’ vision. That is perfectly great -- there are amazing directors out there who can do that just fine, who I look up to as master craftsmen -- but for me, if I was using multiple directors, I’d rather just shoot a pilot and walk away. This thing I saw as being an eight-hour movie, rather than just an episodic television show.

What was your relationship like with writer and show runner Nic Pizzolatto?

He was the first person I met when I got involved with the project, so we’ve been paired up from the very beginning. It’s been interesting: In some ways we hired mainly feature talent, in terms of heads of development and departments; production designer, costume designer, cinematographer -- all of these people are film people. So for the first time the producers are saying “Not only are you showing this to Cary, you’re showing it to Nick as well.” It became a real bipartisan ruling culture in the project. Collaborations aren’t easy, but you definitely get something highly different than had you done it on your own. That’s part of the experience.

What were the difficulties and challenges of such long-form storytelling?

An eight-hour movie is definitely not a two-hour movie. An eight-hour movie is really like five independent films, if you think about it, because each is usually an hour and a half. In some ways it is like making a movie. It’s just a lot more information. You’re looking at the mountains of pages and script to get through for actors who are only in one scene, locations that are only in one scene rather than multiple scenes -- the building blocks might seem overwhelming. But once you start learning a script, 500 pages of script is basically like your favorite novel - -that’s 700 pages long, which is like 500 script pages. It’s not that hard to start wrapping your head around the different stories. In your head you’re having to do some mapping of the chronology of events, which can get a little bit confusing, but our first AD, John Mallard, has an encyclopedic memory. Our first continuity recall bible was sort of incredible -- it’s for each character, and then the overall plot that puts everything down in order just to give a quick reference. We had a lot of resources to make sure everything is clear. Really, it just became a game of endurance.

You’re playing double duty as the executive producer. What does that entail for you?

You have to change hats every now and then and you have to play producer. It’s a separate desire for an overall vision for the show than maybe as a director, where it’s a personal vision. But you need people in different hats for the overall well-being of the show. There’s switching back and forth from the two, which is not -- I mean, I’ve never been the kind of director who has such a vision of what’s happening that I can’t see the larger needs of the show, and even on my next project I’ll be producing it, because you have more power to move money and shape the budget, to create a vision of the show but also to get it done in the most effective way. I want to produce as well, so this was a really nice official transition into that kind of role.

Much like they did on "Breaking Bad," you utilize the uniqueness of location on this show to great effect.

It’s funny, because the script is originally written for Arkansas, for the Ozarks. That also interests me because I’ve never been to that part of the world and I was curious about it. Louisiana I had shot in before -- I shot the short film for "Beasts of the Southern Wild," and I shot a Levi’s commercial down there too, so I was kind of familiar with the industrial rot of New Orleans in particular. And then once we adapted the story to take place in Lafayette, we spent a little more time in that part of the region -- the corridor -- and got a chance to see all the refineries and petroleum plants and churches, cemeteries, trailer parks, and that kind of stuff. I was like, “This is interesting, and in a way we can do this so it doesn’t look like another variety show of white Southern poverty.” So, the idea was always -- with the cinematography -- to try to juxtapose the people surrounded by the sort of industrial rot that is polluting their lives, that sort of extends to industry, to religion, to politics.

What were some of the challenges of shooting there?

When we were shooting "Jane Eyre" up in northern England, I was told before we started shooting to expect rain every day. So weather doesn’t bother me as much as I know it’ll slow us down, and that’s the main thing -- just trying to keep our momentum going in an impossible way when the weather is fighting against us. And it was a five-plus-month shoot, so we were all over the place in terms of the kind of weather we were also experiencing -- from the very cold at the beginning of January, to overwhelmingly hot weather by the end.

"True Detective" also kind of reminds me of "The Wire" just because it’s very grim, it’s very serious, obviously there’s the law enforcement angle, but also it’s kind of darkly funny -- especially in the rapport between the two of detectives. It’s very uncomfortable humor.

There wasn’t a lot of humor in the script originally, and that was actually my first note and Woody Harrelson’s first note. Woody was like, “Yeah, it’s really interesting, it’s really dark -- but it needs some light in it.” I was like, “I 100 percent agree.” Woody was really responsible for pushing and looking at scenes together to try to find the natural humor in them - -those pregnant pauses and stuff -- and so was Matthew. Matthew’s a funny guy to really bring out that side of it -- which I think was really important -- because it wasn’t necessarily the writing. I think we achieved it at times, and then stuff we thought would be funnier didn’t really carry over. It’s a tricky balance to keep up with the tone of what we’re doing and to allow for some levity and humor. I guess, similar to "The Wire," it’s pretty densely written.

Is the show planned to continue in different iterations? With a different director and different subjects?

Yeah, it was meant to be an anthology. So, the next season would be a new story, new characters, new director.

Does that have anything to do with the True Detective stories?

From the pulp magazines? I think, in a sort of Kevin Bacon way, in that I think the author grew up reading this kind of stuff. He did read True Detective, the pulp magazine. But when he called the show this thing, it was more a nod to the genre rather than it being an adaptation of any of those stories. It’s more a story about the narration and the narrator’s reliability -- or unreliability -- in terms of telling the truth about a story.

By Neil Drumming

Neil Drumming is a staff writer for Salon. Follow him on Twitter @Neil_Salon.

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Cary Fukunaga Hbo Jane Eyre Matthew Mcconaghey Sin Nombre The Wire True Crime True Detective Tv Woody Harrelson