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This story first appeared in the Aug. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Editor’s note: This week’s THR has two cover stories. Click here to read the second, where Orange Is the New Black showrunner Jenji Kohan talks Hollywood’s pay inequality, “f— you” money and her Friends regrets.
Half past noon on a sweaty July day, and the antlers outnumber the patrons at the Deer Lodge.
At a dimly lit corner table at the Ojai, Calif.-area dive — below a deer head, beside a stage for live music — sits Nic Pizzolatto, 38, the former bartender-turned-novelist who emerged out of nowhere to create HBO’s True Detective, the hottest sensation on television this year. The venue is his local; its distance from Hollywood, both in vibe and in mileage, is no accident.
Dressed in a fitted black T-shirt and dark jeans, Pizzolatto orders his usual: a green salad with a side of chicken strips. He, his wife, Amy, and their now-5-year-old daughter settled in Ojai two years ago, and it has become a Hollywood safety valve for the auteur. He can get down to Los Angeles in 90 minutes when he needs to — and escape it just as fast. As so much else in his world has turned upside down, this place keeps him grounded: “I do my best not to let my life change,” he says. “Way up here, I’m still very much an outsider.”
After an unfulfilling stint in academia, Pizzolatto came West in the summer of 2010 with a half-dozen scripts — a Justified spec, a bull-riding drama and a draft of True Detective among them — and a desire to change his family’s circumstances. What followed is the stuff of Hollywood dreams. A writer with next to no TV experience landed a pair of movie stars (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) who bought into his creative vision, then produced eight stunning episodes of a viscerally dark crime drama that felt like nothing anybody had seen before. Critics, with a notable exception or two (more on that later), raved, and the show got nominated in every major Emmy category for which it qualified, 12 in all, including a best drama nomination for Pizzolatto. But now, as he readies the second season — which, true to anthology form, will feature an entirely new setting, story and cast — he will have to contend with sky-high expectations and a batch of haunting questions about whether he’s capable of repeating that success.
Passionate, cocky and intimidatingly smart, Pizzolatto spends the better part of the next three hours trying to convince me — if not himself — that he’s able to tune all of that out, just as he claims he has been able to ignore the swirl of rumors about who will be attached to the California-set second season. Such names as Benicio Del Toro, Colin Farrell, Taylor Kitsch and Vince Vaughn have been bandied about to star; William Friedkin and The Assassination of Jesse James‘ Andrew Dominik are among those speculated to direct.
“Nic’s not someone that needs success or expectations to put pressure on himself,” says McConaughey. “He’s quite self-reliant in his own high expectations of himself.” But days after HBO programming president Michael Lombardo stood before hundreds of critics and said that the first two scripts for season two are even “more exciting” than the show’s first, the showrunner seems determined to dampen that hype, cognizant that his audience could turn on him as quickly as they anointed him.
“As a creator, you always have one eye on the back of the room, where you know they’re loading their guns and building your gallows,” he says, sounding as if he’s been through this a million times before. “You almost feel like issuing a disclaimer: ‘This show will not change your life.’ ”
The irony of Pizzolatto’s comment, of course, is that it certainly has changed his.
Raised nearly 2,000 miles from Hollywood in rural Louisiana, he spent much of his childhood grappling with issues that later would surface in True Detective. From a young age, he bristled at the religious fervor that pervaded his hometown of Lake Charles and the areas surrounding it. Although tight-lipped about what went on in his own house, he has shared early recollections of peeking around hallways and seeing his parents with their eyes closed, holding hands with members of their prayer group and talking about visions they were having. “As I grew older,” he said in June during the Banff World Media Festival, “I began to see these things as products of fear and a kind of powerlessness.”
As a middle child of four, Pizzolatto often could be found alone in his room drawing — imaginary creatures, landscapes, anything. “Art was always for me an escape and a way to relate to the world around me,” he says. He was able to parlay that skill into a visual arts scholarship at Louisiana State, where he discovered literature and a gift for storytelling during the mid-1990s. But when a writing professor and early mentor died tragically not long after graduation, Pizzolatto put his passion on hold and moved to Austin. He made a meager living as a bartender for a few years and read voraciously: fiction, philosophy, history, poetry. “I still had it in my head that I was going to be a writer and that I needed to know as much as I could and to understand what had come before me,” he says.
By 2001, Pizzolatto had enrolled in an MFA program at the University of Arkansas and quickly sold a couple of short stories to The Atlantic. The magazine’s fiction editor, Mike Curtis, said earlier this year that he had been struck by Pizzolatto’s “fluency with philosophical ideas and moral stringency.” What followed was a collection of stories, Between Here and the Yellow Sea, which Pizzolatto claims nobody read; a series of professor gigs at the University of Chicago, the University of North Carolina and DePauw that soured him on academia; and a novel two years in the making that he yanked from publication at the eleventh hour. “It’s better to not have a reputation than a bad one,” he says.
But a baby on the way with his wife, then a web analyst, proved a valuable motivator, and he wrote Galveston in a three-month stretch. The novel, about a terminally ill man on the run from hired killers, was a 2010 Edgar Award finalist for best first novel and earned him the attention of Hollywood. Jean Doumanian optioned the rights to make a film, which is casting and aims to shoot in the fall. Having spent his grad school years captivated by such HBO dramas as Deadwood and The Wire, however, Pizzolatto was more interested in television. The concept of a TV showrunner — a storyteller with control, a prominent word in his vocabulary — held strong appeal. So when a pair of agents involved in the Galveston deal asked whether he had any TV ideas brewing, he excitedly said yes, then churned out six scripts in a month.
The industry fell for Pizzolatto almost immediately. He took a pass at a Magnificent Seven film remake starring Tom Cruise, scored a deal to develop his bull-riding script at HBO and nabbed a coveted gig as a staff writer on the first season of The Killing for AMC. It didn’t suit him; he left the latter after a single season. “I had this feeling of needing to make up for lost time, and I just felt like I needed to go off on my own,” he says. “I know that wasn’t the traditional wisdom, but, I mean, rarely have I taken traditional wisdom.”
It wasn’t until he pulled up the script for True Detective on his iPad during a meeting with Anonymous Content chief Steve Golin that the real whirlwind began. The management company pledged to help him lock up a director and big-name talent before shopping it to networks, ensuring an expedited time line, a bigger fee and, crucially, greater control. He was in.
Cary Fukunaga, an Anonymous client whose gothic adaptation of Jane Eyre had turned heads, signed on first, and then in early 2012, the script was sent to McConaughey for the part of cop Marty Hart, the prototypical “I got this” tough guy who denies his own pain. “This was Matthew before Mud, before Dallas Buyers Club,” notes Pizzolatto. The actor responded almost immediately: He loved the material and was on board, but he wanted to play the other officer, Rustin Cohle, a brooding philosophizer who can’t escape deep, psychological wounds. He helped lure Harrelson, who the producers had heard wasn’t interested in playing a cop or returning to TV.
It was a formidable package, and the suitors lined right up. Netflix, FX and Showtime each made plays. Showtime’s David Nevins was pretty sure he had it, then HBO swooped in with a bigger offer. Lombardo and his team were in awe of Pizzolatto’s fearlessness: “He is not uncomfortable exploring the darkness in men and women and not judging it, and that’s very powerful,” says the executive. “The corners of the psyche that most people are hiding or unaware of, he goes right for.” In addition to the pricey series commitment — episodes are running in the $4 million to $4.5 million range, once tax incentives factor in — HBO was willing to make a big bet on Pizzolatto. According to multiple sources, the network offered the barely known writer a two-year overall deal at nearly $1 million a year. And like that, the Louisiana novelist became a Hollywood showrunner.
Setting season one in Louisiana over Arkansas, as initially planned, forced Pizzolatto to revisit a past he’d been running from. “I waited until I had Hollywood with me,” he says of his decision to return.
When he arrived in New Orleans for preproduction in late 2012, it was his first time back to the area since he was 22. He describes the experience as equal parts “cathartic” and “distressing.” Although he won’t divulge which of the series’ storylines — the violence, the adultery, the alcohol — are based on his personal experience, you can’t help but think somehow all of them played a role somewhere in his past.
That intimacy Pizzolatto has with his characters can make it complicated for executives to work with him on his vision, though one could argue that’s by design. Lombardo likens his process to that of Deadwood creator (and Pizzolatto hero) David Milch. “These characters come out fully evolved, as though they’ve been living inside those writers,” Lombardo says. “It doesn’t lend itself to a lot of conversation beforehand, and that can be maddening when you’re trying to find a way in. It’s all internal until it’s not.” HBO enlisted Milch’s former producer Scott Stephens as a producer on True Detective to help guide the first-time showrunner.
Although many describe Pizzolatto as a prodigiously quick study, the pressure of running a show while also single-handedly writing every episode is overwhelming even for an experienced hand. He suggests he’d like to find ways to bring other people into his process — he quietly has enlisted a friend and fellow novelist, Scott Lasser, to help him break stories for the second half of season two — but delegation doesn’t come naturally to him. “That’s something I still have to learn,” he admits.
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Rumors of a power struggle between Pizzolatto and Fukunaga — who directed all eight episodes of the first season and is responsible for the show’s rich cinematic look — have circulated since production got underway in early 2013. And they grew more intense when word got around that Fukunaga would not be back for season two. The director, who declined comment for this article, will remain attached as an executive producer.
Stephens says all the talk has been overblown, noting simply that tension often arises when you have a helmer from the world of film — known as a director’s medium — working in TV, more of a writer’s medium. That both men were invested in every episode added another layer of complexity. “You have two people who want to be in charge of things,” he says. “But I’ve been in this environment before with a film director in a television world, and the results and the process were far more difficult than they were on this show. … It was always very collaborative on set, and despite the dark material we were producing, we were able to keep it light for the actors.”
Several others who spent time in Louisiana suggest those occasional clashes — which were said to have intensified during postproduction, when the two were working on opposite coasts — could be attributed to innate differences in style as well. Pizzolatto, a more vocal, aggressive creative, thrives on discussion and debate, and New York-based Fukunaga is a calmer presence whose laid-back nature could be construed as aloof.
Pizzolatto, for his part, flatly denies any bad blood. “Cary and I worked together really smoothly,” he says. “There was never any contention. Of course, you’re going to have discussions and difference of opinion, but what matters is that everyone is working without ego toward the best realization of what we have.” He’ll be bringing in multiple directors to helm the show’s second season, a decision he says is about being able to move more quickly through production. Pizzolatto might try directing an episode, too. “It’s just the question of if I want to,” he says. “It’s certainly an ideal field to test oneself, yet at the same time I might not want to mess up my own show.”
For a man comfortable in the shadows of the Deer Lodge, the “sudden and glaring attention of strangers,” as he puts it, has been a learning experience.
Although the vast majority of reviews for his debut series were rapturous — “the two central performances are so powerful, the dialogue so evocative, the look so intense, that they speak to the value of the hybrid anthology format Pizzolatto is using,” wrote Hitfix’s Alan Sepinwall — he seems to be hung up on the handful of negative ones. The most vocal detractor was Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker. In a critique titled “Cool Story, Bro,” she railed against the shallowness of his female characters, who serve as “wives and sluts and daughters — none with any interior life.” And Nussbaum wasn’t alone. On one corner of the Internet on Sunday nights, True Detective‘s “woman problem” emerged as a trending topic among bloggers.
Such criticism incenses Pizzolatto. Those who hammer the character of Marty’s wife, Maggie, played by Michelle Monaghan, for being flimsy are missing the point. If her point of view had been shown and she had remained a lightweight, he acknowledges, then those jibes would have more validity. But the first season, he argues, was conceived as a close point-of-view show, wholly told through the eyes and experiences of the two male characters. “You can either accept that about the show or not, but it’s not a phony excuse,” he says, unable to hide his frustration. He adds that he consulted his friend Callie Khouri on the matter: “When Callie, who wrote Thelma & Louise, thinks that that’s stupid criticism, I’m inclined to take her opinion over someone with a Wi-Fi connection.”
Still, he admits that as he conceived the second season he found himself taking the criticism into account. But when he realized that’s what was happening, he abruptly changed course and ditched whole characters. “I don’t think you can create effectively toward expectation,” he says. “I’m not in the service business.” The scripts he’s working on when we meet have four leads, three of them cops, one of whom is female, but that, too, is likely to change. He refuses to even comment on the logline making the talent agency rounds, which likens his premise to Chinatown, with a brutal murder set against the backdrop of a potentially groundbreaking transportation deal that would change California’s freeway gridlock forever. All he’ll say is that it’s a “work in progress,” and that if he talks in any detail about what he’s doing he loses the urge to do it.
Pizzolatto’s skin will have to get thicker moving forward, particularly because he has a lengthy list of projects he wants to tackle next. He says he’d like to take another crack at that modern Western bull-riding drama he developed at HBO before True Detective. And given that his own viewing habits include such comedies as Community, 30 Rock and Arrested Development, he’s flirting with the idea of trying a half-hour as well. One fantasy he says he’s had is to do the third season of True Detective in the vein of The Big Lebowski, a “[Raymond] Chandler?esque riff with two characters.”
There are more books in him, too, and he has a deal with Universal to write an original screenplay, though he’s not sure what will come of it. “If [an idea is] really meaningful to me and it’s a film, I would rather turn it into a novel than to have somebody else direct it,” he says, that control theme cropping up again. Of course, he’s also trying to figure out a way to write a couple of smaller movies that he can direct.
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For now, Pizzolatto is relieved to be staying close to home. That’s one of the perks of setting True Detective‘s second season in California. He has driven up and down the coast, exploring the potential of areas such as Monterey and the Russian River Valley. “If landscape is a character for me,” he says, “then it helps if I’m familiar with it and I already have a take on it.”
Writing remains a solo enterprise. He arrives at his Ojai office by 9 a.m. each day, and, taking breaks only for meals and a half-hour of yoga, writes until he can’t any longer. He still is represented by Anonymous Content’s Bard Dorros as well as RWSG, the boutique agency that helped him break into the industry, and scoffs at the idea of jumping ship: “I couldn’t ever consider being a big enough asshole to desert the people who took the journey with you once you’ve reached the goal.”
He’s fiercely private, too, and not much for small talk or letting many people in. In fact, since he’s moved to California, he’s added only a handful of friends, a cadre that includes T Bone Burnett, the music supervisor on True Detective, and his wife, Khouri, with whom Pizzolatto and his wife socialize. Burnett says the couples spend late nights in Ojai discussing books, writers, the culture. “We talk about music and art,” he says, “shows we like and shows we’d like to see.”
But on this afternoon, after our long lunch, Pizzolatto needs to get going. There’s another potential director to meet in Malibu, then it’s back to writing (and rewriting) the scripts sitting in the trunk of his silver Charger parked outside. He packs his iPhone and a canister of Swedish tobacco into his pocket, and we make our way toward the door, where he’s intercepted by the Deer Lodge’s owner, Tom Doody. The two men catch up for a minute: Doody, an older man with a thick head of white hair, tells him he’s got to stop serving lunch — the restaurant is losing too much money — and Pizzolatto makes a case for keeping the patio open. “For the day drinkers,” he laughs.
As we exit, Doody calls after him: “I almost forgot: Congrats, buddy.” He hasn’t seen Pizzolatto since the Emmy nominations were announced a few days earlier, and he expresses a burst of hometown pride. “When we saw it, we felt like we won!” Pizzolatto smiles, then turns to me: “Make sure you put that in your article.”
Click the image below to read this week’s other THR cover story, featuring Orange Is the New Black showrunner Jenji Kohan.
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