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True voice brings 'True Detective' to life

Christopher Borrelli

3:47 PM CST, January 22, 2014

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Among the many things to admire about the new HBO crime series "True Detective" is the title, which is broad, pithy, self-conscious and laced with a stank of menace. Or maybe that's just the smell it gives off when played against the show's apocalyptic expanses: wide-open swaths of rural Louisiana that nevertheless seem thick with shadows, churning refineries and old churches crumbling picturesquely in the high grasses.

There's also the morose, melancholy swing of the theme music, courtesy of former Chicago band the Handsome Family. There's the performance of Matthew McConaughey — continuing the McConaissance — as a cryptic cop hunting a cryptic serial killer. And there's Woody Harrelson, never better as his dude-ish partner.

But the most intriguing, and defining, thing about "True Detective" is the language, the dialogue. The monologues that come mumbling out of McConaughey are alternately lyrical and overwritten, profound and ridiculous. "I know who I am," he croaks in an early episode, "and after all these years, there's a victory in that." Later, surveying a street, he says: "This place is like someone's memory of a town. And that memory is fading."

Those lines were written by Nic Pizzolatto, a 38-year-old screenwriter, author and former Chicago-based lit teacher.

Indeed, every line in each of the eight episodes that make up the first season of "True Detective" was written by Pizzolatto, who as recently as 2010 was still teaching in the Midwest, in the creative writing program at the University of Chicago and then in the English department at DePauw University, near Indianapolis.

Befitting a former academic, Pizzolatto's a wordy guy, but also a little brash, a little weary and a lot confident. With reason: A native of Louisiana, he is the author of a well-received story collection ("Between Here and the Yellow Sea," composed of pieces that ran in publications such as Atlantic Monthly and Missouri Review) and a grimy crime novel ("Galveston"). Within a year of leaving for Hollywood, he was developing a remake of "The Magnificent Seven" for Tom Cruise; within two years, he became a showrunner for HBO.

If a good TV show is tied to the voice of its creator, Pizzolatto's voice arrived as fully developed as "True Detective" itself, which is trickily structured around flash-forwards to McConaughey and Harrelson two decades after the murder investigation that drives the plot; in fact, the storyline of the show — which will have an anthology format, resetting with each new season — has a definite ending because, as Pizzolatto explained in a phone interview, "I like finished things with endings, not second acts that go on."

The following is an edited version of a longer conversation.

Q: With very little TV history, how does one get to write all eight episodes of a show's first season?

A: Well, OK: I wrote the pilot as a sample to use to get work in the industry itself. Then the director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Babel") was interested, so I wrote a second episode. Then he went off to make a movie, and rather than wait, (Pizzolatto and his agent) decided to proceed with those episodes, choose a director and cast the leads before we pitched it to anyone.

When it sold to HBO, I basically holed up in my office for a while, this little converted garage at the house we were living in Van Nuys (in LA). I had a very rough outline of what I wanted to do and where I wanted to end. The outline became more and more complicated. It was written on a couple of thousand Post-it notes, stuck to every wall. It looked like madness. Sometimes I left the room. I live with my wife and daughter, and my wife was supportive and made sure I ate. The thing is, knowing how long we had these actors (for), we had to get ready. So, it took, say, 21/2 months to write.

Q: Are you surprised that people are surprised you did this all yourself?

A: Yes, and it speaks to my naivete, not having come out of the entertainment industry. I get asked this question. People seem offended: Who do you think you are to do all this? But nobody told me I couldn't.

Q: Probably they get mad because the other half of their question is: How do you become a showrunner for a major HBO show without ever having a lot of experience in TV production at all?

A: I had some experience on (AMC's) "The Killing." I worked on two episodes and was allowed, for all practical purposes, to produce. If you are a certain kind of hands-on learner and have been in a writers room and know how scripts get made and you know what pre-production is, then mostly it's making sure the actors get what they need and you are providing creative oversight while allowing room for everyone else to own the material too. I came to that naturally. But there were times I thought I should not be doing this.

Q: All of this was not long after leaving Chicago and Indiana and academia.

A: Right, I left the University of Chicago's creative writing program for a tenure-track job at DePauw University in Indiana, then left DePauw in 2010 for Los Angeles. I was in Hyde Park two years, Indiana two years. I left to test the waters in Hollywood, a nonpaid sabbatical, but after a year, I just decided to stay.

Q: And you were on tenure-track.

A: Yeah, at DePauw, I was teaching writing and fiction. The things I wanted to teach, more than anything else, were form and theory of the novel, of narrative. I liked those classes. But then I quit. At University of Chicago, I had a contracted lectureship soon after grad school (at the University of Arkansas). So, you taught two or three classes a semester, in the grad and the undergrad creative writing program, which was just starting to develop then. Anyway, I liked teaching, but the bureaucracy of academia and the petty intrigue. ... It wasn't a good fit. Once I admitted that myself, that I didn't like academia, I was ready to try TV.

Q: But is it a safe assumption that discussing form and narrative so much helped shape your ideas about narrative and influenced "True Detective," which often seems to be a study in narrative?

A: I think so. But I did become a better writer when I stopped teaching. I didn't have to keep bringing myself back to the beginning of a conversation about narrative and communicate the same things again to a new set of students every semester. I could just keep extending the conversation I have with myself on narrative.

Q: Were you watching TV during this time, while you were teaching?

A: Sure was. I was in grad school when "The Wire," "The Sopranos" and "Deadwood" were on HBO simultaneously, and those shows filled my hunger for fiction in such a more vital way than the contemporary novels I was reading. Those shows were engaging the culture, people were having conversations about them everywhere. And they weren't talking about books with the same intensity. So, producing something in a popular medium like TV, where I could be part of a cultural dialogue, appealed to me. To actually do that, though, was ludicrous. But the interesting thing about the TV industry now: They want writers. You can come here with only your work as your calling card and within two years be running a show on HBO — no?

Q: The show is a character study disguised as a police procedural, but did it have to be police?

A: I think you can take any genre, and it can be revitalized by the appearance of unique characters and by allowing that genre to try on affects not associated with that genre. But this had to be a procedural, because that's where my areas of research have gone deepest. But also, if one of the chief aims of this show is an investigation into these two lead characters, then it seems natural to adopt the form of an investigation itself.

Q: So the red meat is the serial killer investigation.

A: Or the spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.

Q: And the two detectives on the show, one poetic and brooding, one no-bones and unpretentious — flip sides of the same person? Or different sides of yourself, divided into a pair of characters?

A: They are much closer in their flaws than they care to admit. But yes to all of that. These are two types of man that I am afraid I could become. OK, so what's unsettling about the show? A serial killer? I don't walk around scared of serial killers. But I do walk around wondering about being a bad father and worrying about having some unforeseen effect on my child. You can't live your life on eggshells, but the idea that there is a perfidy in the world that we can't stop from infiltrating the purest parts of our lives — that's what scares me.

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli