The Dark Thrills of 'True Detective'

Meet the brilliant mind behind TV’s best (and most twisted) new show

Matthew McConaughey Woody Harrelson True Detective
Lacey Terrell/HBO
Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in 'True Detective.'
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"Oh, yeah, Rustiiiiin Cohhhhhhle," drawls a delighted Matthew McConaughey. It's the day after the annual Oscar luncheon, where the nominees mingle and have a group photo taken, but he's not talking about Dallas Buyers Club. Today, his mind is on Rustin "Rust" Cohle, the brilliant but deeply troubled Louisiana homicide cop he plays opposite Woody Harrelson in True Detective, the stunner of a debut show from a former college professor with little TV experience named Nic Pizzolatto. McConaughey was the first actor to sign on to True Detective (the first season wraps March 9th), and was instrumental in getting the show on the air. "I loved the writing," he says. "I read the first two episodes, and I said, 'I'm in.' It's like Mark Hanna in Wolf of Wall Street or Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club. These are characters with clear obsessions, and that's what I've been choosing. Somebody where I could grab ahold of their obsessions and get drunk on them."

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Just a few years ago, Pizzolatto – an intense, hyperverbal dude with a serious Faulkner jones – was in a very different place. Before he became the creator and showrunner of True Detective, before he persuaded fimmaker Cary Fukunaga to helm every episode (Fukunaga's badass thriller Sin Nombre helped seal the deal for McConaughey), way before he became drinking buddies with his movie-star leads, Pizzolatto was the author of a little-read novel, Galveston, about a cancer-stricken criminal and a teenage prostitute stumbling around the Gulf Coast, and had a tenure-track job teaching literature and creative writing at tiny DePauw University, in Greencastle, Indiana. "I was really desperate and hungry to get out of academia," Pizzolatto, 38, recalls, cruising into town from his house in the desert two hours outside L.A. "I had been interested in writing for television, but I never had any kind of window into that world."

But when his novel was published in 2010, it was optioned "for just a little bit of money" – which put Pizzolatto in touch with a couple of Hollywood agents. He asked them how to break into screenwriting. The answer was surprisingly simple: Write screenplays. "Within a week I sent them a spec script for Justified, which suited my voice really easily, and an original pilot," he says. "In about a month I had written six scripts – and one of them was the pilot for True Detective."

Pizzolatto moved his family to L.A. that year, renting a house in Van Nuys and converting the garage into a writing studio. Work came right away: a development deal with HBO for a rodeo-show pilot that didn't work out, but got him in the door; a writing job on AMC's The Killing; offers to buy True Detective, which producers imagined franchising off, Law & Order-style. "You could have True District Attorney, True FBI," he says. "But I held on to that one – it was special to me."

Like American Horror Story, and basically unlike every other series on TV, True Detective was conceived as an anthology show, each season telling a discrete story with a different locale and group of characters. For the first season, Pizzolatto set his tale in a place he knows well: the swampy, oil-refinery-studded coast of Louisiana, where he grew up in a deeply Catholic family, obsessed with comic books and The Twilight Zone.

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The show follows two head-butting homicide detectives, the cerebral Cohle and Harrelson's good ol' boy Martin Hart, over a span of nearly two decades. The structure is almost psychedelically complex: In 1995, Cohle and Hart, then partners, investigate the murder of a young female prostitute who had been dosed with LSD and methamphetamine, crowned with a set of antlers and arranged in a prayer pose with a creepy little twig sculpture.

Seventeen years later, the pair, no longer with the force (and having had an ominous falling out), are separately interviewed by detectives investigating similar murders. Those interviews drive the story foward with a slippery, shifting perspective, from Cohle's account to Hart's, as flashbacks slowly reveal what actually went down.

"The walls of the converted garage where I was writing were covered in hundreds of Post-it notes," says Pizzolatto, who, unusual for TV, wrote the entire season alone. "I'm not against a writers' room, but I had such preconceptions of what I wanted, and I got so deep into it so quickly that I couldn't figure out a way that other people could help me. So I just barreled through it, like you would a novel."

As the season unfolds, Cohle and Hart are drawn into a world of shady evangelical preachers, hillbilly­genius meth cooks, missing women and children, neo-Nazi bikers, and a conspiracy that seems to rise all the way to the top. Playing Cohle, McConaughey is arguably even more transformed than in Dallas Buyers Club. In 1995, he's sober, precise, hyperanalytical. By 2012, he's slouchy and shattered, a guy who, says McConaughey, "lived longer than he'd hoped." And along the way, Cohle is forced to go back undercover – becoming a coke-and-meth-fueled maniac who goes by Crash.

To keep track of where his character is throughout the 17-year story, the actor created a massive document: "I made this 450-page kind of graph of where Cohle was and where he was coming from," he says.

Throughout, Cohle remains deeply dubious about human nature, referring to a well of self-taught philosophy, from Nietzsche to the Romanian pessimist E.M. Cioran, to the annoyance of Harrelson's Hart. "Woody and I have always done comedy together," McConaughey says. "As Woody puts it, he hits the ball to me, man, I hit it back harder, and we volley back and forth. But this is about opposition, about not being on each other's frequency."

So does Pizzolatto share Cohle's dark worldview? "Well, I'm like Cohle in the things we tend to reject, although I am not as broadly misanthropic," he says. "I have friends and I enjoy the fellowship of man. But what is Cohle's real relationship to the philosophies he espouses? If Cohle is a supposed nihilist, he is a phenomenally unsuccessful nihilist. He's too passionate."

Pizzolatto has started to dig in to Season Two, which, once again, he's tackling by himself. "I've got three characters I love right now, and they're all unique, and neither of them is Cohle or Hart," he says. But is there any worry that he can't maintain the near-kitchen-sink insanity of Season One? "That's the least of my concerns," Pizzolatto says. "I actually feel more free. Now I can really start to bend things."

This story is from the March 13th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1204: March 13, 2014