True Detective’s Nic Pizzolatto: I write best about people whose souls are on the line


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Nic Pizzolatto has made a bit of a name for himself. After writing a critically acclaimed novel (Galveston), he then graduated to TV, where he was part of the writing team on the US version of The Killing, and then the short-lived gangster drama, Magic City. He hit paydirt with True Detective, where his decidedly auteur-style approach to writing came to the fore – no large writing rooms there. Now the second series of True Detective is upon us, Pizzolatto has given a fascinating interview with Vanity Fair, and I really wanted to share some of his quotes with you, if only because I find any strong auteur fascinating and worth listening to. Think David Milch, think Dennis Potter and think, more recently, Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner. All figureheads of singular, uncompromising vision. Some of Pizzolatto’s quotes are after the jump…

To begin with it’s interesting to me the LA Pizzolatto is trying to depict in the second series of True Detective. It’s doesn’t include the egg white omelette-eating, chihuahua-carrying fame-obsessed Santa Monica set. No, Pizzolatto tells interviewer Rich Cohen what he’s aiming for, and tells him to investigate a certain small area of the city:

Vernon, which, as of 2013, had just 114 inhabitants, is home to factories of the polluting variety, slaughter houses, and chemical plants. Used as a dodge and a tax haven, it’s been controlled by just two families for most of the last century and recently came under intense scrutiny, with press and prosecutorial interest in public officials who seemed never to stand for election.

Now that’s more like it!

I wouldn’t say True Detective is even a show about ideas as much as it’s a show about intimacies. The forced intimacy of two people sharing a car, the intimacy of connections you don’t get to decide. I write best about people whose souls are on the line. Whatever we mean when we use that word. I certainly don’t use it in a religious sense. But the essence of who you are – that’s on the line. At its simplest level, everything I’ve ever written about, including this and season one, is about love. We transpose meaning onto a possibly meaningless universe because meaning is personal. And that question of meaning or meaninglessness really becomes a question of: What do you love? Nothing? Then you’ve got a good shot at a meaningless existence. But if you love something – how do you love within the necessities of life and the roles you have to play? I can see that that’s been one of the defining questions of my adult life and work: How do you love adequately?

Pizzolatto then talks about the crime drama genre, which could also apply to the crime fiction literary drama, too. These two forms of expression often get derided as not as important or as weighty as a ‘proper drama or novel. This is what Pizzolatto says after being asked why keep using the detective framework:

It puts you in everything. That’s why they’re great engines for stories. They go everywhere. A detective story is really just the way you tell a narrative – you start with the ending. At the end, this person is dead. Now I’m going to go back and piece together the story that led to it…. It’s about the final unknowability of any investigation.

He then goes onto talk about his career, and the fact he only really got serious about writing when his wife became pregnant. He suddenly felt the weight of responsibility, and four weeks later he had written a first draft of his critically-acclaimed novel, Galveston. I recommend it – it has lots of themes, tropes and character paradigms that end up in the first series of True Detective.

Pizzolatto also goes onto to talk about the whole idea of the auteur, something that’s sometimes lost within the ‘writing room’ culture of America TV drama.

This whole idea of the twist, ‘Let’s flip this character,’ that’s Writers’ Room 101 for ‘We never had a plan. What do we do? Let’s make somebody you thought was good, bad, or somebody you thought was bad, good. What a neat reversal.’ … It’s almost a workshop mentality. Everybody’s got to raise their hand to feel involved, to validate themselves. You get into tug-of-wars between egos. I’ve seen story points decided wherein the discussion had gotten so far away from character you wonder what’s driving the story other than a pair of ideologies arguing with themselves in a room.

He reserves special love for the late Dennis Potter.

He did The Singing Detective and Pennies from Heaven and Lipstick On Your Collar and Karaoke and Cold Lazarus and Blackeyes, all this great stuff. That was your TV auteur right there, and there’s still never been any TV like it. The Singing Detective is not for everybody, but it’s still the best thing ever done on television. Before we had a notion of a show-runner, that’s the guy who wrote a different mini-series every couple years. That was somebody making art as ambitious as any art being done but using this popular fallen medium of TV.

I now like Nic Pizzolatto even more than I did – The Singing Detective is also my favourite thing ever to appear on television.

I really recommend you read the article, not just because it’s about True Detective, but also because there’s so much interesting stuff about writing and method, like this:

I read a lot of police manuals,” he told me. “I read true crime accounts by cops. I read the fucking – it’s over 1,000 pages – Practical Homicide Investigation textbook. I read about how you go about solving crime, procedure. When I write, it tends to be that kind of method thing where I am descending into the character. I’m walking around talking to myself like the character. I’m imagining, When this person wakes up in the morning, what’s the first feeling they’re having? Do they wake up hot? Do they wake up and punch their father in the face? How does this go for them? Do they wake up fighting old battles? I start inside the characters and it all goes outward – everything about him is a projection of what’s happening internally. The world is a projection. A sad, frustrated man is going to look at a tree in a field in a much different way than a happy man. If you recognise everything’s point of view, everything starts internally and extends outward.

True Detective: Monday 22nd June, 9pm, Sky Atlantic

For all our True Detective coverage, go here



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