Nic Pizzolatto Is Here to Answer Your Burning True Detective Questions

Before the Season Three finale, True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto responds to fan questions about his approach to the craft of writing, this season’s multiple timeline structure, and why the theme of memory is so important in his work.

Do you think Wayne is aware how rapidly his condition is evolving?

Nic Pizzolatto: Yes, in his lucid moments he’s aware of his condition, but in the throes of its symptoms, he becomes lost to its effects. So the answer is that sometimes he’s aware of his condition and knows it’s doing things to his mind, and in others he’s confused and aware that he’s confused, and in still other times he’s confused and unaware that he’s confused. And, of course, there are times with the documentary director where he’s not confused, but pretending to be.

Do you have an interest in the occult and the paranormal? Has it shaped your approach to writing?

Nic Pizzolatto: I can’t say that I do have much interest there, or that I feel it’s shaped my writing, other than the obvious connotations of season one – which is the only vaguely occult thing I’ve ever written. And I don’t have much belief in the paranormal, as a concept.

Was there a conscious decision to go back to religious undertones for this season?

Nic Pizzolatto: I don’t think so, other than it’s an organic part of the world and characters being depicted. Spirituality is a primary concern of mine, and central to human life, I think, and in this setting and among these characters, spirituality would most commonly and communally manifest as religion. Which is not something I oppose, at all.

How do you cast the main characters?

Nic Pizzolatto: I think about the spirit and qualities of the characters, and look for the actor who can convincingly convey that combination of traits. Then, once cast, the role tends to be written toward what I see as the actor’s strengths and abilities. In the case of Wayne, however, Mahershala came to me, and it was one of the luckiest breaks of my creative life.

What role does the location (Ozarks) play in this season?

Nic Pizzolatto: I generally think of landscape as character – in so far as a region contains expressive qualities in its geography, and that geography shapes the people who inhabit the place, and then the people, in turn, shape the place they inhabit. So I think of it as existing symbiotically with people, influencing and being influenced by them. This location, in particular, I’ve always found evocative, in its low mountains, its mists and fog, its rivers and rocks and deep forests and hollows.

Why are Amelia and Wayne both so invested in this particular case?

Nic Pizzolatto: Wayne, because of his job, and Amelia because she knew Will and is invested as a member of the community, and as someone who sees what is happening to that community. Both have a hunger to know – Wayne as detective/hunter, and Amelia as a storyteller. By 1990, it is the reason the two of them got together and eventually made a family, the reason Wayne has been on a desk for ten years, and the reason Amelia is now a blossoming author – so it’s tangled up in their personal history on an intimate level. And as the story has felt unresolved, that lack of resolution has perhaps haunted them both in different ways as a story that lacks a definitive ending.

How do you form and develop your story? Do you have an ending in mind and work backwards from there or do you start out with a beginning and some themes you want to touch on and let it grow organically to a natural conclusion?

Nic Pizzolatto: I begin with a character and a situation that will let the character be explored through action... So a character usually inspires the beginning of a plot that will allow the character(s) to manifest. Then, once the inciting incident for a plot arises, I jump to the ending, deciding where I’d like things to ultimately lead, and if it’s a mystery-plot, deciding what exactly happened. From there the characters work in tandem with the plot, affecting its turns and being affected by them, and as things move along I try to stay open to the possibility of a better ending suggesting itself along the way – I like when characters surprise me with their choices, and sometimes those choices take the plot in unforeseen directions. With True Detective, because the stories are so plot-heavy, I have an ending early – seems like a good idea to have a destination in mind when starting a journey so long.

Why did you decide to use a three-timeline structure to tell this story? What challenges did it present?

Nic Pizzolatto: With this season, the idea was to see the larger arc of characters’ lives over a great expanse of time – particularly Wayne, to view the bigger picture of this man’s life, to see how his character and his choices informed that life over thirty-five years. And there was also the ambition to look at time itself as a mystery, to try to see past, present, and future as one thing that was occurring almost simultaneously, while still telling a fundamentally linear story. This created constant challenges in what could be revealed without cheating the audience but still maintaining interest and suspense, how to structure reversals and revelations so that nothing felt artificially withheld, but could still unfold in an organic way, with no cheap tricks. I hope we were successful.

What came first, the plot/case or the characters/setting?

Nic Pizzolatto: Character first, then the beginning of a plot that allows the character to reveal themselves through action, then a setting which would ideally enhance the depiction of both plot and character.

The idea of memory and its deterioration seems to be an overarching theme to this season. Why did you want to explore that concept?

Nic Pizzolatto: I suppose because memory itself is so mercurial, but in the end perhaps all we have. The idea that your memory is the story of your life, and that’s the one totality you’re allowed as a human being, the totality of your experience. But a person’s recollection of experience is often unreliable and informed by emotions in the present – we’re very often coloring our past to suit our present, and in turn our present is colored by this interpretation of our past. So I guess there was an ambition there to look at the human condition as the mystery itself, although that may be a little too ambitious for a detective story, that was something that seemed to make it a worthwhile endeavor.

Is there any special significance to the poetry Amelia reads to her class?

Nic Pizzolatto: I think there is a strong thematic significance to the poetry she reads – Robert Penn Warren in the first episode, and a Delmore Schwartz poem in the final episode. The poems address time and memory and love, which are all central mysteries underlying the surface mystery of the season.

Inside Season 3

INTERVIEW

Stephen Dorff Explores Uncharted Territory

The man who plays Roland West discusses what makes True Detective different from anything he’s done before.

Event Coverage

Mahershala Ali Is the Talk of the Red Carpet

The Academy Award and Golden Globe-winning actor highlighted an evening celebrating the return of the crime drama.

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Welcome to the Ozarks

The cast and crew of True Detective discuss the show's third season, which follows an investigation into a grisly crime across three different time periods.