‘True Detective’: Directing Helped Nic Pizzolatto Stop Micromanaging and See the Bigger Picture

In an interview with IndieWire, the "True Detective" showrunner explains how directing for the first time helped change his on-set behavior.
True Detective Season 3 Episode 4 Stephen Dorff Mahershala Ali
Stephen Dorff and Mahershala Ali in "True Detective"
Warrick Page / HBO

When it comes to “True Detective,” Nic Pizzolatto is known for being meticulous. On the one hand, his work demands it. His HBO anthology series is a hit mystery with fans hanging on every word — and then googling everything, hoping to solve the case before the onscreen detectives.

But his quest for perfection also carried over to his on-set behavior.

“In the first two seasons, if the cameras were rolling, I was never not on set,” Pizzolatto told IndieWire. Since work began in Season 1, he described establishing ardent work habits including “very clear dialogues” with the actors, emphasizing what directors had to get in each scene, and even making “summarizing exegesis about the scene for the actors and for the crew.” It was all designed to be helpful, but Season 3 brought a change.

“That’s how I always did things, but this third season […] especially with [director] Dan [Sackheim], I just started stepping back.”

Pizzolatto said he still had conversations with the directors, but on more general topics before the day’s shoot. He said he spoke to the actors about key scenes being shot the next day, “but beyond that I tried to give everybody space to work; to trust the process and trust the people we hired a bit more.”

Of all the things to change Pizzolatto’s approach, he said it was becoming a director himself in Season 3 that made the difference.

To put that revelation into perspective, it’s important to remember the creative differences driving the series’ two best seasons. Cary Fukunaga, who directed all of Season 1, is a loose, inventive filmmaker who came up with ideas — like a certain long take — that may not have meshed with what Pizzolatto had imagined on the page. Jeremy Saulnier, who directed the first two episodes of Season 3, said he had a “tough time” on set. He left early, citing scheduling issues, and Daniel Sackheim was brought in for Episode 3 as well as the last three episodes.

In a press conference prior to Season 3’s release, Pizzolatto took away only positives from his experience with the series’ directors.

“I thought Jeremy brought a lot to the show, and I loved working with him in his two episodes,” he said. “We were lucky we could grab Dan Sackheim, who brought a real diligence and real desire to understand the material and all its subtexts. [As for me,] I had planned to direct — it was always part of the plan.”

Stephen Dorff, Nic Pizzolatto and Matthew McConaughey'True Detective' TV Show Premiere, After Party, Director's Guild of America, Los Angeles, USA - 10 Jan 2019
Stephen Dorff, Nic Pizzolatto, and Matthew McConaughey at the “True Detective” Season 3 premiereRob Latour/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

“Nic is an intense guy,” Stephen Dorff said in an interview earlier this year. “But what a writer and what a brain he’s got. He’s got an answer for everything. I always said, ‘You’re like the smartest dude I ever met. There’s nothing you don’t know or you don’t have an answer to that makes sense to me.’ […] ‘How does that work? Where is his brain from?'”

Pizzolatto said he learned to “step back” after he sat in the director’s chair for the first time, shortly after Saulnier left. “I think the fundamental appeal for me was that it cut out a middleman,” he said. “Instead of approximating a vision, I was just able to more directly realize it — and I’ve gotten to work with great directors. But for me, it actually simplified things a great deal.”

Pizzolatto even said he was more relaxed while directing than when he was showrunning. “I don’t know that I’ve ever felt calmer during production than when I was directing,” he said. “I knew what we were getting. I’m editing in my head. I have a direct line with the actors, a direct line with the camera crew, and so in that way, it really just made things easier.”

The feeling caught Pizzolatto off-guard. He was surprised by how collaborative the job became as he fell into it, and couldn’t stop crediting his cast, crew, and, in particular, his producer Scott Stephens, who he called a “full partner” in everything he does with “True Detective.” “I think it’s a job with a lot of mystique around it that isn’t necessarily always earned,” Pizzolatto said. “Directing, you’ve got about 100 people all around you who are dedicated to making your job easier. […] If you’ve got good people — and we had great people — you just learn to lean on them.”

His cast gave him nothing but high marks. At that same press conference, Mahershala Ali said Pizzolatto “was great to work with.”

“His episodes are fantastic,” Ali said. “I’m glad I got to be one of the first to work with him in that capacity because I’m really proud of the work Nic did.”

Nic Pizzolatto and Mahershala Ali - True DetectiveDeadline Contenders Emmy Event, Portraits, Paramount Theatre, Los Angeles, USA - 07 Apr 2019
Nic Pizzolatto and Mahershala AliMichael Buckner/Deadline/REX/Shutterstock

Dorff said he loved all the directors in Season 3, but his praise for Pizzolatto was fervent. “Jeremy’s really kind of thoughtful — he spent a long time thinking about a shot,” Dorff said. “But Nic’s way different. […] When he directed it was so effortless. He knew every shot he wanted. He knew what he needed. He knew if he didn’t get it. He was just kind of the perfect director.”

Pizzolatto said he pulled from an “aesthetic bible” the “True Detective” team put together long ago. For instance, he said he didn’t want to implement any flashy camera movements that could distract from the story or performances — this season wasn’t like others from the past.

“I’ve noticed when writers direct sometimes, the camera becomes the star [because] maybe [they feel] an urge to show a unique visual sensibility or something?” Pizzolatto said. “With the right material, I could certainly see jumping toward those opportunities, but for this, I just felt like it was grounded in the performance; in a sort of classical, kind of formal realism.”

Pizzolatto doesn’t want you to feel his presence through the camera. He’s conscious of stepping too far in front of the words — from scripts Ali described as “sacrosanct” — and said though he’d certainly consider directing a full season of “True Detective,” but only if he could be sure it wasn’t “a product of personal vanity.”

“I think whatever I do from here on, I would hope to direct at least the first couple, the first few, to make sure the tone, vocabulary, and characters were all set,” he said. “[After] those crucial elements were defined, then let other people come in. At the same time, if I had a situation where the material would really warrant it or the actor really wanted it, I could see doing a whole season. [But] I would want to do know it was necessary.”

Pizzolatto is kicking around a few ideas for “True Detective” Season 4, as well as other series. He’s also planning to step back even further and shepherd more projects as a producer. No matter what he takes on next, Pizzolatto plans to keep trusting his team.

“It may be that directing in some ways — or maybe it’s just age — allowed me to let go of a lot of micromanagement that probably defined a lot of what I was doing the first two seasons,” Pizzolatto said. When he’s told how healthy that sounds, the writer, director, and producer agrees. “That’s what I learned: Stepping back is healthy. Everybody can have a clear idea of their jobs, and you can actually step back and have a life.”

“True Detective” Season 3 is eligible in the limited series categories at this year’s Primetime Emmy Awards. Nic Pizzolatto is contending in the Outstanding Directing, Outstanding Writing, and Outstanding Limited Series (as a producer) categories. 

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