Nic Pizzolatto, the Brooding Poet Behind 'True Detective'

Steven Zeitchik
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

When Nic Pizzolatto was 5, he had an epiphany. It wasn’t the usual childhood one about finger-painting or bike-riding or other regular kid stuff. It was that one day he would die.

“You know how people say that young people feel immortal? I don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said. “I was planning for how I would deal with my death in good conscience well before I even hit puberty.”

The moment captures Pizzolatto, one of the more colorful creative types to emerge in Hollywood in recent years and the force behind HBO’s “True Detective,” the Louisiana-set, time-jumping Matthew McConaughey-Woody Harrelson noir series that premieres Sunday. Though a first-time creator, Pizzolatto wrote all eight episodes of the anthology series and served as the series’ sole show runner.

Articulate, confident and a little death-obsessed, the 38-year-old former novelist brings with him a brashness that defies the schleppy image of the young TV writer and matches the profession’s more swashbuckling character — a personality that blends the obsessiveness of an Aaron Sorkin with the lyricism of a David Milch. It also features a level of self-mythology that involves, as he tells it, yanking his own novel shortly before publication, a seat-of-his-pants decision to leave academia for Hollywood and a childhood that matches the brooding poetry of his new show.

Pizzolatto grew up poor in rural Louisiana, miles from the nearest city — “amid the surreal juxtaposition of idyllic woods and enormous refineries, like a cross between ‘Blade Runner Tokyo’ and wherever the Transformers live.” There were no books at home and little emphasis on education. He wound up at Louisiana State University on a visual-arts scholarship, working two jobs so he could pay for school. Then he began reading.

“It saved my life,” he said. “When you’re a confused 19-year-old filled with questions you can’t even articulate and a kind of black rage that feeds at your heart from the moment you wake up in the morning, and you discover Marcus Aurelius’ ‘The Meditations,’ that changes your life.” He soon began writing too.

Pizzolatto is in a Pasadena restaurant talking about his new show. With a gray leather jacket and intense eyes, he cuts a fiercely rational figure; at one point in the conversation, he makes no-nonsense distinctions to the waitress about hash browns. He is prone, even in casual conversation, to phrases such as “the oppositional-mirror quality exists on a micro and macro level to form concrete indicators of character,” or “only ephemera of culture separate us, the walls our egos create as they try to move through those barriers.”

It wasn’t an easy path from the auto-didacticism of Pizzolatto’s youth to Hollywood it status. Several months after he graduated from LSU, his fiction professor and mentor died. He gave up writing, moved to Austin, Texas, and lived a slacker life as a bartender for four years.

He eventually enrolled in an MFA program at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. The first two short stories he wrote sold to the Atlantic Monthly. They would form the backbone of his first collection, a group of dark literary stories titled “Between Here and the Yellow Sea,” and one of two books he would publish (the other is “Galveston,” a mystery with the terrain and preoccupations of “True Detective”). A third he pulled in 2008 just as it was about to hit stores, because he thought it was “too cerebral and not very good.”

Two years later, in a tenure-track writing professorship at DePauw University in Indiana, he found himself unhappy. “I’d want to bring a flamethrower to faculty meetings,” he said. “The preciousness of academics and their fragile personalities would not be tolerated in any other business in the known universe.” His love of TV was blossoming with HBO’s “Deadwood,” “The Wire” and “The Sopranos” — indeed, if 1960s-born auteurs like David Fincher and Darren Aronofsky cut their teeth on ‘70’s cinema, Pizzolatto may be among the first offspring of television’s golden era. He became attracted to the idea that a show runner had both the creative range and control of a novelist.

Despite few film and TV connections, he told his wife he wanted to be in Hollywood, and soon had sold the film rights to “Galveston.” Shortly after, the couple and their 2-year-old daughter relocated to Southern California. Pizzolatto and his new Hollywood representatives landed him a gig as a writer on AMC’s “The Killing” — a show he left after a brief stint that included the writing of the infamous first-season finale. He describes a general dissatisfaction with the “Killing” experience and, despite a similar dark whodunit premise, took pains to distinguish “True Detective” from that show, emphasizing character over mystery.

There is a level of self-sufficiency to Pizzolatto that might strike some as swagger. He waves aside the idea of working with others in a writers room — he shows heavily marked-up index cards at his Ojai home and says that “this is my writers room” — and adds that the idea of writing primarily for film, where a director often has the final say, makes him shudder. “I didn’t come to Hollywood to be subservient to anyone else’s vision,” he said.

Some of this would seem unearned but for his track record. His desire to write a remake of “The Magnificent Seven” led to Pizzolatto, a virtual unknown, landing the job and developing the script for months with Tom Cruise after producers and the star were sold on his talent.

Then there’s “Detective,” which is earning strong advance buzz for its rich characters and philosophical underpinnings. One of several scripts Pizzolatto wrote simply to get in the game, “True Detective” sparked a bidding war when it first was circulated in Hollywood and had executives salivating when he made his full pitch.

He penned it, he said, because the set-up allowed him to explore his preoccupations. “To achieve a personal vision that deeply investigates character, it makes sense to choose as a delivery vehicle a genre where an investigation is already underway,” he said.

Befitting a man who created McConaughey’s morbidly poetic Rustin Cohle character, Pizzolatto acknowledges being drawn “to people with extremes” and may have more than a whiff of it himself. He recalled that during the writing of “True Detective,” his wife returned from a weekend with her mother to find him passed out on the floor, “shirtless and surrounded by empty whiskey bottles.” (He clarified later that he didn’t write while drinking but that he had “bombed out” the last few scripts in succession and was releasing steam.)

While not explicitly basing some of the show’s more morose musings — they often cover men struggling with loyalty, duty, faith and mortality — on his own life, he certainly drew from his own moody philosophy. The series continues his early preoccupation with death — he calls it one of his “governing obsessions as an artist” — not just the procedural but also the characters’ own deaths, literal and figurative.

“You can probably tell I don’t give a ... about serial killers, and I certainly don’t care to engage in some sort of creative cultural competition for who can invent the most disgusting kind of serial killer,” he said. “This is just a vehicle. You could have engaged the same obsessions in a doughnut shop, but the show probably wouldn’t have sold.”

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