Contemporary television’s writer-creators are celebrated, while its directors are often hired guns on set for an episode or two. But the entire eight-episode arc of the new HBO miniseries True Detective, starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as Louisiana criminal investigators, was directed by 36-year-old Cary Fukunaga.
Fukunaga researched his first feature film, Sin Nombre, by spending weeks riding the violent Mexican railways. Since then, with Ang Lee–like versatility, he has taken on projects ranging from Jane Eyre to science fiction. Jessica Weisberg spoke to Fukunaga about movie directors working in TV, how he finds stories, and the early episodes’ look of Southern Gothic grounded in the photogenic blight of Louisiana oil refineries. True Detective’s launch last week was HBO’s highest-rated debut since Boardwalk Empire in 2010. The second episode airs Sunday night.
JW: What about the script of True Detective compelled you?
CF: Originally, it was written for the Ozarks, like Arkansas, and I liked the picture painted of that world. Moving the story to Lafayette, Louisiana, wasn’t a huge departure—only in terms of the light. It’s bright and overbearing in southern Louisiana. I was picturing twilight—not the vampire series, twilight like the soft, blue light.
JW: Were there images other than the landscape that stuck with you?
CF: The character work of Rust Cohle [Matthew McConaughey]. He was a clearly raw-nerved individual. I was interested in getting into the male psyche. I wasn’t interested in the standard anti-hero. He is an intellectual, which is also rare: There are not that many people in contemporary television or cinema able to articulate what’s happening inside their minds.
JW: For Sin Nombre, you strove to make the story about the migrants as accurate as possible. Did you have a similar process for True Detective? How did you go about investigating 1990s Louisiana?
CF: The 1990s I at least experienced. There were scouting sessions, and I got a sense for the petrochemical environment. (I grew up around a lot of refineries, and I remember playing around the smell for much of my youth.) In terms of investigative research, like how homicide CIDs [Criminal Investigative Detectives] go about their casework, I got paired up with this guy named Tim Hanks, and Tim had a cousin named Jacques. Tim took the law-enforcement route, and Jacques took the biker-gang, criminal route.
JW: So do you find that you seek out fixers, people who can bring you into the world you’re trying to capture?
CF: When you can, that’s the best thing. With Sin Nombre, gang members helped me figure out the correct language, codes, laws. Who’s in charge of cooking, that kind of thing. Some of the stuff we did with prostitutes in True Detective was analogous. …. They are very different kinds of films. There’s a heightened sense of genre in True Detective, a literary flair to how people speak. You have the crime, which is not an everyday kind of crime. There are elements to these characters that embody metaphors and American ideals.
JW: Can you elaborate on that?
CF: Well, you’re dealing with Martin Hart [Woody Harrelson], the epitome of what a large percentage of conservative Americans think is the correct way to live—you have your family, your work, you don’t talk about your emotions. Cohle comes from the polar opposite. It’s all intrinsic, based on truth, whether the truth is ever known to him or not, because I think internal truth can shift. There’s a caustic side to Cohle, because he’s not interested in covering up what he thinks or couching it in a sweeter way. In that sense, he’s reflective of a post-baby-boomer kind of philosophy. There’s a monologue where Cohle talks about being part of a body and when he no longer had a life to live for himself.
JW: I was really struck by Cohle’s monologue in the first episode about his disdain for organized religion.
CF: With the stories I pick, I’m a product of the time I’m living in, but it’s not a conscious choice. For the last 15 years, I’d say since 2001, there’s been constant conflict, but we’ve lived in constant conflict for the last millennium. Drama is conflict. You can’t have drama without a natural order that’s been discombobulated and needs to be rectified.
JW: Is there a commonality between the projects you choose to work on? A set of ideas you want to look at?
CF: Not sure. There’s an attraction element to it. I’m about to go do a film in Africa based on a novella I adapted seven or eight years ago. Through the same financing company, I had the opportunity to make it two years ago, and I just couldn’t. It’s going to have to be a dark place to make that story.
JW: The movie in Africa, is that about child soldiers?
CF: Yeah. I’ve been researching this since ’99, when the child-soldiers issue was much more of a hot topic in the human-rights world. It’s sort of cooled off as Americans—and other people, I think—are much more interested in rehabilitation now, people don’t want to see the conflict side of things. But there’s a merit and a value to exploring that world because as much as you want to run away from it, it exists. Basically, it’s from the perspective of a little kid who eventually finds his way out, all the awful things that happen to him on the way and how he wrestles with the idea that he may be a bad person.
JW: Do you think you are compelled by stories that have a sociopolitical issue at stake?
CF: You can’t help but observe, but in a way that’s timeless. One of the things that I hope gets communicated [in True Detective] is the concept that our idea of free will isn’t as free as we’d like to believe. That we all sort of pump into a much larger system. And the things we choose to let bother us, the idea of self-importance, the pursuit of happiness … it’s never said outright … but the whole concept is sold to us, and we buy it. It’s as subtle as just placing our location around these refineries, the human being functioning under this cloud of industry and pollution.
JW: Before, you mentioned how the crime in True Detective “wasn’t a normal, everyday kind of crime.” What were your stylistic choices when portraying that kind of violence?
CF: I made the choice, in spite of it being a flashback, to make it as omniscient as possible, so that when the storytellers weren’t telling the truth, you know the camera is. My tolerance for violence—I find myself somewhat immune to it, because of some of the subjects I’ve been around. When I watched Sin Nombre with an audience for the first time you could feel the anxiety in the first 20 minutes, and it made me uncomfortable … like, “Wow, I must be a violent person.” I was surprised.
I just think about how to put up a scene as best I can so the audience can experience what that place looks, feels, and smells like. Matter of fact is the most honest way to do it.
JW: The name True Detective, it’s both pulpy but also alludes to reality—if you didn’t know better, you might think it was a reality television show.
CF: True Detective was a pulp magazine from a long time ago, a compiling of true stories. I’m not sure the show has anything to do with that magazine, but [the stories are] all based on things that could have happened. The petrochemical corridor and Louisiana, the whole religious aspect. The paradox between high morality and extreme immorality. There was a church not far from where we were shooting that had been painted over white on the windows because they found out there was a cult of people abusing children.
The next season, I think, has to do with something industrial in California. But it will be based on crimes somehow limited to truth rather than fantasy, if that makes sense. These characters and this director are done at the end of this season. [Laughs.] We’ll be put on a shelf and immortalized.