SPOILER ALERT: The following story contains details from the season premiere of True Detective: Night Country.
The night is dark and full of terrors in Ennis, Alaska, the fictional setting for the fourth season of acclaimed crime anthology True Detective, which premiered tonight on HBO.
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This is the Night Country of the show’s subtitle, where eight scientists from the Tsalal Arctic Research Station suddenly, one day in mid-December, disappear. Stepping in to investigate, at a time of year that sees constant darkness in the Arctic, are Detectives Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) and Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis), women of quite different backgrounds and life philosophies. A highly inquisitive career cop, the former has lived in Alaska her whole life. Better relating to the largely Iñupiaq local community is the latter, a woman of Indigenous heritage with an ex-military background and a deeper sense of connection to the spiritual world. Whereas Liz has a strained relationship with her adoptive daughter Leah (Isabella Star LaBlanc), Evangeline spends much of her personal time caring for her troubled younger sister, Julia (Aka Niviâna).
When our detectives stop by the research station to begin their investigation, they stumble on a severed tongue leading them to make a surprising connection between this case and that of Annie K, an Indigenous midwife and activist who fell off the map a number of years ago.
Also introduced in the premiere are Peter (Finn Bennett) and Hank Prior (John Hawkes), a young police officer and his oddball father, whose relationship comes under tension given Peter’s work under Liz. Then, there’s local resident Rose (Fiona Shaw), who is led out into the icy dark by the spirit of a man named Travis, there discovering our missing researchers, stuck together in a corpsicle, with expressions of terror on their faces. It seems clear there are supernatural forces at work here. But is there more to the story?
Writing and directing tonight’s episode, along with all others this season, was showrunner-EP Issa López. Here, the celebrated Mexican filmmaker discusses the outsized influence of one particular David Fincher film on this season of True Detective, the “insane” challenge of mounting it over the course of many months in Iceland, and working with characters who will look to “crack the case of themselves.” Additionally, she gets candid about the best and worst aspect of working with HBO, and the status of previously announced projects with Guillermo del Toro, Noah Hawley, and Blumhouse.
DEADLINE: What about True Detective appealed to you before you were approached for the show? I know the story here is one you developed independently, prior to being approached for the show. But explain how your basic concept came together.
ISSA LÓPEZ: Well, I think this is the least extraordinary thing to say in the world, but I’ve always loved murder mysteries. Don’t we all? I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody that doesn’t. It’s just this fascination with two things — tragedy happening to anybody not me, and a puzzle — and if you put those together and serve a nice cocktail, who can resist? As a writer, as a filmmaker, it always felt like watching gymnastics in the Olympics. You look at it when it’s well done and go, “Oh, they make it look so easy,” but it’s an absolute art in itself.
Then, [when] the pandemic hit, I think a lot of people went into puzzles, and I went into this challenge of, “I think I may be able to do it.” I started to play with the elements and the idea of a setting, which is everything about a good murder mystery. I thought of the arctic and of mysteries that have intrigued me my entire life, and I started to cook with that, and just put it in a jar and let it brew. Then, I got the call from HBO asking what I would do with True Detective. I believe they saw a movie I made called Tigers Are Not Afraid, which is very gritty and ultra-real and violent, but at the same time has elements of the supernatural and [is] very atmospheric. So I think that something in that movie, they were like, “Oh, this could be an interesting point of view for True Detective.”
You talk to a Mexican filmmaker and you talk about a thriller, and I’m sure that at someplace in their minds they were thinking that I was going to come back with something cartels or along the border. I went, “How about the Arctic?” And they were like, “What?” [Laughs] Then, I told them the elements and it just came together in a beautiful way.
DEADLINE: How much did your story change when you realized you’d be telling it through True Detective?
LÓPEZ: Incredibly, not that much. It’s interesting because I had thought it had to be two detectives. One of the biggest influences that I ever will have in this genre, and honestly in cinema in general, is Se7en and these two enormously different characters that come together to solve a mystery. I’m sure that was one of the references that informed [creator Nic] Pizzolatto’s writing, at least unconsciously, so I was thinking of Se7en. It was two detectives, a forgotten corner of America with its own system of culture and rituals, and it just clicked massively with True Detective. It didn’t take a lot of effort.
I did consider at a certain point the two timelines that the original season had. It was actually three — the past, the not-so-past and the present. I could have done it, but I didn’t feel it was going to serve the storytelling, and I think the challenge of having to understand the past without showing it to you was fascinating, and keeping it undercover for longer. So, I ditched that, and HBO was very happy. I did take some elements like the long drives, talking existential visions from both characters, and the opposing philosophical sides. It’s two different philosophies, very different from the first season, but all of those elements came naturally. It was nothing that I had to force on the story.
DEADLINE: How did you arrive at the unique set of themes the show grapples with, from Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women to environmental concerns?
LÓPEZ: Of the four movies I’ve directed, two of them deal with the disappearance and murder of women. It just happened to be in Latin America when I did it before, but I don’t think this type of violence understands borders on maps. It goes across borders, sadly, and it has always been a preoccupation for me, and when I made Tigers and showed it around the world, the Indigenous population responded very emotionally to the movie because they could recognize the same violence. So I knew that chances were if I was going to do a murder mystery, that it had to do with these themes.
The environmental theme came more slowly, when I started to understand the inner workings of northwest Alaska and the industries and the conflicts in the area. You just start to create this town, and the forces that pull energy inside it. Mining is a huge deal in that area of Alaska, and there’s constant conflict around the benefits of a burgeoning energy industry, but at the same time, the damage that it creates in an environment where people need the environment to survive. So, it’s just rich grounds to create the story.
DEADLINE: The show’s setting within an icy world of darkness is exceptionally captivating. But did you kick yourself a bit when you began filming in Iceland and realized just how difficult the shoot would be?
LÓPEZ: Absolutely, and that happened the day I got a greenlight. Even before actually standing in the Arctic knowing that I was going to shoot there, I had been in Alaska to understand what I was writing, and I had eaten the food and sat with the families to understand my characters and the location, and it felt insane, the idea that I was going to go months and months north of the Arctic Circle. Then, I had been to Iceland years before, visiting. So, part of me was dying to get a greenlight and go, but part of me was dreading it. So finally when it was like, “It’s going to happen this year,” in 2022, it was like, “Yay!… F**k!”
Then, we were there with my incredible team, and it was this crazy thing of, what did we get ourselves into? Because the monitors themselves would start developing a little sync problem, and we couldn’t understand what it was until we figured out that the fluid inside the monitor was freezing. So if the equipment was reacting like that, and the actors had trouble saying the words because their lips would stick with ice, so many times we were like, “Are we going to get to the other side?” And we did, and we were so lucky. We had fun.
DEADLINE: There does seem to be a potential meta story here of filmmakers descending into madness in the arctic, as things go mad in the very same spot in the story they’re telling…
LÓPEZ: Absolutely. Listen, I’m Mexican. It’s not in my nature. So many times, people were like, “Did they tell you that it had to be in the Arctic?” And I was like, “No, that was completely my idea. I don’t know why I do this to myself.”
DEADLINE: Which aspect of the show’s world building did you find the most challenging to pull off?
LÓPEZ: Beautifully, I was walking hand in hand with Florian Hoffmeister, the DP, who got a nomination [at the Oscars] when we were shooting for Tár, and he’s just incredible. The challenge of shooting in the eternal darkness and in the ice, he’s a man that could do it, only him. The other one is Daniel Taylor, who did the production design and was able to capture Alaska and make it happen in Iceland. So I felt very, very well guarded there.
What was challenging, and I had to be incredibly careful and mindful throughout, was capturing the world and the energy and the spirit of the Iñupiaq people, who are definitely not a culture I was familiar with. But the more I understood about the location where I wanted to set the story, the more I knew that 70% of the population is Iñupiaq, at least Indigenous, in these parts of Alaska, and it would be unfair to make my characters any other color. So, the representation of these characters, in a way that was not only respectful, but a chance for them to see themselves in TV, was enormous. That part of the work required a lot of research and dialogue.
DEADLINE: On this production, you proved that rare breed of showrunner alluded to frequently during the WGA strike, who writes all their own episodes. At the same time, you served as director and executive producer for the whole series. Do you expect to always work this way, or was this an experience you’re not looking to repeat?
LÓPEZ: The truth is, when I finished the second run of the scripts and was ready to go, HBO never stops giving you notes. That’s the worst of working with them, but the best of working with them, too, because they keep pushing you. When you think it’s done, I’m ready to shoot, they will not let you. I was two weeks away from finishing shooting, and they were still giving me script notes, and I was screaming. But you know, the show became better because of that.
But right before I left for Iceland, I went for dinner with the HBO team and they sat me down and, very seriously and in a very generous way, said, “We don’t know if you truly understand what’s coming your way. Because you’ve shot movies, and it’s been challenging and whatnot, but you’re going to shoot a bunch of episodes on your own in the Arctic, and we’ve seen people break down when they tried to direct an entire series themselves. So we just want to say, we’re here for whatever you need.” Up until that point, I was like, “I got this,” and then when they told me that, I was so scared. Like, wow, maybe I really don’t know.
But you know what? It was a joy. It was never exhausting. I got to the end of it and was honestly sad that it was over. And again, it’s because I was surrounded with the perfect team.
DEADLINE: What can we expect from the rest of the season? What can you tease?
LÓPEZ: I think the ultimate goal is creating a story that sticks with people, that people remember years after watching it, in this deluge of stories coming our way. I think the trick to doing that is, the case is important, no doubt. But if you did it right, people a couple of years later, they’re not going to be able to tell you the plot of the crime. People that love True Detective can’t for the life of them tell you how that thing was plotted. They can’t, and it doesn’t matter. Because what matters is how the characters crack the case of themselves. They have to become undone to then be able to understand the worldly mystery, and that’s exactly what you can expect.
DEADLINE: You’ve attached yourself to a number of film projects in recent years: a Blumhouse pic called Our Lady of Tears, Searchlight’s The Book of Souls to be produced by Noah Hawley, and one with Guillermo del Toro. Are those projects still active? What’s next for you?
LÓPEZ: All of those are current. Projects have such long lives, it’s kind of a miracle that True Detective went from “Let’s start this” to completion in less than three years, nonstop. This is the first time I’ve experienced that. Usually, you develop a script with someone, and then the studio changes owners or executives, and project falls through the cracks. Then, you do another thing, and three years later, you get a call about the project, but you’re busy doing something else. Basically 10 years later, someone calls you and you have the time, and then the other producer has it, and then it comes together.
So all of those projects are alive, and all of them are very close to my heart, but they’re not going to happen right this second. There’s two things that I’m very excited about right now, but it’s all dependent on what happens when True Detective drops, and then we’ll see.
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