‘True Detective’: The Story Behind The Premiere’s Most Haunting Image

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By Kevin P. Sullivan (@KPSull)


If you checked out the first episode of HBO’s “True Detective,” the new drama starring real-life buddies Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, you know that while it might have many of the hallmarks of a traditional police procedural, the show’s pitch-black philosophy and deliberate pace makes it very, very different.

Rust Cohle’s thoughts on the purposelessness of humanity aside, any series about a serial killer needs a crime scene, and the one created by writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga is certainly a disturbing one.


A few months into their partnership, Cohle and Hart “catch a DB” in a sugar cane field. Dora Lange, a prostitute, is found dead, tied to a tree, nude with a crown of antlers. The whole scene reads cult-related, but that remains unclear by the time the first episode concludes.

For the first scene of the ambitious eight-episode limited series, Fukunaga wanted to establish “True Detective’s” duality as a twisted psychological drama wrapped in the shell of a police procedural. As he explained to us recently, the director wanted to strike a balance with how the crime scene looked: to make it frightening without pushing it too far.

“Of all the scenes, this is the one with the mythology of the serial killer,” he said. “The idea was to do a little of that, but to not make it over the top, horrifying enough that it’s a rare sight for these homicide detectives but also something that wouldn’t make people tune out and think that it was completely farcical.”

Achieving what Fukunaga had in mind for the crime scene meant shifting the location from what was originally written in Pizzolatto’s script. The screenplay called for Dora Lange to turn up in a forest, but Fukunaga decided to place her in the center of a sugar cane field. The thought the open expanses of the field combined with the daylight would create some unique imagery in a genre that has relied on dark alleyways for perhaps too long.

“They’re spooky, these sugar cane fields, especially at night time with the swaying wind. I just liked the idea of the idea being out in plain sunlight,” Fukunaga said. “Typically with murders and stuff like that, you’re always in this dark place. You think of ‘Se7en.’ It’s in these dark, unlit rooms or placed in some kind of way that it’s already in this noirish realm. We put a murder in broad daylight. We thought it would work against expectation and just to open up the horizon a bit.”

Then there was the partnership of Cohle and Hart to consider. Fukunaga wanted the audience’s introduction to the main characters to give them room to breathe and interact. The new setting also allowed for that. “As you get a sense of these two guys, how they conduct themselves with the investigation and how they conduct themselves with each other, they’re not against a wall or in a forest; they’re in this open plain of grass.”


Photo: HBO

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2 thoughts on “‘True Detective’: The Story Behind The Premiere’s Most Haunting Image

  1. I’m already hooked on this series, the way it moves back and forth in time makes it unsettling and mysterious. The characters of Cohle and Hartare are well cast too.

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