YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Nic Pizzolatto, the brooding poet behind 'True Detective'

Nic Pizzolatto tried academia and writing before swaggering into Hollywood. That brashness paid off in HBO's 'True Detective,' where his singular vision — and obsession with death — define the series.

January 08, 2014|By Steven Zeitchik
  • Nic Pizzolatto is the creator of HBO's new series "True Detective."
Nic Pizzolatto is the creator of HBO's new series "True Detective." (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

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. 

WINTER TV PREVIEW: Full coverage of the season's shows

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. 

BEST TV OF 2013 Lloyd | McNamara

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 debut 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 yielded 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, takes pains to distinguish "True Detective" from that show, emphasizing character over mystery.)

PHOTOS: Faces to watch 2014 | TV

Los Angeles Times Articles