True Detective showrunner Nic Pizzolatto is still fighting with HBO over the runtime of season three’s finale. This may come as a surprise to fans, seeing as the season only lasts for eight episodes, and we’ve already seen the first two, currently streaming on Now TV.
Stephen Dorff, on the other hand, one of the show’s two leads (alongside Mahershala Ali), has seen every episode – except the final instalment.
“I haven’t seen that one yet, as they’re still in flux about the cut of it,” Dorff told Yahoo Movies UK. “There’s a timing issue, I think it runs a little long. I hope Nic gets his way. I think audiences want a little bit of a longer finale.”
“Maybe it’ll screw up the programming for that clean hour thing, but who gives a s***? Come on, give the fans what they want, baby! So I’m hoping he wins that fight. You never know, though.”
Pizzolatto has a bit of a history for fighting his own corner, with Green Room’s Jeremy Saulnier leaving True Detective season three after shooting the first two episodes, following clashes with the showrunner.
In fact, the third season almost didn’t even happen thanks to Pizzolatto’s reaction to season two’s divided reception. But we’re with Dorff – we want as much True Detective as possible, please.
Still, fellow True Detective acolytes, we have something to distract you from the stress of not knowing what’s happening with the finale. What follows is an absolute treasure trove of information, with Stephen Dorff revealing exactly what it’s like to shoot the third season of your favourite show. If you’ve ever wanted to crack the case of what goes on behind the scenes of True Detective, it’s all here.
Dorff details how he built chemistry with Mahershala Ali, explains what’s it like to see yourself in the iconic True Detective credit sequence, and he gives us the major reveal of the song that was originally going to play in the show’s opening moments.
It’s all below, part of our epic interview with the underrated genius that is Stephen Dorff.
Yahoo Movies UK: What are your memories of watching season one, what was that journey like for you?
Stephen Dorff: I just remember being in Malibu, at my house, and I remember talking to people a lot about it. I remember going, ‘This is awesome, this is the best thing I’ve seen Woody and Matthew in, period.’ It was brilliantly written, the vibe, the music – it just felt like this eight hour movie to me. The idea of this one big script and they shot it like a movie. I was like, ‘This is what TV should be like.’
It was the best thing I’d seen since The Sopranos, which I loved. I thought that was brilliantly written, and I loved the cast of that show, it was a special masterpiece. And I thought season one [of True Detective] was a masterpiece, I was like ‘who is this Nic Pizzolatto guy?’
Then around season two they were casting, and at one point I was going to have a meeting about season two, but it didn’t happen. They cast other people, I was working. I watched some of season two. I liked it, it was different.
I liked it too.
Yeah, a lot of people like it in a different way. You hear a lot of people say ‘It wasn’t season one though,’ which I’m sure pisses Nic off, because to Nic they’re all his babies, one, two and this one.
But I know that on this one he had more time, because there wasn’t an official green light on the third series. HBO was thinking about what they wanted to do, Nic was still thinking about what he wanted to do… When it did come to fruition and they were going to make it, and Mahershala was the first one signed on off his Oscar for Moonlight, I heard rumblings about it, but I figured ‘Oh, there’s going another season I’m not going to be in.’ I had no idea.
I just got a random call at the beginning of December last year, and my agent said ‘Your name’s being thrown around as one of the leads of True Detective and I said ‘Really? That’s cool. What do we need to do?’
I was sent two scenes, I wasn’t sent the scripts because they were extra-tight with security, because they’d had piracy issues at HBO in general. Based on the quality of their shows they have a lot of piracy issues, with the Game Of Thrones, with True Detective one and two, and I’m sure with Big Little Lies coming… I don’t know, they have issues.
So I was sent these two scenes, and I asked if I could get more to read, because I really liked the scenes I’d read, and they said ‘No, you can’t yet.’ So I said, ‘Okay!’
I laid them down on tape, because I was dealing with a personal thing at the time, with my family. I was excited about True Detective, but I also didn’t feel like playing the game that much, really – doing the dance. ‘If they want me to come in, I’ll come in – but I have to do it on this day.’
So I came in, laid it down on tape, then I left to deal with what I was dealing with, then I got a call that Nic wanted to meet me, and he liked the tape a lot. So I met with Nic and read the two scenes for him, and he sent me an email a couple of days later, and told me that he’d love me to play him, and ‘You have got no idea where this character gets to go, he’s going to age over three decades, just wait, just wait!’
I said ‘Well, can I read the script? Please? Now?’ They finally sent me two at a time, and I just remember reading them around my house in Malibu, and every single one read better, and I thought ‘This is the part of a f****ing lifetime! This is better than any movie!’ I was more jazzed than I think I’ve ever been than any part I’ve received, I was pumped.
It couldn’t have happened at a better time, I was in a pretty sad and broken place, and I really just fell in love with Roland. I still love the guy. I don’t get to love the characters I play. I’m not a method actor, where I come home as the character, or have a hard time shedding the character. If I’m a vampire, if I’m killer, if I’m a romance guy, if we’re not shooting, I leave it. On this one I had a hard time shaking Roland, I think because of how long it was, and also just because of how much I really loved him.
What specific elements made you fall in love with him, do you think?
I loved his sense of humour, his strengths, his sadness, his softness – he’s the best written part I’ve ever read, he has everything. He has every f****ing thing.
If anything, Roland has more to show than Wayne. Wayne’s very subtle, very methodical, he’s the hunter, right? In the ‘80s. Then he’s dealing with his own personal turmoil that probably happened from all the kills he had over in Vietnam.
Nic just wrote two really rich characters for these guys. They’re so different, and that’s why the chemistry’s so special between us.
From what I’ve seen so far, Wayne seems a bit more fixed in his approach, whereas you feel a bit more reactive and changeable – what was it like to find those depths?
It was exciting. I don’t know the last time I read a movie script where I felt even 30% of what I had to do in this. Usually, the buttons are there, it’s your first, second and third act and you have your four or five killer scenes you have to nail to make it work, and in this I had 60. Every time you had a great one, ten more are coming next week. It just kept going.
For an actor, it made me like acting again. When you act something that’s by the numbers, I can hit any beat, I can take things to any extreme. I’ve learned a lot through this character, which has made me excited about acting again.
That’s really interesting, because True Detective season one was a bit of a turning point for Matthew, do you think it could be the same for you, if it’s made you love acting again?
Yeah mate, I think so. Some things people have told me, a lot of the reviews in America, too, have compared me to him in that way. Look, I’m flattered. He had a great year that year, in a similar way to Mahershala’s moment, and the timing’s just the exact same as season one for Matthew McConaughey, in terms of what’s happening with Mahershala.
Mahershala had this little movie he did just before True Detective, I think he wrapped ten days before we met on a little plane to Arkansas and we were emailing when he was still in New Orleans shooting that. McConaughey had Dallas Buyers Club, a little movie, and then boom.
Green Book was getting some good reviews in the fall as we were finishing shooting, then boom, the awards start happening and True Detective now starts happening, and the Academy watches the whole season of True Detective by the time the Oscars hit… I’m sure I’m going to see old Mahershala up there again, and I hope I do, he was great in that movie.
I think it’s great for the show. It’s the same date that [season one of] True Detective premiered as when we came out – this was their date, it’s kind of cool. I’m excited if cool things happen for me too through it. I just feel like we did something really special. I’ll always thank Nic for that opportunity.
What was Nic like to work with as a director?
I’d love to work with him again. I loved working with him as a director. I always said to him ‘You’re good at this, buddy.’ I think he liked it.
He’s always there as the showrunner, but the director’s the one with the actors. This time Nic was, boom, there for his episodes. He was so precise and on it, he knew exactly when he had it. He was confident. There was no ‘Maybe we should shoot it this way.’ No, man – he knew. Boom, boom, boom. He was great.
I know he’s been frustrated on some of the movies that have been done with his other work, because they’ve been directed by other people. He took his name off one of them (laughs). I didn’t see it, but my friend Elle Fanning’s in it, Galveston? He didn’t like the movie.
I said to him, ‘Man, we’ve got to make one of your other books, you’ve got to direct it.’ I hope he gets back in the chair and does that. Obviously he shouldn’t quit writing, but I loved working with him.
He’s so smart – intimidating at times, really smart dude. Maybe one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met, about anything. He has a way to say things where I always feel stupid when I’m with him. ‘I’m not that smart, man. How do you put these things into this perfect sentence?’
You’ve said that you and Mahershala connected on a deep emotional level, what was the process of getting there with him?
I asked for his email when I first got the part, because we didn’t know each other, I didn’t know him. Nic had written me an email saying Mahershala was excited that I was the choice for Roland. I emailed him saying ‘I’m really looking forward to this journey, man – I know you’re finishing up a movie but I’ll see you out in Arkansas.’ And he was really sweet.
We met for the first time at LAX flying to Arkansas. We flew there, I think it was around this time last year, maybe a week later. And we did some read throughs of the script for HBO, we did some early wardrobe fittings, started the beginning of the process for prosthetic moulds for things that were going to come months down the line.
We knew we were starting in the ‘80s, we started with some small scenes, some easy scenes, they did very clever and good warm-up scenes that weren’t huge nine-pagers. We just built sitting in the car every day, getting to know each other. We went out to dinner, we talked, and the chemistry just started happening.
We’re both different actors, we’re both different beings – as artists usually are when they work together – but we have different rhythms. But our parts and everything just fit perfectly, where it just started happening without trying. The challenges were always in the text and in the scenes, but as far as the comfortable familiarity we had, that just started building the more we did. By the time we got into some really heavy scenes, we were halfway in and we just kept going and kept going.
There were days where I’m sure he got sick of me, and I got sick of him, but in a way that was what was going on with these characters. Any time there was any kind of frustration or exhaustion, which happens sometimes in life with people who are always together, we used it and it worked perfectly within the piece.
You said you had a hard time letting go of Roland, did you have a hard time with letting go of Wayne as well?
I did. It was the whole thing. I had a hard time letting go of the piece, the case, the partnership, my cars, my clothes – I wore cowboy boots for seven months straight, my feet were sore every day, but I missed it. I’m back home in Malibu in my tennis shoes thinking ‘Who the f*** am I?’
I guess because it felt like four movie shoots. I tend to do a lot of more intimate movies, those take two or three months. The bigger movies I’ve done, like Public Enemies, some of those will take five months if you’re with a Michael Mann or you’re with some big director that shoots endlessly. But ultimately, it’s a two-hour movie, right? You can only do what you can do, what your part is on the page. Public Enemies for me was great, I’m with Johnny (Depp) in every scene, but I don’t really talk that much, I’m more of a character – Homer Van Meter.
I did five months, and in the movie it’s like ‘Where am I? This was five months of my life!’ Well, you spend seven months on something like this, but every day you have dialogue with a richness in what you’re saying. It’s a totally different game.
Even Johnny doesn’t talk that much in the movie. I don’t know what he was doing for five months! We’re just shooting guns and robbing banks for five months, and Michael’s shooting it with 50 cameras. But, no, cool movie, and I love Michael Mann, he was really nice to me.
As a True Detective fan, how did it feel to see your head floating in that iconic title sequence for the first time? I’ve got to imagine that’s pretty cool.
That was cool. You always wonder… Nic is so good with music, and while we were shooting, he was playing me a couple of tracks that he was thinking about. I loved this one track, Sturgill Simpson’s cover of this really weird poppy ‘80s song, ‘The Promise’ by When In Rome, that Sturgill Simpson did this really slow cover of. Nic said ‘This should be the main title’ and I was really thinking about it, and thinking about it.
So I went off and did this movie as they were putting the soundtrack together, and I guess Nic and T-Bone Burnett had a few songs they were thinking of, and they came up with this one that Cassandra Wilson made, she’s won some Grammys and she has this incredible voice… The track that they found was really cool.
The visuals of the opening sequence, I think could be almost be cooler than the first one. There’s great images. There’s that one image of me in water, that was pretty cool. I love the last one, after Nic’s credit, that goes into that shot of the sky and you can see my arm rise as I’m smoking… It’s pretty dope.
How do they get the footage for the credit sequence, is it shot separately, or…
No, it’s all stills and visuals from the show, and it’s all done after. That cool s*** of Mahershala’s face all hollow, there’s some cool s*** in there.
Obviously we can’t go into spoilers or details, but how did it feel to read the True Detective season three finale when you were eventually allowed to read it? Because season one and two had very special endings.
Yeah, well, he didn’t give it to me or Mahershala, we both had no idea what was going to happen, or Carmen for that matter – the three of us. We had no idea what was going to happen probably until we were two or three months into the shooting. Nic had it outlined, but there was no real script. Even HBO didn’t have it, they knew the storyline when they green lit it, but even they didn’t have it.
It was Nic’s way of holding on to power, maybe? Without releasing his last baby, but also playing with us and wanting to hold it back, because he wanted us to play these seven and then give it to us… I don’t know, but I respected his way of working, and I was a new guest into this world, and Mahershala felt the same way.
When we got it, I just remember calling Mahershala in Arkansas and saying ‘This is so brilliant and emotional and so strong.’ I didn’t know where it was going, I had a lot of guesses. I kept thinking maybe something’s going to happen to one of us, and who knows? Maybe it does! You gotta wait and see or they’ll kill me! But it was beautiful.
I haven’t seen that one yet, as they’re still in flux about the cut of it. There’s a timing issue, I think it runs a little long. I hope Nic gets his way. I think audiences want a little bit of a longer finale. Maybe it’ll screw up the programming for that clean hour thing, but who gives a s***? Come on, give the fans what they want, baby! So I’m hoping he wins that fight. You never know, though.
True Detective Season 3 Episode 1 & 2 is available now on streaming service NOW TV, with a new episode released every Monday and on demand.
Catch up with Season 1 & 2 available now with the NOW TV Entertainment Pass for just £7.99