HBO’s True Detective Elevates the Television Drama

Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey.(Photos courtesy HBO/James Bridges.)
DP Adam Arakpaw. (Photo coutresy HBO/Michelle K. Short)
DP Adam Arakpaw with crew on the set of True Detective. (Photo courtesy HBO/Lacey Terrell.)
DP Adam Arakpaw. (Photo coutresy HBO/Michelle K. Short)

HBO continues its run of cinematic originals in 2014 with the eight-episode series True Detective. Written by acclaimed novelist Nic Pizzolatto and set in southern Louisiana, the series stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as two detectives thrust together in a 17-year search for a serial killer.

Cary Fukunaga directs with Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw guiding the visuals. Arkapaw, with the features Lore, The Snowtown Murders and Animal Kingdom under his belt, recently garnered an EMMY® Award for his work on the 2013 series Top of the Lake.

How did you come on board the True Detective series?
Cary Fukunaga had seen Animal Kingdom and Snowtown, two features I had shot. We met up in San Francisco for lunch and saw eye to eye in regards to True Detective. We were two young guns cut from a similar oak, and we also had some mutual friends that vouched for our goodness.

The story takes place in Southern Louisiana; was the series shot on location there?
It was a 110-day shooting schedule, from January 2013 until the end of June. We shot a large majority of the series on location in New Orleans and in the surrounding towns and jungles. It’s a wild place. On one day of shooting the wildlife folk pulled out 11 snakes and we saw two gators. Also, the weather was frightening at times.

Why was 35mm chosen as opposed to another format?
Cary and I are both great film lovers. It has a special texture. Our series takes place in 1995 for the most part, and film helped us achieve a slightly nostalgic aesthetic. We wanted the series to have an unaffected quality to it, and film has a wonderful ability to translate the best parts of what catches an eye into a beautiful image without pushing or tweaking it too much. Film is a very forgiving veil. We had to shoot about five minutes of screen time a day, so at times I was leaning on the format pretty hard to give me a provocative result.

What film stocks did you use?
We decided to keep it simple and only use two stocks. We used KODAK VISION3 50D [Color Negative Film] 5203 for all exterior day scenes. I love the latitude of that stock. You can lift the shadows in the grade and not feel the grain too much. I also did some pull-processing to lessen the contrast on very sunny days. We used [KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film] 5219 for everything else. That’s a great stock. The grain is so tight these days that there’s no stress in pushing it around a bit.

Which cameras did you use?
We shot on PANAVISION MILLENIUM XL2s. I like how this camera feels as a studio camera and as a handheld camera. We had two cameras with us all the time. We would set up one and then see if we could find another angle that would add something to the scene.

Describe the cinematic language and choice of lenses?
The series covers three different time periods. Firstly, the flashback memories of Cohle (McConaughey) and Hart (Harrelson); secondly, the interrogations they are put through by Papania (Tory Kittles) and Det. Gilbough (Michael Potts); and finally, Hart and Cohle’s discoveries in the present.

For the 1995 and 2002 sequences, we used PANAVISION PVintage lenses. These lenses are re-housed 1970s glass that is pretty low contrast and the highlights bloom a bit, which gave us a lovely, soft image. As the 1995/2002 sections of the screenplay are written from the point of view of Hart and/or Cohle’s memory, the coverage reflected that. It was as though the camera is an omnipresent vehicle being led by the fragmentation of their lucid imaginations back through their past. This section we tried to make very cinematic. The compositions were bold and ever so slightly exaggerated with wider lenses — for instance, a 40mm instead of 50mm for mid shots helped us with this.

For the interrogation sequences, the camera stayed as an objective observer, purely as a documentation of their accounts of the past. The camera didn’t move too much and involved the use of standard-size lenses. For the post interrogation, we tried to make the world more alive and slightly more flighty. The camera was more subjectively involved with the plight of Hart and Cohle.

We used (PANAVISION) Primos for the 2012 segments. These lenses are a lot sharper and have more contrast, giving the image a more modern, crisp feeling. Longer lenses helped pull the characters out from their environments to hopefully help audiences get inside their heads, and camera movement became a little faster, like there’s a ticking bomb to disarm at the end of the tale.

Did you use any filtration on the lenses?
I like to shoot tungsten stocks in daylight situations and partially correct it back using different warming filters to keep lovely blue tones in the image. We used 81EFs, Chocolates and Antique Suedes.

What comprised your go-to lighting setup on the series?
We used yellow-gold gel on tungsten sources for a sodium-vapor look for night exteriors. We used White Flame Green lighting gels with 1/2 CTO gel on HMI sources for our mercury-light look. Our light sources were a pretty standard set of HMIs and incandescent lights and a lot of KINO FLOs.

How did you communicate your intentions to the dailies colorist?
The film went to Deluxe/ Encore in New York. I took photos on set every day and graded them myself to send to Steven Bodner, the colorist. After a month or so, he had the idea of the aesthetics for the show, and I left it to him to do it. Steve did a nice job of pushing the images into interesting areas.