“Time is a flat circle,” Matthew McConaughey told us in the 2014 first season of True Detective. A decade later, with the show’s fourth season, showrunner Issa López is closing a circle.
True Detective has a “genealogy,” she explains, that starts with Silence of the Lambs, the 1991 Jonathan Demme masterpiece that starred Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, an FBI trainee who, through wits and empathy, solves a series of horrific crimes no one else can. It inspired many films and television shows to come, including López’s own True Detective: Night Country.
“It starts with The Silence of the Lambs, and that inspires Se7en. And Se7en inspires True Detective,” López explains. “Night Country is the descendant of True Detective.”
The Alaska-set story brings it all back to Lambs by enlisting Foster, now three decades older and wiser, to solve another mystery. The series is led not only by Foster, who won best actress Oscars for both Lambs and 1989’s The Accused, but also by boxer-actress Kali Reis.
Previous seasons of HBO’s True Detective, which was created by Nic Pizzolatto, took place in the warmer climates of the contiguous United States: Pizzolato’s native Louisiana in Season 1, his adopted home of California in Season 2, and Arkansas in Season 3.
The fourth season will be the first without Pizzolatto as a writer. (He and McConaughey are reteaming for an FX series, Redeemer, and he remains an executive producer on True Detective this season.) It will also be the first season to contain a subtitle, a nod to the fresh origins of Night Country, which did not initially begin as a True Detective project.
López, a Mexican writer, producer and director, earned praise for 2006’s Efectos Secundarios and 2008’s Casi Divas, among other projects, before gaining wide acclaim for 2017’s Tigers Are Not Afraid, a fantasy-horror film about children persevering through Mexico’s drug wars.
When pandemic lockdowns arrived, she decided to devote her talents to a “task that always scared me,” she says.
“I’m a big fan of murder mysteries. I was always in awe of how the puzzle comes together. That’s the beauty of it, so I decided to give it a try,” she says. “I thought of the mysteries that obsessed me when I was young. I put those together with my love for John Carpenter’s The Thing. I knew those elements would lead to a story and I let it happen during the long winter nights.”
Then she got a call from HBO, asking her, hypothetically, what she would do if she had the chance to lead True Detective — “which is a question I never expected to hear in my life,” she says.
She remembers responding: “It’s funny you should ask…”
Enter Night Country
The six-episode season revolves around the mysterious disappearance of eight men working at a research facility. Because the anthology format of True Detective means every season is a self-contained story, López’s story shares a tone and ambiance with past episodes, but also works on its own.
One way it stands out is its frigid setting — a town above the Arctic Circle, where the night goes on for weeks. While past seasons of True Detective have felt eclipsed by darkness, True Detective: Night Country actually is. When the men disappear, detectives Liz Danvers (Foster) and Evangeline Navarro (Reis) begin to unearth secrets buried in the ice.
“The fact that it was so different was the reason it could make it into True Detective,” López says. “Making it a mirror image of the previous incarnation.”
She adds: “I feel the first season was a perfect TV moment. What was the thing that connected so powerfully with audiences? An environment, which I already had. It’s a corner of America that’s not often represented, with its town secrets. It’s about a world with secrets beneath secrets. Sometimes you get the call exactly when you’re supposed to get it. That was the birth of Night Country.”
She knew she wanted Foster to be part of it from the start. Foster is earning accolades for her recent role in Nyad, in which she plays Bonnie Stoll, the best-friend of Annette Bening’s long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad. But Night Country is more evocative of the Silence of the Lambs role for which Foster is most beloved.
Jodie Foster and Going Back to the Start
“When I started thinking about the story, I simply said, ‘Let’s go back to the origin.’ All of us are dying to see the woman who portrayed Clarice,” says López. “The enormity of the performing tools that Jodie has access to is something to behold. That woman has been acting since she was three years old. She turned 60 on set with us. The absolute assurance that she brings to a character is insane. What Jodie does with this particular character is so vast and deep that audiences are going to be reminded of the caliber of actor that she is.”
Also crucial to Night Country: the Intuit people who know the region best.
“They’re in a very harsh environment. The communion with the environment is everything,” says López.
When she started writing, López wanted to “jump on a plane and go to northwest Alaska to the communities that inspired my fictional town of Ennis. To sit there, write it there, eat the food there, talk to the people there.”
But when the pandemic made that impossible, she turned to remote research — which was surprisingly detailed.
“One of the beautiful things about being a writer is social media, and how people truly document their lives. They document how they go to the supermarket, how they mail a letter. There’s endless hours of YouTube and TikTok of people hunting whales, cooking whale, sitting with their neighbors, going through town talking to each other. I was also listening to the local radio stations. When I did finally have the chance to hop on a plane and go to the region and eat the food, I felt like I already knew it.”
She also sought extensive input from Intuit colleagues.
“What they hunt and how they relate to the animals is vital to their survival and it’s very central to the story. When I started writing the first passes, we got Inuit advisors and producers on the show. The first thing they said was, ‘There has to be more food.’ You watch The Godfather, there’s so much food. But how the Inuit go to obtain their own ingredients is their lives. There’s a whole relationship with the sea and climate change.”
López wanted to film in Alaska, but soon learned that wasn’t logistically possible for a production the size of Night Country.
“We realized we needed to be above the Arctic Circle but in a place friendlier to a big production,” she says. “We found Iceland. I had two main concerns: How to turn Scandinavian scenery and architecture into a small town in Alaska? The actors we brought from Alaska were shocked at how we’d transformed Iceland into Alaska.
“The second challenge was casting. So many of the characters had to be true Inuit. We brought a lot of our cast from Alaska or the inuit communities in Canada. Also, from Greenland.”
López loved the immersion in her setting — and in her story.
“Oh my God, the canvas. It’s going to be difficult for me to go back to cinema. In a feature, you have 10 pages to make it clear to the audience who the character is. You can obviously have revelations and layers. But not in the way that you can when you have 60 minutes times six.
“The relationship you develop, when you’re working with characters and the world in a series that invites you and embraces you, feels like a marriage, like a whole relationship,” she says. “A movie feels like a really fantastic affair.”
True Detective: Night Country arrives on HBO on January 14.
Main image: Jodie Foster and Kali Reis in True Detective: Night Country.
Editor’s note: Corrects headline.