Under a sprawling oak tree in the middle of a burned sugar cane field, the killer left his nude victim on gruesome display.
“It turned out to be a tragically beautiful setting,” executive producer Scott Stephens says of the opening scene of HBO’s “True Detective.”
Specifically, the backdrop was Vacherie, one of many south Louisiana locales used to shoot the freshman season of the Louisiana-set police drama series starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. Including Sunday’s episode, three installments of the eight-episode season remain.
Once again, Louisiana is playing a starring role in a television hit that showcases the state’s breadth, from the city streets of New Orleans to that ravaged cane field.
“We wanted a stark image that was representative of that part of the country, that part of Louisiana,” says Stephens, who is working in the Bayou State for the first time.
Stephens was the producer based in the state for the duration of the first season’s six-month shoot last year, and, like most in the film industry, he thoroughly enjoyed his experience in Louisiana.
“The country is strikingly beautiful, and the people were inordinately friendly and great to work with, very collaborative,” he says.
Working from January through June, Stephens says he and the rest of the crew “saw every possible kind of weather.”
“Our second day of shooting we were out in Vacherie in that cane field,” he recalls. “It rained so hard we basically got rained out.”
But the sense of place they were able to capture for “True Detective” made up for any delays due to the every-changing outdoor conditions.
“Because the story takes place in Louisiana, we were actually able to do the rare thing, to actually shoot it as Louisiana and really feature the landscape, with the petrochemical industry, and the contrast with the beauty of the coastline,” Stephens says.
That incomparable imagery, he says, complements the rich storytelling style of the series’ writer/creator, Nic Pizzolatto.
“It starts with the writing,” Stephens says. “Nic Pizzolatto was born and raised in Louisiana, so he knows of what he’d written. It’s very near and dear to him.
“It’s such a multi-layered character piece. You know, even after all these months in prepping it and shooting it, and now through the editorial process, it’s like we just keep peeling back layers, and there’s just another layer of density to the character work, story. I find it fascinating, and the fact that he wrote it, he approached it very much like a novel for television, so I find it has that rich literary heritage like good novels have,” Stephens says.
“True Detective” starts out in 2012 with McConaughey and Harrelson’s characters being interviewed separately by present-day detectives about events that unfolded between 1995 and 2002. When a macabre murder occurs that is similar to a 1995 case thought solved by the pair, the two are called back in to recount the initial investigation and their lives surrounding those years.
“The narrative structure is essentially told in flashbacks,” Stephens says. “The men tell the stories and you learn about their personal lives, their professional lives, and how they intertwine and affect each other over the course of this long period of time. We very much approached it like a period piece. Everything that was put in front of the lens we tried to make 1995 appropriate.”
Sets, even entire blocks or multiple houses were dressed to add to the ’90s realism. Cars of the era, and solid makeup and hair design furthered transformed 2013 Louisiana back in time, Stephens says.
That attention to detail was even extended to the hundreds of crime scene photographs called for within the story.
With stock libraries not an option, the crew used crime scene photographers to create them all. To create a 1995-era shot, photos were taken with film and printed on photo paper, to reflect the pre-digital style.
Stephens was also impressed with the transformation of McConaughey, who had wrapped up filming on the Oscar-nominated feature “Dallas Buyers Club,” in which he portrays an AIDS patient in the ’80s, just weeks before “True Detective” filming began.
“I thought he did an amazing job,” Stephens says. “You know I think he put on 25 pounds for ‘True Detective’ from where he was for ‘Dallas Buyers Club.’ He did it very quickly. It was an amazing transformation to watch.”