True Detective Director Cary Fukunaga on the Season-1 Finale and Why So Many ‘Clues’ Aren’t Addressed

’True Detective’ director Cary Fukunaga with Matthew McConaughey. Photo: HBO

[Spoilers ahead if you have not seen the season finale of True Detective.] In the end, Marty and Rust found hope, a first step out of the heart of darkness, if not the answers to every last awful detail of the Childress family history. But before that, True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga took us to the depths of hell and back. (Read our thorough recap of everything that went down in the finale here and our TV critic on the series as a whole here.) With Carcosa and Matthew McConaughey’s teary epiphany still on the brain Monday morning, Vulture spoke with Fukunaga about the many spinning theories still swirling (even now that the finale has aired) and putting together the show’s final chapter.

There’s a lot of debate already about whether or not the finale settles the identity of the Yellow King — and whether it’s meant to be a person at all.
I don’t necessarily think the final episode answered that, and I don’t think it was creator Nic Pizzolatto’s intention to answer that, even if people wanted it. It was more of an added layer to the reasons behind the killings. Rather than the Yellow King and the books about Carcosa and the mythology around that being the centerpiece for the finale, it was just another layer.

What do you make of all the theorizing that went on around the show? The resolution to the murders was fairly straightforward — the crazy Spaghetti Monster did it — but there were many clues and Easter eggs planted along the way about this sprawling Tuttle/Childress/Ledoux conspiracy.
Most of that was definitely deliberate — the lawnmower driving in circles at the end of episode seven, the use of spirals and stars. Some of it wasn’t intentional, like when the truck was driving by and there’s a yellow crown in the background. I’ve been sent a lot of this stuff because my agent is a huge fanboy. He sent me The Simpsons’ yellow king thing, and the one where the guy has an actual actor playing the yellow king. As much as we in development might have wanted to see the general sort of feeling of conspiracy and learn more about what this cult might have been about, the weight of the story needed to focus on Marty and Rust’s relationship.

Looking at the comments on several reviews of the finale, there’s a particularly heavy obsession, borderline insanity, with why the “clues” about Marty’s daughter Audrey (the drawings, dolls, and crown) were never addressed.
I never read into what she was doing as having any relation to the crimes or the cult. I read Audrey’s behavior as being the direct result of an inattentive father. Seeking male attention in other places, or even seeking to get into trouble, perhaps, to get the attention of her father; it was not related to the killings or anyone around them. I don’t even remember seeing the spiral in her room. The general chatter around those things is great, but it’s probably the kind of chatter that wouldn’t have happened had all those episodes been released at once. The anticipation-speculation that comes with a weekly schedule is a double-edged sword. Because people have more time to talk about things, some crazy ideas get a lot of attention.

The killer’s satanic labyrinth was incredible, almost like catacombs. Did you film that in a real location?
Yeah, it was shot at Fort Macomb about 45 minutes outside of New Orleans. That scene was originally described as taking place in a cypress forest. A lot of locations were supposed to take place in a forest, including the meth compound and the original crime scene, but there’s not a whole lot of forests that are easy to shoot in around New Orleans. We had scouted that location for something else, actually. It was all chained and locked up and I like old things like that, especially Civil War things. When we got in, there were snakes everywhere and it was covered with weeds and grass. When we got to the inner chambers it was pretty awesome and really spooky and definitely had some weird energy around it.

In re-planning the ending, I pitched the fort, as if the cult had taken over some factory or something on the bayou and repurposed it. Childress had turned it into some cat-and-mouse-like maze to entrap these children and adolescents. There was a bridal path described in the script that a larger section of chambers in the fort worked perfectly for. It’s hard to tell but there’s a spiral-like nature to the maze and once you get to the final section before the altar room, the funnel grows smaller and smaller and smaller. I kept using the rooms that led downstairs. By the last part, it’s almost like a womb. We did have to build the final octagonal altar room.

Another of Rust’s hallucinations, this one a cosmic blue vortex, arrives at the worst possible moment. How was it described to you and what were you going for?
I don’t know if I could tell you what Nic originally had envisioned without getting in trouble. We landed on the spiral formation of the clouds as a wrapping-up of the symbology, or at least a book-ending of the symbology. I liked the idea that we could actually see Carcosa and black stars. If you look really closely, you can see black orbs floating in it. It was important to me that if we’re gonna talk about these things, let’s see them one more time before we finish.

What were you trying to do with that last sequence of vistas going back over all the places we’d been with Marty and Rust?
Well, it’s the kind of problem-solving you do when you’re editing. There’s a 25-minute sequence that takes place in the hospital at the end, and it was hard to gauge time in there. It’s one scene after another took place in there. I felt like we needed some kind of break to allow the time jump from their conversation in the hospital to their final conversation outside at night. The only thing I could think of in terms of what we had was to revisit places that were important to the story itself of the characters.

It seemed to play into the whole everything repeats/“time is a flat circle” theme.
Well, yeah. Exactly. That’s why we chose those locations. I tried to find the setups we used that had the same camera movement, and to time it so it went from day to night. In fact, that last image of the tree over the cane stocks, that was from the first images we shot, the cane field burning. So the beginning is the end, the end is the beginning, which is nice. [Laughs.] We shot that a week or two before principal photography began. It was just me and the cinematographer Adam Arkapaw and our main first unit crew. That was actually the camera I was operating on the crane.

Talk about working with Matthew on Rust’s final soliloquy.
We only did three takes on that, and I think that was the last take that we wound up using. I just let Matthew go. We rolled one take into the next, and that’s where he got to on his own. The conversations we’ve had about where he was at psychologically and physically were all part of getting to that but in terms of shaping his performance at that moment? I didn’t have to do anything. Actually, the last thing we shot with Matthew, which was really great because we got to surprise him, was from episode seven when Marty’s watching the video tape Rust stole from the Tuttle house and Matthew has his back to Woody. We start rolling and I keep it going and we gather the entire crew right outside the storage unit. We slammed the doors open, which kind of shocked him for a second, and then the whole crew was there to clap for him. It was pretty awesome. It seemed like he got misty-eyed for a second, but then he was in complete control as Matthew, usually he is. He delivered a very nice speech to the whole group.

The production designer said McConaughey went on a vision quest in that storage unit.
That doesn’t surprise me at all.

Did you get to go through his 450-page Rust file?
Not really. He showed up to New Orleans already with pages and pages and pages of this character diary. I don’t know how many pages his final thing was but he definitely would come to set with it, all this self-exploration.

McConaughey wasn’t initially offered the role of Rust, and you’ve said casting him called for some adjusting. How did you originally picture that character?
There are so many different ways I’ve seen Cohle in my head and now it’s hard to separate what I read two years ago from now watching Matthew for all this time. I knew Rust was dark and intelligent and he had his vices and a caustic way of interacting with people, but his voice, the tempo of his speech, his physicality, I can’t remember at all. Even when Matthew said he wanted Rust, I kind of wrapped my head around it, but I wasn’t sure what it was gonna be until the first day of shooting. Until he walked and spoke and smoked I had no idea what he was gonna become.

Rust’s philosophizing has made him this season’s star, but Marty’s an important counterpoint. And he has a great moment of painful self-awareness in the end himself. Can you talk about striking the balance between those two characters?
It was important to see something like that from Marty. There’s much more to explore there in terms of how one heals a family that’s been so broken. There is some sort of detente there. When we were shooting the Hart story over the season, I always felt those interactions with the family were the most tangible examples of how behavior affects those around you. In many ways, it’s the heart of the story. Cohle is this lone wolf on the outside and he can philosophize but you don’t really see how he or his behavior affects other people. He’s purposely isolated. There were more scenes with Hart’s family that didn’t make it into the show, about his daughter and his relationship with Maggie. I always found that stuff the most interesting to shoot in terms of human drama.

Were those scenes cut for time? As you know, there’s been some criticism of the show’s female characters as being underdeveloped. Do you think these scenes would have helped?
Yeah, they weren’t cut because of story weight so much as time. My original cut of episode five was more than 90 minutes, so there’s a lot of material you lose. I still think it’s a very strong 60-minute episode, but you always miss the things you know about that add to the character that no one else will ever know about. Even if they add deleted scenes to a DVD it’s not the same as watching it in context from one moment to the next the way it was intended. I haven’t read the New Yorker piece people talk about. I mean, it’s true: the show wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test. That’s not necessarily a factor by which we should measure everything. It’s a story about two guys and that’s what it focuses on. It certainly does not focus on the women characters other than what it needs to to service the Hart story line.

You won’t be directing next season. Any advice for person who takes the reins next season, assuming it will be just one person again?
[Laughs.] “You can email me.” We didn’t finish until a couple weeks ago. I guess, “Start training now.” It’s a doozy.

True Detective’s Cary Fukunaga on the Finale