Once Pizzolatto had completed writing a second episode, his management company Anonymous Content paired him with a fellow client, Fukunaga, who'd earned rave notices for his vivid 2011 adaptation of "Jane Eyre." The audacious decision to use a single director for the entire season was, says Fukunaga, a way to lure feature film talent to television.
It worked: McConaughey was attached within six months. "I couldn't wait to read what came out of Rustin Cohle's mouth," he recalls. "The whole piece had such a clear identity. This writer has created such a world in two episodes. I thought, 'You can't screw this up.'"
He was instrumental in enlisting Harrelson, who says he "wouldn't have done it otherwise."
As realized by Pizzolatto and Fukunaga, "True Detective" is a talky and unsettling exploration of existential themes that rises above the standard gratuitous crime procedural — and, despite its premium cable provenance, does so without an excess of blood and viscera.
"It was never my ambition to make 'CSI: Louisiana,'" says Pizzolatto. "I have no interest to enter some kind of contest of who can make the most disgusting serial killer."
The crime, says Fukunaga, is a MacGuffin, a hook that lures viewers into the real story: the relationship between Hart and Cohle.
"Even though it's called 'True Detective' and structurally has two cops and a crime, it defies any categorization of a genre show," says Michael Lombardo, the network's programming president. "It is a rich, tightly constructed character piece, and that's what attracted us to it."
It was only once the series got the go-ahead that Fukunaga realized the difficulty of the task ahead. "That's when reality hit: Eight hours of television, 500 pages of script and 300-plus locations was going to be a challenge," he recalls wearily from the editing room for "True Detective," where he continues to tinker with all but one episode of the show.
However it is received critically, "True Detective" will almost certainly spark numerous heated discussions about its authorship, given the unusual division of labor between Fukunaga and Pizzolatto.
The question of who's in charge is tricky in any collaborative medium but is especially so in television, where episodes are churned out by a staff of up to a dozen writers and a rotating cast of directors. Having just two men steer all eight hours of "True Detective" presented a number of challenges, both logistical and creative.
"It's not easy, I'll tell you that. It's certainly easier when there's just one person in charge," acknowledges Fukunaga, who is equally forthcoming about the toll the workload has taken. "I cannot wait to be done. It's been a long, very difficult shoot."
Says Pizzolatto, "I'm executive producer, creator and writer, so at the end of the day I sort of have final arbitration, but what we did was collaborate. I don't think he would have been attracted to the material if his vision was very different than mine."
It helped that Pizzolatto was by all accounts not lacking in self-assurance.
"Talk about a guy who has a very healthy ego," says McConaughey, prompting a knowing laugh from Harrelson. "He is straight up, there's no qualms. If he thinks he's right, he lets you know that he thinks he's right and that it should be written as the Constitution worldwide."
In what may be the true test of authorship, Pizzolatto says he is to blame should "True Detective" prove a failure.
But even — perhaps especially — if the series is a smashing success, he will not have it easy: The anthology format means that Pizzolatto will be "essentially inventing a new show" at the beginning of each season. (It also makes it more difficult for him to hire a writing staff because "there's nothing for them to latch onto.")
In theory, the format will help HBO attract big-name movie stars who might otherwise be wary of a long-term series commitment. But that tactical advantage does not necessarily outweigh the other challenges presented by an anthology series, says Lombardo.
"One of the great things about series is that, when they work, you're not reinventing the wheel every year. You know the audience is going to come back because they've connected emotionally to the characters. But this is literally like a new series every year. You spent all of this time crafting this unbelievable show, and then you start over from scratch. That's hard stuff."
There's also a certain irony to "True Detective's" once-and-done setup, given that McConaughey and Harrelson would apparently love nothing more than to work together again (and again and again).
"Woody's as pure a guy as I know," gushes McConaughey. "When I say he's one of the last original wild men, I don't mean crazy, I mean naturally wild. And I mean that as a huge compliment. Every time I'm around him I come away feeling younger."
Harrelson is equally complimentary, calling his friend "a genius," and predicting that "we'll probably do about 22 projects together."
"Surfer, Dude 2," anyone?