Photo: Brian Sorensen
By now you probably know the new season of True Detective is set in Northwest Arkansas. The cast and crew were in town this past summer shooting for the popular HBO series, and the excitement has been building ever since.
Season three focuses on detective Wayne Hays — played by Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali — and the 1980 disappearance of two children in mythical “West Finger,” Arkansas. Stephen Dorff plays police sidekick to Ali’s character, and Carmen Ejogo portrays schoolteacher Amelia Reardon. The Ozark terrain hangs heavy in the background of the story.
A number of locals were involved in the show’s production — led by University of Arkansas alumnus and series creator Nic Pizzolatto — and a sense of regional pride has been swelling ahead of the season premiere on Sunday, Jan. 13 at 8 p.m.
A couple hundred people were treated to an advance screening of the first episode of the new season this past Friday night, hosted by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and Governor Asa Hutchinson at the Jim & Joyce Faulkner Performing Arts Center on the University of Arkansas campus.
Local actors and crew members were in attendance, as were government dignitaries and several seemingly well-heeled members of local society. HBO executives and Pizzolatto were also on hand to celebrate the culmination of more than 10 months of work.
State plays a character, Pizzolatto’s creative talent
Nic Pizzollato (right) and Scott Stephens / Photo: Brian Sorensen
Pizzollato is listed as creator, writer, director, and executive producer for True Detective. He is the driving force behind the series, and for him it was important to bring the show to Arkansas for Season 3.
“I’ve always found the landscape here really evocative and really beautiful,” he said from the red carpet. “It has such fantastic nature, but at the same time there’s something mysterious about it — with the low mountains, and the fog, and all of the hollers and rocky terrain. It’s dramatic and mysterious and beautiful; and all those things appealed to me when thinking about where we might set this.”
Pizzolatto spent four years in Fayetteville in the early 2000s while earning an MFA in creative writing. He didn’t need to worry about conducting research before starting on the storyline and scripts.
“I know the area pretty well,” he said. “I still have a lot of friends here. It was about writing about the place I already knew.”
When asked if he had any favorite haunts from his days in Fayetteville, Pizzolatto mentioned JR’s Lightbulb Club, George’s Majestic Lounge, and the most hallowed of Dickson Street institutions — Roger’s Rec. He later waxed nostalgic from behind the Faulkner Center podium.
“This place means a lot to me,” Pizzolatto said to the crowd. “I had four of the best years of my life here, and getting to spend nine and a half months back here was wonderful. It felt like home.”
HBO’s senior vice president of west coast production, Jay Roewe, thinks Fayetteville is a natural setting for a series like True Detective.
“One of the distinct things about the texture of True Detective is that the locations and the atmosphere become part of the story,” he said after the screening. “And his writing is so deep and so sensitive that the location and where it takes place starts to become an actual character in the story. So, when Nic said he wanted to shoot in Arkansas, we did everything we could to come here and film here. And I think it truly is one of the things that makes this particular season very special.”
Roewe believes Pizzolatto is a unique talent, and well-suited to carry the True Detective franchise.
“I think he’s a true artist,” he said. “Maybe there’s some pain and suffering along the way, but he comes from such an artistic place, and it just resonates in words. There are very few writers that have that kind of emotion in words, and it becomes like this beautiful symphonic music. And so, it inspires everybody and gives them an incredible focus during the creative process. That’s just his gift, and it’s great to be able to realize his gift on the screen like we’ve done here.”
Arkansans on hand
12-year-old Corbin Pitts lives in North Little Rock and already has a number of theater, film, and television credits to his name. He went to an open casting call for True Detective, and two weeks later was cast as 11-year-old Mike Ardoin.
Pitts was on hand for the screening with his sister Grace, who also played a role in True Detective. He said his experience on the show has been unforgettable.
“It feels amazing,” he said. “My other credits are local, and I’ve done a bunch of futures. But they’ve never been something like this, where there’s a big premiere.”
Although production has wrapped on True Detective, Pitts won’t have much time to rest. “I’m flying out to New York on Monday for another film,” said the budding young actor.
Thomas Moore from Cabot and Arkansas native John Charles Dickson (who now lives in Georgia) played small roles and were on hand Friday night.
“I auditioned three times and finally found my way on set,” said Moore. “The auditioning part was kind of nerve wracking because this is my first TV role. But being on set was amazing. The food was amazing. And so was the cast and crew.”
Dickson thinks Arkansas viewers will be happy with the final product.
“I don’t think they’ll be able to get enough of it,” said Dickson. “After episode one they’re going to want to see the rest of the season, that’s for sure.”
John Brooks — who recently retired after sixteen years as a crime scene investigator with the Fayetteville Police Department — served as technical adviser on the show. He said the show’s producers went out of their way to find unique shooting locations.
“The person that scouted all of this did a fantastic job of finding places that I didn’t even know existed,” he said. “I think people around here will be very happy and there will be a lot of pride [about how Arkansas is portrayed].”
Governor touts show’s economic impact
Governor Hutchinson was all smiles as he worked the reception room before the screening. Fresh off an election win, he was quick to tout the economic benefits of having HBO in the state.
“It means we have a Hollywood production that has come here to Arkansas to utilize our creative talent,” said Hutchinson, citing the 500+ local jobs the show created. “We have a reservoir of that here, particularly in Northwest Arkansas.”
Although some Republican lawmakers are seemingly skeptical of investment in the arts, Hutchinson seems to value the arts as a legitimate industry and economic driver.
“We have the right combination here with Crystal Bridges Museum and the Walton Arts Center,” he said, noting two major indicators of the region’s appetite for culture. “You have the visual arts, the performing arts, and then here, the filming arts. It’s a good combination of strengths and it does bring dollars here to Arkansas. We hope we can continue to build on the arts here in the state.”
Later, Hutchinson addressed the crowd as part of the night’s proceedings.
“This is an exciting day for us here in Arkansas,” he said. “To see the culmination of an effort that started in August of 2017 when the HBO executives met in my office. We hammered out what needs to be done [to bring the show to the state], and we made our case. Arkansas is the right place to film the third season of True Detective.”
Christopher Crane — who serves as film commissioner for the AEDC — had glowing compliments for the governor.
“This project wouldn’t have happened, by the way, if we didn’t have an open-door policy for economic development,” said Crane. “We have a governor who will allow people to come and sit in his office and help show how warm and welcoming this state is. I applaud his efforts in economic development, and I applaud you, the citizens of Arkansas, for letting him have another four years to run economic development in this state.”
HBO’s Roewe said the ties that bind the television network and the state of Arkansas are strong and everyone has benefited as a result.
“The filmmaking business is a collaborative relationship and partnership, and Arkansas has been a great partner,” he said. “We have employed hundreds of Arkansas residents in both the above-the-line and below-the-line crew positions. We employed over fourteen hundred Arkansas residents as screen extras. We’ve used over six hundred Arkansas vendors and businesses during the filming of this season of True Detective.”
Arkansas in focus starting Jan. 13
True Detective returns for its eight-episode third season with two back-to-back episodes on Sunday, Jan. 13 at 8 p.m. central. The show will continue with single episodes each Sunday thereafter.
Creator and adopted Arkansan Nic Pizzolatto captured the state on film and wove it into his narrative with all its beauty and complexities. What resulted, he hopes, will make others want to come here to make film and television.
“It was a real pleasure to be here,” he told the beaming crowd Friday night. “And I’m so happy we got to photograph this place that I love so much and show it to the rest of the country.”