Mexican horror filmmaker Issa López may not have been an obvious pick to spearhead “True Detective” Season 4, a revival of sorts for the anthology series and the first season not originated or written by Nic Pizzolatto.
López, who created, wrote and directed all six episodes of “True Detective: Night Country,” is best known for her 2017 crime film “Tigers Are Not Afraid,” which earned rave reviews from critics and gained a cult following after its relatively small opening in the U.S.
“It got to HBO, they watched it and they saw something in it that reminded them of ‘True Detective,'” López told TheWrap of how she became involved with the crime series. “I think it might have been the grittiness combined with a whiff of the supernatural.”
When HBO asked her how she might envision an additional installment of “True Detective,” López revisited the show’s inaugural season starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson to investigate the key elements that struck a chord with audience. It was that first season, written by Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, that not only launched a new franchise on HBO but formally ushered in an era of major movie stars venturing into TV for limited series with contained time commitments. McConaughey won the Best Actor Oscar for “Dallas Buyers Club” while “True Detective” was airing.
“It’s these two characters, beautifully cast, that are carrying heavy pasts and a lot of history, and are barely holding it together, trying to bring a little light into a world of darkness,” López said of that first season, noting that the words “light” and “dark” are repeated in several instances throughout. “They’re working in the setting of a corner of America that is not often portrayed in media, and that is full of secrets and stories that are not told.”
While Pizzolatto took “True Detective” to very different places for Season 2 (which drew from “Chinatown” for a politically charged Los Angeles-set mystery) and Season 3 (which crisscrossed three different timelines to chronicle a cold case spearheaded by Mahershala Ali), López saw an opportunity to recapture some of that Season 1 magic in “Night Country.”
“If I can bring that back — the feeling of two characters that are carving entire worlds of secrets within them, and trying to solve a very sinister crime in a very strange, eerie environment that is America, but it also doesn’t feel like America completely, and then I sprinkled some supernatural in it — I think we’re going to capture the essence of ‘True Detective,'” López continued.
Season 4 of “True Detective,” which premieres Sunday, Jan. 14, introduces the franchise’s first female detective duo in detectives Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) and Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis), former partners who reunite to investigate the disappearance of six men working at the Tsalal Arctic Research Station in small town Ennis, Alaska.
Just as the first season’s Rustin Cohle (McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Harrelson) bicker about faith and their beliefs, Danvers’ cold matter-of-fact attitude clashes with Navarro’s spirituality and indigenous roots. Despite getting on each other’s last nerve, the pair needs each other to make up a “whole soul,” according to López.
“All of us have constant arguments with ourselves, it doesn’t matter if you’re a believer or if you’re an atheist,” she said. “If you’re an atheist, there’s moments in your life that you doubt and you have moments of faith, and if you’re a person of faith, there’s moments where you doubt and you feel that we’re alone in the world.”
López manifested these internal conflicts as characters, crafting Navarro as a “warrior” with a “a soul and a heart” while López bluntly describes Danvers as “honestly an asshole.”
“She doesn’t believe in anything anymore,” López said of Foster’s Danvers. “She doesn’t want to care, but she cares. They’re faced with this question that they need to answer.”
As Danvers and Navarro dig deeper into the mens’ disappearance, they suspect a potential connection between the case and the death of an indigenous women from several years ago, shining light on the disproportionate prevalence of missing and murdered indigenous women both in the Arctic and across the world, which has been a throughline in López’s work.
“My own mother died when I was very young, and it was not in violent circumstances, but it was very sudden, and I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye,” López said. “I identify and I care deeply for the people who are the communities who lose suddenly, and the female center of them.”
After focusing on women that had been taken and killed in two of the four films López had previously directed, spotlighting the story of a missing Iñupiaq women felt like the “natural continuation” of her interests.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s Mexico, the U.S. or Canada … this violence doesn’t care for borders,” López said.
When it came to casting, López knew she wanted at least one of the characters of the two main characters to come from a native community, and was impressed by Reis, a professional boxer who broke into acting with 2021 film “Catch the Fair One.” Reis is of Cherokee, Nipmuc and Seaconke Wampanoag ancestry.
“I knew that one of the characters had to be indigenous because I don’t believe in bringing agents of justice to fix the situation in the native community. I simply don’t believe in that,” López said. “It was a challenge because there were not indigenous stars in the tradition of ‘True Detective,’ but that needs to change.”
López applauded the teen indigenous actors from FX’s acclaimed Oklahoma-set comedy “Reservation Dogs,” joking that they were too young for the role.
“Now we have a Lily Gladstone [and] now we have a Kali Reis,” López said. “This is the year that changes.”
“True Detective” is the first TV role ever for two-time Oscar-winner Foster, who López lists as “perhaps the best actor alive” after working with her on the HBO series. “From comedy to grief to rage — the depths she goes to fearlessly is incredible.”
With Foster in the role of a detective working on a grisly case, comparisons to 1991’s “Silence of the Lambs” were inevitable. So López decided to lean into the connection with a subtle homage, given the influence “Silence of the Lambs” had on the crime-thriller genre as a whole.
“She has a pedigree that includes the character that has started an entire genre of of horrific sinister killers, which was ‘Silence of the Lambs’ and that begat ‘Seven’ and from that ‘True Detective’ came and from ‘True Detective’ came ‘Night Country,’ so I felt that it was honoring the tradition and the genre to go back to the thing that had made that first incursion so extraordinary.”
“True Detective: Night Country” premieres Sunday, Jan. 14 with new episodes dropping on Sundays.