Spoilers for True Detective Season 3 Episode 7 follow below.
Well that was something. The penultimate episode of True Detective dropped a couple of major revelations, then ended with a tremendous cliffhanger teeing up a confrontational—and exciting—finale that will hopefully provide some closure for Mahershala Ali’s Detective Wayne Hays, who along with his partner Roland (Stephen Dorff), been haunted by a murder investigation in three separate timelines for the bulk of the HBO drama’s third season.
To dig into the specifics of the seventh episode and to tease a bit of the finale, I got the chance to speak with director Daniel Sackheim, who helmed episodes 3, 6, 7, and 8 of the season. He broke down that cliffhanger ending, shooting the big interrogation scene with Harris, how he juggled all the major revelations, and what fans can expect in the finale—which he calls one of the most satisfying finales he’s ever been a part of. We also discussed the third season as a whole, for which Sackheim came in a little late as a replacement for director Jeremy Saulnier. He spoke about how taking over for Saulnier, his vision for the season that ultimately won him the job, the challenging process of shooting the entire season at once (instead of episode-by-episode), collaborating with showrunner Nic Pizzolatto, and working with such a stacked cast.
It’s a revealing and fascinating conversation with a director whose diverse resume ranges from The Leftovers to The Americans to Game of Thrones, and in speaking with him it became clear very quickly that not only is Sackheim a director with a specific and character-driven vision, but also one who delights in finding himself inspired by the material and cast he’s working with. It was a joy to dig deep into this very good season of True Detective, and what he had to say about the finale has me dying to see how it all concludes.
Check out the full interview below, and be aware there are spoilers up through Episode 7 of True Detective’s third season.
First thing’s first: You get to set up what appears to be our big bad at the end of this episode, with Michael Rooker credited as the voice on the phone with Wayne. What was your reaction when you read that in the script, and how did you go about executing that sequence, because it’s really tense?
DANIEL SACKHEIM: When I took the job, I read seven scripts. Episode 8 was a work in progress for a very long time. For the longest time, I never really knew what happened in 8, to be honest, because it was a work in progress. If you can imagine, I was like any other member of the audience sitting there wondering what the fuck is going to happen? Every time I would ask Nic [Pizzolatto], the answer would be, “I don’t want to spoil it for you. Wait till you read the script.” But it’s a fantastic cliffhanger, for sure. Very suspenseful. I guess I was really excited at the prospect of what was going to unfold.
Well, this episode in particular fills in a lot of gaps. We now know that Roland and Wayne killed Harris in 1990 and covered it up, which explains why Wayne was cagey about his disappearance. We also learn about Miss Isabella, which sounds like a pretty big piece of the puzzle. When you have so much new information to present to the viewer in an episode like this, how do you approach these multiple reveal scenes, so they each have their own significant impact as major revelations?
SACKHEIM: Wow, that’s a fantastic question. I don’t know that anyone’s ever asked me that quite that way. Well, I think the idea is that you want to try to continue, as much as you can, to tease out the reveal throughout the story, right? So, within the body of the scene itself, as well as how you resolve that, to how you end the scene. What’s the moment that you end on? That’s both an issue of narrative in terms of what Nic has written, and how I shoot it, and how we edit it. Some of those decisions also get made in editing. So if you feel like you might be giving too much away, we’ll pull back from there. It’s always, I think, the idea of keeping the audience hanging a little bit, and keep them leaning in. You always want to leave them wanting more. I guess the idea is that I like to try to be stingy.
Well, I mean, along those lines, I feel like, in many ways, the centerpiece of this episode is the Harris interrogation that goes sideways, if you can call it an interrogation. It’s a really great, moody, noir-ish scene. I really love the lighting and the cinematography in that sequence as well. I was wondering if you could just talk about shooting that sequence, and setting that scene up, because you are revealing a major piece of the back story here.
SACKHEIM: Unless I’m mistaken, I feel like that was out of a 100-day shooting schedule, I feel like that was the third to the last or second to last day. It was done for a number of reasons that way. Partly, it was that Nic and I worked in teams that’d work on the scene for a long time. So it was sort of going back and forth through an editing process. But also, part of it was that we really wanted to maintain, in the actors’ minds, what was going to happen. So that even for everyone, it was still a little bit of a mystery, even though they had read the scripts, and they knew the content of the scenes. As opposed to them sort of inadvertently giving away too much, even with a simple gesture in a scene that might have been shot, like, months before. So it was a little bit of a trick.
With respect to the scene itself, it was pretty emotional and visceral, actually. They’re all wonderful actors and immensely professional, and whenever you do anything that involves those kind of stunts, where someone could get seriously hurt, everyone is always very cautious. But it was so wonderful to see how they kind of let that narrative take over their lives. Because they had lived so much of the series prior to that, had lived so much of this mystery, including that very powerful scene that Nic shot in one of his episodes where, as old men—I think it was the end of Episode 5 there—sort of talking about that moment.
It actually made the shooting of the scene so much more powerful, and gave it so much more gravitas. Because now they were finally getting a chance to live through that moment that had always been a little bit of a mystery. Again, I mean, it isn’t that they didn’t know what the substance of what had happened was, but it was always that we wanted it to sort of hang there, in their heads, as ill-defined. Or a little amorphous. And that hopefully was communicated, in terms of what the audience is getting to learn.
You mentioned this was the third to last day of shooting. I’m just curious, from a production standpoint, was the season crossboarded where you shot everything out of order, or were you shooting episode by episode?
SACKHEIM: It was crossboarded.
Oh, okay. Wow.
SACKHEIM: And in addition to being crossboarded, at any given time, you would be working in any combination of timelines. Most of the sequences that involved them as old men, those were sort of modular. They would be shot together, because it was four and a half hours to put on that makeup. And so it wasn’t practical from a production standpoint, in terms of how it would affect the shooting hours, let alone the wear and tear on the actors to do that all the time.
But because we were constantly sort of flipping back and forth, not only in terms of episodes, but in terms of timelines, it was challenging. And I created a visual reference, almost like a hierarchical board that would you see in a crime show, when they’re talking about a mob family. It would start with 1980, and 1990, and 2015. So it was kind of this visual reference that we would always go back to and say, “Well, you were here, and now you’re going here.” It’s the only way to kind of keep it straight in our heads, let alone sort of help them track where their emotional throughlines were, where the characters were, at any given point.
That was going to be one of my questions, because not only are you working in three separate timelines, but you also have a protagonist who, in 2015 his mental capacity is blurring the timelines. So you could go one of two ways. You could visually distinguish each timeline, or they could bleed into each other, because the protagonist in 2015 is remembering things differently. What was your approach there, and did that present an exciting challenge to you?
SACKHEIM: I think we were all on the same page, in terms of trying to give each timeline its own sort of distinctive quality. For example, if you look at the style of 1980, and the color palette to it, it has sort of this golden cyan quality to it that’s almost like an old ektachrome slide. I mean, the intention was to give a subtle archival quality to it. Which isn’t present at all in the 2015 timeline, which is given sort of a much more straight ahead visual approach. However, the thing that made that challenging and interesting to do was that, any time you got really deeply into his head, especially when he’s having these kind of dementia-induced hallucinations, that’s where I could stretch my visual storytelling muscles.
And then there, the challenge was how do we tell this part of the story, and what he’s going through, and firmly ensconce the audience in Wayne’s head? Make us really feel like we’re seeing the world through his eyes, versus just to do something that was perhaps visually arresting, but didn’t tell the story, in terms of his own struggle and his fear, what he’s going through. Because as he’s experiencing this, and it’s out of his control, he’s sort of both lost and terrified as this old man who’s now lost in his inability to sort of control his own thoughts.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about the other big surprise in Episode 7, which is the allusion to Rust and Marty’s investigation from Season 1, which I guess confirms that these two seasons take place in the same universe. That was really fun for me, just as a fan of the show. What was your reaction reading that, and did you have many discussions with Nic about it?
SACKHEIM: Well, I can say that there was a lot of discussion about it. I think it’s important to understand the context in which that reveal was made, which is that it was being brought forward by this kind of documentary filmmaker who’s doing a true crime TV series. So, there is a bit of conjecture on her part, and there might be validity to this, or there might not. So the audience will find out whether that’s true or not. But I do want to keep it in its proper context.