Issa Lopez

Source: Lilja Jons / HBO

Issa Lopez

Following the release of her 2017 feature Tigers Are Not Afraid, Mexican writer/director Issa López found herself courted by Hollywood, developing several projects for different studios and filmmakers. A couple came close to happening, but most were bogged down in development. “It was complicated with all of them,” recalls López, “and it got to the point where I needed a breath.”

This was during the height of the pandemic, when the world was in lockdown and people were taking stock. But while some opted to bake bread or binge on Breaking Bad, López, who grew up reading Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie novels, did the “one thing that scared me my entire life, writing and directing a who­dunnit, because it’s a genre that inhabited my childhood obsessions”. More­over, she took a deep dive into “all the unsolved mysteries that, when I was a kid, would obsess me, like spontaneous combustion.”

One mystery had always nagged her. Known as the Dyatlov Pass incident, it revolved around the unsolved deaths of nine Soviet hikers in the Ural mountains in 1959. “The details don’t make sense and they died in the ice. So, I thought, ‘Murder mystery, ice, the unexplainable demise of a group of people.’ I put it aside, stopped thinking about it, because that’s what you do with ideas. You find the ingredients, then walk away.”

Four or five weeks later, however, López got a call from HBO asking if she was interested in taking over as showrunner on True Detective, the anthology crime drama created by Nic Pizzolatto. “I thought, ‘What an extraordinary idea.’ I love that first season and wanted to experience again this feeling of a perverse undercurrent on the edges of America.” Suddenly that murder mystery set in the ice had a home. “All I needed was everything else. The story, characters, what happened to these men.”

The first season of True Detective took place in Louisiana and followed detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) in their pursuit of a serial killer linked to the occult. (Two subsequent seasons employed new cast, settings and mysteries.) López saw her take as a dark mirror to season one, setting it in Alaska’s endless night.

“Sometimes things start writing themselves, because once I knew it was Alaska and it was True Detective, the colours and heat of the Louisiana Bayou had a perfect opposite in Alaska. [Season one] is two men going through their character flaws and their obsessions and trauma. [I thought,] let’s do that with women. And if the first one was about men finding bodies of women that had been brutalised, what if it is women finding the bodies of men?”

True Detective Night Country is set in the fictional town of Ennis, Alaska and follows the investigation by detectives Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) and Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis) into the disappearance (and death) of eight men from an Arctic research station. It takes in real-life inspirations such as the Dyatlov Pass incident and the Mary Celeste — a trading ship whose crew disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1872 — as well as John Carpenter’s The Thing, Alien and The Shining. The story also features several callbacks to season one (spiral symbols, the Tuttle Corporation and an appearance by Rust Cohle’s father).

Foster was López’s first choice for Danvers. Not least because The Silence Of The Lambs, in which Foster played an FBI agent, was another huge influence. “I don’t think I told Jodie, but as a teenager, I covered the ceiling of my bedroom in movie posters, and right on top of my bed was that beautiful [Silence] poster of Jodie with a moth on her mouth,” she says. “I would fall asleep looking at that for my formative years.”

But Foster had not starred in a TV show since she was 12, when she appeared in an adaptation of Paper Moon. “I didn’t expect her to say yes, because she’s very picky with what she wants to do,” says López. “But I sent two episodes and she wanted to have lunch. I thought, if she’s going to say no, at least I can write, ‘Dear Diary, I had lunch with Jodie Foster.’ She had seen Tigers [and] loved it. We discussed directing children, our ways of shooting, tastes in cinema. Then she said, ‘The character of Danvers, it’s not for me.’ [Because] I wrote a woman on the verge of a crisis of not being able to manage anymore and doing her best to be a decent human being in the middle of this [situation]. She was not interested in playing that.”

In fact, Foster wanted “to play someone that had become an impossible asshole”, laughs López. “When I heard that, I loved it, because I loved the idea of writing this despicable human being we must root for. We’ve seen that done in TV series with men, and it was a great opportunity to do this with a female. So, I rewrote the character with her, basically.” Foster also executive produces.

From page to screen

'True Detective Night Country'

Source: HBO

‘True Detective Night Country’

One of the selling points of the original True Detective was its casting of movie stars in lead roles, which continued with series two and three. Opposite Danvers, López had initially written the role of Navarro as a Latina, but decided she should be Native American. Casting director Francine Maisler sent López a photo of Kali Reis, a professional boxer-turned-actress. “It was Kali in her kitchen, a selfie, and it was Navarro. I wrote Navarro without having ever seen Kali. But she looked exactly like what I had in mind.”

Reis had made her acting debut in (and provided the story for) 2021 thriller Catch The Fair One, for which she had been nominated for a Film Independent Spirit Award. “The character was designed around her. It’s a boxer, it’s close to her own life. This was going to be a departure,” says López. “The character goes to emotional places and has a sense of humour and is sexy. I didn’t know if Kali had that range. But I taped her and she could listen to a directive, she could play and she could improvise. More importantly, she had immediate access to deep emotions. HBO said, ‘If you believe in this, we believe in you.’ I showed Jodie the tapes, and Jodie said, ‘Absolutely.’”

Filming took place in Iceland, subbing for Alaska, for 10 months, beginning in October 2022, with López directing all six episodes. “It was cold, it was dark during the winter, but it’s such a creative little corner of the world, precisely because of the winter and the night.”

When True Detective Night Country began airing in January, it earned mostly positive critical plaudits, even if Pizzolatto was not a fan, reposting, on Instagram, takedowns by fans of his original series. His reaction, says López, was a surprise. “Personally, the dream as a storyteller would be to create something that becomes so large and important it is passed on to [the] next storyteller to add their own vision. I’m so excited about passing the torch. I can’t wait to watch what someone else is going to do.”

López had the last laugh — her season finale earned the highest rating of any episode across all four seasons. “That was gorgeous. The reviews and numbers speak for themselves.”

HBO renewed the show for a fifth season, which means another mystery and another setting. “I’m writing and I’m very excited,” confirms López. “It’s a different story, a different place, different characters. The actors from my season are saying, ‘Can I please be in season five?’ And I don’t know what those people from northwest Alaska would be doing wherever the new season is taking place.

“But,” she teases, “there will be some things.”

The nominations-round voting period for the 76th Primetime Emmy Awards is open from June 13-24.