Spoilers for HBO’s True Detective, but if you’re not watching it, quit your job, go home, and catch up because, good lord, this show is breathtaking.
Up until last night’s episode, the series has been a tour de force of writing and acting, particularly on the part of Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle. The first three episodes felt, in a way, like a mystery: We were tracking clues toward a serial killer, and though conspiracy theories run rampant on this show, the reason why they’re all probably wrong is because — as writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto stated at the outset — True Detective is not a whodunnit. True Detective is about a manhunt.
That manhunt took center stage in last night’s episode, as Rust Cohle went undercover in a vicious redneck drug gang in order to get a lead on the serial killer, Reggie Ledoux. It’s the same gang he’d worked undercover in for years while he was in narcotics, and though he tooks three shots in the stomach during his time undercover and was presumed dead, he decided to return, knowing that if he were to be found out as a cop, he’d only be shot in the head. “The stakes were low,” he told his partner, Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson). A shot in the head was the best worst case scenario. The worst worst-case scenario would’ve been to have his face pulled off and be fed his testicles until he choked to death, all the while staring into a mirror.
And yes, while I will concede that the more philosophically centered, conversational episodes that opened the season took a backseat in this episode to standard cop-show fare, the approach that director Cary Fukunaga took was anything but standard. I point you to the final six-minute sequence: A breathtaking, intense, blistering sequence involving a heist gone wrong.
Cohle, undercover with his redneck gang posed as police officers, goes into the stash house of a black gang with the intention of ripping them off. However, during the course of the heist, the people outside of the apartment in the housing project that’s being held up — presuming police brutality — start to riot. The heist goes awry, gunshots start ringing out, bodies start falling, there’s a fight involving a baseball bat, the police arrive, a helicopter hovers overhead. Meanwhile, Rust is attempting to move his unwitting target, Ginger, through the violence and over a chain-link fence and to the safety of an awaiting Hart, who speeds off with Rust and Ginger.
Did I mention that this final six minutes was done in one single amazing tracking shot?
Oners are not new to Fukunaga, who had executed them in Jane Eyre and Sin Nombre, but a shot like this is very unique for television. To pull it off, Fukunaga had a day and a half in the schedule to perfect it. An actual housing project was used.
MTV talked to Fukunaga about how he pulled off that final, impressive sequence:
Watching just the fences portion of the oner back, the camera floats over the high barrier in a movement that almost looks effortless. Getting the shot, however, was anything but. Because the location was an actual housing project, the “True Detective” crew wasn’t allowed to take down any portion of the fence, so they had to improvise. “At one point, we were going to build a ramp, and the operator was going to walk up it,” Fukunaga said. “But that wasn’t very safe.” The solution ended up involving placing the Steadicam operator on an elevated jib, or a weighted crane, which carried him over the fence and back down to earth.
Once the camera movements were figured out, the production carefully choreographed everything that had to happen in front of the lens with the help of a stunt team led by Mark Norby, who personally worked with McConaughey to develop a fighting style for Cohle. The crew even built a replica of the stash house for the stunt team to practice in before the big shoot.
“We had ADs [assistant directors] all over the neighborhood because we had to release extras, crowd running background, police cars, stunt drivers. There were actual gun shots and stones being thrown through windows. There were a lot of things to put together,” Fukunaga said. “Even the action, the stunt sequences were complicated. We’re working on a television schedule. It isn’t like a film where you can spend a lot of time working the stunts out with the actors. We only had a day and a half to get Matthew and everyone else on the same page.”
All told, the sequence clocks in at around six minutes. Fukunaga and the crew ran through the whole thing seven times while the cameras were rolling. The director built in possible edit points if two takes had to be combined to make the perfect version of the shot, but anyone who is wondering should know that the sequence everyone saw in the episode is, in fact, a true single take and one of the great achievements of filmmaking for television.
And now you understand even better why McConaughey and Harrelson would take on a television show of this nature: Because the only thing separating it from film is the length and how it’s being watched at home.
Someone uploaded that sequence to YouTube. If you haven’t seen it yet, wait and watch it in the context of the entire show. If you have, watch it again, so you can fully appreciate how incredible it was.
Someone over on Reddit also outlined the route taken during the sequence.