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Alaskan Horror Story

Taking over HBO’s ‘True Detective’ series for ‘Night Country,’ showrunner Issa López relied on the classics, from John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ to David Fincher’s ‘Se7en’

Harrison Freeman

Issa López’s long, icy road to True Detective began with a coffee table book and a videotape. Growing up in Mexico City in the 1980s, she loved scary movies. So, as a gift, her father gave her a tome filled with still photographs from horror films. When she flipped through the pages, one image stopped her cold.

“Are those legs coming out of someone’s head?” López recalls asking herself. The grotesque creature she saw, a disembodied head with long spider legs, was from The Thing. And as soon as she laid eyes on the assimilating alien, she knew she had to see that movie. “The moment I could get my hands on it on VHS, I got it,” she says. “Then I went to my friend’s house and watched it. And I think she was very mad at me because she couldn’t sleep for weeks. And I couldn’t sleep for weeks.”

But unlike her pal, López’s insomnia wasn’t caused by fear—it was caused by excitement. The tale of Antarctic researchers being methodically stalked and inhabited by an unseen extraterrestrial force blew her mind. John Carpenter’s opus is more than a showcase for its spectacular practical effects. It’s an excruciatingly tense sci-fi scarefest that refuses to wrap up neatly. “It’s such a perfect movie, with that uncertain ending,” López says. “I love it.”

Four decades later, the filmmaker came up with her own polar mystery. She created, wrote, and directed True Detective: Night Country, which is set in Far North Alaska. The fourth season of the anthology series centers on two cops, played by Jodie Foster and Kali Reis, attempting to solve the grisly murders of scientists at, you guessed it, a desolate scientific research station.

López’s take on Nic Pizzolatto’s bleak HBO drama is claustrophobic and gnarly, and it doesn’t just feel dark—it’s set during one of the Arctic’s sunless winters, when there’s absolutely no natural light. The inescapably ominous, pitch-black tundra is an ideal setting for a show trying to curdle blood.

López understands that the premise might sound familiar. But she isn’t running away from that. “If you’re going to do something in the Arctic and it’s going to have a sprinkle of the supernatural …” she says, “you realize that you’re basically referencing The Thing. So instead of fighting it, you embrace it.”

When it came time to hire a cinematographer, it was no coincidence that López chose Florian Hoffmeister. He shot The Terror, a niche AMC miniseries about a doomed 19th-century Arctic voyage, and their early discussions set the tone for Night Country. “The conversation was ‘Let’s not try to escape the darkness,’” López says.

For López, embracing the darkness meant also embracing surreality in a way that most gritty cop shows don’t. “It is a tall tale,” Hoffmeister says. “So she sometimes would say, ‘Well, we’ll do this because of the magic of cinema.’ We are not going into literalism.”

In the fictional mining town of Ennis, Alaska, there’s an ever-present sense of dread—a mood knowingly borrowed from The Thing. Hoffmeister used one of the film’s first and most unnerving wide shots, of a helicopter chasing after a sled dog, as a point of reference. There is a certain iconic quality to the horror elements and to the photography and to the tension and the atmosphere,” he says. “There’s a very rough edge to it.”

In the opening scene of Night Country, a herd of reindeer hurtles off a cliff. It’s ghastly. And though it initially goes unexplained, it’s the kind of moment that gives you an idea of what you’re in store for. The show is a whodunnit filled with strange and scary phenomena. There are dead bodies found in ice, frozen in a state of terrified rigor mortis. There’s a ghostly man who appears, barefoot and without a coat, seemingly out of thin air. There’s also someone’s loose tongue, and not the metaphorical kind. It’s the kind of realistically gross prop that would’ve made legendary Thing makeup effects creator Rob Bottin proud.

Of course, López wasn’t influenced only by The Thing. While developing the series, she turned to several chilling pieces of pop culture for inspiration. One was David Fincher’s Se7en, because to her, a pair of hardboiled detectives is always more interesting than one. “I always feel that having two people coming back and forth with the untangling of the mystery is so much more yummy than having a single genius,” she says. “Because then they become insufferable. You want two, fighting.”

When she got the True Detective job, López rewatched Se7en for the umpteenth time. A few minutes in, she had a minor epiphany. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this would have never existed without Silence of the Lambs,’” she says. “So I rewatched Silence of the Lambs, which is still excellent.”

Foster’s performance in Jonathan Demme’s gory thriller made her character, FBI agent Clarice Starling, into a cinematic archetype. But López wasn’t afraid of casting the two-time Oscar winner. “The whole ethos of True Detective is to bring a huge movie star you hadn’t seen in TV before, right?” she says. “And it was like, well, this is a no-brainer if I’ve ever seen one.”

During their first conversation, they talked about the Night Country scripts and López’s movie Tigers Are Not Afraid. Eventually, Foster acknowledged the elephant in the room. “She said, ‘Let’s not pretend for a second that people are not going to watch this and think of Clarice,’” López recalls. “I was like, ‘Let’s not.’”

Foster told López that she’d received offers over the years to play detectives but never took any of those parts—they understandably could never live up to Clarice. Liz Danvers, the bitter officer at the heart of this season of True Detective, caused Foster to rethink that stance. “This might be it,” López remembered Foster telling her.

“And it was,” López says. “So here we are.”

Christmas songs and car commercials have led us to believe that snow is always beautiful. But anyone who’s lived in a cold-weather climate knows that when those so-called “pretty” flakes accumulate, they become crusty, dirty, inconvenient, hard-packed piles of junk. “The fantasy of beautiful snow?” López says. “That’s bullshit. Snow is disgusting.”

Ennis may be located north of the Arctic Circle, but it’s far from a winter wonderland. It’s as if the hellishly rainy, unnamed city in Se7en froze over. For a viewer, the cold and darkness feel exhausting, and living there in the winter can be unrelenting. There’s no way to fully escape the elements. That weighs on everyone, especially the most vulnerable.

For filming, Iceland stood in for Alaska. But because preproduction took place during the endless sun of the summer, Hoffmeister had a hard time imagining just how cold and dark the island nation would get when shooting started in the fall and winter. He looked for visual references he thought might inspire him. “I was trying to find some material that would show how it does really feel in those places that are so harsh, so remote,” he says. “Of course there is great horror cinematography, but we wanted to create something new, obviously.”

At one point, production designer Daniel Taylor showed Hoffmeister a collection of photographs by Alexander Gronsky called “Endless Night.” “He did amazing photography in the polar regions of the former Soviet Union in mining towns,” Hoffmeister says. The images captured what it was like in the region in the winter: pitch-black nights lit by blinding artificial light.

“That was a reference that we looked at, pointed at, and said, ‘That’s really interesting.’ Let’s find a way to transfer that kind of feel into moving images,” Hoffmeister says. “If you think about it musically, the lights should be like a screaming feedback guitar. They should just really go. When they’re on, they should scream at you. And when they’re off, it should just be black.”

For more inspiration, López and her team also watched two wildly different procedural crime dramas: Michael Mann’s Heat and Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario. She also leaned on mood music. Billie Eilish’s eerie “Bury a Friend,” which asks, “When we all fall asleep, where do we go?” ended up as the Night Country theme song for a reason.

“Melancholy was very much at the center of the show, because in the end, the show is about loneliness and about loss,” López says. “And that was informed by the pandemic and by Billie, no doubt.”

López also listened to a lot of Radiohead, and though none of the band’s gloomy tracks made the final cut, she says that “there’s a lot of Radiohead in it. And you can feel it.”

When I ask López which Radiohead record she played most while making Night Country, she says Kid A. The often surreal 2000 album’s cover art, fittingly, is a painting of a snowy mountain range, and one of its best-known tracks, “Idioteque,” features Thom Yorke issuing a warning: “Ice Age coming / Ice Age coming …”

López was warned. Shooting a TV series in Iceland in the winter, when there’s limited daily sunlight, would be challenging. “Everybody had told us, ‘This is going to get tough, you need to get your SAD lamp with light,’” she says. “And also, ‘It’s going to get so freezing that the monitors would have a delay because the fluids inside of them were half frozen.’” Still, she felt ready. “We have the right clothes, we have the right heaters, we know how to breathe in the Arctic.”

The weather added natural tension to an already frightening series. “It became part of the mood,” López says. “I think that the actors really absolutely imbibe the fact that they were freezing their butts off out there.”

The hard part for members of the cast, she says, was actually having to fake being cold when they weren’t. “There’s a couple of instances, specifically when the characters have no clothes on and they’re outside, where we didn’t shoot outside because that’s inhuman to do,” López says. “So for those, they had to pretend to be very, very cold. And I learned in my previous movie that acting fear is the most challenging thing for an actor, trained or not. But I learned in this that acting cold is hard. It’s such a physical thing, it’s hard to simulate.” But most of the time, frigid conditions were not simulated: “Usually the exteriors are exteriors, and the Arctic is the Arctic, and they were actually freezing themselves.”

Shooting in remote locations in the middle of the night also presented technical difficulties. To see, the crew had to use headlamps. To avoid elaborate lighting setups that would look way too bright, they also occasionally used an infrared camera. Hoffmeister remembers filming one scene on a frozen lake on a brutally cold evening. “There’s a moment of doubt that when you stand there for a second, and you think, ‘Is it really worth it?’” he says. “But then when you look on the ground in shots in that sequence, the force of the wind would just fly past these people. You would never be able to generate that artificially on a stage.”

In real life, the Arctic Circle can be a terrifyingly unforgiving place. It is on-screen, too. “We wanted to tell the story that this is a vast landscape and that people disappear in it,” Hoffmeister says.

As the season progresses, the dread never thaws. It builds and closes in on Ennis. Just as López intended, Night Country is an ice-encrusted, sci-fi-tinged horror story. The show doesn’t shy away from that. There are references, subtle and unsubtle, to The Thing. In the premiere, you can see a copy of the DVD right on a shelf inside an empty research station.

“I grew up in a moment when Carpenter was basically inoculated into the veins of a generation,” López says. Like the Thing itself, the director is in her filmmaking DNA, always ready to pop out and scare the hell out of the audience.

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