Creating a Narrative from Layers of Reality, Delusion and Intense Action in Three Different Time Periods

The third season of enigmatic crime drama True Detective from creator-writer-executive producer Nic Pizzolatto plays with perspective and narrative like few other shows on television. Mixing memories, both recalled and imagined, with intense action and psychological tension across three distinct time periods, this season earned the show nine Emmy nominations, including one for star Mahershala Ali and one for editor Leo Trombetta, ACE.

Shot on location in Arkansas, season 3 features Ali as detective Wayne Hays and British actress Carmen Ejogo as his wife Amelia. Stephen Dorff, who returned to the small screen in 2018 in Lee Daniels’ Star, plays Detective Roland West, Hays’ one time friend and partner. Previously nominated for his work on Mad Men and Narcos, editor Trombetta took home an Emmy in 2010 for the television biopic Temple Grandin. We spoke to him about how he and Pizzolatto resolved creative differences, the challenges of waiting for dailies between such intensive hair and makeup sessions, and the joys of creating suspense through the edit itself.

StudioDaily: This season of the show played with narrative flow in several exciting ways, from the use of three different time periods to the shifts in and out of reality from the POV of the main character, Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali). Did your edit deviate from the script in any way or was all this mapped out from the start? 

Leo Trombetta: Surprisingly, there was very little deviation from the script throughout all eight episodes. In fact, due to the labyrinthine structure that Nic had devised, where things are often alluded to that we as a viewer have yet to witness, I was initially concerned that the audience might feel confused over time and therefore lose interest. One afternoon, I decided to experiment with the reordering of certain scenes in an attempt to make the story more “clear.” When I ran this newly restructured version for myself, it was instantly apparent that, for all my good intentions, the new structure just didn’t work. Though it seemed to work in theory, I somehow had tampered with what I soon came to appreciate was a meticulously developed structure where even the slightest deviation had ramifications that would affect not just the episode but other episodes down the line. After closing the lid on this can of worms I’d inadvertently opened, I learned to trust the script that Nic had so ingeniously constructed.

Trombetta’s Avid Media Composer edit suite

Describe your working relationship with Pizzolatto during the edit. 

Nic was probably the easiest person I’ve ever worked with in my entire career. He was the best of both worlds in that he knew exactly what he wanted and what he didn’t want with regards to the storytelling but at the same time was open to and actively encouraged any and all ideas even if they differed slightly from how a scene was originally conceived. The clearest example concerned a scene where a school bus arrives to pick up kids for school. This was after the town had learned of the murder of a small boy and the disappearance of his sister. As originally scripted and shot, the children leave their homes and board the bus, one at a time, while their parents watch nervously from the sidelines. Given that the intent of the scene was to show how fearful the parents were to let the children out of their sight in the aftermath of the murder, I created what I felt was a more dramatic version where the bus pulls up and waits but no one leaves his house. After several beats of idling, the bus closes its doors and pulls away empty. Nic liked that version better and that’s the way it appeared in the episode.

Did you ever disagree on a narrative choice or direction, and if so, how did you resolve it? 

There were minor disagreements that occasionally cropped up over certain elements like, for example, sentimentality. Nic has an aversion to anything that even remotely appears sentimental where I, on the other hand, am not adverse to sentiment as long as it’s genuine and earned. A funny example of this difference of sensibilities is a scene from the finale where Stephen Dorff’s character Roland, drunk and bloodied after a particularly brutal bar fight, is approached by a stray dog who refuses to leave his side. At a certain point in the dailies, the dog began licking Roland’s face, prompting him to break down and cry. Nic felt that the licking of the face was one step too far and that he’d prefer if the dog merely went up and allowed Roland to pet him. As much as I loved that additional moment and made several attempts to convince Nic of its worth, I realized that, as long as I felt I’d done everything I could to make my case, the ultimate decision in these matters had to lie with the author and that, ultimately, my job was to help him realize his vision.

What was the most difficult part of assembling, organizing or cutting the episode you are nominated for, “If You Have Ghosts”?

The most challenging aspect of editing the series, and of this episode in particular, was the fact that, due to Mahershala’s having to play a character at three different stages of his life, often within the same scene, coupled with the hours required in the make-up chair to transform him into a 70-year-old man, certain scenes — out of sheer necessity — were shot over several non-consecutive days. This meant a delay, sometimes of weeks, until I had all the elements necessary to construct the scene.

Did you find the scenes in which Mahershala Ali’s dementia is fully expressing itself easier or harder to cut … and why?

Watching Mahershala in dailies was such a joy, not only because of how brilliant he was but because of how many choices he gave from take to take. Although no one particular version of Mahershala’s character was easier or harder to cut, the character I most enjoyed working with was the 70-year-old Wayne Hays. I never ceased to be impressed by the physicality and attention to detail Mahershala brought to this character. Not only his voice but the way he walked, the way he handled props. This wasn’t some 40-year-old actor pretending to be an old man — I felt I was watching an actual 70-year-old man on screen, and this portrayal regularly made me either smile or choke up with genuine emotion throughout the editing process.

What did you cut the show on?

I worked on an Avid Media Composer. Specifically version 7.0.5, which I found much easier to use than the more recent version 8.9.4.

Mahershala Ali as Wayne Hays (left) and Stephen Dorff as Roland West in True Detective Season 3.
Warrick Page / HBO

Did you use any particular features or plug-ins that gave you a leg up on this season?

I’m pretty basic when it comes to editing. The tools I find I use most are the splitscreen, fluid morph and motion effects. These I use primarily to tighten an occasional moment in a scene when I feel the pace is lagging.

Can you share any personal tricks you used to help you keep track of all the various shifting narrative elements? 

I really don’t have any. Believe it or not, I somehow keep it all in my head. I don’t use index cards like a lot of editors do because, on those occasions when I have put them up at the request of a director, I’ve found their worth to be more theoretical than practical. That, of course, may just be the way my particular brain operates, but it’s easier for me to just watch the episode from the beginning in order to determine what and where the issues are.

How big is your edit team on a show like this?

I’m pretty low-maintenance. For the entire Arkansas shoot it was just me and one assistant. When we moved to Los Angeles after principal photography was completed, we added an additional assistant to help keep track of the visual effects, of which we had quite a few.

Which scenes are you most proud of in this Emmy-nominated episode?

While not the flashiest scenes in the episode, the two scenes I’m proudest of are the dinner table scene between Wayne, Amelia, Roland and Lori, where Wayne’s jealousy over his wife’s success as an author ruins the evening, and the final scene between Wayne and Roland where, as old men, Wayne talks Roland into resuming the investigation that has haunted them for the past 25 years. The former is a favorite, not only because it came together so effortlessly, but because the cut remained unchanged from the first moment I showed it to Nic. Conversely, the latter, which was painstakingly put together over several days due to the range and complexity of emotions revealed throughout the scene, turned out not only to be my favorite scene in the episode — and possibly the entire series — but, as I learned at a recent Q&A, was also the favorite of Nic, Stephen and Mahershala.