With True Detective Season 4, writer and director Issa López isn’t shying away from The Thing comparisons. In fact, with the supernatural horror-tinged season of the crime anthology show, she’s embracing it.
“The Thing is a huge [inspiration], and I’m not shy about it,” López tells Inverse ahead of the show’s January premiere. “I’m super proud about it.”
López even plants an explicit reference to The Thing in the first episode of True Detective: Night Country. As Jodie Foster’s chief of police Liz Danvers inspects the Tsalal Arctic Research Station after all of its researchers mysteriously go missing, a copy of the 1982 John Carpenter horror classic is on a shelf behind her. In a handful of instances, López even re-creates shots from The Thing.
“You cannot do anything that is a tense, tense survival whodunit with horror elements that doesn’t reference The Thing.”
“There’s one shot of [Kali Reis’ character] Navarro that is absolutely the iconic shot of The Thing,” López says. “You cannot do anything that is a tense, tense survival whodunit with horror elements that doesn’t reference The Thing. I think that it’s one of the masterpieces of horror cinema.”
The Thing is not the only horror movie that López pays tribute to. The Silence of the Lambs, which starred Night Country star Jodie Foster, is one. There are also references to David Fincher’s Seven, which López notes is foundational to the first season of True Detective. And she pulls from the “feeling of the Nostromo in Alien and some of the ghostly processes that we see in the Gore Verbinski version of The Ring.”
“There’s all kinds of winks to my fixations as a horror geek,” López says.
But the similarities between True Detective: Night Country and The Thing are the most obvious. Both are frigid paranoid thrillers that revolve around an arctic research center, where something appears to be picking off unsuspecting scientists. But in Night Country, this entire premise plays out in the first minutes of the first episode, setting up the rest of the six-episode series to unravel the mystery of what happened to the missing researchers of the Tsalal Arctic Research Station in Ennis, Alaska.
The strange case presents a baffling mystery for Liz Danvers (Foster) and her former partner Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis), who uncover deep-seated conspiracies and inexplicable events that can only be described as supernatural. Ghostly figures beckon to Navarro and her Indigenous relatives. An ominous spiral image seems to point to an otherworldly plane of existence. And of course, there’s the matter of whatever attacked the researchers.
It’s the first season of True Detective to fully embrace the supernatural horror that previous seasons danced around. But to López, it was an obvious answer to the question of what she would do with a season of True Detective. One of the things that always appealed to her about the Nic Pizzolatto-created show was that “it left us with a taste of something incredibly sinister happening behind the scenes, with big powers in the real world and darker powers on the other side.”
With her season, López wanted to expand on that. “I said directly, I would bring back the width of the supernatural in this season,” she says. “And I did this by setting it in a place where the veil between this world and other things gets thin.”
A Chilly New Setting
It’s no wonder López immediately gravitated to the long, dark winter of Alaska for Night Country. It wasn’t just a matter of brainstorming the opposite of the sweaty American South of the hit first season; López wanted to “create an environment that is as iconic and as full of secrets and possible mysticism and almost sentient in a way as that Louisiana bayou.”
“The Arctic gave me all those answers,” Lopez says.
The freezing cold of the Alaskan winter feels like the perfect antithesis to Season 1’s sweaty bayou. But like the heat of that first season, the cold “is a whole character within itself,” Kali Reis tells Inverse.
“In effect, they’re a mirror to each other.”
The setting gives Night Country more than a sense of creepy atmosphere. In the backdrop of the mystery of the missing researchers is an ongoing conflict between the Indigenous community of Ennis and a powerful mining company, which provides the town with jobs but is also steadily killing its residents with rampant pollution.
This makes Night Country even more urgently topical, while also lending a sense of Indigenous spirituality to the supernatural goings-on. There’s a reason Navarro, an Indigenous ex-military officer who finds herself stuck between the police and the Indigenous activists who scorn her department as corrupt, finds herself more attuned to the ghostly affairs surrounding the case.
“It’s like left brain, right brain with Navarro being the intuitive, supernatural, spiritual side, and Danvers being the logical, rational rule-book side,” Kali Reis tells Inverse. “In effect, they’re a mirror to each other.”
So how did Reis, in just her second major acting role after transitioning from professional boxing, feel about playing the Mulder to Jodie Foster’s skeptical Scully?
“It was intimidating, it was terrifying, and all the other synonyms like that,” Reis says. “But she was just such a joy to work with, so collaborative, so open, so wise, intelligent, funny. And she was just there to do what we were there to do, [which] was to tell this story the best way possible.”
Highlighting an Indigenous Story
That story is intensely personal to both Reis and López, at least the part it uncovers: a conspiracy about missing Indigenous women, which may or may not be connected to the research station and the adjoining mining company. Reis is involved in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls movement, a passion that translates into Navarro’s single-minded fixation on the cold case of a murdered Indigenous woman. “I was really happy to see that we highlighted part of this story,” Reis says. “The main case that drives Navarro and why she has to find these answers kind of reflects on what really happens [in real life].”
López, who hails from Mexico City, has made the subject a focus throughout her career in films like Tigers Are Not Afraid. “I’ve directed four movies and two of them are about missing and murdered women in Latin America,” López notes. “So it’s been an ongoing concern and a theme of my storytelling.”
It’s why, when she got the call to do True Detective, López immediately gravitated to telling a story about Indigenous people that did as much justice to Alaska’s Indigenous community as possible. “We worked very closely with the Indigenous community from the area to do a fair portrayal, and on the understanding that this is not the plot twist and it is not in there to make it fun,” López says. “It happens and it comes from a really, really deep place of the things that matter to me as a showrunner and to the communities that I was trying to reflect in the story.”
When True Detective: Night Country premieres this Sunday, it will come on the tail end of an invigorating year for Indigenous stories in Hollywood. From Martin Scorsese’s awards darling Killers of the Flower Moon, to the acclaimed series Reservoir Dogs and Marvel’s new superhero series Echo, it seems like Indigenous stories are more prevalent than ever. But, as Reis says, “There’s a lot more to be done.”
“You have to start somewhere,” Reis says. “Let’s be able to tell our stories and do what we have to do and see us in our everyday life. That’s what I want to see.”
For now, True Detective Season 4 will tell a dark, unsettling, supernatural story steeped in Indigenous spirituality and tragedy. But the long dark winter will, eventually, come to an end.