‘What Would Happen Here’; Instructor Talks About His Work on ‘True Detective’
Matt McGowan: Welcome to Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast of the University of Arkansas. My name is Matt McGowan. Today I’m talking to John Brooks, criminology instructor in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. For the past several months, John worked as a consultant for True Detective, the HBO crime series. The third season of the series was filmed in Northwest Arkansas. How did the show’s producers find out about you? Tell me what they were looking for.
John Brooks: So my next-door neighbor is in in movies. She does set design. Somebody called her and said hey, we need a person locally that knows the police procedures, knows, you know basically, everything police, you know, what we’re going to need, and she said well, you know, I don’t have any experience in that, and they said, well, do you know somebody that does, and she said well, as a matter of fact, I do. And I was super excited. I was like, wow, you know. Thank you for giving me the recommendation. Then I heard nothing. For months, I didn’t hear anything and I asked her about it a couple times and she said, you know, I don’t really know, it’s just kind of the way it works. She said they’ll call you. They may call you the day before. And so January of last year I was driving down the road and I got a call from Riverside, California. I don’t know anybody in, Riverside, California, so I answered the phone, and this gentleman said, hi my name is Derek and I’m with True Detective, and we’d like for you to come in and talk to us. And I told my students, like I was almost wrecked my car. And so I was, you know, I said, well I can come in tomorrow, but I need to do it before twelve or after two, because I teach class at the university. And they’re like, oh no, don’t worry about it, just come in Friday. So when I went in Friday, I had my resume, I had my CV, I had my business, you know, my new business and everything, and I really kind of thought I was going in for a job interview. And when I got there, Derek and… I still can’t say his last name very well, Dibaggio, he said hey, this is our police tech advisor. Just kind of like that, and I was like, oh wow, okay.
MM: So it wasn’t a job interview, it was your first day.
JB: It was my first day on the job.
MM: And tell me what you did? What’d they have you do?
JB: So they so they would ask questions procedurally, like in one scene, there’s the ransom note and with the ransom note, you know, would they wear gloves, would they not wear gloves? You know, the FBI in 1980 would have been wearing gloves. But, you know, sometimes it’s…
MM: More dramatic…
JB: More dramatic to, you know, use a pin in a handkerchief rather than somebody putting on silly gloves. So, you know things like that. And then I was told, very early on, you know, if you tell them something, and they don’t take your advice, don’t get your feelings hurt, because that’s just not the way this works. It’s… But later on there were some things that happened… and it’s kind of hard… I don’t want to spoil anything… but there were some things that happened that that I was able to get involved in and say, hey, this is what would happen if you were if you were going to this… This is what would happen. You wouldn’t just walk in this room.
MM: So maybe it’s a matter of credibility here, believability, I guess?
JB: Yeah, you know, you wouldn’t just… if you found an open door, you wouldn’t just walk in that door. You would be prepared to draw your weapon and defend yourself because if the door is not supposed to be open, maybe there’s something in there that’s, you know, your enemy, for lack of a better word. So things like that. And then I would get calls, you know, about if you’re off-duty, in other words, if you’re not on duty, would you wear your badge? And the answer is, typically no you wouldn’t do that because if you’re wearing your badge, you’d want to wear your gun. Because if somebody sees your badge, they’re gonna know you’re a police officer They don’t like the police then you’ve put yourself in a situation where you don’t have your gun? So typically you would not wear your clip-on badge when you’re off-duty however, you would have a badge in your back pocket, in your wallet ID, so that if you needed to get somebody’s attention and say, hey, I’m state police, here’s my badge. You know, I want you to do this or whatever.
MM: It’s interesting because we talked about it before… I thought well, this would be kind of a slam-dunk thing, it would be easy, but then I didn’t… I wasn’t thinking that this was how they did crime-scene Investigation, as you mentioned, in 1980, so we’re talking about almost 40 years ago.
JB: Right, a very different world, very different world.
MM: And I think you mentioned that you had called a buddy at the Arkansas State Police or had somebody… had a veteran who had a lot of time and further consultation.
JB: Another person I leaned on was… He retired before I did, and he was one of my… he was one of my two great mentors at the police department, and he had been at the police department long enough to go through the revolver stage and then the transition to the semiautomatic weapons. And so there was, you know, some questions about that because in this drama, they go through these three different time periods, and the guns change over the course of time. And so revolvers were shot and handled in a different way than some automatics were. I mean some of it is the same, but some of it’s not, so I had to talk to him a little bit about that.
MM: So when viewers watch the program, how realistic generally are the depictions of crime-scene investigations so far?
JB: Well, I mean, I’ve seen two episodes and I was able to read some of the scripts, but it’s kind of difficult when you’re reading the scripts and then trying to see how it’s going to play out on the screen. But I would say that, you know, it’s… some of it is very real and some of it…
MM: Some of it’s Hollywood…
JB: Some of it is, you know, the dramatic effects of it. You know, you got to remember in 1980, there was no fingerprint database, there was no DNA, there was hair evidence, and hair evidence was, you know, that was probably the biggest kind of forensic evidence that they had. They had blood typing, which was… both those and the hair, kind of that’s what happened to DNA, but I mean 1990, you know, you could do manual comparison of fingerprints. People were doing that. There were people doing ballistics, you know, comparing bullets and things like that. But I mean as far as being able to take a fingerprint, put it in a database and search it in 1980, that wasn’t even… They talked about it, but it wasn’t a real thing.
MM: Tell us a little bit about the measures that they took, the production team took, to make sure that you and the rest of the crew didn’t talk about the script and the story and give it give it away.
JB: Yeah, so the very first day that I went down to be hired as the police tech advisor, I had to sign a confidentiality agreement, a nondisclosure agreement, and it was emailed to me and when it was emailed to me it had my name watermarked on the disclosure agreement. So, anything that you got print-wise, whether it was a call sheet, a script, anything, your name was embedded in that. There was just no way around it. It was there because they didn’t want people leaking things, and so I didn’t, you know, I mean not even to your family, you know. It was you don’t talk about this because we don’t want people spoiling it. We don’t want people, you know, knowing what’s going to happen. And so it was… That was very interesting. So, I would get a call sheet. So, if I’m going to get called the next day, I’m going to get a call sheet and it’s going to tell me on there, you know, what time to report. It’s going to tell everybody… it’s going to have everybody on there. You know, some people are going to report two hours before you, you know, your call time. And so then you would go… they give you a map and you would go to what they would call basecamp, and there’d be parking areas. So like some of it was at Walker Park. You were never allowed to take your car to set ever, you couldn’t do it. I mean it was not allowed.
MM: So, shuttling…
JB: Shuttling. You would go to this park, and then these big… they’re not buses, they’re like big vans, big minivans, they come by and pick you up and they take you to where you need to go. And then when it was over, they take you back to your car, so…
MM: Didn’t you say that there was something that disappeared? Was it with those call sheets or something? You would look at it for a while…
JB: Yeah. So, after a period of time, they go away, you just…
MM: They dissolve?
JB: They dissolve, for lack of a better word. So, you don’t get to keep those, and then in the last two episodes, only a very small handful of people got those scripts, and I was not one of those people. So, I don’t know what happens. I mean that’s… you know, and that’s fine. Now, I’m kind of glad I don’t know what happened.
MM: So, you’ve seen it twice now. What is your impression?
JB: I think it’s going to be really good. I don’t have a clue what the end result’s going to be. I think it’s going to be very good. I think you’re going to see a lot of Arkansas and a lot of stuff around here that, you know… I want to go back and watch it again just to be able to pick things out, because I think there’s stuff that you’re missing, you know, because it’s just not registering that that’s where that is.
MM: All right, John, that’s all I have. Thanks a lot for doing it. I really…
JB: Yeah, you bet, absolutely, yeah…
MM: Thank you.
MM: Music for Short Talks From the Hill was written and performed by Ben Harris, guitar instructor at the University of Arkansas. For more information and additional podcasts, go to researchfrontiers.uark.edu, the home of research news at the University of Arkansas.