When Hollywood Came to Town
John Brooks didn’t realize he was already on the job.
Four months after his neighbor recommended him for it, he got a call from Riverside, California.
“I don’t know anybody in Riverside, California,” said Brooks, a former crime-scene investigator with the Fayetteville Police Department and current instructor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology. “So I answered the call. And this gentlemen says, ‘Hi, my name is Derek, and I’m with True Detective. We’d like for you to come in and talk to us.’”
Brooks showed up that Friday with his resume, a CV and his business card – everything he needed to be considered for the job.
“I really thought I was going in for a job interview,” he said. “When I got there, Derek said, ‘Hey, this is our police tech advisor.’ Just like that. Okay, so it wasn’t a job interview.”
True Detective is the popular HBO crime drama created and written by Nic Pizzolatto, former University of Arkansas student and graduate of the MFA program in creative writing. The show’s third season featured Academy-award-winning actor Mahershala Ali, but for local residents the real star was Northwest Arkansas, the setting where Ali and co-star Stephen Dorff’s characters investigated the disappearance of two siblings, a boy and girl. Brooks worked with the show’s production team from January 2018 until filming wrapped up last summer. The director and others relied on him for accuracy in their depiction of police procedure and criminal investigation.
Providing technical advice on the set turned out to be bit more complicated than Brooks anticipated. There were many situations in which the director or someone on the set would ask him how police officers would behave or address a given problem. Brooks would answer, to the best of his knowledge and experience, but that didn’t mean they’d follow his advice.
“I was told very early on, if you tell them something and they don’t take your advice, don’t get your feelings hurt,” he said. “Because that’s just not the way this works.”
One time, though, Brooks had to put his foot down. It was a critical moment, a scene in which a law-enforcement officer was getting ready to commit a potentially grievous error, a mistake that would, in real life, put him in an extremely vulnerable position. To Brooks, it was unthinkable that any officer would do such a thing, so much so that he thought a depiction of the behavior would damage the show’s credibility.
“So I was able to get involved and say, ‘Hey, this is what would happen here,’” he said. “In this situation, if you found an open door, you wouldn’t just walk in that room. You’d have your weapon out and be prepared to defend yourself.”
Because the crime took place in 1980, several situations forced Brooks to reach beyond his own experience. For example, in the season’s second episode, the victims’ parents receive a note from the perpetrator. The detectives find out about the note and rush to the victims’ house. Inside, they find the confused, distraught parents and other law-enforcement officers poring over a cryptic message created with letters cut out of magazines. The officers handle the note in a manner different than today’s standards.
“Would they wear gloves?” Brooks said. “You know, in 1980, maybe. The FBI would have. But sometimes it’s more dramatic to use a pin in a handkerchief rather than putting on silly gloves.”
For these scenarios, Brooks relied on an old friend and mentor, a now retired police officer who had worked during that era. The two men talked about the tools, resources and procedures of law-enforcement, comparing 1980 to 2017. The differences were dramatic. For example, in 1980, police officers were still using revolvers, rather than the standard semiautomatic weapons used today.
“Revolvers were handled a different way,” Brooks said. “I mean, some of it’s the same, but some of it isn’t, so I had to talk to him about that. Even though I’ve been around revolvers, I wanted to know his perspective. If you pulled your gun out, did you necessarily cock it? These are the kinds of things we talked about.”
There were other differences. Though detectives could manually compare fingerprints, a national fingerprint database did not exist in 1980. And DNA testing was not yet available to police investigators. There was evidence based on hair and blood type, but those tests weren’t always reliable.
“It was a different world back then,” Brooks said. “Some things were the same, such as ballistics work, you know, comparing bullets and that kind of thing, but otherwise it was a very different world.”
Brooks is an intense guy. You don’t have to spend much time with him to figure out that he doesn’t do anything less than full-bore. Details matter. He dresses neatly in khakis and a plaid or checkered oxford shirt, and he wears aviator sunglasses, the kind you see on Air Force pilots. He appears younger than his age, but thinning hair and a few forehead wrinkles show the effects of having worked in a stressful occupation.
Brooks brought this intensity with him to the set of True Detective. He said some of the workers laughed at him because he had a thousand questions about camera angles and visual storytelling and other facets of craft. “This was all new to me,” he said, “and I really got into it.”
But everyone was cool, he said, and he loved being on the set.
And now he knows someone from Riverside, California. He and Derek have become good friends.
To listen to Brooks talk about his experience working for True Detective, tune in to Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast from the University of Arkansas.