Film and TV

How the most recent season of ‘True Detective,’ shot in Iceland, attempted to bring Alaska to the screen

The latest season of HBO hit “True Detective” is set in Alaska, leaning into its tagline “Night Country” to explore the depths of a dark, frigid winter in the northernmost points of the state.

The series takes place in Ennis, Alaska, a fictionalized amalgam of northern villages Kotzebue, Utqiagvik and Nome, according to creator Issa Lopez. The new season premiered Sunday on HBO.

The story follows law enforcement agents played by Kali Reis and Jodie Foster as they investigate the mysterious disappearance of eight men who worked at an arctic research center. As they proceed, trooper Evangeline Navarro, played by Reis, and local police chief Liz Danvers — Foster — realize the case is tied to another involving a missing Indigenous woman from the area.

It was shot almost exclusively in Iceland, forcing the production to attempt to replicate the state and its people on a large scale for a major prestige series.

Lopez initially conceived a story set in Alaska and began to write it during the early days of COVID. With travel not available, she said she followed locals’ social media accounts to get day-to-day depictions of their lives and listened to radio stations from the area. Lopez visited all three communities during the writing and pre-production process once travel opened up.

[Review: Alaska-set HBO series ‘True Detective: Night Country’ takes on a very cold case]

She said her travel included a dog sled trip, a snowmachine excursion onto sea ice and plenty of meeting with residents to enjoy local food and culture.


“In spite of all the research I had done, there were so many things that I learned in that trip,” she said in a recent media roundtable.

In the end, the decision was made to shoot in Iceland, for a number of reasons, including a larger infrastructure to handle the major production as well as a steep tax break. According to the show’s production notes, the country’s tax credit to film and TV productions “was on the verge of being increased to 35%” as they started shooting in December 2022.

The show ended up in Keflavik, a southwestern Icelandic town that previously housed a U.S. Army base during World War II, giving it some architectural similarities to American cities.

They took special care designing a main street in Ennis, resulting in what Lopez described as a “love song to Nome.”

The Arctic winter plays a major part in the narrative. The action takes place starting in December, in the middle of a lengthy dearth of daylight. It’s an approach previous versions of the series have utilized, going back to the initial season set in steamy rural Louisiana.

“There’s something very beautiful and mystical and eerie about this idea of a place where we don’t see the sun for three months, where it’s dark all the time and cold,” Foster said in a media roundtable. “It really served the ‘True Detective’ model of locate the place first and the Americana and weirdness of that place will inform the psychological space of that character.”

The series includes some heavy hitters in the roles of executive producer: Foster, Academy Award winning director Barry Jenkins, as well as Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, who starred in the first season.

But a pair of Alaska Native women are producers on the show — Princess Daazhraii Johnson and Cathy Tagnak Rexford. The duo spearheaded the show’s efforts to bring accurate and authentic representation to the screen. They led an Iñupiaq advisory council that was formed in the early days of production.

Lopez said Johnson and Rexford were involved in early revisions of the script, poking holes in parts of the narrative or characters they didn’t think fit.

“They really rolled up their sleeves and came aboard and said, ‘You’re getting this wrong,’ and ‘This is not how we say it,’ and ‘We don’t need this,’” Lopez said.

Lopez said there were plenty of passionate conversations and debates, but she felt confident that the end results were an accurate representation that also made for good drama.

“It’s not about background,” Lopez said. “It’s not about the creation of interesting things to look at. If you’re going to set up a story here, you have to embrace it, understand it and respect it.”

Johnson and Rexford also advised on home interiors and Alaska artist Sarah Whalen-Lunn was a major part of the design team, creating tattoos for Iñupiaq characters as well as signs and graffiti in Ennis.

The show incorporates a number of issues that may be recognizable to Alaskans, including the fight over how to use the state’s natural resources.

It also has at its center, the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Reis, who is of both African American and Native American descent, said the series could bring more broad exposure to what she called “an epidemic that has been plaguing our people since the dawn of time.”

“That’s the hope,” she said. “A big production like this you have eyes on it that wouldn’t normally (be on it). ... The more attention we put on things like this and make it a big deal, that can motivate change and conversations and it just needs to be talked about more.”


Johnson and Rexford said the series has a chance to shine a light on a number of Alaska issues they feel strongly about.

“We hope that this story brings attention to how our overreliance on the extractive resource industry continues to harm the land and oceans and how it is tied to violence against women,” they said in an HBO production release. “We hope that the series opens up a more nuanced dialogue about diversifying our economies in the Arctic.”

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Chris Bieri

Chris Bieri is the sports and entertainment editor at the Anchorage Daily News.