Hooray For Hollywood! No, Hollywood STILL Did Not Steal Your Script

Contributing Writer; Hollywood
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Hooray For Hollywood! No, Hollywood STILL Did Not Steal Your Script

For the last few days, my various in-boxes have been overflowing with friends, associates and strangers alike wanting to know what I think about the latest apparent revelation courtesy of the interwebs.

"Did you know Nic Pizzolatto was a plagiarist??"

Um, no.

And I'm not sure I know that now.

For those of you not finely tuned in to this latest brouhaha, let me bring you up to speed:

Nic is the creator of HBO sensation True Detective, a fairly benign procedural that distinguished itself from the pack with the trifecta of movie-star casting, film-ish cinematography and an is-it-or-isn't-it-supernatural undertone (spoiler alert: it wasn't).

From the moment it aired, people noticed a number of influences on the writing -- some general in their execution, some acute -- with sources ranging from Goethe and Nietzche to Alan Moore, Robert Chambers and Thomas Ligotti.

Some of these influences Pizzolatto readily copped to (mostly those in the realm of "public domain"), others he chafed at.

Apparently, it was only when he was asked directly by a reporter that he acknowledged an allusion to the works of Thomas Ligotti.

To quote Djimon Hounsou in Guardians Of The Galaxy: "Who??"

Turns out Ligotti is the patron saint of under-appreciated weird fiction writers, an heir to the throne of H.P. Lovecraft.

And that is where Mr. Pizzolatto's current headache begins, courtesy of a recent blog post on the Lovectaft E-Zine website by founder Mike Davis.

(Full disclosure: I know Mike from the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival and have been a guest on his webisodes in the past.)

In the critical post (which you can read HERE), Mike and Jon Padgett -- himself the founder of website THOMAS LIGOTTI ONLINE -- lay out a side-by-side comparison of dialogue spoken by Matthew McConaughey's character, Rust Cohle, and passages from Ligotti's treatise The Conspiracy Against The Human Race which they purport to be the direct, near-verbatim source of the dialogue.

Together with a timeline showing what they believe to be Pizzolatto's evasion of Ligotti's influence on his work, a lot of the internet has come to the conclusion that it is a damning indictment of obvious plagiarism and Pizzolatto should be burned at the stake.

Not wanting to be left out of the opportunity for click-bait, the rest of the internet has risen to Nic Pizzolatto's defense, decrying this attempt to smear one of the great artists of our times.

With just a few weeks to go until this year's Emmy ceremony -- where True Detective is nominated for twelve awards, including "Best Drama" and "Best Writing - Drama" -- the controversy matters to many and both sides are looking to squash the other in the press.

HBO and Pizzolatto released press statements the other day denying any wrong doing.

Pizzolatto, in effect, doubled-down by mentioning a number of his inspirations in his press release and again leaving out Ligotti (it should be noted that he HAS acknowledged Ligotti and, specifically, The Conspiracy Against The Human Race, as influences in an interview with Michael Calia of The Wall Street Journal).

So what do I think...

About the internet controversy?


Mostly, the bloviation is people arguing over what should be meant by "plagiarism".

Looking at ALL the side-by-sides (those wanting to write a totally pro-Pizzolatto argument have been cherry-picking the two or three least egregious examples and saying "See? Nothing to it.", a cynical move at best), it certainly seems that Pizzolatto didn't just love The Conspiracy Against The Human Race (as he has admitted).

To me, it looks like he either copied some of it directly as dialogue or was SO impressed by it that he subconsciously remembered passages wholesale with nothing but a slight syntax shift to demark it.

(Note to Nic: in the future, avoid stand-out words like "thresher" at all costs.)

My father-in-law was a department head for twenty years at a major university and he was one of the people asking me my thoughts this week.

His opinion was, had this been a paper for one of his classes, Nic gets an "F" and is reported to the dean for further disciplinary action.


(And -- in fact -- ironic, given that Pizzolatto used to be in academia and should know better).

But it isn't a term paper we're talking about, it's a TV show.

Thomas Ligotti didn't write eight hours of teleplay that Nic Pizzolatto stole.

Then again, what too many people are getting wrong (imo) is that they think the effect this "minor" offense had within the scheme of the show's success as a whole is little-to-none, a by-product that a few weird-fiction geeks are going crazy over.

That I disagree with.

I never heard anyone talking around the water cooler about Woody Harrelson's dialogue -- it was almost all about McConaughey and his nihilistic bon mots.

The character of Rust and his world view are linchpins to the entire enterprise, and that can be traced back in sharp relief to specific passages of Thomas Ligotti's writing.

We can see that.

And yet everyone on True Detective is still in deny-deny-deny mode.

And THAT is what I find interesting.

Because it should be obvious that if a Wall Street Journal reporter noticed some lines cribbed from Thomas Ligotti, then so did Ligotti.

(Second note to Nic: Picasso had it right "good artists copy, great artists steal".)

I think the bigger story has been on-going for a while now, behind the scenes and out of the blogsosphere.

My guess is that all the protestation on the part of HBO and the relative silence on the part of Pizzolatto is indicative that a lawsuit has at least be threatened if not filed by Ligotti and his people and that a settlement is pending.

Personally, I don't think it's much of a case in spite of the side-by-sides. They're gross, but not much grounds for an effective suit.

And while I don't like seeing any artist robbed of attribution, frankly, I was more offended by the visual language Quentin Tarantino "borrowed" from City On Fire for Reservoir Dogs than this Millennial-skewing "Boy, life sucks" nonsense.

I think we can all admit that QT's career of inspired pastiche went on just fine, thank you, as will Nic's -- the guy is a good writer with great influences.

But no one wants a cloud of stink hanging over an on-going project. 

Better to clear the air (and on the cheap if you can).

Probably after the Emmys, maybe the production ramp-up of Season 2, an announcement will be made saying something like "future broadcasts/sale units will have a 'special thanks' to Thomas Ligotti" etc.

(Let me be clear: I have NO knowledge of anything to this effect. All of this is just my opinion/guess.)

A number of e-mails have asked me if this isn't proof that Hollywood is out to steal your script.

No. It isn't.

In fact, this is the opposite.

This is a friggin' headache for HBO that was (probably) behind-the-scenes and is now front-and-center going into the Emmys and it boils down to ten lines of dialogue lifted from a writer most people have never even heard of.

What all this should be is a lesson to all those would-be Nic Pizzolattos out there:

You, too, can persevere and break through with your writing.

Just remember: don't be too clever for your own good.

Be sure to STEAL from the work of your idols.

If you just copy, you're really rolling the dice.

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AleksAugust 9, 2014 7:57 AM

This whole article sounds like it was written by Pizzolatto himself.
Tarantino's borrowing of City on Fire "visual language" (which is minimal at best) is worse than Pizzolatto copying other people's work verbatim? Prejudiced much?
It's an interesting topic but it should've bddn written by someone less in love with Pizzolatto and True Detective. Shrugging off his copying of as, "Meh, artists steal." is lazy reasoning. Also, no one talked about Harrelson's character's dialogue because his dialogue wasn't worth talking about. Rust Cohle's dialogue was, i.e. the copied bits. That's why people are outraged; now we're lead to wonder how much else of the good parts in TD were borrowed/copied/stolen/plagiarized?

aleksandarWH7 .August 9, 2014 9:58 AM

I agree with Mike Davis : "Nic Pizzolatto may or may not have done anything illegal. But what he did was certainly wrong. He went too far. It’s one thing to borrow someone’s ideas. It’s quite another thing to borrow someone’s ideas and their phrasing, their words, and to acknowledge that writer only when one is forced to do so."

When you consider ending of TD - which is basically only instance of the show that is not in any connection whatsoever with TL there you can see how talented and original is NP - terrible ending indeed.

Hiroaki JohnsonAugust 9, 2014 6:17 PM

I wouldn't say it's minimal at best. Some of the most interesting shots in RD come directly from CoF, as does the general plot. Probably most would agree that the highlight of Reservoir dogs is the dialogue but I wouldn't minimize the influence simply to make your point. Which is not to defend Pizzolatto, I just think QT get's a big pass on that somewhat undeservedly.

AleksAugust 9, 2014 10:17 PM

Granted, I'm being generous saying the influence was minimal, but I still sort of stand by it. Reservoir Dogs to me is, like you said yourself, the dialogue, specifically the diner scene and everything in the warehouse, not the moments copied from CoF, which, I think, is a piece of shit film anyway. QT got a very deserved "pass" on that because, unlike Pizzolatto, he avidly publicised his love for CoF and its influence on RD.

Michael_456123August 9, 2014 10:37 PM

I don't understand why you need to bash Ligotti twice as a writer most people haven't ever heard of (though Pizzolatto himself admitted he had). Does that somehow make a difference? Or could you alternately show a little respect for a guy who hasn't involved himself in the debacle at all, and at the very least was an influence for a show you clearly enjoyed as much as I did?

Todd HarringtonAugust 9, 2014 11:15 PM

My apologies if you felt I was bashing Ligotti - not my intent.

That said, you ask if the lack of widespread commercial success of Ligotti's work makes a difference and my answer is: of course it does.

It doesn't make a difference as to the quality of Ligotti's work but it certainly makes a difference in how someone might reference it in their own.

Let's assume that Pizzolatto copied text from "The Conspiracy Against The Human Race", changed a few words around and turned it into Rust's dialogue.

Do you think he does that if TCATHR was written by Stephen King or Dean Koontz instead of Thomas Ligotti?

I don't.

I think in that case he knows people will recognize it and so he takes the care to craft his OWN words delivering the same philosophical tenets.

In this case -- if that is what happened -- Nic must have thought there was little chance anyone would notice and that those who did wouldn't think poorly of it and raise a fuss. He was wrong.

Michael_456123August 9, 2014 11:24 PM

Sorry then, it seemed very dismissive.

I meant difference in an ethical sense, but I agree that in the practical sense it definitely.makes the difference you describe. That may make the plagiarism accusation more credible, though.

I'm actually more.bothered by the Alan Moore lift, with the starry sky at the end, as it rendered Rust's whole.resolution and character change just another's image.

Michael_456123August 9, 2014 11:25 PM

If by the ending you mean the night sky metaphor, NP took that word for word from Alan Moore.

Todd HarringtonAugust 9, 2014 11:46 PM

For starters, Aleks, thanks for caring enough to engage in dialogue. It's one of the things I love best about Todd's site.

That said: I didn't say Quentin's visual "homage" was worse, just that it bothered me more. An opinion, not a judgement. I think I'm allowed to have an opinion, yes?

As for me being in the tank for Pizzolatto, I think you've misread me.

While I cannot definitively state that Nic DID just straight-up rip Ligotti off -- I wasn't there, I'm not in his head -- I think Mike and Jon made a strong case and I've said that it certainly looks to me like Nic did. Again, an opinion.

Your point about Woody's dialogue is exactly the point I (thought I) was making -- Rust was the reason people really gravitated to the show and his presence is cemented with the scenes Mike and Jon highlight.

Certain writers -- David Haglund at Slate, as an example -- have been saying essentially "Yeah, even if he DID steal that for dialogue, it didn't mean that much in the scheme of things." What I (thought I) said was: I think the opposite.

Finally, let me clarify what I (and, I think, Picasso also) meant by the whole "great artists steal" thing: every artist is a product of their history and environment and that melange is brought into every work they do. There are infinite influences at play, some in the background, some in the foreground.

When I say artists "steal" from their influences, I mean they make their influences their own by integrating and interpreting them.

When they "copy" -- and there is no better example of a "copy" than someone else's words passed off as your own dialogue -- the ownership isn't theirs, it still resides with the "influence". It's at best a sign of laziness, at worst an indication of a lack of native talent.

My suggestion at the end of the column is that people relish their influences and utilize them for inspiration -- but if you just copy them, you're gonna get reamed at some point.

Thanks again for the comments.

Hiroaki JohnsonAugust 9, 2014 11:55 PM

Did he? I never heard him say anything about CoF, and I don't say that to be a picking nits prick about it. I've just always seen him mention other titles like Pelham or talk generally about the heroic bloodshed films that were big in the 80's

Todd HarringtonAugust 9, 2014 11:55 PM

You are, of course, right on there being zero difference when it comes to the ethics of it (also, I may be too instinctively drawn to practical considerations). I think this is what gets people so riled and what I may not have done a good enough job explaining as my position:

Assume Nic did what he is accused of. He's a dick and he looks like a tool for doing it. But Ligotti's team would (likely) never win a suit over it.

What they CAN do is use the stink that has risen as a way to shame HBO into some kind of agreement, but the window is short for that.

Michael_456123August 10, 2014 12:00 AM

You're probably right about the legal issue, though I actually doubt Ligotti is involved in this at all, or is concerned much about money. I've not read any of his books, but I remember this interview with him. He basically is unredeemed Rust Cohle, and more than that, is anhedonic.


Todd HarringtonAugust 10, 2014 12:08 AM

AMAZING interview. And, yes, it makes me question some of my assumptions (though I still think if he has any kind of professional team to look out for his interests, they are -- and, imo, should be -- pushing for some recognition).

Thanks so much for sharing the link.

Michael_456123August 10, 2014 12:09 AM


AleksAugust 10, 2014 7:44 AM

My pleasure, Todd. And thank you for your extensive reply.

You are most certainly allowed an opinion. It’s just that I don’t see how the borrowing of rudimentary narrative elements and a few visual queues from a film (which is a very common practice and generally considered a form of homage), and copying another writer’s work, near verbatim, compare, let alone can be perceived as worse? Also, as I’ve mentioned to Hiroaki Johnson below, Tarantino at least had the decency of crediting Ringo Lam and his film.

Concerning Harrelson’s dialogue, you are absolutely right. My bad, I obviously read that part too quickly and misunderstood.

Your eloquent breakdown of your interpretation of the Picasso quote is definitely how I view it as well. In fact, I agree with everything you wrote in the last four paragraphs. Mostly because you now actually seem to agree much more with the anti-Pizzolatto’s, instead of just throwing them and their arguments a big fat, “Meh.”

AleksAugust 10, 2014 7:46 AM

"I loved CITY ON FIRE, I got the poster framed in my house, so it's a great movie." - Quentin Tarantino, Film Threat, Issue 18, pg. 23.

"I've got the poster right here. That's Danny Lee. Ringo Lam is like my second, after Jackie Chan, third favorite of all the Hong Kong directors." - Quentin Tarantino, The Village Voice 10/25/94 No. 43, pg. 31.

Was "Reservoir Dogs," which seemed so powerful, so original, so shockingly new, stolen from a 1987 Chinese gangster film called "City on Fire," directed by heist specialist Ringo Lam? When I asked Tarantino about this issue in a phone interview some months back, his answer was straightforward. He said: "It's a really cool movie. It influenced me a lot. I got some stuff from it."

By Stephen Hunter, Baltimore Sun - April 14, 1995

Hiroaki JohnsonAugust 10, 2014 10:20 AM

Thanks, I even googled looking for QT quotes on City on Fire and nothing came back directly from him, just stuff like cracked.com or village voice articles about scenes lifted.

Todd HarringtonAugust 10, 2014 10:31 AM

Again, my "meh" wasn't in regards to Nic copying directly from Ligotti if that is what he did (and I'm not trying to prevaricate -- I just don't like stating it for a fact when the truth is I don't "know", although I believe he did).

My "meh" was really about the now-brief internet frenzy, on both sides of the argument.

Some people -- like Mike and Jon and yourself, I think -- really feel that Ligotti isn't getting his due and I TOTALLY respect that.

But most of the people who have weighed in on this in the past week -- myself included, to a certain extent -- are just jumping on a brief hot-button topic to add a "me, too" to their preferred chorus.

I'm more interested -- as Michael pointed out above -- in the more practical business consequences of these kerfuffles. Which, in this case, are few.

In my view TRUE DETECTIVE's most interesting facet seems to have been extensively informed by Thomas Ligotti's non-fiction writing without any real attribution except under duress.

But I can also acknowledge that Thomas Ligotti did not write eight hours of engaging television police procedural that garnered twelve Emmy nominations (which, unlike your supposition, I didn't overly like -- I thought it was good, not great).

What Nic seems to have done is a dick-move that turned his good writing into something that seemed extra-special.

But does that mean he can't write and doesn't deserve any recognition for his own (albeit, tainted) work?

I don't think so.

Most of the conversation has been zero-sum: "Nic is a hack, Ligotti's words the ONLY things worthwhile in TD!" or "It doesn't matter if he copied some words verbatim -- it didn't have an effect on the show as a whole."

I think the truth is in the middle: the Ligotti stuff is the most gripping writing in the work and should probably have been acknowledged in a better manner once they were called out on it; but the show is still a good show.

Screaming about one absolute or the other is what makes me go "meh".