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The long, dark process of creating HBO’s The Night Of

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For all of the well-deserved critical acclaim that HBO’s The Night Of has earned since its debut, the series’ birth was a troubled one. Its original leading man died suddenly and his initially announced replacement had to step out as a result of a scheduling conflict. Director Steve Zaillian (Searching For Bobby Fischer) and writer Richard Price (Clockers) sat down with The A.V. Club during the Television Critics Association press tour and discussed the process of finally bringing the project to fruition as well as some of their filmmaking and screenwriting methodologies.

The A.V. Club: How was the idea of doing an American adaptation of Criminal Justice originally pitched to you?


Steven Zaillian: It actually wasn’t pitched to me. It was shown to me. The British series, by Jane Tranter. And then it was shown to Richard. It’s as simple as that, in terms of how we started on it. And then Richard wrote the pilot.

AVC: How did you approach the process of adapting the series, insofar as making it its own entity without losing the key element of the original?


Richard Price: Well, the goal was twofold: to slow it down, and to think America, and then specifically New York. It’s like the anti-Law And Order. Let things unpack, really unpack, and give people a sense of time. The sense of waiting and expectation. Like, “What’s going to happen next to me? What’s going to happen next to me?”

AVC: It’s got an almost claustrophobic feel at times.

RP: [Gestures to Zaillain.] Talk to him.

SZ: Yeah, I guess it does, but—I mean, the things that interest me the most are the things I don’t know inside and out, because I can learn something when I’m doing them, and I’m seeing things for the first time. Like The Tombs [Manhattan Detention Complex]. I’d never been there before. I’ve been there since. I went before we shot there, and then we shot there, of course. I’d never been to an arraignment court before, which is out of this world. I mean, it’s like nothing you could never imagine, and it goes on 365 days a year. I’d never been to Rikers [Island, New York City’s jail complex]. So seeing all these things for the first time, I felt the same kind of awe, I guess you would say. “Oh, this is how it works! Oh, this is interesting! I didn’t know that!” And I think your viewer doesn’t know those things, either, so they’re seeing it in the same way.

RP: You’re seeing such a cornucopia of small realities and telling details. The struggle is what to leave out. I just feel like—well, with my books, I’ve always reported. In my novels, especially over the last 15 years. I mean, you go out there, and what you see to some extent inspires what you write, as opposed to preconceived notions.

SZ: And we have, for instance, a scene where Naz [Riz Ahmed] is taken to The Tombs for the first time. He’s brought in a van to The Tombs, he goes down the stairs to The Tombs, he gets searched, and he gets put in a cell. I think that was maybe half a page? It took us three days to shoot that, because the moments of what he went through were so important, the details of what happened.


RP: You go through all the stations of the cross. You can’t leave out three to eight.

AVC: Richard, you’ve been describing New York in your books for more than a few years at this point.


RP: Since [The Wanderers was released in] 1974.

AVC: As far writing about New York for TV, though, your last series—NYC 22—was on broadcast television. Was it nice to return to HBO? You’d worked with them before on The Wire.


RP: I just got micromanaged to death on CBS, and at some point very early on in the process, I just got burned out. I’m not a set rat. And with TV directors, it’s like, “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Lost.” I just felt powerless. I wanted it to be good, but it just got away from me. But with this, Steve just made something amazing. I mean, a script is just words on a page: Give it to 15 different directors, you’ll have 15 different scenes from the same half-page. Every time, it’s like playing roulette, but instead of betting on red or black, you’re betting on a number. And Steve just delivered. Insanely delivered.

AVC: So did Crisco pay for product placement in the series?

RP: The disco did, yeah.

AVC: No, Crisco.

RP: Yeah! The Crisco Disco! It was a place on the waterfront in New York in the ’70s. [Waves hand dismissively.] Never mind. Just a joke.


AVC: You’ve got a lot of different plates spinning during the show, and the eczema storyline is pretty key to the character of Jack Stone [John Turturro], but it definitely makes you squirm at times. Did you ever consider pulling back on that at all?

SZ: Pulling back on what?

AVC: On the eczema stuff.

SZ: Oh, no!

RP: He loved it.

SZ: I couldn’t get enough.

RP: I was like, “Are you serious? Another eczema scene?”

SZ: [Laughs.] It’s like I was saying before: when you start researching something, you start visiting places… The same thing happened with the eczema. Richard just came up with these great scenes.


RP: Eczema support groups, which I’m sure there are.

SZ: Absolutely! There’s got to be! And it is a problem that a lot of people suffer from—I think it’s something like 10 percent of the adult population in this country—and it bedevils them. And it bedevils this character and sets him apart in yet another way in his career. In his life!


AVC: It obviously took a while before you landed on John Turturro for the role, albeit through no fault of your own, but he really owns it. Did he have any hesitation about taking on the part?

SZ: I don’t know. You’d probably have to ask him about that. I mean, I’ve read that [James] Gandolfini was a friend of his, and that gave him pause, but then you realize that in some sense you’re doing a shout-out to a friend.


AVC: Did you have any hesitation about moving forward after Gandolfini died, or was it something that you felt like was still a must-do?

SZ: No, I mean, it was so sad and tragic when James died. I worked with him a number of times and considered him a friend, so it was certainly depressing and shocking when that happened. I can’t remember exactly where we were at in the process. We were certainly writing scripts during that period.


RP: I think I’d written maybe three scripts at that point. Everybody at HBO just got pancaked. I mean, everybody felt demoralized. So it lay dormant. And then Robert DeNiro was going to do it, so it was, like, “Okay, hurry up, hurry up, write more!” And then he opted to do a film, and it was, like, “Hurry up and wait, because he’s stepped down.” And then out of the blue… “John Turturro’s going to do it! Write, write, write, write!” But it was so much stop and start over a couple of years.

SZ: I always felt like the story was… [Hesitates.] I don’t want to say that it didn’t belong to them, but for the longest time it belonged to us. You know what I’m saying? It was our project. And the truth is that I had a short list of actors at the beginning, and John Turturro was on that list, and so was James Gandolfini. So for me, to consider John doing this was—I mean, I had already considered him doing it at the beginning! And in terms of rewriting for him, no, we didn’t rewrite anything for him.


AVC: In regards to having the lead character of the series being Muslim in your adaptation, you indicated that the reason was predominantly to hew closer to the reality of New York.

RP: Yeah, the idea of being a white kid whose father drives a Yellow Cab—it’s like, “Where did this guy come from?” [Laughs.] Well, if he’s white, then he has to be from Russia or Albania, because you’re not going to have any American-born Caucasian drivers in that job. I haven’t had an unaccented Caucasian cab driver in decades.


SZ: And I think that’s maybe one of the reasons why it works that the story goes the way it goes. [To Richard.] I mean, that’s exactly what you said to me originally when you were first talking about the pilot, and not anything beyond that. So everything beyond that—the family story, the parents, the partners, the community, and all those things—grew naturally out of that simple decision.

RP: It wasn’t, like, “Oh, good, now we can explore!” This is pre-ISIS. It’s post-9/11, but we weren’t thinking about Islamophobia. We were just trying to be real.


SZ: Yeah. It all came out of a decision to make something real.

AVC: Once Naz is in prison, at first it seems like he’s having to decide between the lady and the tiger, and then it seems like he’s having to decide between the tiger and the tiger.


RP: Who’s the lady? [Laughs.]

AVC: Calvin’s the lady, Freddy’s the tiger. Or at least that’s how it initially seems, anyway.


RP: Calvin? Oh, you mean Sticky Fingaz?

SZ: No, not Sticky. Ashley Thomas. [Laughs.] Hang on, we’ll sort this out.

RP: Who the hell is Ashley Thomas?

SZ: He plays Calvin.

RP: Who’s Calvin? [Laughs.] I can’t remember! Oh, wait, I remember. I’m sorry. I’ve seen all eight episodes, but they’re all a blur, so now I want to watch it like everybody else, which means I’m only watching it one fucking hour a week! So, wait, was the guy who played Calvin the guy who played the gay cop on The Shield?


SZ: No. I don’t think Ashley’s ever done anything here. He’s English.

RP: Oh, I confused him with the guy who played the gay cop on The Shield and then later got convicted of murdering his wife.


SZ: Yeah, I don’t think that was him. [Laughs.] No, Ashley’s an actor and a rapper in England. He’s great.

[As you’ve probably already realized, Price was thinking of Michael Jace.—ed.]

AVC: Even after countless numbers of prison scenes in various movies and TV series, The Night Of still manages to keep you guessing in terms of who’s the bad guy and who’s the good guy—if in fact either of them really qualify as the good guy.


SZ: Well, yeah, that’s in the writing, primarily. Also, it’s not an unusual decision, but to show everything from Naz’s point of view, he doesn’t know any more than you do. He’s walking into this situation having never been there before, so seeing everything from his point of view and deciding who to trust, who to not trust, all of those things are being made by someone who’s never been through any of this before.

AVC: The series also manages to do the unthinkable: It makes you dislike Glenne Headly.


RP: I once saw her in a play called Balm In Gilead. It was an off off-Broadway play down in the village. She delivered about a 40-minute monologue breathlessly, at speed, and it was like watching a Kenyan run a marathon in 13 minutes. I mean, it was unbelievable. It was like Ginger Baker doing a drum solo! [Laughs.]

AVC: Do you find it challenging to try and put a unique spin on things like jail scenes or court scenes, since they’ve been done so many times over the years?


SZ: I mean, for me, I’m not familiar with them. So that was probably a blessing. I didn’t know what things to try and avoid because they’d been done before, because I don’t watch those shows. I’ve never seen them.

RP: All I knew about Law And Order was [Gruffly.] “Is this a fishing expedition, Jack?” [Laughs.] You know, it’s all about the small stuff. Everybody knows the big tropes. It’s the small talk, the banter, the stolen observations. Like, you’re watching a band, and we’re paying attention to the spit valve on the French horn. Nobody’s really paying attention to that. There are all these little gifts. Everyone’s human, and everyone’s quirky, but that’s the texture. And that’s more important for this show, I think, than saying, “Here we are in court again.”


AVC: That actually comes back to Glenne Headly’s performance. There’s a moment where Naz asks Alison where her assistant is, and there’s a momentary look on Alison’s face—it doesn’t last more than a second or two—of utter obliviousness as to why he’d even ask. It’s a small moment, but it leaps out at you.

SZ: The truth of it, at least in my mind, is that she doesn’t even know who he’s talking about! [Laughs.] Because she was used for a purpose, and that purpose is done, so out of sight, out of mind!


AVC: You mentioned your lack of familiarity with jail and courtroom scenes. This is actually the first thing you’ve ever done for TV, right?

SZ: That’s right.

AVC: The network slogan is “It’s not TV, it’s HBO,” of course, but did it feel particularly different?


SZ: No. We shot it like a movie. We shot it like a nine-hour movie. We had a lot of department heads who had never worked on TV before. Richard hasn’t really had very much to do with TV. So in terms of approach, it was no different. I’ve never worked for a network, but it can’t be like that on a network show. So HBO really let it be what it was going to be, in terms of its length and in terms of the time we put into it. I was in the editing room for over a year. That’s very unusual for HBO. Usually they’re editing an episode while another one is airing. It’s this machine! And I just really couldn’t do that, because I needed to see the whole thing as one long piece.

RP: One thing about premium cable is that there’s no commercials, so you don’t have to come up with five artificial cliffhangers every 60 pages so people don’t change the channel. That’s a nightmare!


SZ: Yeah, there was a lot of freedom on where to call the end of the episodes. It wasn’t always as it is right now. Our first episode was an hour and 20 minutes! HBO said, “Fine: if that’s what it needs to be, that’s what it should be.” That’s great.

AVC: Was there anything they asked you to tone down or pull back on?

SZ: No!

RP: I’ve always heard from network TV, “Tone down the subtleties.” [Laughs.] “This character is way too complex for a budget this big!”


AVC: As far as the back half of the series goes, can you offer any sort of hint as to how things play out? Will it progress at the same general pace in terms of the speed at which it unfolds?

RP: What a sneaky question! [Laughs.] Nice try.

AVC: Fair enough. How about this, then? HBO released advance screeners of the first seven episodes of the series to critics, but they didn’t release the last episode. Was that their decision, or was that yours?


SZ: That was their decision. I don’t know anything about this, because I’ve never done television, so I don’t know what they usually do. I think I’ve found out since that sometimes they release half of them, sometimes they just do two episodes. There’s no rule to it. So that was their decision.

AVC: Presumably you’re pleased with the reception to the show thus far.

SZ: Oh, yeah.

RP: No. I absolutely hate all the great reviews. [Laughs.]

AVC: Hey, you never know: Sometimes they create more pressure. On that note, though, would you consider doing a second season of the series if the opportunity presented itself?


RP: Well, that’s a personal thing. Steve has his own thoughts about it, as do I. I’d say what I already said at some point, which is that the bar for quality has been set so high, and the texture and the tone has been so beautifully sustained, that if you can’t make something at least just as good, what’s the point? But if you can

SZ: Yeah, I feel the same way.

AVC: Lastly, Richard, you’re also working on HBO’s The Deuce, with David Simon and George Pelecanos. Where do things stand with that series at the moment?


RP: Well, they’re shooting episode five of eight right now. It’s… very interesting.

AVC: That tells me absolutely nothing. And yet I’m excited anyway.

RP: [Laughs.] Well, I hope you remain excited!