HBO’s topical crime drama ‘The Night Of’ is more of a character study than a procedural
The new HBO crime drama “The Night Of” is a study in perspectives.
Created by acclaimed writers Steven Zaillian and Richard Price and starring John Turturro and Riz Ahmed, the New York-set show examines what happens when the 23-year-old son of a Pakistani-immigrant cab driver is tossed into the criminal justice system for a murder he may or may not have committed.
While not quite “Rashomon"-like, the eight-part series nonetheless explores how people of varying backgrounds view — and experience — the world differently. For Turturro’s Jack Stone, this means how a largely failed life as an ambulance-chasing defense lawyer defines him; for Riz’s Nas, it’s how his skin color and outer-borough status makes him an alien in his own city.
For the cops who arrest Nas, it’s the details of process and the system that color their lenses; for the inmates he must coexist with, it’s tribal and other affiliations that determine their fates.
With the series debuting Sunday, it seemed apt to follow the four principals’ involvement from each of their perspectives. Here’s how they lived “The Night Of.”
Price encountered Zaillian long before he met him. Called in to do a rewrite on Zaillian’s script for “American Gangster” a decade ago, the literary crime novelist (“Clockers,” “Lush Life”) remembers thinking the screenplay would be, well, bad.
“When you’re asked to do a rewrite as a script doctor, the stuff you have to work with is usually [garbage],” said Price, also a screenwriter (“The Color of Money,” “The Wire”). “And then I read it and thought, ‘This is good.’ The problem was it was too dense. There was too much that was good in it.”
Zaillian and Price’s union on this project, adapted from a BBC miniseries, involved its own challenges. For one, the original was just four hours long, while this is double that. (Price worked off a loose outline from Zaillian for the first four episodes; Zallian, who directed all eight episodes, took the writing lead on the last four.
Price also set out making the cabbie and his family Pakistani, in part because that’s a common nationality among drivers in New York, and in part because he had been to Lahore accompanying his wife, the novelist Lorraine Adams, on a research trip.
He also infused the tale with decades of knowing and living the criminal justice system, talking to such sources as an ex-con he’s been mentoring for more than 20 years.
The writer, who speaks with what might be called a salty sophistication, can be a tough critic. But the episodes surprised even him. “Except for Scorsese and a few episodes of ‘The Wire,’ I’m always disappointed in the final product of what I work on. This is one of the few things I’m not disappointed in.”
One reason might be the show’s pacing — it includes the kind of nitty-gritty details, especially those that involve waiting, that most procedurals remove.
“It’s a sleight of hand,” Price says. “The action is still happening at five times the speed it does in real life, but it feels like waiting.”
Directing a two-hour movie is hard enough. Zaillian, an Oscar winner who has written dozens of scripts ranging from “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” to “Schindler’s List,” has done it just three times. Helming what are essentially four movies back to back? That’s an epic task.
“I think it will be a year tomorrow,” Zaillian said with a mix of pride and resignation when met at a Manhattan post-production facility recently. (He joins an every-episode club to which few TV directors – Noah Hawley, Cary Fukunaga – belong.)
Part of why it’s taken so long is that Zaillian and Price had done as much work on the people as the plot, often going back and scrubbing details — Stone’s foibles, Riz’s slow-burn confidence in jail.
“I don’t think of it as a procedural. I think of it as a character study — a study of many characters, really,” Zaillian explained.
The long-form movie has been in vogue with several projects — “True Detective,” also a crime-series-as-Trojan-horse-for-larger-issues, is another. Both Zaillian and Price took their cues from “The Staircase,” Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s epic 2004 docuseries about the case of novelist Michael Peterson, and their show may thrive on the did-he-do-it mystery that previously made “Serial” and “Making of a Murderer” into phenomena.
As with film, the scripts for “Night Of” were also all completed before a single camera rolled, which gives the tautness that some network shows where writers invent as they go — ahem, “Lost” — don’t always have.
“Everything couldn’t just go off into a tangent. It had to work as a single story,” Zaillian said. “That,” he added, “takes a lot of experimentation.”
Turturro was close with James Gandolfini. So close that when producers reached out to him to star in the series that was once a Gandolfini passion project, he planned to decline.
“I remember thinking, ‘No, I can’t do this,’” Turturro recalled. The pilot was already shot, and Gandolfini appears in its final scene, walking through a precinct holding cell.
But as Turturro sat with the decision, matters jelled in a different way. He came to realize that starring in the show would honor his longtime pal, with whom he worked in 2005’s “Romance & Cigarettes,” rather than replace him. The pilot contained just one small scene, hardly a basis for turning down a show.
And he understood something else. “I think Jimmy would have wanted it.”
One reason both Turturro and Gandolfini were drawn to “The Night Of” is the utterly indefinable nature of the characters. Neither heroes nor antiheroes, they occupy a more tantalizing middle space. Stone, as a fundamentally good person who’s also an ethics-skirting hustler, most embodies this.
“They have so many sides,” said Turturro, who is starring in his first major TV role — and one of his first lead parts in a large-scale Hollywood production, period. “I just hadn’t seen that before — a show where you see everyone’s sides.”
The timing of the series given recent news involving police and the African American community — and felt acutely just this week with shootings in Baton Rouge, St. Paul and Dallas – couldn’t be sharper.
“It’s timing that’s good but unfortunate,” Turturro said. “You watch the show and realize all of the problems in the system.”
The Wembley section of London and the Jackson Heights area of Queens don’t, on paper, sound much like the same place.
But they’re alike in more ways than it might appear: neighborhoods where first- and second-generation immigrants, often Asian, make their home – neighborhoods in the shadow of some of the greatest wealth in the world, too far for its newcomers to reap its bounty but close enough to feel its pull.
Ahmed grew up in the first place. The 33-year-old, the son of Pakistani immigrants, was looking for his place to fit in, and break out, of a working-class English community that was nearly two-thirds Asian.
He attended an elite high-school on a scholarship and embarked on an acting career – as a terrorist in the suicide-bomb comedy “Four Lions” as an eager protégé in “Nightcrawler" – he also has a critical role in the upcoming “Jason Bourne.”
But when he was cast in “The Night Of,” he felt he’d come home. Ahmed was again playing the son of immigrants living in the shadows, hoping to do better than his parents. The actor set out exploring those Wembley counterparts – Asian communities in the U.S., such as Jackson Heights (nearly a quarter of the population) and nearby Elmhurst (almost half). “I hung out with those guys, who took me around, took me to the neighborhood, took me to a sweatshop, just getting out in it.”
Some of that authenticity came with a price, though.
The nearly five-year development process was followed by an intense shoot — Zaillian preferred many takes — over a long period that included a brutal New York winter.
“It was an endurance test,” Ahmed said, with a small laugh. “It did become like a family. But it was six months of very long days and nights. Who wants to spend that much time with family?”
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