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The Night Of
John Turturro and Riz Ahmed star in The Night Of.
HBO

The Night Of's creators break down the mysteries of our newest summer TV obsession

“I sometimes feel like if I didn't [write movies and TV], I would love to be a detective.”

The Night Of has become the unexpected hit HBO needed. Not only is it performing surprisingly well in the ratings, building from week to week, but it’s proved a critical success as well. A remake of a British series named Criminal Justice that had spent almost a decade in development, the show is one of the few new TV success stories of the summer.

There’s a simple reason for that: It’s telling a compelling story.

In Nasir "Naz" Khan (played by the electrifying Riz Ahmed), the series has an instantly intriguing protagonist in a difficult situation. The young man either happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time — or actually did murder a young woman he met one night while driving his father’s cab.

And he’s surrounded by lots and lots of indelible characters, from his phlegmatic lawyer John Stone (John Turturro) to Freddy (Michael Kenneth Williams), a prison kingpin he befriends.

The Night Of works because, even though the show’s story is familiar, it’s evident that every single frame and moment has been pored over thoughtfully. There’s good reason for that: It boasts the talents of Steven Zaillian and Richard Price as its main director and writer.

Zaillian, an Oscar winner for his screenwriting work on Schindler’s List, has turned New York into a series of tall, looming shadows, while Price, an award-winning novelist and veteran of The Wire, gives every character a surprising inner life, no matter how minor their role in the story may seem.

I recently caught up with the two at the 2016 Television Critics Association summer press tour in Beverly Hills. We talked about the use and abuse of tropes in genre fiction, what the two changed from the original British series, and what they enjoy about mystery stories.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for content and clarity.

On the adaptation process: "You’re thinking, ‘What would New York do?’"

The Night Of
John Turturro stars in The Night Of.
HBO

Todd VanDerWerff

The Night Of features a really a great mix of the nitty-gritty of the US criminal justice system and then the more genre-friendly aspects of the mystery story or the whodunnit. How did you balance those two tones, keeping the more realistic stuff in there right next to, say, the parade of suspects or the clues to the murderer’s identity?

Steven Zaillian

You do have to honor the genre, so to speak, even if you're trying to examine it in such detail as maybe you've never seen it before, to really give you a feeling of what it is. But at the same time, [you need to] tell a good story. If you don't have that, then you can do everything else right, and nobody's going to care.

Richard Price

Everybody in their reviews are lumping us together with this new trend in unfolding real-life crime. This is a fiction, but when we were working on it, we weren't thinking about anything else. I had never heard Serial. We did watch [Sundance true crime documentary] The Staircase. But we weren't riding a wave.

Todd VanDerWerff

You start this story so small, then expand it and expand it, and by episode four or five, you’re balancing a whole bunch of different settings. What was the biggest challenge in juggling all of those things?

2016 Summer TCA Tour - Day 4
Steven Zaillian.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Steven Zaillian

At a certain point, you've got all of these things in the air, and you have to track each one of those stories and how they interrelate to each other.

I would say that the only way that I can do that is to spend a lot of time doing it. It's not something that just does itself, and there's no formula for it. It's just a matter of becoming so familiar with those stories that you start to have a sense of: we need to get back into this part of it, or that part of it.

Richard Price

If there's one word for that strategy, it's "meanwhile."

2016 Summer TCA Tour - Day 4
Richard Price.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

You have eight hours. I learned from novels that if you've got a long story and a long road, momentum comes from switching up. The characters in one element of a story are not aware of what's going on in the parallel.

Each rung is slightly above the other rung. When you go [from Naz] back to Stone, it's a little bit above. It gives you more information, then you go back to Naz, and it's a little bit above John Stone.

It's just momentum. It reflects, intuitively, the storytelling.

Todd VanDerWerff

As the show enters the trial phase of the story, we watch as Stone and Chandra start to find all these additional suspects. Do you enjoy the puzzle-solving aspects of constructing a whodunnit like that?

Steven Zaillian

Absolutely. I watch these real crime shows, Forensic Files and things. I can't get enough of them.

I sometimes feel like if I didn't do this, I would love to be a detective. Solving puzzles is what we do as writers, and it's what detectives do on a crime. For us to write about them following clues is great fun and it's challenging and it's satisfying. It's another way to keep everybody on their toes — second and third guessing.

Todd VanDerWerff

What were some of the biggest elements of the story you had to shift as you were adapting this from the British original to an American miniseries?

Steven Zaillian

Obviously the premise is the same. There are certain signposts, certain scenes. But everything around it is particular to [The Night Of], to the point where I have some trouble differentiating one from the other. If somebody says, "What exactly are the differences?" I can't even remember, because this has become its own thing.

We both liked the British series, but [The Night Of] became its own organic story after that first night of the crime.

For instance, that whole sequence, where [Naz] is dealing with the police is maybe five minutes in the original show. It's 45 minutes in ours.

Richard Price

Everything is five minutes in the original.

Steven Zaillian

We're interested in the details and behaviors of these people.

Richard Price

The big intimidating thing for me is watching Ben Whishaw [the star of the original]. He's such a trembling, white tadpole. But honestly, by the end of the pilot, I forgot all about Ben Whishaw. This is Naz's story.

Todd VanDerWerff

The Night Of also uses race, religion, and the melting pot of New York really well. Was it easy to graft that sort of thing onto the original?

Richard Price

It's New York. You're thinking, "What would New York do?" We made the kid a Pakistani Muslim. What's going to naturally follow from that?

We're in Rikers [Island jail]. In the original, it was a generic penitentiary I believe.

Steven Zaillian

All white.

Richard Price

Yeah, it was snow white. It was very stylized. This is the exact opposite, but there's no particular racial tension. Rikers is so iconic and if you look up the phrase, "abandon all hope, ye who enter here" in a dictionary or Roget's Thesaurus, there'll be a picture of Rikers.

Todd VanDerWerff

Even with all of its crime dramas, TV rarely goes into the prison setting. What was interesting to you about that world?

Richard Price

It was a very pivotal part of the original series. Of course you're going to go there, but you're going to do your own thing.

Steven Zaillian

Neither one of us went into this saying, "Oh, we want to do a story about this. We want to expose that. We want to show what Rikers is really all about." It all grew naturally from the premise. We're going to follow a case from the moment, the night of the arrest through to the end of the case. You're going to go to Rikers. There's no way to avoid it.

Richard Price

And then you talk to people that have been to Rikers. When they tell you the way they get tattoo ink is by melting chess pieces, how could you not use that? God is in the details.

On dealing with criticism: "What was dumb there? Running from a crime scene?"

The Night Of
Naz is pulled over by the cops after fleeing the crime scene.
HBO

Todd VanDerWerff

One thing that’s really drawn criticism — unfounded criticism, I think — is that in the first episode, Naz does a bunch of things that seem stupid to us because his actions seem to lack common sense. What did you think when you saw people saying he was acting so stupidly?

Steven Zaillian

When I saw the British series — and a lot of the premise and certain events in ours are similar to that — I was struck by how realistic it was. I could picture any young person doing that. Doing something stupid is falling for somebody and taking a pill and drinking?

Richard Price

I would have done anything to get laid.

Steven Zaillian

What was dumb there? Running from a crime scene? To me, everything that he's doing makes perfect sense.

Richard Price

People will say, "That doesn't make sense." That's because they're watching it in the comfort of their living rooms. If you wake up from an alcoholic, drugged half-coma and you see evidence of such abrupt and ghastly violence, I'm amazed that Steve didn't have him shit on the floor.

He's in a panic, he's in a state of shock. In the cold light of day, the things that he does might seem like, "Why on Earth did you do that?" But his brain is in shutdown mode. He's doing the things that a terrified person confronted with a bloody corpse [would do]. Your mind's just like white out. You grab, squeeze, do, run, kick, fight, fly. Anything goes.

Todd VanDerWerff

One of the fascinating things about this show is the way that the character of Andrea just becomes the victim. She’s a cipher — but in a way where it feels like you’re commenting on that trope, or interrogating it. Did you have a larger purpose of what you were doing with that character?

Richard Price

It was inherited from the original. I didn't think too much about it.

Then, I started reading [in reviews], "Once again, it's the anonymous dead girl trope." At the time, I didn't think anything about it. It was a murder, and if it was a guy in the bed, I don't think anybody would have said anything.

The thing is, you can anticipate criticism to the point where you're paralyzed. Sometimes, you're not aware of it until you did it. It's just what the story is. She is supposed to be a mystery. The point of her being a mystery is to look into her background and her life. But, at the end, she as a character is a mystery, and that's one of the things that has to unfold.

Steve Zaillian

She's part of the mystery, too. This was something that was so important to us. You normally go out and you shoot a pilot before you know whether they're going to do the show. But I knew that everything that was going to be shot on that first episode, was going to come back and be examined in great detail. Because it's a murder case, so everything that happens on that night, no matter how innocent it might look, or how subtle a moment is, is going to be reexamined. And so is she.

Richard Price

She's purposely a cipher in a way. "Who is this woman?"

Steven Zaillian

Just like [every other character]. I had half a mind to start this thing with Naz driving in a taxi cab, so you knew nothing about him. I feel you need to know about everybody by the end, not at the beginning, not at episode two, not at episode five. By the time it's over, you know everything you don't know.

Todd VanDerWerff

You’re talking about tropes, and "trope" has become kind of this bad word for a lot of critics. But especially in genres, we need some tropes to be able to tell these stories. Where do you find things like tropes and clichés useful, and where do they become problems?

Steven Zaillian

Honestly, it's all in how you treat it. Right?

Richard Price

Yeah, I mean, there's only so many ways to skin a cat. Especially in crime, some of these tropes are time-honored tropes. I mean, the archetype of noir detectives is he's a loner, possibly a World War II vet. He's got a bottle of rotgut whiskey in his lower drawer. Some dame comes in. But at the same time you honor the trope, you start foiling the expectations of the trope.

On a possible season two: "If you do something less than [season one], you're going to get your ass kicked"

The Night Of
Maybe Detective Box could come back in season two. Maybe not.
HBO

Todd VanDerWerff

Steven, your direction is really interested in architecture, and all these huge buildings looming over the characters. What drew you to depicting New York in such a way?

Steven Zaillian

I don't think I consciously thought about that. We found the most interesting locations that we could find and built the most interesting sets that we could build.

My guiding principle was to make it real as opposed to some sort of ultra-real or heightened reality. To shoot it, not in a documentary way, but in a way that was kind of beautiful and at the same time felt like something.

You could feel it — from the production designers to the DPs, to the actors and their own behavior, which also fits right into that. Their behavior had to befit the place and the situation that they were in.

Todd VanDerWerff

Richard, The Night Of has been described as novelistic in many reviews, but as someone who's written a number of great novels yourself, what do you miss about novels when you’re writing for the screen? And vice versa?

Richard Price

First of all, this thing about TV being the new novel, it's not. TV's television. It's visual. It's two-dimensional. Novels have the land of the interior. When you write a script, it's just stage directions. It's like Western Union, basically. Night, day. Here we are. There we are. Guy says this. A guy does that, cut.

What novels can give you that film can't is emotion, internal narrative. It's four-dimensional. It goes into the mind of the characters.

On the other hand, what film can give you is faces. In this, especially, where just to see Michael Williams or Riz [Ahmed] be scared — just their faces in certain situations wipe out 20 pages of exposition in a novel in a most eloquent way.

Todd VanDerWerff

The original series had a second installment. Are you at all interested in coming back for another go-round?

Steven Zaillian

My interest in doing this was because I was inspired by the idea of it. I would need to feel that again. I don't at this moment, because I just don't. It would have to be something that I felt was worthy of devoting that amount of time to.

Richard Price

Steve lived in this thing much more intensely than I did, on set, in the editing room, and locations and casting. I would think if you were to go back into something like this, you have to be ready to go back into that kind of immersion.

In terms of there ever being a second season, that depends on a number of things. Coming up with a compelling enough story because this season set a bar so high, in terms of subtlety and quality, that if you can't do that again, why bother? If you do something less than that, you're going to get your ass kicked.

The Night Of airs Sundays at 9 pm Eastern on HBO. Previous episodes are available on HBO Go. The finale airs Sunday, August 28.


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