Created by Steven Zaillian and Richard Price, the eight-part HBO limited series The Night Of delves into the intricacies of a complex murder case in New York City, examining the police investigation, legal proceedings and criminal justice system. When Pakistani-American college student Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed) takes his father’s taxi to a party in Manhattan, what starts out as a fun night with a beautiful young woman (Sofia Black-D’Elia) becomes a nightmare when he’s arrested for murder and finds himself at Rikers Island.
While at the HBO portion of the TCA Summer Press Tour, director Steven Zaillian and writer Richard Price, along with actors Riz Ahmed and Michael K. Williams (who plays fellow inmate Freddy), spoke with Collider for this exclusive interview about how this project came about, what attracted them to this material, why Naz’s guilt or innocence is ultimately the least important part of this story, exploring the quieter moments, and why all of the little details matter. Be aware that there are some spoilers.
Collider: What was it about this that attracted you? Was it a situation where you wanted to explore these types of themes and ideas, and this was just the right packaging for it, or was there something else that made you want to be a part of reimagining the original series?
STEVEN ZAILLIAN: We saw the original and, from the very beginning, we were like, “Let’s look at a case from the night of the arrest, all the way through to the end of the case.” I even outlined it with the arrest, the charge, the arraignment, the formal arraignment, etc. For me, it helped to look at it in great detail. We looked at each part of it in detail, including all the places that somebody would normally go. That was the overall architecture. But in terms of what makes it special, there’s a specificity that Richard [Price] brings to his writing, a level of detail that I wanted to bring to it, and actors that are fantastic.
As actors, when you read something like this, with such great writing and character detail, do you even care whether your character is innocent or not?
MICHAEL K. WILLIAMS: For me, in the beginning, that was the thing I cared about most. By the end of reading it, that was the thing I cared least about, not belittling the fact that this young lady was brutally murdered. She’s gone. We’re not going to get her back. It’s unfortunate that she lost her life so early. This kid is still here and was just not treated fairly, in a system that’s supposed to treat human beings fairly. You go in for one crime, and end up committing another one.
ZAILLIAN: Or maybe he’s guilty. You don’t know.
RIZ AHMED: In a way, his guilt or his innocence are incidental to the system that he goes through and is processed through, whether he did it or not. There’s a dehumanizing system that people are processed through, and that has its own flaws and inhumanities, regardless of whether you committed a crime or not.
RICHARD PRICE: In the ‘80s and ‘90s, there were certain hospitals in urban places where you could go in with a broken finger and come out with AIDS. Whatever you’d go in for, you’d come out doubled down with something else.
AHMED: If someone lost their mind and they killed a girl, does that mean that they are inherently a murderer and hardened criminal? They might be when they come out.
PRICE: What you’re seeing is a system under its best light. There aren’t terrible people doing terrible things unjustly to him, when we know that goes on. This is what it’s like, under the best of circumstances.
As a viewer, you really go back and forth with wondering whether or not we should be rooting for any of these people. Did you ever think about making these characters sympathetic, or was that not a concern?
AHMED: I find it confusing to step outside of the character and try to guess how audiences might react or process something. I don’t think you can really control how people interpret things. If you try to do that, it takes you out of the scene, a little bit.
WILLIAMS: Out of everyone on this show, Naz is the first person who touches the human heart.
AHMED: He’s an outsider to the system, so in a lot of ways, he’s the audience’s perspective and point of view on that.
WILLIAMS: Everyone watching is like, “This fucking poor kid!” It becomes less and less about this girl who was brutally murdered, unfortunately, because everyone is like, “This poor kid!”
AHMED: For me, I just try not to get too ahead of things. If you can try to limit your thoughts to what the character might be thinking, that’s a good way to go, I think.
WILLIAMS: If you’re in it, yet. But for those of us watching you, you just think, “This poor kid!” The first episode gave me anxiety because I couldn’t breathe. There were so many things he did where I was like, “No!” I was freaking out.
ZAILLIAN: Everybody was screaming at the screen. It’s like watching a horror movie.
WILLIAMS: I don’t know if it’s his performance or just the scenario, or a combination of both, but Naz immediately pulls at the heartstrings. You see the goodness in this kid. You see that he made a bad mistake. We don’t know if the bad mistake was just going out for a night of fun or actually committing a murder, which is unfortunate. It’s just fucked.
ZAILLIAN: A mistake is when you leave your house with the car keys instead of the house keys, and then you can’t get back in. Killing people is not really a mistake. That’s a defense lawyer’s word.
How nice is it to be a part of a project at a network that allows you to explore the quiet moments and just let the characters be?
WILLIAMS: [Riz] was the master of that. Naz had very little to say, but you constantly saw his brain moving and growing and responding to all the different variations of manipulation he was getting, including from Freddy. He couldn’t see it because he was in it, but I watched him and he was like a baby. It was brand new territory for him, and that was really refreshing to watch. I love the quiet and silent moments. That’s where the manipulation is. And then, Steve Zaillian would come in and say, “There’s too much sweat on this glass.”
AHMED: As you can see in the way it’s shot, there’s a great eye for detail. He’s uncompromising in his vision. There’s a level of detail that he applies to how he shoots things. I think he did envisage there being a lot of quiet moments in it.
ZAILLIAN: I love good dialogue, but I also like no dialogue. I like visual storytelling. Richard has said that in a novel, you can describe their inner life. With film, you have to see it through their eyes, and in order to do that, sometimes you have to spend time looking at it. When I’m talking about sweat on a glass, it’s not that I’m concerned about that. I’m concerned I’m going to be distracted by that and it’s not going to let me watch through his eyes. I want to make sure everything else is right, so the thing that’s important is being focused on.
WILLIAMS: He’s definitely a perfectionist. It was a long time ago, in 2012, but I still remember doing those scenes [in the first episode], with [Riz] sitting in the back of the police car, and having long conversations about what was going through his head, in that moment, and we shot a lot of film. Not only does he have to be in his head, but I have to be in his head, too. We’re both occupying the same space and trying to come to grips with it or come to some sort of understanding of it.
AHMED: I remember when we sat down, at the beginning, before we started to shoot, [Steve] said, “I want to shoot the scenes between the scenes you normally see.” That’s the sense you get from this. It’s the scenes you wouldn’t have in Law & Order.
ZAILLIAN: You have to have the plot scenes, obviously, but when you have the opportunity to show the scenes on either side of the plot, sometimes that becomes the most interesting thing. There are a lot of scenes, in the early episodes, of people waiting for the thing to happen because that’s what you do. When you go to a police station, you wait. When you’re going to get interrogated, the scene doesn’t start with the interrogation. It starts with him dreading the interrogation. We’re there for a minute or two, just with [Naz]. Those are the things that I always want to see.
PRICE: The one thing that never gets addressed about the experience of being caught in the justice system is the interminableness. The trick is how to capture the interminableness without being interminable, yourself. It’s like a heightened reality. It’s dead time when your mind is anything but dead. Anybody who’s been involved with the justice system feels like it will never end. Every station of the cross feels like a millennium.
The dynamic between Naz and Freddy is so interesting to watch because it’s so complex and so layered, and you’re never sure what’s going to happen next between them.
AHMED: There’s a weird thing that happens on film sets where you try to control things and create dynamics, but ultimately, it’s almost subconscious. The dynamic on set reflects the one that’s in the script, or it needs to, in some way, so it just starts happening. I’m new to shooting for eight months. I’ve never done a series before. [Michael] is the master of that. There’s a level of comfort that he had, in that environment, that I didn’t because it was all new to me. I felt like Michael did take me under his wing, as an actor. It was really interesting the way that those dynamics got reflected. Riz, the actor, was like, “What the fuck? I’m used to doing a three-week shoot. How the fuck do I sustain this? I don’t know if I’m keeping it together.” And Michael was like, “It’s okay. You’ve got this.” I was watching him in scenes and learning. I felt like I grew, as an actor, working with him, the same way that Naz grows. I found that interesting.
Steven, is it exciting, as a director, to have so many hours to tell a story?
ZAILLIAN: Yeah, absolutely. I didn’t know anything about it, so I didn’t think, “Oh, this gives us an opportunity to do this.” It certainly started in the writing. It had its own pace. And then, I thought of it as one long film, as opposed to a 10-part episode. This has a beginning, middle and end. It’s structure is a classic three-act structure. To be able to have that kind of time seeing the behavior of these people and what they’re going through and getting a sense of their lives was something that was great. It was a great opportunity. But, I always approached it as if it was a film. It was not, “Oh, this is TV.” It felt like a long film, and that’s how it was paced. It’s a strange thing. When we were working on it in the editing room, if we were going to look through it to see it as a whole, we would watch the whole thing. It was like a long movie. I didn’t really think, “Oh, but that’s not how people are going to be watching it. There’s going to be a week between each one that they watch.” Not that we would have done anything any differently. It wasn’t about cutting out anything between the episodes. It just continued on.
The Night Of airs on Sunday nights on HBO.