- Friday, Aug. 18, 2017
Steven Zaillian—whose writing earned four Oscar nominations, including a win for his Schindler’s List screenplay in 1994—has made an auspicious first foray into television as a writer, executive producer and director on The Night Of (HBO), which recently scored 13 Emmy nominations including for Outstanding Limited Series, two for Lead Actor (Riz Ahmed, John Turturro), two for Supporting Actor (Bill Camp, Michael Kenneth Williams), two for Directing for a Limited Series (James Marsh, Zaillian), and one apiece for Writing (Richard Price and Zaillian), Cinematography (Frederick Elmes, ASC) and Editing (Jay Cassidy).
Created by Zaillian and Price, The Night Of delves into the intricate story of a fictitious murder case in New York City. The series follows the police investigation and legal proceedings, all the while examining the criminal justice system and the purgatory of Rikers Island, where the accused—a Pakistani-American college student named Nasir ‘Naz’ Khan (portrayed by Ahmed)—awaits his trial. Naz’s lawyer is played by Turturro.
Zaillian and Price earned the Emmy nomination for Writing for a Limited Series on the strength of the episode titled “The Call of the Wild.” Zaillian’s directing nod came for “The Beach,” the first episode of The Night Of. Earlier this year, “The Beach” landed Zaillian a coveted DGA Award in the Miniseries category. Along the way, he, Price and others also collectively picked up a Producers Guild Award nomination for The Night Of.
In this week’s installment of SHOOT’s The Road To Emmy series of feature stories, editor Cassidy, an Emmy nominee for “The Beach,” said he was drawn to the pilot by the quality of its script and the opportunity to work for the first time with Zaillian whom he’s long admired.
That admiration was for a stellar filmography spanning directing, writing and producing. Zaillian’s other three alluded to Oscar nominations for writing were for Awakenings in 1991, Gangs of New York in 2003, and Moneyball in 2012.
SHOOT connected with Zaillian to get his reflections on The Night Of, his decision to work with Cassidy on the first episode (with editor Nick Houy cutting the other seven), and lessons learned from his experience on the HBO series.
SHOOT: Reflect a bit on what your first two career Emmy nominations mean to you personally and professionally.
Zaillian: I’m thrilled by all the nominations for The Night Of. We worked on this for a long time, never thinking about any nominations or awards. So many of our people wound up getting nominated—four of the actors, so many in the crew. They all worked really hard.
SHOOT: What was the biggest creative challenge that “The Beach” episode posed to you as a director?
Zaillian: The main challenge was establishing what this show was going to look and feel like—from the way it was shot to doing whatever we could to support the best performances possible. The first episode takes place in one day—mainly one night. The idea with Richard Price who wrote the pilot was to make it feel like it was all in real time. Viewers see every detail of that night as it happens. And we sense that every detail would come back into the story later on. The episode had to be shot in a way where every moment was important.
Robert Elswit, who was DP on that episode, embraced this idea as did the editors, Jay and Nick. The editors didn’t try to rush things. We needed the time to get inside the kid’s head (the character of Naz played by Ahmed). We want the viewer to feel what he experiences—what it’s like to be arrested, to wait around at the precinct. There was very little music, which also helped us to keep it as much of a real experience as possible.
SHOOT: You went with Jay Cassidy to edit the pilot. He’s best known for his work in features as are you. What caused you to gravitate to Cassidy.
Zaillian: I was aware of Jay because I knew Sean Penn and Jay worked with Sean a lot. [Cassidy garnered a Best Editing Oscar nomination for director/actor/writer Penn’s Into the Wild.]
As I was shooting “The Beach” episode, Jay was assembling it. He really respected the approach we talked about, taking the time to get into the characters’ heads. A lot of times an editor’s job is to make things happen fast or faster than they might otherwise. He, though, didn’t rush things. He did that on his own and I was very impressed. He had the scenes playing out the way they were shot. We see Naz waiting in that precinct. Other editors might have tried to hurry that along. But to me that’s what the story was about—those moments of waiting and dreading what will happen next.
SHOOT: What was the biggest creative challenge that “The Call of the Wild” episode posed to you as a writer?
Zaillian: I had never worked in television before. Richard [Price] had done a little bit on The Wire. I treated The Night Of as a feature film. I think most writers feel that they have the easiest time with the beginning and ending of a story. The hardest time is with the episodes in the middle, which included “The Call of the Wild.” We were conscious of the big picture, tying everything up in a way that felt organic and inevitable.
SHOOT: What was your biggest takeaway—the prime lesson or lessons learned—from your experience on The Night Of?
Zaillian: When I started out, I was only going to direct the pilot. I wound up directing all the episodes except one [“The Art of War” which earned Marsh an Emmy nomination]. I was shooting for 150 days. I learned that television can be a marathon. You have to pace yourself in order to make it through. At the same time I learned how to do things faster, hopefully without sacrificing anything. I can’t wait to do a 30-day shoot for a feature. A film will seem easy compared to this.
SHOOT: Do you see more television in your future?
Zaillian: Everyone does.