Film director Steve Zaillian moves to TV for HBO miniseries

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

Oscar-winning screenwriter and part-time director Steven Zaillian has delved into the crime world over his long Hollywood career, with screenplays for American Gangster, Gangs of New York and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

He embraces cops and criminals once more for The Night of, his atmospheric drama opening Sunday on HBO.

But there was a big difference this time.

“The end of two hours is, of course, usually where most movies end. And that was just the beginning — we’d go on to make what were essentially three more movies,” said Zaillian, who’s never been a key figure on a TV show before.

The filmmaker was in a postproduction facility, looking a little dinged as he was about to commemorate an auteur-ish one-year anniversary of editing the show.

“You can be in real time here in a way you never could be in a movie.”

His New York-set story revels in such naturalism while telling a tale of a 23-year-old Pakistani American Naz (Riz Ahmed) who is arrested on suspicion of killing a wealthy white woman.

Into the picture comes defense lawyer Jack Stone (John Turturro, in street-scrapper mode). Stone, who sees an opportunity and a good kid, is an ambulance-chaser with a basket of quirky traits.

Zaillian and novelist-screenwriter Richard Price (Freedomland) wrote and created the show, adapting it from Peter Moffat’s BBC series Criminal Justice.

At once rigorous and languidly paced, Night of wallows in the details — moments, like a humiliating DNA check of a suspect — that nearly every other TV procedural would skip.

“I know what has to be there because of the plot, but I’m interested in the scenes on either side,” Zaillian said. “The waiting around, cops wanting to go home because their shift is up, the kids whose lives will be altered completely because of these little things — that’s what makes it real.”

Originally conceived as a vehicle for James Gandolfini, still credited as a producer, the project stalled for more than a year after the Sopranos star died, with many principals thinking it a goner. HBO was unsure of how to move ahead or whether it wished to.

“The whole thing was abandoned because no one wanted to think about it,” Zaillian said.

At one point the network cast Robert De Niro, who fell out. Then executives decided they had their man in Turturro — and, equally important, that they were ready to undertake the series without its late star and champion. Zaillian reshot the brief Stone scene from the first episode with Turturro and went from there.

The Fresno, Calif., native wasn’t looking to dive into TV and was expecting to direct only the first episode, but he signed on for all eight and for co-writing duties.

In keeping with his diligent-screenwriter background, Zaillian traveled to many correctional facilities, including New York’s Rikers Island. He also chatted up an old contact, Richie Roberts, the detective-turned lawyer he came to know while basing Russell Crowe’s American Gangster character on him.

The real world details Zaillian observed and channeled into his storytelling could energize an audience accustomed to the genre’s humdrum stylizations.

Zaillian, who won a screenplay Oscar for Schindler’s List and was nominated for Awakenings, Moneyball and Gangs of New York, has had an uneven directing career with Searching for Bobby Fischer, A Civil Action and All the King’s Men. Television is a chance for him to experiment and showcase his skills in a way that the film world these days rarely allows for even its most reliable directors.

The result is an unusual television product (outside of True Detective and Fargo anyway), a series with a cohesive auteur feel. For Zaillian, that also meant a heavy workload and a certain brand of cinematic rigor.

“Steve is an absolute stickler. We would shoot the placing of a teacup 20 times,” Ahmed said in a separate interview. “There would even be moments when he would say to us, ‘I need to be stopped.’”

Zaillian smiled slightly. “Well, it was all done for a reason,” he said.

Whether the rigor pays off in substance as well as style remains to be seen. But the advantage of all this precision, Zaillian believes, is that the show can migrate from entertainment to social commentary.

The Night of is likely to tap into the debate about criminal justice for minorities, a subject the show’s quiet pauses give viewers time to contemplate.

“Richard and I aren’t interested in doing an expose. But we are interested in treating the story in as realistic a fashion as possible,” Zaillian said. “If you do that, you can’t help seeing the flaws in the system.”


‘The Night of’ premieres at 9 p.m. July 10 on HBO.