"This is the anti-Christ of 'Law & Order'": Stars and creators of "The Night Of" weigh in on the making of HBO's engrossing crime drama

Salon goes inside the series with Riz Ahmed, Michael K. Williams and writers Richard Price and Steven Zaillian

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published August 18, 2016 4:50PM (EDT)

Riz Ahmed and Michael Kenneth Williams in "The Night Of"   (HBO)
Riz Ahmed and Michael Kenneth Williams in "The Night Of" (HBO)

Since its on-air debut in July, HBO’s “The Night Of” has become one of the summer’s most passionately discussed dramas. Heralded as an example that the premium cable channel can still deliver engrossing, challenging storytelling, the eight-part limited series has taken viewers into the labyrinth of a murder case steeped in racial and political undertones through the eyes of its prime suspect, Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed) and his low-rent attorney Jack Stone (John Turturro).

As the series heads toward its penultimate episode, Naz has sharply transformed from a wide-eyed kid into a tragic figure made feral by the vicious culture inside Rikers’ Island, where he benefits from the protection of the jail’s top dog Freddy (Michael K.Williams).

“The Night Of” isn’t a perfect drama; following the first episode, a number of people were baffled by the notion that an intelligent young man like Naz could have made so many idiotic mistakes on the hazy, drug-addled evening in question. Of greater interest, however, is the show's veneer of staggering realism and its sense of timeliness.

As "The Night Of" explores the ramifications of race, ethnicity and class upon perceptions of guilt or innocence within our justice system, viewers may get the sense that this series was influenced by recent national news headlines. In reality, “The Night Of,”  a creation of writers Richard Price and Steven Zaillian, who also directed seven episodes, has been in the works for seven years. It also is based on the BBC drama “Criminal Justice.”

Salon recently sat down with Zaillian, Price, Ahmed and Williams to discuss how a drama that so accurately dissects some of today’s most pressing and difficult social issues actually came to be developed a better part of a decade ago — and how, according to Price, it is “the anti-Christ” of ‘Law & Order.’” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This series arrived at a really interesting time, because it talks a lot about what it's like to be an outsider, both from Stone's perspective and Naz's. I'm curious to hear what feedback you guys have gotten, or if you've heard anything about how viewers have reacted to it.

Steven Zaillian: I just read a bunch of great reviews. In terms of the timing of when it arrived…what people don't realize is we've been at this for close to a decade. What that says is, this is not something brand new. This is something that is maybe getting, is now becoming part of the news, but this has been going on for a long time. The stuff that we were talking to people about and basing this upon was going on when we started.

Richard Price: What specifically are you referring to, in terms of timing? Are you referring to Black Lives Matter?

I'm referring to Black Lives Matter. I'm referring to the choice of having Naz's character be Muslim. I'm referring to this whole idea of the outsider facing the establishment, in terms of both Stone’s work with Naz, and Stone navigating the legal system given his lower professional status. There's a lot going on in the series that inadvertently reflects what's going on in American culture right now, at this moment.

Price: These issues were in the works for a very long time. Black Lives Matter, maybe about four hundred years? Police brutality, the police as occupying army in poor neighborhoods, Islamophobia since way before 9/11. Whatever you write, if it's realistic, it's automatically going to touch on stuff that's everywhere. When you make things up, you can't escape that, unless you're writing science fiction.

Michael K. Williams: From my perspective, I just look at it like, "The Night Of" has become a voice. It's becoming a voice for people who have been railroaded in the judicial system, or who have been slighted because they didn't have the finances to pay for a high-powered lawyer. The slim pickings was a lawyer like the character that John Turturro's playing, which… happened with my nephew's real life.

... You can't buy this type of timing. These topics [were] an issue ten years ago, and unfortunately it seems to be an even stronger issue now with ... What's different, ten years to what's happening now, is that the chickens have come home to roost. You're seeing now, with these police getting killed now, this is gotten way out of hand. What do you do? When people, when a people — and it's not about a race, for me it's more about class — when you keep oppressing a class of people, and generalizing a race of peoples, it's only but so long before that retaliation's going to arouse. This time, and this injustice is a huge part of that, a huge part of that.

When this project first began, though, did you guys feel as if you were writing about stories that were not “top of the headlines?”

Price: I just feel like it's what I always have written about. Unless you're writing about being vaguely unhappy in Connecticut, it's really hard to write about the city and not [include] an examination of social justice. How could you not? Especially if you're writing about the underdog. "Underdog" equals the issue of social justice, inequity, like Michael said. Those who have money have lawyers. Those who don't, well… “Bye.” It's ubiquitous. The subject begs to address social justice.

Riz Ahmed: I would also say that I think it's interesting that certain projects get tagged with a label of "political," or being socially conscious, and other ones don't. All art is political. All stories have a point of view on the world. You got a perspective on the world, that's politics… Who you focus on itself is a political decision, so then that carries a certain kind of resonance. I just think it's interesting that certain projects get tagged as, "Oh, that's political," when maybe just because they focus on the underdog, they're challenging the status quo just in doing that.

Let’s talk about your portrayal of Naz for a moment, Riz. Watching you in these episodes, one can really sense Naz’s fear and fragility, and you’ve made his decline feel poignant and real.

Ahmed: That’s very kind of you to say, but.. I'm not just trying to be humble here, but that is really down to the world and the set that Steve created. What don't you see is all the takes I did that suck. Straight up. Behind any performance someone says is a great performance is a great editor, and a great director filtering that.

Williams: And the writer. It all begins with the writer.

Ahmed: He was really orchestrating the whole thing … He had that attention to detail that meant he was really reining in the performance, finding the realism in it, finding these little moments, and that was affecting on the set, down to the extras that we cast, which added a huge amount. The extras at Rikers, [to Williams] I know you know some of them, right?

Williams: Yeah, a few of, actually, it's the prisoners. I know a few of them.

Zaillian:  It's a fictional story, but we're going to treat it as if it really happened. We're not doing something where we say, "Okay, we want to go tell a story about Rikers and what's wrong with Rikers," or, "We want to say what's wrong with the justice system." We let the characters take us to these places. Meaning, when [Richard was] saying, "Well, he should be Pakistani, the son of Pakistani immigrants," that wasn't said so we could go to Jackson Heights and examine Jackson Heights. That was said by a realistic impulse which then opened up that possibility.

If I recall, one of the first reviews called it “a great 'Law & Order' episode." Richard, I think was it you who said, "This is not a 'Law & Order' episode."

Price: This is the anti-Christ of "Law & Order." "Law & Order" is the anti-Christ of this.

Can you explain what you mean by that? I can see how some would see this as a premium cable examination of the police procedural genre.

Price: Everyone is trying to find labels for everything. Toni Morrison was asked, "Do you want to be known as a great American writer, or a great African-American writer?" She said, "Depends on what day of the week it is and who I'm talking to." At the time you're doing it, you're not thinking about, "Where do we fit in? What slot do we fit into?" When it's all done, the reviewers will say, in their opinion, where this fits in, or if this doesn't fit in anywhere, which is the best possible thing they could say. They will say, "Well, it's a police procedural," or, "It's a variation on 'Law and Order,'" or, "Oh, there's a new trend regarding 'Serial' and 'American Crime.’  Nope. It's not like that. It's not like we studied anything.

Michael, earlier you said that you based your character, Freddy, on the experiences of one of your family members.

Willliams: Of my nephew.


Williams: If I went to jail — or God forbid, prison — I would probably be some version of Naz. Maybe just not as educated as he was.

I know my nephew has a heart like Freddy does. He has that type of temperament to take care of anybody. My nephew was always like that, took care of people when he was a kid. I just imagined, and what started happening is, that's where the affection, Freddy's affection for Naz, came from. In my mind, I was seeing myself and my nephew, so it was instant affection.

Then I started seeing what it must be like, what my family has dealt with. I have a cousin who spent 27 years in prison, who just came home. My nephew's still in prison. Both of them went in for murder. This show, if nothing else, gave me a glimpse into what they deal with on a daily basis. I wrapped ... How long was this shoot?

Zaillian: 150 days.

Williams: Yeah, 150 days of this shoot, I was clinically depressed. It was so fucking dark. It was so dark and so real. That was 150 days. I needed a warm, fuzzy hug. Here people do this for the rest of their lives, for years.

Zaillian: By the way, I saw none of that on the set. You never talked about this. I never heard anything about your nephew or any of that.

Williams: No, I was in the zone. I was for sure in the zone. What we talked about today, something as simple as my ride to work, coming from Brooklyn, the route they take, that's the route you go when you visit your family upstate. We call it "up north." When you go to prison, all our prisons in New York are up north. We go, "Oh, they sent him up north…" The ride to work set the tone for me. When you get there, the base camp looked like the yard. The set was a prison.

The other set was the men's detention center in Queens. We were in a real jail. ... The pain that permeates out of the walls, it's like... The bathroom scene? I can't give it away, but there was a scene in the bathroom, a shower scene ... That's a real bathroom. That wasn't built. You can feel that some of these things probably really happened here once upon a time. You can't fake that. That does something to you.

Riz, how did the shoot emotionally affect you?

Ahmed: It was quite tough, actually, man. Just using the script as a jumping off point, I spoke to a lot of people who have been through the system. Those stories, they stay with you, man. When people open up to you and share their stories, you feel a sense of real responsibility. I felt like I was, at least in my own mind, I felt like I was carrying that with me a little bit… You don't want to disappoint them, in a way. You know what I mean?

One last question, about the possibility of season two. I know that the second season of "Criminal Justice" explores a totally different case.

Zaillian: I never saw season two.

Price: I never saw it either.

My question is, if there is a season two, would you go ahead with a completely different case or continue this story?

Price: The problem with a season two, or the demand on a season two, is that it would be as good as, if not better than, season one… I have a good notion for something for season two, but HBO is involved, whatever's going to happen with HBO is in terms of how they're going to prioritize shows. Right now, there's a wish for season two, but the bar is very high.

Zaillian: I think the same way this story grew out of this simple decision that [Richard] made, to make this character Pakistani, which really informed the entire show, the second season will have to be informed by something, too. It has to be something that we all feel is worth doing. If it's not, then none of us will do it.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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