This is the Crime Story Podcast with Kary Antholis where we have conversations about how and why narratives of crime and justice are told.

Today’s podcast is a conversation with Steve Zaillian. Steve won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for Schindler’s List and won a Directors Guild Award for his miniseries The Night Of.

The conversation was recorded as part of a series of classes that I taught at The University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Each week I would host an artist for a discussion that would help us better understand the values and aims of storytellers in the world of crime and justice.

I got to know Steve working as the HBO executive overseeing The Night Of. Steve served as showrunner, executive producer, director, and co-writer of that series. My experience working with him on The Night Of was a significant inspiration in creating crimestory.com and this podcast.

And with all that said, here is my conversation with Steve Zaillian.

Kary:

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming Steve Zaillian. Let’s start by asking you to tell us where you’re from, and what were some of the significant steps in your path to becoming a filmmaker?

Steve Zaillian:

I was raised in the San Fernando Valley basically. I went to college up in Northern California at Sonoma State then San Francisco State. That’s really where I started to get interested in film. I always liked photography, but I was considering things like architecture, which I also liked. I fell into some art department classes that were teaching history of film. I had never seen any of these films, most of them were foreign films. It kind of opened my eyes to something that I knew nothing about, and that’s really where I started to think, “Well, maybe there’s something for me to do in this world.”

Steve Zaillian:

Once I got out of school, the first jobs I got was as an assistant editor, so I started editing, and I thought, “I can do this for the rest of my life. I really like it.” And then the writing came. Maybe when I was 26 or 27 I started writing really just to write something that me and my friends could try to make, and then sold one of them. It wasn’t the first one, but I sold one of them, and got another job, and got another job, and that was it.

Kary:

Can you tell us some of the writers, thinkers, artists, and/or experiences that have had profound impact on you, especially in your youth in terms of your aesthetics, and your world view and your values as an artist and as a person?

Steve Zaillian:

As a kid, I can’t really think of anything. I was just a normal kid who liked baseball. I do remember going to a film that my father took me to that stayed with me unlike a lot of the other films that I chose to go see, and that was In Cold Blood, and I was probably about 13. That had a profound effect on me.

Kary:

We started this class watching In Cold Blood.

Steve Zaillian:

Really? Well, there you go. It’s a perfect bookend.

Kary:

Truth be told, the idea for this class came out of my working with Steve on The Night Of, and the impact that In Cold Blood had on me as a watershed moment of how a crime film could be not who done it but actually have the elements of art, of novels. Can you articulate why that film had an impact on you?

Steve Zaillian:

I don’t think it did consciously. I know I didn’t see it and start thinking about what they were doing in that film. I think what I took from it in later years, and maybe it kind of seeped into me, was that at times it felt like a documentary. At other times it felt like poetry. At other times it felt like stark horrible realism. That combination I think had an effect on me. The great Conrad Hall shot that, and I saw he’s got a chair here on the plaque. When I actually directed my first film he shot it. I couldn’t believe he agreed to do it, but the fact that this one film that he had shot back in the ’60s, which had such a big effect on me now we were working together, is amazing.

Kary:

Were there other novels, works of art, things as you started to study Sonoma that impacted you?

Steve Zaillian:

Yeah. Again, the first classes I took were film history classes, and the films I responded to the most were neo-realist films like Bicycle Thieves, and the French New Wave films, and then a little bit later in the ’70s it was the ’70s films. That was the trajectory for me. I actually see similarities in all those things. I don’t think I consciously try to make a film like that, but I think that it did have a big influence on me, all those. I mean, 400 Blows — I think I’ve seen more than any other film.

Kary:

What was it about that film that captivated you?

Steve Zaillian:

I think it was the same thing. It was just realism and a story that was that powerful about the emotions of a kid. I don’t think I’d ever seen anybody make a film like that before. I think probably nobody had where that much care went into the portrayal of a kid who’s, what, 10 or 12-years-old or something, and it was just gorgeous.

Kary:

You’ve had the opportunity to work with some of our great directors and producers. Tell us about collaborating as a writer with a director or a producer and some of the experiences that you’ve had that have affected you as an artist, as a writer and as a director.

Steve Zaillian:

I’ve been really lucky. I’ve worked with some of the greatest directors and some not as great, but I would say what all the great ones have in common is that they do consider a script as something that’s not just a blueprint. They are responding to it the way any reader should, and then bringing themselves in some kind of point view on a technique to making that script as good as it can be. I worked on Schindler’s List for a while. Scorsese was the first director who was on it, and we worked together for a while, and then Steven got involved in it.

Steve Zaillian:

I wasn’t there much when they were shooting it, but when I saw it I was stunned that he was looking at scenes… I had seen these scenes in my head, and he was seeing them in a different way, but it was a really interesting way. The thing that I felt probably most profoundly on that film from a directorial standpoint was that he had a visual approach to every scene. As a writer, you know what the key line is in a scene, and you know everything else is just trying to get into and out of that line. You know what the point of the scene is. Some directors don’t. It’s just a scene. They’re not quite sure where the focus is. He was sure where the focus was and also could find a visual way of telling that scene I think in a way that highlighted that.

Kary:

I was fascinated to learn in the middle of our working relationship that you started as a film editor. It illuminated for me how you write. Can you talk a little bit about how starting as a film editor impacted the way that you write and the way that you direct?

Steve Zaillian:

Yeah, I guess. I think just learning how to do it opened up a way of seeing things. I worked on horrible films, so if you look them up, don’t be shocked. They were bad, but the bad ones still have to be edited, and they still have the same problems as good films. I did learn how to put a scene together. I think from a writing standpoint I learned that these films that I was editing I could basically throw away the first 10 or 15 minutes of it and start later because people have a tendency to set things up.

Steve Zaillian:

If you look at The Night Of, there were maybe five pages before he gets in that cab and the plot starts. There was some talk — and we had this conversation at one point — that maybe it should start with him in the cab pulling over. It’s a great idea. I didn’t quite have the nerve to do that, but that instinct was right, and that’s something that I think I learned editing these films and something that I definitely do in my writing.

Kary:

Tell us about making the transition to directing in Searching for Bobby Fischer, and why did you want to do it, and then why have you directed so infrequently over the 25 intervening years?

Steve Zaillian:

I look back on that and think, “Why did I do that?” Bobby Fischer came along at a time when my kids — one of them was eight. Well, I guess when I started writing it he was probably seven, and the other one was three and a half. I was in that world. Not the world of chess but in the world of parenting, which is really what that film is about. I responded to the material, wrote the script, and really felt that I knew it better than somebody else could personally and because I had written the script. Scott Rudin was the producer, and he said sure, and the studio said okay, and so I did it.

Steve  Zaillian:

But I was probably bringing to it a lot of the things that we talked about earlier about these other films that I had seen — certainly 400 Blows — to the point that I was casting a kid who had never acted before. In fact, all the kids had not acted before and trying to approach it in a kind of … To me, it’s a documentary and at the same time, as Conrad would say, a kind of magic realism. That’s how he approached photography too, which was basically, “Okay, it’s artificial. There’s a script that’s been written, and you’ve hired these people, and there’s a crew standing around, but you’re trying to make it look real.”

Steve Zaillian:

With him just with his photography, “Okay, I have a light in this room, and it’s going to seem like that light is illuminating this room, but it’s not.” There’s all these other lights around that you can’t see. We were from a story standpoint, and a lighting standpoint, and a camera standpoint we were completely in sync. I think they work together in that film.

Kary:

After we watched In Cold Blood, we talked a bit about that fantastic scene where Robert Blake’s character is telling the story of his relationship with his father, and there’s rain coming down on the glass. The shadows of the glass are forming kind of tears on his face, and that is the classic example of magic realism.

Steve Zaillian:

Yeah, definitely. We have a shot. Conrad did a shot like that in Bobby Fischer where it’s not coming down the face, but it’s there. It’s coming down the walls of the room.

Kary:

Before we zero in on The Night Of, in the course of your career, the film business and screenwriting for the film business has changed dramatically. Can you just give us a sense of where it is today, how you as a veteran screenwriter see the world of film and television, and how that’s evolved since your early days as a screenwriter?

Steve Zaillian:

I don’t know what the numbers are, but let’s say a studio is making, I don’t know, 50 films back in the ’60s and ’70s a year. Now they’re making three. That’s the stark reality. Luckily, television has taken over. I think that this is a natural progression. I think cable came into being because network got stale. There was this new form, which was cable television, and then as the film businesses waned, television has taken over. From a writing standpoint I’m sure. Again, I haven’t seen the numbers, but I’m sure there are more writers working today than there were back in the glory days of film.

Kary:

Before the class started I showed a one-minute trailer of Criminal Justice, the BBC miniseries, which gave folks a sense of some of the elements that were borrowed from that, but can you give us a brief history of how the show came to be made?

Steve  Zaillian:

Well, the brief history is that Jane Tranter sent me Criminal Justice. I think it was four parts, maybe five parts, with this idea of doing an American version of it. I liked it a lot. I was at the beginning a little bit intimidated because I think it’s always better to remake something that’s bad rather than something that’s pretty good. Peter Moffat had written it, and he’s a good writer. But when we started in earnest, I knew I couldn’t write them all. It takes me a year to write a feature script, so I talked to Richard Price who I had never worked with before but had always admired.

Kary:

Have you ever worked with another writer before?

Steve  Zaillian:

No, I had worked with friends before but not like a collaboration like this became. Richard — he’s a great writer. We really went into it innocently, meaning you have to make a pilot. Really, it’s like you just have to make a short movie. It’s 60 minutes. If it doesn’t work, hopefully you had a good time making it and so on. Also, all the glory really comes from making the pilot whether you’re a writer or a director. The idea of either one of us doing the whole thing didn’t really enter our minds, but he wrote the pilot, and I directed the pilot, and then we started talking about, “Okay, now what?” He said, “Well, I’ll do another one, but that’s it.”

Steve Zaillian:

It was kind of insidious. He got into it, and I got into it. He ended up doing them all, and then when I started directing them, the same exact thing happened. I said, “I’ll do the first one. Well, maybe I’ll do the second one. Well, I’ll do the third one, and then all the characters will be established, and somebody else can take over.”

Kary:

We hired a couple of directors. They drifted away.

Steve Zaillian:

I think it was the same feeling that I had with Bobby Fischer. Before the thing is written and I’m really immersed in it, whether it’s writing or directing, I keep thinking somebody else can do a better job with this, and then there’s a tipping point where I think, “Well, wait a minute, I’m so deep into this now. I think actually I can probably do a better job.” It’s just a matter of convincing yourself honestly.

Kary:

This was intensely researched, and a lot of choices had to be made in adapting it for an American audience to an American milieu. How did you come to settle on setting it in New York, and what were the key choices made? And then tell us a bit about the kinds of research that you did in diving into it.

Steve  Zaillian:

Before Richard was involved in it, and there was a point where I was perhaps going to write the pilot, I imagined it in L.A. because that’s what I know. I didn’t know New York that well. When Richard got involved, he won’t write about anything else. He writes about New York. That’s his thing. In terms of the character, which became such a huge choice but at the time didn’t seem like it, was to make this main character a Pakistani American because that’s what he would be. If you’re a cab driver in New York, you’re an immigrant or the son of an immigrant.

Kary:

Just for purposes of those who haven’t seen the original film, the kid was the son of a London cab driver, so most cab drivers in the UK are Caucasian, and when they transplanted it to New York, the question was asked, “Well, who would a cab driver be?” Who would you want to get?

Steve Zaillian:

That was such a simple decision in one regard. We’re just trying to be real, and then it would start to inform other scenes, and then we started getting into the family, and into the community, and into all these other aspects of it, but I think that when you start with the reality of it and let it grow from there it’s a lot better than trying to impose some kind of point of view or some kind of an issue that you want to deal with. We weren’t setting out to deal with any issues, and actually ended up doing that.

Steve Zaillian:

That pretty much was the same for every aspect of the show. When you think about the rather lengthy scenes and descriptions of what he goes through in the police station, in the tombs and finally at Rikers, that was just our attempt to show what we had seen in these places, and that was it.

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Kary:

Tell us a bit about the cat. The eczema that the John Stone character has is a slight remnant from the British miniseries, but you really ran with it. I think one of the magical additions that you brought to this was his relationship with the cat.

Steve Zaillian:

They’re very similar, and they’re also similar to what we were talking about in terms of letting something lead you to another place. In the case of the eczema, yes, he had eczema in the British show. They didn’t do a lot with it, but he had it. We started researching it, and writing scenes and going to doctors. Again, it felt as if it was a personality thing, something that was about his character in the way he would behave, and then there came a point where we realized that it could actually be a plot point. It had some place to go, and that’s when it flares up at the worst time, which is the night before he gives a summation.

Steve  Zaillian:

Without that scene, I think they would just be filigree, but now it’s figuring into the plot. The cat was the same way. The reason that there’s a cat in the story was in order … Let’s see. What was it? She needed to have a cat because he needed to be allergic to something because we knew we wanted him to have an inhaler, and that that inhaler was going to figure into the plot later on, so that’s why the cat was there. And then we realized, “Well, what happens to the cat?” She’s dead. What happens to the cat? And then one thing leads to another. Stone takes it. How’s that going to work? Because he’s allergic to cats.

Kary:

I believe you once told me that you had never seen an episode of a television crime drama. Is that true?

Kary:

You missed out, man. We just spent 15 weeks watching them.

Steve Zaillian:

I was watching TV — I think it was last night or the night before — and I saw Richard Belzer, and I thought, “Oh, is this Homicide? I wouldn’t mind watching Homicide because that’s a good show. I don’t think I’ve seen it, but I hear it’s great.” It was not Homicide.

Kary:

He actually plays the same character that he played in Homicide in the Law & Order SVU he plays … They share universes. 

Steve Zaillian:

Anyway, I saw Law & Order, and I thought, “Okay, I don’t want to see it.” I don’t know why. It’s one of those things that if you’re doing something, you don’t really want to be influenced by anything else. You don’t want study what other people have done on that subject. I don’t anyway. I kind of want to hit it fresh.

Kary:

One of the things that struck me in working on it with you was how much it echoed the films of Sidney Lumet and a lot of those films from the ’70s that you mentioned. Talk a little bit about how those influenced your aesthetic in this.

Steve Zaillian:

I was knocked out by French Connection. I don’t think I saw it when it came out. I think I saw it a little bit later, and then Serpico I’m not sure if that came out before or after, but I was working at a movie theater that was showing Serpico. Back in those days it showed the same movie for six months, so the whole time I worked there they only showed Serpico, so I saw it hundreds of times. That was a college class. That was a very good class.

Steve Zaillian:

I think a lot of the style of Lumet and Friedkin in those … Prince of the City. I love all of those films. How does it make into my films? I don’t know. I don’t think it really has before this. It wasn’t conscious, “Let’s do a ’70s film,” but I think that when you see something and you like it, you like it for the same reasons.

Kary:

I found that when visiting the set, and you were shooting in the old post office on Eighth Avenue in New York, and those windows that half a window takes up a room, and you’ve got half of the arc of the window. It reminded me of some of those rooms in Boston in The Verdict.

Steve Zaillian:

Those were there. I actually didn’t care for that. For that reason, I thought, “Oh, people are going to think we built this,” and I based it on The Verdict. We didn’t. It was there. If you can imagine this place, the squad room and the precinct. It was a room that we built within a post office sorting building that was three or four square blocks in Manhattan, so it was huge, and you would have to walk through this dark creepy building to get to our set. It would take a long time to get there.

Steve  Zaillian:

I thought the whole building looked like Sidney Lumet, you know, the hallways and everything, and then Patrizia von Brandenstein who built that set I think she was a big fan too. Just the set dressing I think in that place was amazing.

Kary:

I should give a bit of context before I ask the next question. James Gandolfini, as many of you know, played the role of John Stone in the pilot as many of you know. He passed away after it was completed.  And then after a period of time, you and Richard came back to us and expressed your continued interest in the show, and then we ordered it. And then you set out to make the remainder of the series, as essentially, a seven and a half hour movie.  How did you go about approaching that?

Steve Zaillian:

Well, again, as I described before, it wasn’t intentional to do them all. It really was one foot after the other. The pilot was its own thing. It felt like its own thing because we weren’t sure if it would be picked up, so it kind of had to work on its own. The rest of it I didn’t really feel like I was making seven more episodes. I felt like I was making a long film, and this was just day 56 of a long film. I didn’t really break it down. The episodes that you see here are not the way they were in the scripts. The scripts were timed out differently. As far as I was concerned, it was just going to work every day. At a certain point once I did make the decision to stay, and you guys said, “Okay, you can do that,” then it really was a job. It was my career basically for nine months of shooting.

Kary:

Tell us about crewing up and your relationship with the various department heads on the film.

Steve Zaillian:

Well, they’re all different I guess, but I’ll talk about the cinematography. We actually had three different cinematographers. Bob Elswit did the pilot. I think it has a very distinctive style. It is his style. I can see these things. I don’t know if other people can, but I can see them. I’m sort of the constant, so hopefully it’s not too apparent. And then Igor Martinovic did the next three or so episodes, and then Fred Elmes did the last ones.

Steve Zaillian:

I think with Bob … I don’t know if you guys know his work. He’s done a lot of PT Anderson’s films and a lot of other things. He’s adept at it. He’s kind of like Conrad Hall in that he doesn’t really want to plan things out and, frankly, neither do I. It’s really, “Let’s figure it out as we go along.” He has the skill to do that. That’s the way that I like to work to. Igor would plan a little bit more. We had a lot more conversations about the look. I don’t really remember talking about ’70s films with him. I remember talking about The Conformist. That was kind of our thing. It was that kind of composition we were both interested in.

Steve Zaillian:

And then Fred took over later on. By that point, he did a great job, but I think the style was pretty much established by then.

Kary:

And then production design and wardrobe on the series.

Steve Zaillian

Yeah. Quickly with wardrobe, I wanted a pallet that looks like this room without these red shirts in it. No red, no orange, no blue, but everybody else. I want extras to be there but to not be there. I really want the brightest thing or the most important thing that you see color-wise, you know, a person’s hands, or a person’s face, or some particular thing you want to look at but not the background.

Kary:

Or a bloody photograph.

Steve Zaillian:

Yeah, not the background. And then in Rikers, Catherine George was working on the series for two through eight, she got on the program, and she went with it. Everything’s gray, off white, and there came a moment actually when she wanted to put a white shirt on Naz. I don’t mean in the courtroom, but I mean like a cut-off sleeve white shirt, and it really worked. You suddenly realize, “That’s the first time I’ve seen that in the whole show.” He’s got that kind of confidence now that he can put on something really bright. It was still white. It wasn’t turquoise.

Steve Zaillian:

In terms of the production design, everything pretty much was based on the real places. Obviously, most of the locations were in New York, real places that we shot at, but those that were built, which was the precinct, the prison, the main prison ward, and the courtroom were all based on real places.

Kary:

Let’s talk about casting. Tell us about your working relationship with Avy Kaufman, and how did that go? And then we’ll talk about individual characters and casting.

Steve  Zaillian:

I met with John. Obviously, that’s how it works. You don’t go through a casting director for that, but there was something like 200 other parts which she brought in. Basically, I am very uncomfortable sitting in a casting session. I know a lot of directors like to do it, but I don’t. I feel bad for the people that aren’t that good. There’s a bunch of them who are good, and you’re going to have to pick one, and there’s a personal connection, so I prefer just to see what I’m going to see on the screen, which is in this case a videotape.

Steve Zaillian:

She videotapes everything, she sends me the tapes, I look at them. I would look at them on my own on my computer. I didn’t have introductions to the people. I didn’t know who they were. It was just what I saw on the screen. That’s the way we work. She would send me, I don’t know, I’d say on average 20 actors for each part. When you’re talking about 200 parts, I don’t know how many actors that is. It’s a lot.

Steve Zaillian:

Almost everybody was from New York. We couldn’t really afford to fly people out for a one day part from Los Angeles, so we had very few of those. I feel like the day players … I’m basically talking about only the day players here. When I say day players, it doesn’t mean they work for one day, but they work on a daily basis, and so they might work five days, or something, or 10 days. I think they were super important. I know that the bigger name actors… I know Bill Camp is good… I know John is good… I know Riz is good. These day players can make or break a scene. They’re important, so I would take a lot of time with them.

Kary:

Talk about casting Riz. 

Steve Zaillian:

Riz was so important. I knew Riz was important. I knew that I can spend five years of my life working on this, and if that guy was not really good, it could all be for nothing. I’d seen hundreds of people on tape from not just Avy but people in Europe as well and UK. I ended up screen-testing five of them, and they were all good, but I wasn’t really convinced of all of them.

Steve Zaillian:

It was actually Michael Lombardo who looked at them with me, and he said, “Who do you think?” And I said, “Well, I think I can do it with any of them.” He said, “Yeah, but which one do you really like?” I said, “Well, I can’t really say. I think they’re all pretty good,” and he said, “You shouldn’t do the show. If you’re satisfied with, ‘You know, they’re pretty good,’ then you probably shouldn’t do it.” I kept looking, and Riz I saw him on YouTube on something. I just was doing some research.

Kary:

As a rapper?

Steve Zaillian:

No, I did see that he had some rapping stuff going on, but he was in the movie called Four Lions and another one called Road to Guantánamo. I just saw clips on YouTube. It wasn’t the whole movie. It was just a clip. There was one particular clip in Four Lions, one scene, and I thought, “That’s the guy.” He was so good in just that one scene.

Kary:

Did the casting of Riz and Bill Camp affect the way those roles were written in the series?

Steve Zaillian:

No, it was written before. The whole thing was written before they were hired, and it wasn’t rewritten for them. The same is true about Stone. It was done.

Kary:

Talk a little bit about casting Jeannie Berlin.

Steve Zaillian:

Jeannie maybe you know who she is. She’s a prosecutor in the show. She’s also the daughter of Elaine May. She’s also someone who in her first movie was in early ’70s nominated for an Academy Award. She was in the original Heartbreak Kid. I often think about people that I’ve liked in old movies or just movies from a few years ago and especially when I’m casting so many parts. I did that in another movie I did with Jackie Earle Haley. Jackie Earle Haley I really always liked, and I wondered what happened to him. He hadn’t worked in 15 years. I tracked him down. I think he was in San Antonio, Texas, and he did it. He’s still great, and he’s working a lot now.

Steve Zaillian:

Jeannie I knew who she was from Heartbreak Kid, but I was surprised that she had seemed to have disappeared. I can’t remember if I asked Avy to bring her in or if she just came in on her own. I can’t remember, but she made a tape, and it was instant. It was such a big part that it wasn’t the kind of part that a lot of people that Avy felt just anybody can do this, so she only brought in about five or six really good Broadway stage actresses. I liked them, but when I saw Jeannie, it was-

Kary:

She’s so specific and idiosyncratic.

Steve  Zaillian:

The character in my mind didn’t really look like her, but it was meant to be. If you saw the script, it probably says at some point, you know, “She looks like a grandma, but she’s a killer.” Everyone underestimates how smart she is and how focused she is. That’s kind of who Jeannie is. She’s very eccentric, Jeannie, and she’s totally focused. What I didn’t know at the time was that she was rehearsing all of her scenes with her mom. I met her mom, Elaine May, after we were done shooting, and she said that she played almost every part in the show. She was Dr. Katz. She was John Stone. She played all those parts.

Kary:

That’s fantastic. 

Commercial Break for crimestory.com

Kary:

Talk about casting Michael K. Williams.

Steve Zaillian:

It was very inauspicious because he was … I can’t remember what the site is called, Cast-It or something like that. There was 20 new videos in it, and I put them up, and they were all for the part of Freddy. I looked through them, and I stopped on one of them. It was him, and I didn’t know who he was, and I said-

Kary:

You hadn’t seen The Wire. You didn’t know about “Omar coming” and all that.

Steve Zaillian:

No, and he was just by far the best actor on those tapes. I was really happy about that because, again, it wasn’t like, “Oh, I like him because I like what he did before.” I liked what he was doing with this, and I didn’t know any better. He’s really something.

Kary:

Let’s talk about the editorial process. You had a different editor for the series and for the pilot. The editor that you hired for the series was relatively inexperienced. I think it was an assistant that you elevated. Tell us about that, and tell us about why you ended up choosing him.

Steve Zaillian:

His name is Nick Huoy. He was an assistant on it, and I just said, “Well, he can assemble it. I’m not going to look at it until I’m done shooting, but I don’t care if he assembles it,” and he did, and I was kind of blown away by it. I mean his assembly was so good. He was making the same kind of choices that I would make, and then he was bringing something new to it at the same time, his own perspective and doing things that I wouldn’t have done that were fantastic. Unlike most of these series, I knew I didn’t want multiple editors, and multiple editing rooms and everything happening because I wanted to be in the editing room, and I can’t be in two places at once.

Steve Zaillian:    

Again, what’s great about Kary and HBO was it was very unusual to be editing for a year on a show. Normally, I don’t know what it is, three or four months or something, because you’ve got three or four editing rooms going at the same time. We just settled in there for a year and did the whole show. 

Kary:

One of the things that I found remarkable was that we would get your director’s cuts, and they had about as complete a sound design in the director’s cut as I’ve ever seen my 20 some years of working as an executive. Tell us about the care you take in what you deliver as a director’s cut. You don’t take much for granted in terms of what you are handing over.

Steve Zaillian:

Nick, the editor, and I, we both felt the same way that a lot of these scenes really needed some good sound in order to work. Not that they were done wrong, but that the sound or lack of sound was important to the mood and the effect of the scene. Those things were important to me.

Steve Zaillian:

Also, with the equipment you can do that. You can run unlimited number of tracks. He’s really good at it too. I thought it was important to present to you guys something that felt like it was done or at least on the road to being done, and I honestly can’t even watch the stuff myself thinking about what should be there. Let’s just put it in there, and so we did that. Again, when I first started, that’s what I was doing. I was doing sound work, so I guess it’s always been important to me.

Kary:

Before my interview with Steve, the students in the class watched a video clip from an event at Georgetown Law School where a number of professors of Criminal Law reflected on aspects of The Night Of. Among those professors was Paul Butler who now serves as a Consulting Editor to Crime Story.

Kary:

I was particularly struck by something Paul Butler said in the Georgetown law symposium. He said, “I worry that we’re maybe letting the concepts of innocence and guilt do too much work.” In Stone’s closing argument he says that 95% of the people that he represents are guilty, but that shouldn’t excuse the things that happen to Naz before the formal adjudication or after. Guilt shouldn’t make it okay.

Kary:

As I was preparing for the class tonight, it struck me that what Paul Butler said and his appreciation of the relevance of guilt or innocence to the inhumanity of the system is analogous to your indifference to the whodunnit aspects of the stories. Can you reflect on your efforts to keep the focus on the character and the nature of the system while simultaneously keeping the audience engaged in the narrative?

Steve Zaillian:

Yeah. I wanted to see the process from the beginning to the end, from the crime to the arrest to what happens to somebody through every aspect of the legal system. Whether they’re guilty or not was secondary, and that I wanted for the audience to be a jury, and a jury never knows if who they just convicted is really guilty or not. It was intentional. I also knew that there are certain things that an audience expects, so it was really a fine line of using some of the tropes of the crime drama but also trying to do it in a way that was maybe using them a little differently.

Steve Zaillian:

The problem is the system. Yes, there are bad apple cops, but the problem is really the system, and that was our approach too. I didn’t want there to be a villain. I wanted all the people working on the case whether they’re the prosecutor, the judges, everybody. It’s too easy I think if you have a villain as a character. All of these people are just decent people doing the best they can, 

Kary:

And now we have a number of questions from our students.  The first one is…

The caliber of the show inspired me to write crime drama because there is no other show out there like this. Why is it only a limited series. Was that your decision or HBO’s decision not to have a second season?

Steve Zaillian:

We had nothing planned. We had a story that had a beginning, middle and an end. Like I said before, in my mind it was a long movie, and that was it. Now that we’ve done it, we are thinking about that. Maybe we could do something else. But it’s really how it was designed. It wasn’t designed as an ongoing series. It was designed in order to have a completion at the end.

Kary:

I’ll just add to that as the suit in the mix. We treat this as a film. In the way that really good films can have sequels, if we can agree upon and if Steve and Richard are inspired to create another story with the same set of characters and themes that feel like a worthy sequel, then we’ll do it, but we didn’t want the pressures of a second season to dictate us doing it again. You see there are examples of shows that have had great first seasons, and then the pressure of having a second season ends ups resulting in inferior quality product at the end of the day.

Kary:

Next question. You said that you started doing sound work. What kind of sound work did you do?

Steve Zaillian:

One of the first jobs I got was working in a very low rent sort of production company. They got hired to … We cut horror films for television, take out the stuff that couldn’t be shown on television. Now they’ve got a film that’s too short, and so they would go out, and they would shoot new stuff. They would invent a new subplot with new actors, and they would slap this thing together and sell it to Channel 13. I was one of the assistant editors because now we had to do the sound for those things too. Back when I was doing it, and this was a long time ago, I was literally scraping 35 millimeter sound film to do dissolves, and fade-outs and things and going back to the original what they call three stripe and trying to re-record the music, and effects and dialogue tracks.

Steve Zaillian:

It was really hands-on. I mean, hands-on with razor blades and splicers. That’s what I know about the technique of sound from back then. Now I don’t really know how to work an Avid, but I know what it can do. I love seeing what we can do on an Avid now sound-wise. By the way, one thing I wanted to say about that. I don’t think I’ve ever said this to you, but you talk about the sound in the show. I think that this stuff has become so sophisticated now, and you can do a Pro Tools mix in the editing room. I think that mixing stages are going to be a thing of the past just like feature films. I just don’t quite get it when you can run 100 tracks on an Avid.

Kary:

Next we have: Many of my South Asian friends and I saw The Night Of as a much needed political commentary on issues that really aren’t being talked about. Was there a moment where the team decided that this was going to turn into political commentary and bring light to the intricacies of certain racial issues?

Steve Zaillian:

No, not really, but I think it was the kind of thing that we knew it was there, and we could see it developing as we were going along, but none of us said, “Hey, we’re doing this for a higher purpose.”

Steve Zaillian:

Just like all the other things that we talked about here today, it grew out of a reality, and then, yes, we were aware. I’m aware if I’m going to shoot a shot, or somebody puts a swastika and “Muslims Go Home” on a wall. I know what that means. It’s not there by accident. I think what we certainly didn’t know is that even though the prejudice and the hate crimes have been around forever, that they would peak with Trump’s campaign about the time we were coming out.

Kary:

Interestingly, the Paul Butler comment that you referenced earlier about going in the courtroom and observing. You’re going to Jackson Heights and observing, you know, the South Asian community there. It’s very similar to what Capote did in going to the small town and just observing, and absorbing and refracting that through your lenses as a writer.

Steve Zaillian:

No, that’s true. We spent a lot of time in Jackson Heights when we were working on it, and that informed a lot of the scenes and a lot of the characters.

Kary:

OK here we have: You mentioned that you were really influenced by the French New Wave and neo-realism. What are your techniques and methods for directing these actors in a way that is so authentic and realistic?

Steve Zaillian:

It’s not really a technique. It depends on the actor. I don’t give any direction to an actor the first time through. They might just nail it. I’m only looking for something that’s in sync with what I want. It’s not that it’s right or wrong for what they’re doing. I would find that … I said “less” a lot the second time through, like just “less.” I’m trying to keep the performances at a place where they let the words do the work. They don’t really have to do anything. They don’t have to emote at all.

Steve Zaillian:

There was actually one actor in one scene where I said that about six times in a row, and he really was making it less each time, and then at a certain point he said, “If I do any less, I’m going to be doing nothing,” and I said, “That’s right. That’s what I’m looking for, nothing.” 

Kary:

Next question. How do you handle the balance between the audience seeing the Naz character as possibly innocent or possibly guilty, and how do you have that progress throughout the series and maintain it?

Steve Zaillian:

That was something that was from the very early outlines. It was described, but this idea that I wanted an audience to go back and forth several times. Initially, “Oh, he’s got to be innocent,” then, “Well, wait a minute,” and then, “Yes, he’s innocent.” That felt to me like an interesting thing for the character, and it was just a matter of finding those places in a story to highlight them. I remember deciding, “Okay, this is the scene where that can happen.” Sometimes it’s a reference to something that happened in the past. Sometimes it’s something that’s happening within the scene as we’re watching it.

Steve Zaillian:

There’s a lot of scenes where he’s by himself in Rikers where you’re looking at him and thinking, “This guy is not who we thought he was. How could he change so much?” There’s a little scene … I don’t know if you remember it or not, but it’s when his high-powered lawyer quits. He doesn’t take a plea. She comes into the cell, she says, “If you’re not going to listen to me, I’m going to quit,” and he says, “Well, so quit,” and she says, “Well, I think I will,” and she leaves. We shot him watching her go, and his eyes are just different than anything we’ve seen before from him. We shot it at 32 frames a second on purpose, so I could see the little blink of his eye.

Steve Zaillian:

That’s one of those moments. I don’t know if I’m the only who sees that. They’re intentional. It was like this is a good moment for us to reevaluate is this kid innocent or guilty.

Kary:

We have time for one more student question. The notion of “evil” hovers over our reactions to characters involved in criminality. In Schindler’s List, the Amon Goeth character seems to be the personification of the way criminal evil manifests itself… In The Night Of, there is no such character. Is that something that you have in mind as you write?

Steve Zaillian:

No, I don’t think that I consciously think about evil as a theme, but I do think about if there is a character that’s going to represent that— what is that character like? Amon Goeth I think if you read about him, you wouldn’t have imagined that character. The things that were written about him historically and certainly not the way that Ralph played him. To me, it was kind of like … it was definitely the kind of banality of evil. He was worried about how much money he was making and these normal things and at the same time unleashing these evil and horrible crimes against people, but my feeling about him as a character was that he had to be interesting in his own right and not just the evil character.

Kary:

Again, going back to In Cold Blood, the pathology of Dick and Perry, it’s banal to the point of ridiculous at times. It wasn’t until this moment you see that in the Amon Goeth character.

Steve Zaillian:

I’m just thinking about the dynamic In Cold Blood, which I haven’t thought about for a long time until we brought it up here today, was that you had these two characters, and Perry seemed the most normal of the two. He was the one who spent the most time with his friend whose name I can’t remember. He seemed like the guy that was going to pull the trigger, and Perry was the guy that was going to stop him. That’s what was so shocking about it. It was the other way around.

Kary:

I think that’s a fitting place to end our conversation although I have to ask you one last question, which I’ve asked our previous guests, which is what is the best piece of professional advice that you’ve received in the course of your career?

Steve Zaillian:

Does everybody have a ready answer for that?

Kary:

No, but sometimes they just wing it. What’s the best piece of advice? If a young screenwriter, a young filmmaker comes to you and asks what words you can offer them as they pursue a career in this business, what would you say?

Steve Zaillian:

I think that so much of what happens in our lives is so accidental in terms of what we do and who we meet, and one thing leads to another or it doesn’t that it’s kind of impossible to give somebody advice, but I do think the one thing that you can do and is important, and has always been important to me, is to keep working. If you don’t really think it’s going to lead to anything, it’s better than doing nothing, and it might, or it might not, but it puts you in the same city, or the same town or the same room with somebody who you wouldn’t have met otherwise, and that’s the important connection.

Steve Zaillian:

My path to even becoming a writer was circuitous. It couldn’t have been planned. However, I was always working on something even if it was these damn horror movies, you know, splicing the film.

Kary:

Please join me in thanking Steve Zaillian.

Steve Zaillian:

Thank you.

Credits and sign off.