Eagle-eyed viewers are sure to spot James Gandolfini’s name in the opening credits of The Night Of, an absorbing crime and legal drama that premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on HBO.
The actor, a TV icon widely known as mob boss Tony Soprano of The Sopranos, receives posthumous billing as an executive producer.
There’s quite a story behind that tribute.
Gandolfini was excited about starring in the eight-episode miniseries. He was to portray Jack Stone, a low-rent lawyer who winds up with a high-profile murder case. Gandolfini had filmed the series pilot, but died of a heart attack in June 2013, just one month after HBO committed to airing the show.
When it was decided (with approval from Gandolfini’s family) that production would move forward, the role was recast. Robert De Niro initially was on board but had to drop out because of a scheduling conflict, which led to John Turturro taking over in the version that we will see.
Turturro, of Do the Right Thing/Quiz Show/The Big Lebowski fame, has acknowledged he had misgivings at first about filling Gandolfini’s shoes. It’s not that he was intimidated by the other’s performance. It was something more personal than that.
“I was friends with him,” Turturro told The New York Times. “I went to his wedding. I went to his funeral.”
Turturro’s performance, it should be noted, is nothing short of brilliant.
Nothing was changed when the part went from James to John. The character was the character, no matter who played it.
Steven Zaillian, series creator/executive producer/director
In his hands, Jack Stone is something of a courtroom Columbo, the kind of comically pathetic guy who people tend to underestimate (although maybe they shouldn’t).
‘A social story’
Steven Zaillian, series creator/executive producer/director, never doubted his substitute leading man.
“I’ve admired John Turturro’s work for more than 25 years, since Do the Right Thing, and thought about him for the role even before James was involved,” Zaillian says. “The fact that he wanted to do something in TV at the same time I did was lucky timing.
“Nothing was changed when the part went from James to John. The character was the character, no matter who played it.”
The Stone character makes his first appearance near the end of the 118-minute pilot (at the 107-minute mark), so there actually was very little of Gandolfini’s performance for Turturro to re-imagine.
The beginning of The Night Of focuses instead on Nasir Khan, a soft-spoken Pakistani-American college student played by Riz Ahmed.
“Naz” ventures into Manhattan when invited to a party and hooks up with a wild girl who takes him on an adventure of drugs, booze and knife-wielding foreplay. Before the sun comes up, he will awaken from a blackout, discover that her bedroom is a bloody crime scene and wind up arrested for her murder.
In the words of Dennis Box, the lead investigator (played by Bill Camp), it’s the “most open-and-shut case I have had in a long time.”
What follows is a fascinating and layered story told from the points of view of everyone involved — from the police investigating the crime to the opposing attorneys building their cases, from the shocked family of the accused to the young man who must somehow survive in prison while he awaits trial.
It’s a crime story, a police story, a legal story, a corrections story. You make a story about all that, and tell it honestly, it will naturally be a social story.
Unlike most TV crime dramas that have plots so formulaic we know them by heart (open with a grisly murder, introduce the suspects to our detectives, demonstrate the new forensics technique that will crack the case, make an arrest, close with some witty banter), The Night Of is more ambitious.
“It’s a crime story, a police story, a legal story, a corrections story,” Zaillian says. “You make a story about all that, and tell it honestly, it will naturally be a social story.
“But none of that is going to be interesting if you don’t tell it with characters who are interesting. Every character in this has their own life and story and concerns and reasons for why they do what they do.
“No one is written to get you to empathize with them or to represent something or to be a hero or a villain. They are simply meant to be real.”
‘Like a film’
Zaillian knows a thing or two about storytelling. He won an Academy Award for his screenplay for Schindler’s List (1993) and earned nominations for Awakenings, Gangs of New York and Moneyball.
He is a newcomer to television, though, which explains why he and executive producer/writer Richard Price (The Color of Money, The Wire) used a defiantly different creative approach.
In short, The Night Of is practically the work of a filmmaking auteur.
[TV] requires teams of writers, multiple crews and editors — and a lot of nerve, if you ask me.
Zaillian directed seven of the eight episodes. (James Marsh, director of The Theory of Everything, was behind the camera for part four.) Zaillian and Price, meanwhile, wrote all eight episodes.
“Since I’d had no experience in TV, I could only approach it as a film … a long film,” he says.
In fact, all eight scripts were finished before a single scene went before the camera.
“In films, obviously, you don’t shoot part of it, then write the next part and then shoot that,” Zaillian says. “But in TV that’s often how it’s done. It requires teams of writers, multiple crews and editors — and a lot of nerve, if you ask me.
“Financially it makes sense. It’s cheaper to do it like that, since time is money. But I can’t work like that, running ahead of a speeding train. HBO allowed me to make this like a film is made.”
The Night Of
- 8 p.m. Sunday