‘Night Of’ Creator Steve Zaillian Walks Us Through Murderous Shot Process

The Night Of HBO
Courtesy of Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

Anatomy of a Scene
The Night Of,” Season 1, Episode 7, “Ordinary Death” (HBO)

People making TV shows often take field trips to the locations they are trying to dramatize. In the case of HBO’s “The Night Of,” cast and crew visited Rikers Island. The infamous prison is the backdrop of the story of Nasir “Naz” Khan. The son of a Pakistani cab driver is arrested for murder and thrown into the justice system labyrinth. In the seventh episode, Naz helps cellmate Freddy Knight (Michael K. Williams) pull off the brutal murder of Victor, a disloyal member of his crew. With minimal dialogue, the camera tracks characters through the prison, finally to the TV room, where Victor meets his end. “We’re not the first to shoot in a prison or a courtroom or a precinct house,” says Steve Zaillian, the show’s creator, director and executive producer. “The challenge was to look at it in a fresh way. Our inspiration was the real place.”

Frederick Elmes
Director of Photography
“By the time we shot that scene, we had been on that location for some time, so we were all very familiar with where everybody would be,” Zaillian says. “We knew the angles, so to speak. It was a happy accident that Freddy’s cell is about as far away from Victor as you could get. It would require every extra foot of space we had available. By that time Fred had become familiar with lighting this giant place. I don’t storyboard things. I rehearse them, meaning walk it through and block it several times with the cinematographer. Then we compare notes and build a storyboard. We had four cameras running for the killing at the end. Stephen Kelly, who ran our makeup department, did the effects work. I do remember the choreography of the camera moving as it starts in the cell and goes down the stairs and over to the bubble [guard station] and then to the TV room. We wanted it to almost be like a ballet, very fluid.”

Lester Cohen
Production Designer
“We shot in a converted warehouse in Yonkers. It was not a proper soundstage, but it worked for us because it was big and we could build the Rikers set and the courtroom set. With Rikers, we had to make a lot of choices: Where do you put the TV room? The bathroom? We went through the script, Lester and Fred. We would walk through every scene. The overhead lights are basically the sun. There isn’t a lot of natural light in this space and Lester’s design brings that out. Most of our locations, we’re looking for side light or natural light. In this one, it’s very flat. That became striking in contrast. Whenever we would do scenes there at night, we were able to be a little more dramatic with the lighting and use these vapor lights outside of the glass brick windows.”

Pete Sorrell
Assistant Director
“When you do sequences like this, it’s not only about camera movement or editing. You have to orchestrate all of the movement on set because this is a crowded space. When we walked through the scene with our principal actors, there were only four people — Freddy, Naz, Victor and the guard. But then you’ve got to add 60 or 70 extras, all moving through one space. Pete would deal with that, again and again. I think we did six takes and he kept everybody moving seamlessly.”

Nick Houy
“One thing I could do on this [show] that was unusual was to have one editing crew for most of the project, including this scene. That was important to me. Nick is really extraordinary. I started out as an editor and learned a lot that way. Nick would go ahead and assemble things as I was shooting. I do know when I have something. I may not remember which take it was, but I know that it’s there. The one thing that was amazing, especially in Rikers, is that we did an awful lot of setups, as many as maybe 25 in a scene. There were a handful of takes on each one. Nick would often find the best one on his own without my having to say anything.”