Richard Price’s latest project is the HBO limited series The Night Of, on which he served as writer and executive producer. The series follows the arrest and trial of a 23-year-old New Yorker (Riz Ahmed) accused of murder, with John Turturro as the young man’s scruffy defense attorney. It’s aired two episodes so far and has been garnering overwhelmingly positive reviews. As usual, I’ll be waiting a while before writing and posting a full review of the show (though I’ll go ahead and say that I really like it), but I took the occasion of its debut to reach out to Price and see if he’d be interested in sitting down for an interview. He generously obliged, and we ended up meeting this past Saturday. We discussed The Night Of and other projects he’s currently got in the works, and I took the opportunity to geek out and ask a bunch of more esoteric questions about his earlier work and other aspects of his career.
Obviously, as the creator of a blog about Price’s work, I was thrilled to get the chance to meet with him and discuss that work, and I hope you find the resulting conversation as interesting as I did. Enjoy!
Me: Let’s start with The Night Of. It’s been in development for a while now.
Richard Price: Yeah, it just took forever. I started writing it, I want to say 2011, but maybe it’s 2010, 2012. There was a lot of stop start, stop start, you know, because of [the death of original star and executive producer James] Gandolfini, that horrible thing, and everybody just kind of died after that. Nobody felt like doing it. De Niro, he was going to do it for a hot minute, and then that didn’t pan out, and so I said, “Alright, well, that’s it,” and then all of a sudden I get a call, “Hurry up and write the rest, we got Turturro.” But it was just a very kind of torturous… I had only written three episodes when Gandolfini signed on. And then when it died, nobody was telling me to write any more. And then all of a sudden it gets picked up–“Oh, write the rest.” You know, before I could even finish writing the rest, we were down again. Up, down, up, down.
Did the nature of the project change at all with the different people who were being brought in?
RP: No, the story was always the story. A screenplay is just a screenplay. If you give it to ten different directors, you’re going to get ten different movies. So you’re kind of at the mercy of the people who have control. This is the starter sheets for a movie. And he just killed it, [director Steven] Zaillian, and the casting was borderline perfect, and I rarely have that kind of experience. Because a lot of times I see the movie and I just feel like I’m the only one who brought something to the party. Sometimes people make the script better than it deserves to be. Oftentimes the script deserved a better movie. This one really was a home run. I still have things that I object to, but any screenwriter would because they had a movie playing up here [in their head], and it’s not the movie that’s showing.
Television is a fairly recent medium for you, versus novels and films. How does it compare to the other fields that you work in, and do you feel like how you feel about it has changed over time?
RP: I knew nothing about television in the early ‘80s, and I met a guy named Don Ohlmeyer, who was an NBC producer, and he had a notion–but I didn’t even know what a pilot was, what a bible was, or anything. But I wrote that, and it was pretty well-written, but–
That was the Kennedy-era show?
RP: Yeah, Camelot Years, I think it was called. It was based in Philadelphia, following the paths of like six characters, young characters who over the course of a number of years go from sort of a ‘50s mentality to a late ‘60s, more radical mentality. It was a good idea, but it didn’t pan out. But no, next thing I did I think was The Wire. And I was just asked to do that, I didn’t go to anybody.
And then I tried something on CBS [the 2012 cop show NYC 22], and you just get micromanaged to death. And I didn’t appreciate what it really means to be the creator of a show. It involves so many things that have nothing to do with writing, and all I want to do is write. I just felt way over my head and burned out really quick. There’s a few good things in that show, but not much. And then this. But the thing is, writing for network will pay a lot more, but they take it out of you in terms of micromanagement, and also giving them a product that they can sell all over all fifty states. And the broader your audience, the more timid the story is, because you don’t want to alienate people, and basically what people want is what they’re familiar with. So even though I felt like NYC 22 is kind of like, “What’s the big deal?” CBS was thinking, “Oh, this is too edgy.” It was kind of corny, the whole thing.
But with cable, that’s kind of a novelist’s dream. If you get into episodic. Not like Law & Order one and done, but if you’re doing a tale that unfolds, and each installment is like a chapter of a novel. That being said, everybody says, you know, the trope now is, “Well, TV is the new novel.” It’s bullshit. Novels are novels and television is television. Novels don’t have actors, they don’t have editing rooms. Novels have prose. TV is two-dimensional, just like film. So yeah, they might be long-form now, like novels, but everything after that is different.
You’re working on [the upcoming David Simon HBO series] The Deuce, also, in addition to The Night Of. You’re an executive producer on both of those, right?
RP: Well, yeah, I’m a writer, producer, you know, sort of oversee one or two chapters to polish them.
How has that been?
RP: I haven’t really had that much to do. I wrote one episode that, because it’s an assembly line, like The Wire, different writer every episode, and you can’t really tell until you shoot one episode, what you think on paper is going to be the next episode–“Oh, wait, it’s way too early for this, this is going over here in 4.” “This is okay, but I think some of the things in 3 have to come back.” So it’s almost authorless. It’s a very complex cast of characters. If it was just a straight, simple, follow these three guys, it would be more predictable, but there’s so many strands in a David Simon production that it’s a real crossword puzzle. So I just wrote one episode, so of course it’s been divided, half in Episode 2, half in Episode 3, because half of what I wrote really belongs in 3, some of 3 needs to come down, some of 1 needs to come into 2, so, you know, check your ego at the door. But at least it’s freedom. I don’t have to worry about cutting to a commercial break. Network television is–you got to have about four or five cliffhangers just so people don’t switch to another channel, and it’s artificial. It’s really hard. It’s like writing in a phone booth.
That actually leads into a very nerdy question I was going to ask. There’s a Wire episode where Freamon says to McNulty, “Life’s the shit that happens while you’re waiting for moments that never come.”
RP: Oh, I don’t remember that, but that’s an old platitude. “Life is what happens to you while you’re waiting for your ship to come in.” That’s a homily. You can crochet that in needlepoint, it’s so well-known.
Okay. I’ve just seen that “ship coming in” line in Mad Dog and Glory, and in [your unproduced first screenplay] Wingo, so I just didn’t know–because that scene wasn’t in an episode you were credited with, I didn’t know if it was something that had gotten shuffled around from something you wrote or not.
RP: No, I didn’t write that. I hated writing for–anything involving that guy involved tech.
RP: Yeah, because he’s the wire maven, he’s the, you know, “Put this in silver foil and it’ll be da da da,” and it’s, what is this, Popular Mechanics? It’s like, I don’t know anything about this stuff, please don’t give me that stuff to write.
The Deuce and The Night Of both take place here in New York City, which you’ve been writing about since the beginning of your career, since [your 1974 debut novel] The Wanderers. Do you feel like the way you approach New York as a setting for stories has changed over time?
RP: Well, the older you get, the more nuanced your vision is. I could write about New York in The Wanderers and it could kind of be loud and kind of comical, not comical, kind of over the top, but the longer you live, it’s not just the city changing, it’s you changing. So it’s like Faulkner writing all of the novels in that county and never leaving the county. Place is a character, and I like to know at least one of my characters inside and out. But it’s like reading Catcher in the Rye when you’re fourteen, and then try it when you’re twenty-four, and then try it when you’re forty. It loses its allure, because you’re not that same vulnerable person. And when you’re forty, you’re looking at it with kind of like affection, kind of rolling your eyes, and then you read it at fifty, and all of sudden you rediscover it’s brilliant. Catcher in the Rye doesn’t change, the words never change, you’re the one that changed. It’s a litmus test–I mean, not a litmus test, it’s a yardstick. So New York is my yardstick. The older I get, the more subtle, hopefully, things I see are.
RP: I don’t have any foreseeable projects–I mean, if I need a city… The reason why I picked Dempsy is because it doesn’t exist, even though it was based on Jersey City, absolutely Jersey City. But I didn’t want it to be like a romàn a clef about Jersey City, where people go, “You think that character’s Jimmy Wayland? Oh, that’s definitely Sandra Brown.” You know, it’s like Valley of the Dolls. “Okay, which one’s Liza Minelli?” It’s distracting. So, to play it safe–and as long as you feel like what you’re writing about is universal, in an environment like the Bronx, and call it Dempsy, then you’re free. And you can do anything you want, because it’s not about the place, it’s about the place that you know, nearest to you. Because what’s happening in Akron is happening in Detroit, is happening in Brooklyn, is happening somewhere in LA.
Are there any other upcoming projects that you can talk about right now?
RP: Yeah, I’m writing two novels. One is pretty much going to be like Lush Life was for the Lower East Side, this kind of panorama centered on a central event that affects various people, so you can pull a panorama together around a narrative. I’m trying to do something like that with Harlem. And then I’m going to be writing a sequel to The Whites. Like, I don’t want to say making a series out of it, but once I built that character, I’m going to go back to that.
Nice, I’m looking forward to that. Okay, these are sort of the questions that I built up over the course of doing the blog, relating to a lot of other projects you’ve done. First of all, stand-up comedy is a motif that’s shown up in your work a lot. I just read today that Aaron Spelling at some point suggested you do stand-up.
RP: Oh, so you read the Terry McDonell book [The Accidental Life].
I haven’t read the book, I just saw a review of it that mentioned that.
RP: Well, Terry has known me since the late ‘70s, and he wrote a section about me which really captured the whole notion that everybody thinks I can do stand-up because I like to speed-rap, even though I don’t sound too speedy right now because I’ve been working all day. It’s like when I’m casting about for a character and I’m a little on the desperate side, I’ll… The problem with stand-up comedians is it’s riffing, and sometimes it reads like it’s riffing, and it’s kind of lazy, because if you have the talent to riff, then if you write it, you’re kind of coasting on something… For me, that’s how I feel about it. I enjoy riffing and I make characters riff, but to make somebody a stand-up comic, it’s almost too much of a bullseye.
Like a character?
RP: Yeah, like I did in The Breaks. The Breaks I was kind of desperate, I kind of couldn’t figure out what to write about, and it’s been a number of years, so…
I’ve read that. I really like that book.
RP: Oh, good. So you’re the guy that liked it.
Haha, I’m the one, I guess. So you’ve never attempted it or thought about attempting it yourself?
RP: I did a lot of Moths. I did a lot of performances on the Moth. But that’s not stand-up comedy, that’s storytelling. You’re basically working off a script that you’ve composed in your head. So you’re not going to go spin out like Lenny Bruce or something like that, you’re just going to stick to the story because you’ve got a time limit and you don’t have any notes in front of you and you don’t have the comfort of just reading words on a page, it’s just you. And that’s a challenge.
Speaking of The Breaks, the main character in that is very similar to the main character in Ladies’ Man. They both have the same childhood nickname, and they’re both riffers…
RP: Oh, I didn’t even notice that.
Yeah, Speedo, or Speedo and Speedoo, yeah.
RP: Well, there’s an old saying, “I always wait for my reviews to come out to see what I wrote about.”
Haha, well, yeah, there’s a lot of parallels there.
RP: If there are parallels–and I’m sure there are parallels, things I’ve used in more than one book without realizing it, it’s just subconscious. I’m not reading my own books very carefully. And this thing I think I didn’t do, and I already did, somebody goes, “Oh, hmm, I count three.”
I didn’t know if there was intended to be a connection originally…
RP: Well, the same author wrote it. So it’s, to an extent, somewhat the same sort of urban sensibility and urban patter that’s going into it. And, you know, whatever you write is autobiography. I don’t care if you’re writing Popular Mechanics, it’s autobiography. Whatever you write, you’re saying something about yourself. Given that, your slip’s going to show.
RP: Oh, yeah, it’s a play I wrote. It was sort of like a one-act, I don’t know how long it was, twenty minutes, twenty-five, thirty minutes. It was just something I did because I was very briefly part of a theater troupe in 1976, I think, 1977, something like that. And they told me to write a play and they gave me a week to do it, so I did it. I just recently re-read it and I’m not very impressed. But I acted in it, too, so I never got to see the play, which, a writer’s supposed to see the play so he can see what’s working and what’s not. But when you put yourself into the performance, it’s like you’re blind. You can’t improve your play.
So that’s not going to be made available at any point?
RP: Not if I can help it.
I wanted to ask about the movie Streets of Gold, which you worked on. There’s not much behind-the-scenes information about it available out there. How did you get involved with that?
RP: There’s a guy named Joe Roth, and he was actually a producer. And his partner was Harry Ufland, who also was Scorsese’s… I don’t know what his relationship to Scorsese was, maybe he was the manager, but they were a team, Joe Roth and Harry Ufland. And when Bertrand Tavernier suggested to Scorsese that somebody should do the remake of Night and the City–which is a great British film with Richard Widmark, a Jules Dassin movie–Harry had just read an article that I had written for The Village Voice about what it’s like to be acting in a movie based on your own book and the whole experience of seeing a movie being made. And I was young, I was like 26. And he showed the article to Scorsese and said, “What about this guy? You’re looking for a writer…” And Scorsese said, “Yeah, okay.” And I met him, you know, was in awe of him and everything, and we talked, and the script that I wrote was basically the script that was shot with De Niro and Jessica Lange ten years later. The problem with that–I was too in awe of Scorsese, and therefore the script read like the greatest hits of what he’s already done. And so why would he want to do it?
Then he asked me to do Color of Money somewhere down the line, but before the Color of Money thing happened, Joe Roth–who wanted to direct for a change–had a script that was Streets of Gold, that was written by another guy, and he asked me if I would script doctor it. And so I did. I wrote a lot, and then apparently after me he got another guy to do it, so there were three writers. I was the guy in the middle. When he first put forth the writing credits he left me out. And I started making a fuss, even though it’s up to the Writers Guild, all you got to do is arbitrate. So he just said, “Ah, the hell with it,” and he put me in for a credit. So that was my first credit. But when I saw the movie there was not one line or one scene in that entire movie that I recognized as mine. So I don’t even really deserve that credit.
Actually, I wanted to ask, I know you do script doctoring sometimes–
RP: Well, it just pays. I don’t like it, it just pays.
Well, I’ve heard you worked on American Gangster, Money Train… I don’t know how much you’re allowed to talk about that stuff…
RP: No, I can talk about anything. It’s not like I did a confidentiality agreement.
Are there other films that you were involved with on that level that people might not be aware of?
RP: Like, uncredited, you mean? That were made?
RP: You know, there were two crappy movies that I just worked on, getting paid by the week. And I think they went straight to video. One was Cold Light of Day, with Bruce Willis and Sigourney Weaver, but it was basically kind of a hip chase movie. And it was just such an action movie, it’s like, “Why on Earth are you asking me to do this? But, you’re paying, so, I need the money.” So I think I worked on it a couple of weeks. And then–I wasn’t even interested in whether it was getting made, next thing I know it was straight to video. Then there was another movie called The Raven, with John Cusack playing Edgar Allan Poe, and I worked on that for two weeks and never heard from anybody again, wasn’t even curious, next thing I know that’s on video, On Demand, for a hot minute.
The stuff that I script doctor is never going to be a good movie, because the script that I inherit is so bad that they’re desperate to throw money at it. You’re giving a nose job to a body that’s been a victim of a hand grenade. How much better can you make it? Whatever you do is better than what you received, you know, the patient brought in on the gurney. But if a movie’s in trouble to begin with, a movie’s going to probably wind up being in trouble, but hopefully lesser trouble, critically. I was brought in as script doctor on Shaft, then it turned out to be a full-time gig. A lot of times, what happens is that when they hire somebody, it’s wishful thinking that they’ll just get a really good script doctor, and they’ll say, “Can you just punch up the dialogue for this character?” And then they say, “Wow, you did a really great job, but it makes me think, since he’s so good, can you work on the villain? And, you know, now that I see where we can go with this…” It’d be more efficient for them, and easier for the script doctor, if they said, “Here’s the rough idea. We’re going to throw away the script, and you write it.” Because otherwise they’re hemorrhaging money, because they’re paying me by the week. If they just said, “Listen, here’s a flat fee, here’s the idea, here’s what we want, go at it.” As opposed to trying to do all this microsurgery on a bashed-in head.
I mean, a lot of the movies I made started out as coming in after a first writer. Color of Money there was a first writer, Ransom there was a first writer, Shaft there was a first writer. I came in on Rain Man, I didn’t get credit for Rain Man–and I didn’t want any–but I only wrote thirty pages and then I quit, because I just couldn’t take… You know, just way too much control out of my control. When you’re young you do these jobs because you’re working with big actors and it’s kind of prestigious and it’s kind of exciting, but the more you do it, the more… I don’t want to say jaded, but the more realistic about what’s really going on you become.
The Michael Jackson “Bad” video, I noticed in the credits the train conductor’s voice is credited to “Dennis Price…”
RP: No, I didn’t do any cameos there.
Yeah, I didn’t know if it might be a family member.
RP: That was really interesting because it was based on a real… Robert Sam Anson wrote this great article, and then a book, about this kid that went from Harlem to one of those A Better Chance, take the kid out of the ghetto and put him in a prep school. And the kid came back, and he was at Exeter, and in fact his older brother did the same thing and was now at Cornell. And yet these two guys, when they went back to Harlem, felt compelled to mug someone who turned out to be an armed cop in Morningside Heights. And this kid was shot and killed. And I felt like, that’s a powerful story. What I wasn’t factoring in was that this is a music video. And it’s Michael Jackson. And it’s going to get pretty silly at some point, even though everybody adores Michael Jackson. I thought I wrote a really credible script, but when it went into the song thing it leapt off a cliff. I like what I wrote, but the whole thing–I was kind of flinching when I saw it. And lo and behold, twenty-five years later Spike Lee does Bad 25; it’s a documentary and I was a talking head on that. There’s a lot of affection, but in the beginning there wasn’t very much affection at all for that thing. It was ridiculed because, you know, you’re making light of a very tragic story by turning it into a Michael Jackson video.
Many thanks to Richard Price for taking the time to do this interview. Everybody else: Go watch The Night Of, it’s great!