Interview: Steven Soderbergh and Clive Owen on building the world of 'The Knick'
The opening minutes of "The Knick" throw down a gauntlet.
We're introduced to Clive Owen's John Thackery and his distinctive mustache at a red filtered opium den in 1900 New York City. Accompanied by an anachronistic score from Cliff Martinez, Thackery heads off in a carriage, removing his white leather shoes to shoot up between his toes. In no time, Thackery has reached the Knickerbocker Hospital, where he's thrust into the middle of a placenta previa surgery, like all surgeries in the period, a harrowing and bloody prospect.
You're in or you're out. There are no in-betweens.
Steven Soderbergh, who directed (and shot and edited) the entirety of the first "Knick" season, wouldn't have it any other way.
"[T]he first seven minutes of the first episode contain the sort of DNA of the whole show. If you're not down with how those first seven minutes go you're going to have trouble, because I'm giving you the code for how we're going to do it," Soderbergh told me when we sat down at the Beverly Hilton during last month's Television Critics Association press tour.
Soderbergh, bless his heart, doesn't believe in short interviews and so, joined by Clive Owen, we discussed how a script by two veterans of "The Shaggy Dog" (Jack Amiel and Michael Begler) attracted an Oscar-winning director and an A-list film star and then how that project ended up at Cinemax.
The short answer? Soderbergh wanted it that way.
"Partly it's just probably a little self-serving in the sense that I knew that we'd be the big kid in a small school over there and I wanted that kind of personal attention," Soderbergh explained, simultaneously smiling and completely serious.
We didn't delve into Soderbergh's "retirement" because, let's be honest, the guy is just doing whatever he wants to do, wherever he wants to do it and it seems silly to quibble about whether he said (or somebody said on his behalf) that he was done with one medium or another. He's producing shows for Amazon and Starz. He directed the full season of "The Knick" and, as was announced within hours of this interview, he'll be directing a second full season as well. And "The Knick" looks and feels and moves like a Steven Soderbergh project.
In the interview, we talked about the show's treatment of its period setting and of the gory period surgeries, the value of the Cliff Martinez score and the pressures and panic moments associated with making five consecutive two-hour movies.
"The Knick" premieres on August 8. Check out the lengthy interview transcript below...
HitFix: So, I hear you guys had a public screening for this last night?
Steven Soderbergh: Yeah.
HitFix: Was that the first time you had had it out and about for people to look at?
Steven Soderbergh: For the public, yeah. We had this screening for international sales people about a month ago, six weeks ago, which the first time we saw it with a crowd, but last night was different; this was filmgoers not sales people.
HitFix: Are their moments in the pilot where you know you've got the audience if they react in a certain way? Like if it's one of the surgery scenes and they respond in "X" way you know you've got them hooked?
Steven Soderbergh: It felt like that last night.
Clive Owen: Going back into the surgery was a great reaction, wasn't it?
Steven Soderbergh: Yeah.
Clive Owen: There was a few times where... it was great for the people who really saw the humor in that, then it really came out.
Steven Soderbergh: But, other then that, in TV you're flying blind a little bit.
HitFix: Until you start obsessing on Twitter and on the message boards of course.
Steven Soderbergh: Yeah. Well I learned the day the Internet was invented that it was a really bad idea for me to indulge in any checking on what people thought of anything I was doing. Literally, I remember it was like 1995 I was in Baton Rouge working on "Schizopolis" and I got AOL, you know, dial-up AOL with 300 kb of... you'd see the little speed there and you're like, "Wow!" and I went into one of these chat rooms and my name came up and people started flaming on me. I'm like, Whoa, whoa." I go, "That's it. That's it. I'm out. Internet is not my friend. Thank you Al Gore."
HitFix: Clive, did you have a similar morning moment when you realized that the Internet was not your friend or is the Internet still your friend?
Clive Owen: No. My wife, Sarah-Jane occasionally goes digging a little and always stops and says, "Why the hell did I do that?" and then needs a few weeks to recover from it.
HitFix: Does she report certain things?
Clive Owen: No. She just goes looking and then sees not-very-nice things written about her and me and is like, "Why did I even do that?"
HitFix: But the good stuff is out there, too. You just have to learn to ignore that.
Steven Soderbergh: No. No. You got to deal with it the same way you deal with your views, which I a long time ago stopped reading because the point is if you believe the good ones you have to believe the bad ones. It's kind of all or nothing.
Clive Owen: I was reviewed in a play and on the same night, the next day, in two newspapers, was described in one newspaper as "sensational" and in the other as "the fatal flaw of the production." There you go. Same place same night.
HitFix: And which one sticks with you in your memory?
Clive Owen: Exactly. "Fatal flaw." It sort of has a ring to it.
HitFix: So, let's go back to the sort of the very beginning sort of the chicken and the egg as this progresses. What sort of brought each of you to the different pieces of this and brought the project along? Who came first I guess?
Steven Soderbergh: Well, you know, Jack [Amiel] and Michael [Begler] came first. It'd be nice to ask them how long they'd been thinking about this idea because it doesn't seem to be in a continuum with their prior work history.
HitFix: It does not! [I ended up asking about it on the "Knick" TCA press tour panel.]
Steven Soderbergh: So maybe today at the panel maybe I'll take over and ask them when did they start talking about this and when did they decide to sort of move forward with it? Because we're here because they sat down and wrote the first episode, which is largely what you saw. We were the first audience. If people are seeing it now and responding positively, that's how we felt when we read it. They're now having the experience we had when we got the pilot. So I'm just happy they came up with this thing. It's so not something I would ever have come up with on my own and yet the sensation of reading it was, "This is about everything I'm interested in." Literally, it's got everything I'm interested in in like one place, set in a really fascinating, dramatic time and place with a subject that's ridiculously entertaining. The doctor show has been around since the beginning of television. And yeah, talk about all the food groups, it didn't take long for me to say, "Yes."
HitFix: But which of you did it come to first?
Steven Soderbergh: It came to me first.
HitFix: And, Clive, then it comes to you and your reaction was?
Clive Owen: Yeah. And I had a very similar reaction to Steve and I read it and was completely kind of blown away by it. There's a handful of scripts I think over my career that you get that you read and by the end you sort of really go back to why you started doing what you do in the first place. And it's actually almost a physical reaction because you're so engaged. For me as an actor reading it I just go, "It's hugely exciting." And I finished it and knew that there was no way, if it was possible, that I wasn't not going to do it.
HitFix: But for you it's been like 15 years since you done series television. Had you been thinking, "Okay this is an itch I want to scratch again?"
Clive Owen: Not at all and far from it. The opposite actually. I did a lot of television when I was young. One thing I didn't really enjoy was playing the same part over and over. And it's one and that's why I got out and ended up doing this much sort of varied stuff as I could. You can't walk away from a piece of material like this.
HitFix: Did you require convincing? Does someone have to tell you, "Okay it's a TV series project but…"?
Clive Owen: No. I read that one script and there was no way I wasn't going to play that part in this project. I thought it was beautifully written, a fantastic original part. I've never read a period piece like it, that felt like it or smelled like it. It was brilliantly researched and beautifully written and it was just a no-brainer for me. I just knew I didn't want to see anyone else playing it.
HitFix: Now Steven, you could have signed-on in any number of ways. You could have signed on just as a producer, you could have said "I'll direct the pilot and then I'll go off and do anything else." When did you realize that this was going to have to be something that you were going to be all-in on?
Steven Soderbergh: Well, I think it's clear that in terms of what I'm directing, if I'm going to direct something I'm a completionist. This is how I did "K Street," this is just... I'm not going to start something and hand it over. I just can't do it. So I knew I was all-in from the get-go. The question then became a practical one, which is immediately I started thinking, "Well best way to execute this is to shoot all 10 hours and board it and budget it like a 10-hour film. That is going to require though somebody saying yes to this in a very significant way based on a script, one script." And so luckily this was all happening right around the time that "Candelabra" was dropping and that was a really, really good time to go me to go to HBO with a pretty significant request. So that was fortunate. The timing of that was very fortunate. Literally it's the week after the premiere of that film and so it was a good time to call them.
HitFix: How does that conversation go? Like how much leverage at that exact moment did you feel like you had?
Steven Soderbergh: Well, it sort of swung two ways. I felt obligated to go to them first because I had such a great experience on "Candelabra" and morally it seemed appropriate that I called them and say, "I've got this new thing." I've learned the hard way though that sometimes your sense of how much juice you have at a certain moment is very different from the reality of the juice you have. Like I said, it was a big ask, which is, "I need you to commit to a whole season today, essentially, so we can start right away." And the Cinemax equation was part of that because I wanted to be on Cinemax and that turned out to be much more doable than if I had made that request of HBO.
HitFix: Well, you're going to have to explain that because, this is a big swing for Cinemax. This is Cinemax saying, "This is who we are now." So why did you want to be sort of the guy to say that?
Steven Soderbergh: Partly it's just probably a little self-serving in the sense that I knew that we'd be the big kid in a small school over there and I wanted that kind of personal attention. And that aligned with their situation as of a year ago right now, that turned out to be something that they thought, "Oh this is perfect because we're trying to make Cinemax into a standalone place for original content that is separate from what we're doing at HBO and has its own sort of vibe and its own attitude." And I think we were lucky when I asked Michael Lombardo, "How would you feel if this were on Cinemax instead of HBO?" and he said, "Actually that would be really good for us." So we both landed in the same intersection, we're crossing the same street at the same time. It was just really lucky.
HitFix: Clive, is this the kind of thing that matters to you at all where this is actually going to air? The difference between HBO and Cinemax? You obviously had a successful experience with HBO on the Hemingway movie...
Clive Owen: Yeah. No, it doesn't really. The advantage of doing 10 hours of television is people are going to see it. It's not always the case with a movie. But no.
HitFix: Do you feel lot to any degree like you were ahead of the curve on this no-boundaries-in-media thing with "The Hire," with the BMW films?
Clive Owen: I think that was a pretty groundbreaking campaign, yeah. To spend that much money, hire the directors they hired for an Internet-only campaign at that time was a pretty radical thing to do. And to put billboards everywhere and direct people to an Internet website, I think it was groundbreaking, hugely expensive. And I remember sitting down with the guys in charge of the whole thing and saying "Explain to me how..." Each of them cost millions and I'd say, "Explain to me how this works? How what does that do?" And they were very adamant that we were entering an age where it's all about branding and what people associate with your brand. It's not a hard, like, "These are the viewing figures for our commercial on TV, " it's more about shaping and presenting a brand that falls into people's -- cool directors, cool movies -- like that ends up, over a period of time, paying off. So it was pretty medical.
HitFix: Like, do you feel like you sort of watched the industry change since then? Because I feel like that was sort of a thing that was not necessarily a tipping point but certainly the tip of something.
Clive Owen: For sure. I think there's been a few things since that were definitely sort of were born out of those BMW films. I've seen a number of things that... I think that was a huge gamble and expense for BMW to do that at that time.
HitFix: Steven, does it feel that way to you too? Because you're obviously sort of you just signed on to do an Amazon thing, you did a play this spring. You're doing this. You've been sort of bouncing around with no boundaries for a while. Does it feel like there's been sort of ten or 15 years of major changes?
Steven Soderbergh: Yeah. I do and I think it's all for the good. I just think these sort of lines that were drawn in the sand have turned out to be lines that were drawn in sand. And so now they're not there anymore; they've been washed away. And so what's great about it is that people, I think it allows talent to then focus exclusively on the quality of the content instead of worrying about some idea of what people want to see me do and where. Now it's just all about: Is it any good? Because if it's good I'll do it. And I think it's more opportunities for more stories to be told. That's good news.
HitFix: Do you think we're *in* it or do you think we're still on the edge of something?
Steven Soderbergh: Oh yeah, it's still evolving totally.
HitFix: And you've taken an active participatory role in making sure that it evolves at a certain pace?
Steven Soderbergh: Well, the best way to learn about something is to get inside of it. My feeling is, if I want to learn about what it's like to make a pilot for a company whose content is streaming-based, the best way to do that is to go and make a pilot for them and just see what that's like from beginning to end. What are the assumptions that I had going in that turn out not to be true? What was I right about? There's no sort of substitute for sort of being in the trench. And like I said, I don't have any kind of ideology that precludes me from moving in one direction or another. I just want creative autonomy and I want at least an opportunity, as Clive was saying, I want to know that there's some opportunity that it's going to be seen. That's why we do it.