Interview: Steven Soderbergh and Clive Owen on building the world of ‘The Knick’

08.05.14 3 years ago


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.

[Continued on Page 2…]

HitFix: Now, when you approach something like “The Knick,” and you get the script, do you approach it in TV medical genre kind of way? Do you sort of go, “Okay, 'St. Elsewhere,' 'ER,' I know what a medical drama feels like; I want a play sort of within that realm?” Or do you not even think of it in terms of the genre and the tradition of the genre on TV?

Steven Soderbergh: No. I'm very conscious of the tradition and very aware that when you start to chip away at the pillars that have built it into a fairly indestructible genre, that you do so at your own risk. Having said that, that doesn't mean you can't build a house on top of it that doesn't look like the house that somebody else built. But part of the appeal of this to me was it's got this steel girder underpinning of the medical drama, which is a really, really powerful thing. I looked at that as a plus because that meant that foundation is so strong it allows us to jump off in all these crazy directions.

HitFix: Are there favorites when you look at sort of that foundation? Things that you sort of look at as being the bedrock of it?

Steven Soderbergh: It's funny, that's not a genre that I typically watched growing up. I really didn't. It didn't hold any inherent appeal to me so it's strange that I would end up doing that.

HitFix: How about you Clive?

Clive Owen: No. I'm the same actually. It's not like you read “The Knick” and go “I'm going to go and look back at all the hospital dramas,” because it's totally an original piece of material.

HitFix: So how do you prepare for this? You can't wander into an ER and watch the doctors at work, you can't sort of train to mimic what anyone is doing currently. So what is the preparation?

Clive Owen: No. Well, my character was inspired by real guy called William Halsted, who was a guy who was in New York at the turn-of-the-century and was very much at the forefront of huge change in the medical world. And it was discovered he was consuming vast amounts of drugs at the same time. So that led me to , there's a brilliant book called “Genius on the Edge” about him and that led me to other books to read about the other doctors, reading books about New York in that period. And then once you've done all that it's about executing the material.

HitFix: I love that this is a medical world in which cocaine is just sort of prescribed for everything.

Steven Soderbergh: It's an all-purpose fixer. Yeah.

HitFix: Well, how does that sort of steer the world that you're creating when you know that half of these people are either hooked on cocaine or using cocaine for minor medical maladies or anything like that?

Steven Soderbergh: Well, it's fun or it's interesting at least to think about what the attitude must have been back then when none of this stuff was illegal; it wasn't regulated; it was available to everyone everywhere. They had no sense of what the long-term effects of any of these things were. And yet at the same time, it was an incredibly fruitful era in terms of medical advances, specifically the turn of the century, specifically in New York. And that lens to see it through… 

There's always a danger when you're doing a period piece that you're going to be too obvious in your attempts to convince the viewer that this is still relevant to them. And what I liked about this was the whole attitude of it was like “I don't care.” The whole thing just had a kind of a swagger about it that was basically, “Look, we're doing this and this is what we're doing. You either jump on the train or don't.” But it didn't sort of pander and try and make sort of explicit points that, you know, “Isn't this ironic that they were doing this?” It was present in what it was doing, you know what I mean? There was something so clear about it to me and it's so hard. I remember having a conversation with a writer that I was working with on a very complex project and we were having this discussion about how it's so hard to be good and clear. Because sometimes you can be clear and not good because the way in which you're being clear is not interesting. It's hard to do those two things at the same time and this just seemed to have that algorithm kind of figured out. And I think my sense of that was confirmed when we then had to write nine scripts in nine weeks and they maintained, the writers maintained this sort of balance of elements and kept it fresh and interesting, and it doesn't feel old time-y. I didn't want there to be this sort of patina of dust on the thing and I also loved the fact that when you read it at no point did you experience any sense of nostalgia for that period at all.

HitFix: I would say quite the opposite for the most part.

Steven Soderbergh: Exactly. I'm always a little unnerved when I see a show that's set in the past that implies in any way that things were nicer then, because my first reaction is, “Yeah if you were white.” But this just had none of that. This was the opposite.

HitFix: But there are certain things still where you're capturing the wonder of the moment. Like the electrification of the city, I like how that plays into the visual motifs of the entire thing, the light bulbs and the way they give things an aura of sorts. [“Yeah!” Soderbergh agrees.] It's a huge technological moment and you're obviously having a lot of fun with it being a huge technological moment.

Steven Soderbergh: Yeah. Well, that was fun to think, “Oh. Yes. Electricity that was their version of the Internet, of getting wired” and to think of how the city and the rest of the country and the world was being transformed through something that we haven't thought about during my lifetime. I've never thought about whether electricity, you know, the idea of it not being around is… So I loved that that something we take for granted we get to see the impact on the first people to experience it. But again, the guys did such a great job of finding a lot of those little things within the subject of medicine. You know, there is a conversation, I think you would have seen this by now, there's a conversation, it's another flashback when you come to see [Matt Frewer's] Dr. Christiansen and you're in the pathology lab and there's this discussion about taking surgery out of the barber pole, like getting rid of the barber pole in terms of how people think about surgery and bringing this into the 20th Century. And I feel like that was a big event.

HitFix: Steven mentioned sort of the swagger of this period, and Clive you have to bring a lot of that swagger. And in the third or fourth episode there's a great brief character moment where your character finds a vein [Clive nods and smiles] and there's this unexpected happiness that he's able to find that vein. Talk what's sort of the balance between this guy as a wreck but this guy also as swagger, as a genius.

Clive Owen: I never, ever think of him or thought of him as a wreck ever. He's a functioning addict. He's sort of addicted, but what that does, which I loved when reading it, was know that every scene I play there's more than the scene going on. It's more than the relationship; it's more than the dialogue. It's about, I have a graph that is completely musical because, “Am I flying high? Do I need to be flying high?” It's just, “Where am I in any given scene?” and I just thought, “Wow there's endless choices for every scene. I can really play with this. I can make decisions and then do a whole scene with something else.” So I loved that challenge and the idea of that.

HitFix: I feel like I want to talk about two external things for the character. I want to talk about the mustache and I want to talk about the shoes [Owen laughs.] because it feels like those are sort of top to bottom the two things that go with that character.

Clive Owen: The mustache is because 95 percent of men of that period had facial hair of some kind. In one of the books I read somebody describes kissing a guy without facial hair and how weird it felt. So there was no way… I needed some facial hair.

HitFix: But you'd mustached before in other things but this is a different mustache. Why is it this mustache?

Clive Owen: Because I wanted to convey a little bit of arrogance. That's why it was the shape it was. I didn't want a big heavy thing. It needed to be something…

Steven Soderbergh: It's a statement.

Clive Owen: Yeah. It's a statement and it's light and it's not… the trouble when you have a big thick heavy mustache is everything weighs down and that's not Thackery. So that was why it came on that shape. The white shoes were Ellen [Mirojnick], the costume designer's brilliant idea. And in my first fitting she kind of a little nervously said, “I've had this idea, I don't know what you think of it.” And I loved it instantly because there was something rock-and-roll about Thackery to me. I'm like, “There is something about this guy…” In that first meeting I was so excited when Ellen came with the idea she had, particularly about the shoes, but also some of the other ideas about costume. Because I years ago have done period things and the costume designer is a little powerful and they say, “Oh no they would not have done that.” And the brilliant thing about Ellen is you can do what you like. You're Thackery. You can wear and do anything. Because I said, “Would it be okay if…” She's like. “You're Thackery, you can do what you like.” And I wanted to be like the David Bowie of a hospital in 1900. So the white shoes were, I think on her part, a touch of genius.

HitFix: I think they're fantastic because similarly when we see them we first see them in the context of him having to shoot up in his toes. So it's simultaneously sort of the vanity he has [“Exactly,” Owen agrees], but also it's really inconvenient for him to do what he needs to do. “Yeah,” He agrees.] Now okay, let's talk a bit about the scary and kind of gross details of this. What was the line that you guys wanted to push on gross/funny/harrowing/realistic?

Steven Soderbergh: [Laughing.] Well, it was all of that. And I'm going sort of, no pun intended, with my gut about where the line is between graphic and gratuitous. Gratuitous is the word that was in my mind, but at the same time I wanted it to be sort of confrontational. Because that's what was going on and I wanted the viewer to really understand the reality of how these procedures were performed 100-plus years ago. And luckily we had a really great effects team and it allowed me to do a lot of things that I wasn't sure we would be able to do when we started. The previa case that begins episode one was the first surgery we shot. And the take would be done essentially in real time. Each time we did it we would do the whole procedure and it was kind of alarming to look at, even though you knew… Because everything was sort of hidden and their experience is they cut this thing open and blood starts pouring out and they're just trying to do… I remember [Michael] Angarano said. “I got a little kind of queasy the first take.” He goes, “Because all I saw…” You know, because I told the guys, “Get me that Fincher blood. I want that shit.” And it was really, you know, it was something to look at. But it's important in that specific procedure for instance, the 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. And from him waking up and getting into the thing, to the surgery, to the suicide, I'm declaring right now for you how we're going to walk, which I think is the fair thing to do. But I'm happy with the balance. It's tough stuff but I think it's not… Like I said, I don't think it's gratuitous. It's all organic to the experience of the characters.

HitFix: Well, you're looking through the camera. Did you know at certain moments okay that went over the line into…?

Steven Soderbergh: Yeah. Sure. I'd look at stuff and go, “Oh no, no, no. I'm just using that piece of that. That's too much.”

[Continued on Page 3…]

HitFix: Well, what is too much, honestly? What would cause me to be unable to look anymore?

Steven Soderbergh: It would just sort of be a cutting pattern that is inorganic to the experience of the characters in the scene. Know what I mean? I'm following the rhythm of how they are experiencing what they're going through. So if I interrupt that flow by indulging in a series of cuts that are essentially standing outside of that, then I've made a mistake. It has to work within the sort of choreography and the design and the rhythm of the scene itself. So in the case of the previa sequence, I'm purposely there making sure I have a lot of angles and a lot of choices because I know that as this sequence goes on it's going to get more harrowing and more tense and I need the ability to sort of accelerate as we go. There are other sequences, I think there's one in episode two where it's the first failed heart aorta repair, and in that scene it's basically two shots. It's a tilt down from the lights that don't work anymore to the chest and then to the watch that Nurse Pell is holding. And then it's a 360-degree angle that ends with the failed attempt to sew together the aorta. And that was the rhythm of that scene. That scene was about the guys talking. It wasn't about necessarily what their hands were doing. There was this constant patter going back-and-forth between all of the surgeons and I was shooting that because that what was most important. So you just took every scene as its own entity and I would just go, “What do I want to takeaway to be here?”

HitFix: Clive, what different approach would you have to scenes that would be sort of more mechanical-based versus scenes that would be more character-based?

Clive Owen: They're all character-based. I mean you're doing an operation like that, you're still playing through the character. You don't stop to sort of do an operation, but the operations were particular challenging because you've got the three things going on: You need to technically be on top of what you're doing with your hands, you've got the conversation amongst the doctors and often there's relationship dynamics as well as working out the operation, you also got different balances of different relationships. And then there's the whole element of performing the operation to the audience there. It was a time where the operations were literally theater. So I think in a lot of those scenes when you're doing things that has to dictate the rhythm of the scene. You don't go in there and go, “The dialogue plays better to like…” you have to make it through the action. That's the rhythm of the scene because what you're doing is the driving point. And then it's just about being as prepared as possible really.

HitFix: Now, in that preparation, how well did you have to understand the mechanics of what the effects were going to do in the scene?

Clive Owen: I had to. Yeah. It was vital at the beginning of any of those scenes that were in the operating theater was to get an expert in to say, “This is the logistics. This is what we're doing. This is how we do this operation. This is what you do.” And then very quickly on your toes working out this is the best rhythm to squeeze that little bit of dialogue there. And it's like composing a bit of music, the dialogue has to fit what we're doing there. I always remember that coming into those scenes where we're doing the operations that the first half-an-hour is crucial because you're working it out with the actual physical logistics of it.

HitFix: But how is it different sort of the logistics of the surgery the characters performing versus the thing that Clive Owen is working on that's a special effects creature that's spurting fake blood?

Clive Owen: No. But I have to tell you the prosthetics team was so amazing that very often to the naked eye I'd be standing there looking and going, “That is incredible.” There's a particularly gruesome bit later on where like I basically corkscrew into somebody skull and it was like – it was to the eye – there's no cheats.

Steven Soderbergh: No. Yeah. And is there is no CG – I'm not like cleaning anything up. There's a tilt up, he's got the skull pealed back and has got a thing and he pulls the thing out and the brain swells. It's disgusting but it is so like photo-real. It's so crazy.

HitFix: Is that the kind of thing where the gratuitous line can be in postproduction just with the sound like there's a sound…

Steven Soderbergh: The squish?

HitFix: Yeah. Exactly.

Steven Soderbergh: Yeah. Sure.

HitFix: Because I could imagine that being a big difference that you could make right there. Now you mentioned that when you do a historical movie there's the risk or the threat of going, “Okay they were just like us and 1900 is 2014.” But this is still a story about class, about healthcare, about immigration, about race, about sexual politics, how hard did you want to push on any of those buttons to make this political, because they could be?

Steven Soderbergh: Well, it's that exactly. We didn't have to push hard because it was all true. It was all happening. If you just approached it from the standpoint of, “What are the problems that each of these characters are trying to solve?” and then, “What are the obstacles to them being solved?” all of this stuff appears because it was all happening. Especially in that city at that time it was just a cauldron of ideas and activity. And so I felt again, you start with you've got a board that's running a hospital that is primarily catering to an increasing number of immigrants that are flooding the city. You just start there and all of these issues now are on the table about class, about the fact that it's a woman that's chairing this board meeting because she's got a proxy from her father, which somebody has an issue with. Like all these things they just start rising up out of the ground and you don't really have to hang a bell on them because they're totally organic to what everybody's trying to do. When you start out, you're trying to learn how to write and you're watching stuff and you're reading books and all this stuff, the question that is always coming up is, “What does this character want?” Really. And in this case, like I said, when you answer that question the answer invariably connected you to some social issue that was playing out during that period. So I was happy with the fact that all these things that I'm really interested in in general were just wound into the fabric of the show, which at the end of the day is called “The Knick” and is about an institution.

HitFix: Were there any things that you and your own research decided that you wanted to make sure you brought in to bring the things that interest you to the surface that may be the two creators were interested in but not in the same way that you are?

Steven Soderbergh: I don't recall that I did. I'd love to take credit for something but honestly, they were such sort of savants about this subject in that time that it was much more… It wasn't me saying, “I want this,” it was more me asking, “Oh do you have anything that will allow… I need some sort of procedure that I can either use as a one-off or that I can stretch out over four episodes…” and they would immediately rattle off options. That was more what the conversation was. I don't ever recall me having a sort of overarching idea that I said “I want you to wind this into the show.” They had it all.

HitFix: How about you? Clive, is there anything in your research where you found something that you wanted to make sure you brought to this guy that hadn't been in the script but you want to make sure it came up somewhere?

Clive Owen: No. I don't think so. No. I mean the quality of the writing was so high and consistently high. Obviously you read one script and you're signing on to do 10 hours of television, there's a concern like, “Are they all going to be as good as this?” And amazingly the standard was so high throughout. And in some cases I'd argue some of the episodes further on were better than the original. Their standard of writing was really, really high. It was really exciting.

HitFix: How often does that happen to you that you don't feel the need to push something of yourself?

Clive Owen: No. It's not about pushing yourself but I'm a bit of a logic monster. Whenever I do anything it has to track for me. I don't like tricky writing. I don't like writing that's clever and smart but kind of makes jumps that don't add up. As an actor I need A to go to B. I need it to be logical for me to make that work. And the notes on this, considering how much material there was, 10 hours, were tiny. It was like a few little tweaks per episode and it was a luxury, such a luxury.

HitFix: Well, you mentioned the graph earlier, is that a literal graph that you do was that just a graph that you have in back of your head?

Clive Owen: No. I mean because Steven originally said to me, “Look, we're not going to do this episodically. I want to treat this like a 10-hour movie.” And I thought I was absolutely fine with that because I shoot every movie out of sequence, I'm always, you know, I'm a good sort of planner. I can sort of get prepared for that. And then just as we were getting in to start and I started to look at the first couple weeks of the schedule I was like, “How the hell am I going to carry the 10 hours? Like in my head I can't do that.” So I kind of stole it from Steven and put a whiteboard up with all the episodes, all the scenes down the side, plotted everything through. Special marks for some of the bigger operations and things and also a kind of graph of the drug intake or need. And I just needed that visual. I needed to come in the morning and go right where bom-bom-bom and just have that to keep the whole thing in my head.

HitFix: Well, the process of making sort of five movies, which is pretty hefty, does that make this experience more like “Che” than like “K Street” to some degree?

Steven Soderbergh: No. It wasn't like “Che,” fortunately. And “K Street” was different, I mean the speed of “K Street,” there's a similarity there but the fact that we were literally creating the story Monday morning at 9:00 every week was a different kind of pressure. But having said that, there were things that I learned coming out of “Che” that have remained with me since and that were certainly very helpful in this situation. There's a weird freedom in having to move that quickly because there is no other way out than to distill everything down to its absolute essence. You have no time for anything that's just not the absolute marrow of the scene, and there's something nice about that. Like everybody knows like we don't have time to do anything. If we're going to have a discussion it better be about something that's really crucial. And they were. I mean the few times that we had to stop and sort of think about stuff it was because there was something, the core of the scene that needed to be discussed. But other then that the fact that the whole — everybody, cast and crew — understands there's no time to kind of meander. Like it's just it's got to be all bone here. And so I enjoyed that.

HitFix: You say you enjoyed it and you say it was nice, but was there a moment of panic before it became “nice”?

Steven Soderbergh: Before. Sure. Sure.

HitFix: And what was that moment of panic like and how long did it last?

Steven Soderbergh: Well, it's, you know, you don't panic and you certainly don't want to let other people think that you're panicking. [Clive laughs.] A large part of this is being built on, I'm aware of the fact that everybody's looking to me going, “Well he thinks we can do it” and I knew we could do it, but I was scared. I was scared until the first week.

HitFix: Oh, and then from there it was…

Steven Soderbergh: Yeah. Then I was fine.

HitFix: And then how about for you, Clive? You're the start of this, you're also an EP on this. What was sort of the tone that you wanted to make sure that you set as sort of the top of the call sheet guy?

Clive Owen: For me it was just all about preparation and understanding. I'd look at that schedule, I knew the way that we were shooting. I very quickly, I haven't worked with Steven before, but within a few days I kind of knew the world we were in and it was about just preparing and the discipline of preparing and knowing that this was an intense 10 days here, where it was an awful lot of material and then I got a little breather there and just working out a rhythm of, you know, you shoot a movie and I'm pretty much on top of a 90-minute thing before I go in, you can't do that with 10 hours. So it was important to work through the schedule and know the rhythm of what I had to prepare and knew the times where I had breathers to regroup and get on for the next lot.

HitFix: Was it a similar sensation for the TV that you had done earlier in your career or totally different?

Clive Owen: No. Faster.

HitFix: And was that better or worse?

Clive Owen: It was hugely challenging but it was kind of great. When you arrived at work it was focused and everyone pulling together to make something happen, and the work ethic was second to none so it was great.

HitFix: I want to talk just a little bit about one of these stealth stars of this for me and that's Cliff Martinez. Like the first couple notes of the score you go, “Wait, does this fit with this,” and by the time you've listened to five minutes of it you're like, “Okay this is what it is.” What about Cliff did you want and what did you want Cliff to be bringing to this?

Steven Soderbergh: Well, I hired him before I even knew what I wanted him to do just because I love Cliff and we've had great collaborations before and we hadn't worked together in a little while. And then it was very late; it was about a week before we started shooting that I finally decided, “This is the approach we're going to take” and I told Cliff that and started very quickly posting cut scenes with temp score so that everybody could get a sense of what I was after. And nobody got upset. It's one of those things where words kind of fail you in trying to describe why it works. It just felt to me like the way to go. And it wasn't anything more significant than that. It just felt like the way to go. It felt like him to me. And so we went in that direction. And clearly I knew in my mind, “Well, I know I'm not using strings…” and often you come to a place by defining what you want the thing not to be. And in this case there was a list of things that we wanted it not to be and that was one of them.

HitFix: To me it was like his shoes. It was the thing that played by its own rules.

Steven Soderbergh: Yeah, it is! Exactly.

HitFix: And a season two, are you excited about the possibility? Are you terrified about the possibility? Are you exhausted already about the possibility?

Steven Soderbergh: No. I want to come back.

HitFix: And you?

Clive Owen: For sure. The same. We had a great time on it.

[Two hours later at the actual press tour panel, Cinemax announced that “The Knick” had been renewed for another season and Soderbergh confirmed he'd be directing all 10 episodes again.]

“The Knick” premieres on August 8 at 10 p.m. on Cinemax.

Around The Web