Steven Soderbergh on the Gore, the Grind, and the Glory of Making 'The Knick'

Steven Soderbergh has directed award-winning films like Traffic and Sex, Lies, and Videotape, as well as crowd-pleasers like Out of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven. He’s gone back in time with The Good German, and looked unnervingly prescient with Contagion. No job in his long and distinguished career, though, may have brought him more fulfillment than the 20 episodes of television he directed over two seasons of The Knick, the period medical drama that aired on Cinemax from 2014 to 2015 and has just come to HBO Max. “My wife has told me many times,” Soderbergh says, “‘That’s as happy as I’ve ever seen you working on anything.’”

Set at a fictionalized version of Manhattan’s famed Knickerbocker Hospital at the turn of the 20th century, The Knick was created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, and starred Clive Owen as chief surgeon John “Thack” Thackeray, who used cocaine as an anesthetic on his patients, then got hooked on the drug himself. André Holland co-stars as Dr. Algernon Edwards, a brilliant surgeon struggling to prove himself at a time when opportunities for black doctors were rare. The excellent cast also included Eve Hewson, Juliet Rylance, Jeremy Bobb, Michael Angarano, Chris Sullivan, Cara Seymor, and Eric Johnson.

The Knick is among the most visually striking series ever produced in America, with Soderbergh — serving, as usual, as his own cinematographer and editor — using handheld cameras and shooting everything with natural light. Episodes could have huge spectacle, like a story about the Knick’s doctors trying to escape a race riot, or be unbearably intimate, like an episode where Thackeray goes through withdrawal during a national cocaine shortage(*). And each episode could be unspeakably gory, as the cutting-edge medicine of the year 1900 looked like a second cousin to barbarism by 2015.

(*) When I complimented Soderbergh on how well a sequence in that episode put us inside Thack’s head, he laughed and recalled a co-worker telling him that the editing in that scene was too annoying. “My goal was,” he recalled, “‘I’m going to make this as hard for you to sit through as it is for him to sit through.’”

The Knick was the prestige player in Cinemax’s brief (but glorious) attempt to make its own original series, though it wound up at HBO’s sister channel more through a quirk of timing than a master plan. When the confusingly-named HBO Max streaming service launched last year, all the Cinemax shows were noticeably absent, and reports suggested HBO executives didn’t want them. But HBO’s Casey Bloys — ironically, the executive who passed on making a third season of The Knick — took over Max, and has recently added Cinemax originals like Warrior, Banshee, and now both beautiful and disgusting seasons of Soderbergh’s small-screen gem.

Soderbergh spoke with Rolling Stone about The Knick‘s birth and death (with spoilers for how it ended) — plus the status of a potential third season directed by Barry Jenkins and centering on Edwards — with a few digressions into Better Call Saul, the Bravo reality show Below Deck, and more.

You had made shows for HBO before like K Street and Unscripted, so how did this wind up at Cinemax?
We were coming to them at a time where they had already set their HBO slate for the next year to 18 months. At that time, they were also trying to rebrand Cinemax, and I assumed that there was a little room on the financial ledger on that side of the company to fit in a project like The Knick. We basically went to them with a pilot script, a description of what the whole series was, and Clive Owen, and we were asking them to greenlight a season. I proposed to [then-HBO boss] Michael Lombardo, “Look, I know you already have your slate together and I’m asking you to greenlight this now. Why don’t we do it over at [Cinemax]? You’ve got a little more room over there, and we can be the spearhead of this rebranding.” He said, “Great, let’s do that.”

The other Cinemax shows at that time were pulpy action shows. I assume the executives there weren’t asking if you could include more hatchet fights, right?
No, but let’s be clear. This in my mind was very pulpy. It was a doctor melodrama. Doctor shows are one of the oldest and most sturdy TV genres that have ever existed. I made it clear to them that, in my mind, this was a very accessible show. It wasn’t designed to be something that was super-highbrow.

When HBO Max launched, none of the Cinemax original series were there, and there were reports that the people running the service didn’t want to include any of them. Was that frustrating to you?
I assumed that there was going to be a little bit of delay in getting those shows up on the platform. In the same way that not every movie that Warner Bros. has made is on HBO Max, I assumed you couldn’t have every TV show. But I assumed it would show up at some point. They spent a lot of money on the show. It didn’t seem to be in their interests to pretend it didn’t happen. I wasn’t calling anybody and pounding the table about it. There’s always the chance that there’s some language in their contracts that has to do with their carrier deals and when things can show up behind a paywall. There’s always some fine print that you have to adhere to. I guarantee you there were some conversations that took place before we could be included.

In between the time when the Season Two finale aired and now, do you feel like the show in any way remained part of the zeitgeist?
No. I think when the show ended and it was clear that it wasn’t going to continue, it got subsumed by the never-ending tsunami of new content that shows up on these platforms almost every day. But then in the interim, even though they didn’t continue with the show in the way that we’d originally imagined, Amiel and Begler and Barry Jenkins and André have been developing a new iteration of the show that skips forwards in time, and that’s looking very promising.

Where does that stand right now?
I can say that I read an excellent pilot, and that HBO has it. I hope that goes forward.

Have you had any conversations with Barry about what he’s going to be in for, workload-wise?
No. I feel, since he’s coming out the other end of [the upcoming Amazon series] Underground Railroad now, he probably has a pretty good sense of what it’s like. I’m being very respectful in the sense that this is their show. I’m kind of in the background and trying to be consiglieri when that’s appropriate, but it’s really their show. It was their idea, they’ve been developing it. They send me things to read, but I’m just here to cheerlead.

What drew you to the script in the first place?
It came to me during a period when I was supposed to be retiring. I had just finished Behind the Candelabra. I had nothing in front of me, had cleared the decks, and I was going to go on an extended sabbatical of some sort. Right around the time we were at Cannes with Candelabra, this script came in for the first episode, and I had to tell my wife, “I think I may be going back to work, and I may be going back to work real soon.” I couldn’t bear the idea of someone else getting their hands on this. I was the first person to see it. It was about everything I’m interested in: process, problem-solving, class, race, power, ego. For me, it checked every single box, and I liked the idea of doing a period show but trying to shake the dust off of what we typically imagine when we think of a show set at the turn of the 19th and 20th century, in terms of its style and its sound, and the pitch of the performances. I really was sort of acting in opposition to the classic, well-mounted period project.

Soderbergh on the set of ‘The Knick’ Season One.

Mary Cybulski /Cinemax

That was one of the things I always loved about the show: Even though it was set more than 100 years ago, it was the present for the people living in that moment, and medicine was on the cusp of the future. How did you go about making it feel contemporary?
Mostly, it was trying to establish a visual style that was visceral. The decision to go almost exclusively handheld, and to move the camera whenever possible — in a justified way, hopefully, but to keep the thing moving in a literal sense — was my goal. I was just lucky that we put a cast together that was able to handle it all. We were averaging eight to nine pages a day, typically. Sometimes, I’m doing things in one shot. If I didn’t have a cast that was up to that challenge, we never would have gotten through it. And I was worried. [Shooting] 10 hours of material in 73 days, that’s aggressive. Before Season One, I was very anxious about it. And after the first week, we fell into this rhythm, and I thought, “We’re gonna be OK.” Both seasons were shot in the same number of days.

When I read that Vulture story about your typical workday on the show, I couldn’t believe it was possible for anyone to accomplish so much in so little time. 
It was a great CrossFit version of filmmaking. You had to lean into it and get off on the fact that it was a really crazy schedule. I loved doing the show. My wife has told me many times, “That’s as happy as I’ve ever seen you working on anything.” It was a lot of hours compressed into a short period of time, but I was just really, really happy. We had the freedom and the resources to do anything we could imagine. It was a very tight brain trust. We had a really good relationship with [head of programming] Kary Antholis and our other executives at Cinemax. In terms of a practical experience, it couldn’t have gone any better. It was so fun to work on a canvas that big. And by that I mean, not just recreating that period, but telling a story of that length and that breadth; [it] was really satisfying. It really made me realize that there are certain ideas that are movie ideas — that are best expressed in two hours — and then there really are ideas that benefit from going narrow and deep with a lot of different characters. I’d always been a fan of [German miniseries] Berlin Alexanderplatz, and this was my shot at doing something on that scale. I was really excited by it.

You watch a lot of TV. I agree that there are ideas that are definitely better at 10 hours than at two, but in your own viewing, how often do you come across ones that should have stayed at feature length?
That’s hard to say, because if I see something and I sense that, I stop. I’m seeing this more in docs lately than in scripted dramatic series. Lately, I’m seeing a lot of multipart documentary series that I feel are padded out and are too long. I go, “That didn’t need to be six hours.” Not seeing it as much with scripted drama.

On a project as huge as The Knick, was working as editor and cinematographer as well as director even harder, or were there ways in which it made the whole task easier?
It’s two sets of conversations that I don’t have to have all the time, with a cinematographer or an editor. It’s certainly more efficient for me. There are times, because these are interior conversations, when people are a little in the dark about what I want and why. Eventually, it can get to the point where they’re chasing me around the room a little bit, but they’ve gotten used to that. If we start rehearsing and blocking a scene with the cast, they know if I settle in one spot for more than a certain number of seconds, that’s probably where the camera is going to start. They’re reading my movements to get a sense of what’s coming. But it would be hard for me to go back and insert somebody into that process. Not because there aren’t better people at both of those jobs — there are — it’s just that the intimacy of it and the speed of it work really well for me.

When Cary Fukunaga directed all of True Detective Season One, it was treated as this superhuman feat. And over this past decade, we’ve had a number of drama seasons where one person directs every episode, this one included. Is there something about the evolution of how TV is made that’s made it easier for people like you to do that? Or is it just a weird confluence of events that so many people have done it in close proximity?
It’s hard to tell if this is a cyclical change or a secular change in the way people are approaching series. This was the approach I took in 2003 on K Street. It’s my belief that if you can do this, you get a better result. There’s nothing to compare with having the same filmmaker making all of those decisions on every episode. There’s a unification that comes form that that you cannot reproduce when you have multiple directors. On the shows that I’ve produced, I’ve pushed very hard for a filmmaker, or in the case of The Girlfriend Experience, with Amy [Seimetz] and Lodge [Kerrigan], a pair of writer-directors, to make all the episodes. I just think the result is better. Whether that’s going to become a thing even in a niche way, I don’t know. It’s a position I’ve taken and a belief I have, because I think the filmmaker is the primary creative force. And so I lean toward empowering the filmmaker to make their show. We just finished Season Three of The Girlfriend Experience, and Anja Marquardt did the whole show. The result is really unique and special, because it’s her vision, down to the frame.

This is a real role reversal from how television was traditionally made, with the writer as the ultimate boss and various directors coming in as hired guns. If, say, Vince Gilligan were to call you up to ask you to direct an episode in the final season of Better Call Saul, could you do that?
It would be hard. In that case, I could do that in the sense that I’ve seen every episode of the show and know what the filmmaking grammar of that show is. I can absolutely come in and be consistent with what they have established. I don’t think that’s a great use of me, but I could do it. What would have been really up my alley would be something along the lines of what Vince did with El Camino. If they’d approached me and said, “We’re going to wrap the show up with a two-hour movie of the show,” I’d be very excited about that. Although, again, having seen what Vince did, I don’t know why Vince would ask me. Whether it’s as a producer or as a director, I like to feel as though I’m bringing something to the table that wouldn’t be there ordinarily. Otherwise, I’m kind of redundant. So there are times when people ask me to jump on projects as a producer, and I’ll look at the project and go, “You don’t need me. You’re ready to go. You have a great script, a great director, you have your money, you have your distributor, there’s nothing for me to do here.” If my name’s going to be on it, I want to perform some work.

Mary Cybulski /Cinemax

Why did you want Clive Owen to play Thack?
He was the first person we approached. You need a movie star, somebody with that kind of watchability and gravitas. I knew him a little bit. He had a great reputation as a person and as a professional. He said yes immediately, and I told him, “I only need you for two years. We’re going to kill you at the end of Season Two.” We knew that already. He decided very quickly, and then we were shooting a little over four months after I took it to Michael Lombardo.

This was after True Detective, but before shows like Big Little Lies completely shattered the idea that movie stars won’t do TV. With the quick “yes,” I gather Clive wasn’t worried about that?
Didn’t seem that way, no. He was just looking at it as a part to play. And believed it was a great part, which I think it is. And it was really fun watching him do it. Our six-year plan was Seasons One and Two as you saw it. Seasons Three and Four were going to skip forward 50 years. It was going to be right after World War II, brand-new characters, brand-new cast. And Seasons Five and Six were going to be set five minutes into the future, with a mix of actors from the previous four seasons. I was really excited to do all of that.

So what happened? Why did the show end after the Thack seasons?
A couple of things, none of which were within our control. The show did not do for Cinemax what it was intended to do, which was to help rebrand and draw new eyeballs to the channel. It didn’t do badly, but it was clear at the end of the second season that it wasn’t doing what we wanted it to do for that channel. So now it moves back to HBO [for consideration], and Michael Lombardo is gone, and they’ve already got their spend figured out, and it isn’t a small number to produce this show. So it just showed up at the wrong time at the wrong place. [Lombardo’s replacement] Casey Bloys had other priorities, very large priorities. We didn’t have the juice to make it happen. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. As much as we were the benefit of circumstances in getting it made, we then had it happen in reverse, where all the timing and situations worked against us.

What did you see in André Holland that made him the guy to play Dr. Edwards?
I just found him very charismatic in an unaffected way. I found him compelling as a person, not because he was trying to be, but because he just is compelling as a person. So he’s smart, attractive, talented, he’s got a great voice. I keep encouraging him to go make a lot of money doing voiceovers, because he’s got a fantastic voice. And he’s dedicated in the best sense of the word. And very soon after we started shooting Season One, I started talking to him about other stuff. He struck me as somebody who wasn’t sitting around waiting for the phone to ring, so I started up a conversation about what else he had going, and High Flying Bird developed from conversations we were having about black athletes and trying to come up with a good way to explore what it’s like to be an African-American athlete in one of the major sports in this country.

You’d worked with [composer] Cliff Martinez many times before. What conversations did you have with him that led to that electronic score?
I knew I wanted Cliff to do it, but I decided on the approach very late — so late that people were getting a little worried. We got within a week or two of shooting, I still hadn’t declared myself. Partially because I had an idea of which way I was going to, but I needed to see if it was going to work first. As soon as I had a sequence that demanded score, I put some music on there that is in the vein of what Cliff did, just to make sure that I was asking for the right thing. I had a feeling that it would work. It had been done before. What I was in mind of, considering the approach, was the Peter Weir film Gallipoli, which is set during [World War I], and has an all-electronic score. I remember seeing the movie and going, “That’s pretty cool.” That always stuck with me.

That score was always a huge part in making the show feel modern to me.
As you said, for them, it’s like now. If you’re living in New York City in 1900, it feels like what we’re experiencing now. That sort of energy. That was a way to make that point. I like the juxtaposition of that: all-electronic score in an age that was pure analog. I loved that contrast, that chocolate-and-peanut-butter thing.

One of the more disgusting images from the show involved the woman whose nose had been destroyed by syphilis. I found out later you did that with CGI. In general, how much of the show was practical versus digital?
We tried to do as much of it practically as possible. My recollection is that the nose was the only one where we just had no other option. For almost everything else, whether it was the brain stuff or the throat or the abdomen, we built all that stuff, and it worked, and it looked disgusting. For the actors, I think it was a little surreal. For instance, the first seven minutes of episode one of Season One, the actors’ experience of that placenta previa was kind of realistic, in the sense that the thing would start and he would make the incision and blood would start to come, and they had to react to that.

How important was the gore to The Knick?
Oh, very. That was our motto: There’s gotta be at least one moment, if not more, in every episode where somebody has to cover their face, because they just can’t watch. Joel Silver used to have his whammy chart [where a movie needs an exciting set piece every 12 minutes], and this was our whammy chart.

Where did the ideas for all of those gruesome images come from?
Jack and Michael had done a lot of research, and we worked with our consultants to create a bucket of really awful shit that had happened in reality back then. We had quite a selection of horrific maladies and cures. Unlike your typical period movie, I wanted your feeling watching the show to be, “Thank god I’m alive now.” I didn’t want any of this, “Oh, it must have been so nice back then! The clothes! The carriages!” I wanted you to really be happy you’re living in this era. Having said that, obviously there are things that we’re doing now in the medical field that in 10 or 20 or 30 years, we will look back on and be shocked that we were still doing them now.

The actors were horrified for that first scene, but I assume they got battle-hardened by the end, right?
Absolutely, their tolerance increased very quickly. And they got very good at it. They practiced before we started shooting, in terms of technique, but they got pretty good just in terms of raw sewing ability.

Who was the best at sewing?
[Michael] Angarano is very good. He had real potential.

The very first image we see on the show is Thack’s white leather shoes. Who came up with the idea for him to wear those, and to put them at the center of the opening shot?
That was Clive and [costume designer] Ellen Mirojnick. She pitched it to Clive, Clive loved it and brought it to me. He said, “If I’m going to be David Bowie, I’ve got to be David Bowie.” And I said, “Absolutely.” For me, it was a no-brainer that the first image had to be those shoes. It’s such a masterstroke. You almost can’t imagine the show without them. That’s how significant they are. When I fall into that philosophical debate about film versus digital, my whole position is that on the list of things that matter to an audience, the capture medium is near the bottom. This is a perfect example. For the viewer and for the show, generally speaking, the decision to have him wear those white shoes is more important than what we shot it on. That matters to the viewer. Those shoes matter. And it’s just an example of how the 20,000 questions you answer as a filmmaker all add up to something. That’s why having one person answering those questions, I think, yields a better product.

I once read an interview with [production designer] Howard Cummings where he said you wanted to make the show in black and white. Is that correct?
Yes. That was the plan for Season Three and Four. They were going to be in Cinemascope black and white. That was always in the back of my mind. Although that was, to me, tied to a very specific period. I very much wanted to shoot Seasons One and Two in color, because I felt there was a lot to be done with the palette.

So you never considered making the first two seasons black and white?
I never pitched that, to put it that way, because I knew that was going to be a nonstarter.

What do you remember of shooting that scene in the finale where Thack operates on himself?
We didn’t have many long days on the shoot, surprisingly enough. We usually averaged about nine or 10 hours a day. That was a long day, because there was a lot of stuff to do.  It was also, at the time, tinged with the understanding that we were nearing the end of this show experience. I had to be open to that possibility. I wanted it to continue, but I wasn’t sure it was going to. I totally understand how and why people get onto series that they want to keep doing. Showing up for Season Two and seeing the band back together, I just got a jolt of, “Oh, this is why people do seven years of a thing,” assuming they like the people around them, because it was like reuniting with your family. So as we were doing it, for me, it was like, “This is kind of it. This is going be the end.” But it was such a great way for him to go, you know. It was exciting at the same time. The whole thing was designed that way: two years, and he dies. And that ending with Algernon was also always contemplated with the implication that he would be exploring this new field of the talking cure.

Finally, I need to ask you about your TV habits. Every year, you publish a list of what you watched, and it’s a pretty diverse group, with room for both Better Call Saul and something like Below Deck, the Bravo reality show about a charter yacht crew. How do you find things to watch? Are you channel-surfing? Does someone recommend things to you?
Somebody told me about Below Deck, I’m pretty sure. The reason I think Below Deck is just ridiculously engaging is, it’s about work. It’s about how to problem-solve at work, about clashing personalities, and about expectations. It’s about error correction. As I think I posted years ago, as a sort of human experiment, this is the shit that [psychologist] Stanley Milgram got fired for: putting people into situations like this and seeing how they react. It’s kind of crazy that this is a thing that we do. What I like about the show is that shit’s going on, whether or not there are cameras there. They didn’t create a business to then make a TV show out of it. That is a business that exists, and then somebody thought this could be an interesting show. From a pure production standpoint, it’s mind-blowing, what they’re able to do — the amount of cameras that they have, everybody’s wired, and it’s all seamless. It’s jaw-dropping. I read this article about how they do it, technically. It’s crazy, the amount of work that goes into making the filmmakers invisible. I don’t view it as disposable. A lot of people would go, “Oh, it’s a reality show, and it vaporizes the minute you stop watching it.” That show doesn’t to me, because like I said, it’s a show about going to work.

Are you able to turn off the filmmaking part of your brain and not think about how the shots were made? Or is that always happening as you watch something?
Look, I start a lot of things and stop because the filmmaking hurts my eyes. I just can’t wade through something where I think the filmmaking isn’t good. Part of the pleasure of watching a show like Better Call Saul is how good the filmmaking is. There’s a show on right now, Servant. The filmmaking on that show is excellent.

What are you watching on? Just a big TV, or do you ever view things on a tablet or even a phone?
Mostly, we have one big LG and that’s what I watch stuff on. I rarely watch stuff on an iPad, unless it’s just pure homework and I’m somewhere I don’t have access to a larger screen. Like, I’m in a location van, I need to see something right away, and it’s convenient.

Steven, thanks for giving us an excuse to re-watch and talk about The Knick again.
It’s one of my happiest experiences. There was just no aspect of it that I don’t look back on and smile about it. So hopefully, we’ll get some more people to see it this time around.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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