Grimy, stylish, and hellish, Steven Soderbergh’s turn-of-the-century medical drama “The Knick” is often like a nightmarish horror. If period dramas routinely romanticize the era with tea, doilies, and niceties, “The Knick” is a terrifying reminder that life back in the 1900s—when medicine and science were still relatively in their infancy—was grueling and cheap. And if you got sick, you were as good as dead.
Set in New York City in 1900 in a fictionalized version of the Knickerbocker Hospital, mortality rates are high, and antibiotics are all but nonexistent. At the center of it all is Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen), a surgeon and medical pioneer, who’s also a brusque, narcissistic genius and full-on cocaine addict.
Written and created Jack Amiel and Michael Begler (mostly known for romantic comedies and sitcoms), Steven “not the retiring type” Soderbergh was supposed to take a long sabbatical after his last feature, “Behind The Candelabra,” but as soon as he read the pilot, he knew he had to pounce. Four months later, a lighting fast shoot began on 10 episodes that debuted earlier this fall on Cinemax.
Scored with a throbbing modern pulse by Cliff Martinez (“Only God Forgives,” “Contagion“) “The Knick” is not your average medical show, nor your average period drama. In fact, it’s much more than both qualifiers, a snapshot of the 1900s with issues of race, class, and status embedded in the fabric of the setting. The intuitive urgency that Soderbergh’s style brings to the show is often just as deliriously good and cinematic as anything happening on the big screen today (here’s our review). We recently talked by phone with creators, writers, and executive producers Amiel and Begler about how they created the “The Knick,” working with Soderbergh and Owen, and much more. “The Knick” finale airs on Cinemax tonight. For more from the show, check out our recent interview with Clive Owen, and read our interview with the scribes, below.
The medical drama is the most successful and popular drama in the history of TV. And yet here, you subvert and deconstruct the genre. It practically begins like a horror movie about early medicine. What was the impetus?
Begler: I was having medical issue. I was researching alternative medicine and was also frustrated. I was thinking, “What were my options 100 years ago?” I can go online and find out so much different information now. Too much even.
But what do you do in 1900? On a whim Jack and I just bought a couple of medical textbooks from eBay, just as open discovery. We opened them and it was just incredible. And yes, it was a horror show. I couldn’t believe the things I was reading—people drinking turpentine to help a perforated intestine. My jaw hit the ground. The further we dove into this world the more crazy shit we saw. We were wowed, there was too much good stuff here. Once we saw that it was about medicine, then we started to look at what was the world of 1900 like. The world was changing so fast, with so much to play with.
Amiel: Plus, we’ve all seen a lot of medical shows. There are so many of them that they’re all solving the most intricate unbelievably difficult, arcane, obscure medical problems because these medical mystery shows need to go so far down the road to do something someone else hasn’t done. But we’re solving appendicitis. Today that means a little surgery, done. But back then, it was a big deal, people died from it. Someone had to figure this out originally—that’s what our characters are doing.
Those turn-of-the-century medical texts sound like they’re just a treasure trove of ideas.
Begler: It really is endless and every time I open one of my books, I’ll be looking up something specific to an episode but then I’ll stop on another page and go, “wait, what’s this?” It’s like reading “50 Shades of Gray,” you can’t put it down, you just can’t believe what you’re reading [laughs]. Everything was changing so fast—not only in medicine—the advances that they were making from month to month was astonishing.
This came together really fast. Didn’t you guys write it on spec and it just sort of took off?
Begler: Yep, and then it got into Steven Soderbergh’s hands. He fell in love with it, not long after we wrote it, and once he was on board the train took off. A week later he had already convinced Clive [Owen] to take the lead. Cinemax gave us the go-ahead in June of 2013, right after Cannes. Steven wanted to start shooting in September so we needed nine more episodes. The pressure was on, but we’d already done a ton of research before hand and really knew the work.
Wow, that’s really fast.
Amiel: We started in sitcoms which is really is the fastest form of fiction writing there is. It’s unbelievably quick. Steven said, “Okay we need nine more of these and they can’t stop.” I feel really like if we’d have gotten this assignment 20-years ago, I don’t think we could have pulled it off in the same way.
I love how it bucks all the conventions of perfectly crafted period piece films or shows. Everything is so nasty and unvarnished in this great way.
Amiel: When you talk about “the good old days” they weren’t always good for everyday. People forget, they say, “it harkens back to a simpler time.” Right, a time when white people ruled the earth and women had zero rights, etcetera. We romanticize things out of proportion.
You do a little research and it’s like, “Oh my god I’m so glad I don’t live in 1900.” You can love the outfits, the lawlessness and all that, but in the end you look at it and go, “Wow, I’m so glad we have Penicillin.” Everyone dies in 1900. No one lives. If they do, they live their life in pretty awful pain. So for us I think it was really important to tell the truth of the era which is life is cheap.
Begler: I really wish TVs had the ability to give out aromas because I can only imagine how fucking bad it must have smelled in the streets. There were 60,000 gallons of horse urine and 2 million pounds of horse manure in the streets, a day. Coupled with people not bathing, coupled how hospitals must have smelled like with all the illness. It just was a pretty bad time.
It’s the opposite of “Masterpiece Theater,” but there’s also a striking modernity and lived-in presence to it all.
Begler: Absolutely. We collectively didn’t want it to feel like some stage production, as many period pieces can feel. We wanted it to have a modern feel and Steven obviously is responsible for how it’s shot and [paired] with Cliff Martinez’s score. For us it was language. One of the things that attracted Steven was that we made sure that this thing wasn’t so stodgy. They weren’t speaking so perfect and eloquent.
Amiel: It was meant to be accessible, like we’re all in 1900 when we’re watching. We’re part of the action, not distanced from it. It was a very conscious choice.
Steven really captures the immediacy of it all. It’s also shot in a really unorthodox way that’s wonderful. What was it like collaborating with him?
Begler: The way I put it, Jack and I see the full spectrum of color, but Steven sees in the ultraviolet. He really sees things more and deeper than we could. Working with him was the greatest collaboration in our career. He is just loyal and collaborative and respectful. But regardless, all our egos had to be checked at the door. We had 73 days to shoot a 10-hour movie, we’re shooting 10, 11 pages a day. We all had to be on the same page. A good idea was a good idea, it didn’t matter where it came from. But the man is genius. He not only shoots, he edits, he holds the camera and this is not a man with a shot list.
A typical day—Steven was literally the first one on set. His whole thing is, if you’re on time to something, you’re already late. So he’s already absorbing the set. Then the actors arrive, we rehearse, he doesn’t block them too much. He just sort of walks around everyone in their space, soaking it in and then just calls out the lens he wants and we would shoot. It was incredible. We’ve always said maybe we’ll direct something in the future, but after seeing this guy work, the bar is so damn high, there’s no way.
Amiel: Savant is such an overused term, but he’s so thoughtful and insightful. He asks the most basic story and visual questions and then with the answer that he comes up with is so much more interesting than anything I could have thought of. That’s really his genius. Michael and I have been doing this 21 years and I feel like I learned how to do this all over again.
You’ve got your lead Dr. Thackery who is a show unto himself in any field. How did you come up with him?
Begler: Thackeray originated from our research into surgeons at the time, so mainly William Hofstede and people like William Osler and other medical pioneers. But we wanted to tell the truth, we didn’t want to create someone necessarily who was this great progressive or that was anachronistic to the time.
Right, he’s as racist or bigoted and prejudiced as everyone else at the time.
Begler: Right, but you know in the pilot when he doesn’t want to hire Algernon, it’s a practical decision. It’s about how nobody’s going to want to be treated by an African American doctor at that time. “Why would I want him in my hospital,” you know? I think he looks at the world that way. All the flaws are so important. And yet people call him an antihero and he’s not. He’s just a really flawed three dimensional individual who’s struggling with so much in his his life. He’s trying to advance science, but he’s haunted by this ghost of his past and he’s running from the pain of all of these patients dying by injecting himself. He’s constantly trying to find balance and all of those qualities were so appealing to us.
Amiel: I think we didn’t want to oversimplify. We really felt like nobody’s all one thing. I don’t know if I’d want to be friends with John Lennon. I hear he was a pretty tough guy to be around, but you know what? I will accept that for the other stuff that he was, you know? There’s all these geniuses in our world, like Steve Jobs, that you find were really difficult characters but they were also allowed to be who they were, which was world changers. I think someone like Thackery is the same way. I think he’s not all one thing, he’s a lot of pieces and you know … there’s a lot of fear in a guy like that that he’s running away from. What does that fear make you do? It makes you take a drug, act as if there’s a certainty to everything you do when you know there’s actually no certainty to what you do and that you’re probably going to kill someone. I think that we wanted to make sure he stayed complex and we never gave an easy answer.
I think this might be Clive Owen’s best role and performance to date.
Begler: From the first moment we started shooting his commitment level was incredible. He breathed life into this character that I couldn’t even imagine, especially when you get to the final episode, and you see his downward spiral in episodes eight and nine.
He had had a white board with all ten episodes where he was tracking his drug use. He would check the board before shooting the scene saying, “Well, I coked up here, so I’m a little iffy here.” I thought it was genius.
He really dove deep into this character in a way that I don’t think he’s been able to in other roles, mainly because other roles are two hours in a movie. Here he had ten hours to play he could really sink his teeth into it and I think that’s one of the things that attracted him to the role to begin with.
What can we expect from season two?
Begler: As crazy a trip as we took in season one, season two I think is even crazier. In season one we got to really understand who these people were at the end of ten episodes. Now we know them and now we can take them past that point and really see what they’re capable of and just that and so I think it’s going to be a pretty wild ride.
Jack Amiel’s favorite deleted scene: “After Nurse Monk is electrocuted [in episode two] we had a scene where the entire hospital staff is getting a lecture from a person from the Edison company about how electricity works so they don’t have any more accidents. He demonstrates the safety of electricity by electrocuting a cat in front of all of them and nobody reacts. They’re just like, ‘Okay, now I see how it works.’ The relationship to animals was different. Life was cheap, right?”
Steven Soderbergh will direct and shoot all the episodes of season two once again, which may begin in February. In a recent interview with co-star Juliet Rylance, the actress said the filmmaker is going to shoot it all “even faster.”
The final episode of “The Knick,” “Crutchfield,” airs tonight, Friday October 17 at 10pm ET. Check out two clips and two promos for the episode below.