Director Steven Soderbergh was all ready to pack it in, at least for a while. There were other aspirations he wanted to devote time to, such as painting and photography — two endeavors that he works on more privately — and as he had thoroughly detailed in his 2013 State of Cinema address at the San Francisco International Film Festival, the game was getting more and more rigged. Studios were becoming even more risk averse, and their profit-driven decision making was squeezing filmmakers like himself not so interested in solely making blockbuster, four quadrant entertainment, to the margins.
“Behind The Candelabra” was to be Soderbergh’s final film before a planned sabbatical. And while the experience at HBO (the cable channel that ultimately released the movie) was good, it was the road to making ‘Candelabra’ that shook the filmmaker. An adult drama about the famous entertainer Liberace and his much younger gay lover, no studio would touch the project, claiming there was no profit upside and viable-enough audience. As a filmmaker who almost exclusively told these kind of medium-sized movies, the filmmaker saw the correlation to our shrinking middle class: movies were either becoming huge or super micro-sized.
But as he contemplated a furlough from cinema, the teleplay for the 1900s-set medical drama “The Knick,” landed in his lap and in Soderbergh’s words, he got “lit up” creatively. In nearly a blink of an eye, Soderbergh switched gears and dived into “The Knick,” not just directing, but also editing and shooting the project himself.
And you can see the glinting spark in “The Knick,” a kinetic and absolutely enthralling show about surgeons blazing trails on the forefront of modern medicine in the early 1900s. As “The Knick” came to its shocking conclusion last week (read our recap), we sat down with Steven Soderbergh to talk about the show, and so much more. Additionally, if you’ve seen “The Knick” finale and want to dive into spoilers you can read Soderbergh’s thoughts on the future of the series here.
[Wryly] I wanted to congratulate you on your sabbatical. All that time off. I’ve been enjoying your Instagram vacations photos and all that leisure time.
[Chuckles] You can imagine my wife’s reaction right around the time of ‘Candelabra’ coming out, which was supposed to be the start of my extended vacation. I read “The Knick” and said not only was I going back to work but I’m going to shoot [all] 10 hours and we start 4 months. But she also knows that when I get lit up that, that’s fun and it was fun.
And you’ve still been juggling multiple projects all the while “The Knick” has been shooting and editing.
When I do lectures or talk at schools, I’ll talk about the importance of carving out time that can’t be interrupted by anything. Also, in my case having multiple projects going on, [it’s about] calibrating when to spend focused time on which project in order to make sure that it moves downfield at a point where it needs to move downfield. There’s no fixed algorithm for that because the projects, depending on what stage you’re in, it may require different types of focus of different lengths.
It strikes me in your need for streamlined process that you’ve removed so many layers that it creates a kind of super efficiency. You don’t need to talk to the DP, the cameraman, the editor and explain your intentions, you just fulfill them.
It’s the Orson Welles quote I’ve referenced before: “I don’t want to wait on the tool, I want the tool to wait on me.” Certainly, what I loved about all this new technology, whether it’s the cameras or the ability to cut in the van on the way back from work, it all comes down to the ability to iterate quickly. Anybody that works in a startup in which you’re trying to develop some new technology will tell you that the first thing you want to figure out is how to put together a way of working in a team that allows you to iterate as quickly as possible because it’s the only way you figure out whether or not you’ve done it right or not.
Right, which is why start-ups move so much faster then corporations. Speed is essential to the way you iterate, even “live” on set.
The optimization of process which I wrote about in the season one notes (available for free on iTunes) is that there are variables that can never be figured out unless you’re there, and you have everything in front of you, and you’re trying to figure them out. There are so many steps of the process that can be optimized that don’t involve creative decisions at all. It is strictly how you put things in place to get to the moment of creativity. I don’t like wasting time.
I’m certainly sensitive to that as I get older and realized time is — I’m on the back nine. I’m the first person to slow things down if something’s not working but it drives me insane when we’re waiting for something that we shouldn’t have to wait for. It should have been figured out beforehand.
The mild irony being that you block scenes on the day and not in advance.
I like to be able to build it live as we’re blocking it, as we’re going through it.
To be honest, I’m just not very good at picturing the specifics of it before I’ve seen it and some people can, like the Coen Brothers. Anybody will tell you they did it all when they were writing it, and they have it, and everybody gets a copy of the boards and it works for them.
I just can’t do it. [David] Fincher can do it. A lot of people do it. Most people do it. Especially most people that like anything at scale but maybe that’s my Achilles’ heel. It’s like I’m not good at anything that involves an actor. I’m just really hesitant to nail it down until we’re there and we’re on set. They have the props. The writers are there. We’re working the scene [and] I don’t like reverse engineering them to something that I was thinking about weeks ago. I’d rather see what’s happening today.
I was thinking that if something good comes across your desk, you have a hard time saying no.
It was impossible in this case. How do you decide to do a project is so not an intellectual process in the sense that if I’m reading something, I either see it, you either conjure images right away, or I don’t at all. It’s a binary thing with me. Then there’s just an issue of whether or not this is in my wheelhouse.
I was re-watching your SIFF state of cinema address again. That’s April 2013, ‘Candelabra’ is right around the corner and in retrospect all of it sounds like a goodbye to traditional cinema. But then you’re on your way to Cannes and “The Knick” script lands in your lap and at least some form of narrative sucks you back in.
Yeah. I haven’t looked at [the SIFF talk] since I did but I think I would imagine most of what I said either holds true today or is even more true in terms of the economic trajectory, the business, and the template that is still in place how movies are sold and what movies are made and why.
The speech also makes sense when one thinks of your move to TV and the economics of theatrical vs. streaming or subscriber-based platforms that don’t have to bear the burden of splitting revenue with theater chains or deal with the entire theatrical industrial complex. You think about it in that context and you wonder why everyone isn’t doing it.
I think it depends on what motivates you, ultimately. In my case, it really is about just the ability to go after stories that I’m interested in and being able to make them the way I think they ought to be made and it’s really not about the medium. The medium to me is storytelling, just storytelling, period. To work in an environment, especially the subscriber world where the criteria are very different for success, it’s just more fun. I know that Cinemax is happy with the numbers but at the end of the day, the way it has enabled people to look at the channel differently was really the most important thing for them.
Right, it drives subscribers which is their end game. The same thing applies for Netflix and all-streaming platforms: driving subscribers. It’s a completely different metric for success.
Yeah, exactly. I like that model. I feel really comfortable in that model. That’s a model in which 3 million people seeing something is a success, whereas in the theatrical world, that’s not a success if you’ve made a movie of a certain scale.
You could be fucked.
As we talked about: 3 million people see a movie at $8 bucks a pop conservatively and then so that’s $24 million. You get half of that back, that’s $12 million, and you spend $30 million more to sell it so here we are.
For someone trying to be creative, uncompromising and making art, that’s a difficult arena to play in, if you’re thinking about the money that people are staking on you.
That’s the thing. I don’t think that model is fun for the studios either. I don’t think they’re happy. I don’t think anybody’s enjoying what’s going on right now. That’s why the industry is incredibly scared about the current sea change and I get it. What I don’t understand is why there hasn’t been some concerted effort to do some like Nate Silver on this shit and go, “Okay. Here’s some assumptions that we’re making that are possibly wrong.” You know what I mean? I just don’t see any real dedication to figuring out, “Is there a better way to do what we’re doing other than carpet bombing television?”
Unfortunately change on an industry-wide level or any massive scale is like getting the Titanic to change the slightest course. Look at our political process.
No, you’re right. I try, but it’s just not a sandbox that it was fun to play around in anymore so that is what it is so I go over here, and this is, yeah, it works.
There’s got to be a lot of people who haven’t even seen “The Knick” yet.
Oh, I’m sure they haven’t. I mean, when we dropped Season 1 on iTunes in August that was great for us in front of Season 2, because that enabled a lot of people to be exposed to it. HBO played it which also helped. They do occasionally and they ran the whole thing right up before we started Season 2.
I still run into people who say, “Oh, yeah, we don’t get [Cinemax],” as though it hasn’t reached them, like it hasn’t gotten to their neighborhood yet and I think part of that process. We’re part of a process in which they have some new shows coming up. They’re at the beginning of building the channel as something that people would want to have. Because it’s a whole psychological thing. They don’t think, “Oh, for the price of two lattes, I could have the channel.” They don’t think like that.
The other thing I’ve talked about is, it’s not as easy as it should be to sign up. This should be a two-click process if you have cable. You should be able to go, “I also want a Cinemax,” and it goes, “Okay, it’s 4.99 a month.” You go, “Yes,” and that’s it. It isn’t like that and it should be. Now, that’s a whole other thing they’re trying to figure out. And by the way, Season 2 is going to drop on iTunes in January, way ahead of the DVDs and all that.
I wanted to rewind to what lit you up about the show in the first beyond this complex doctor. You’ve got a period piece, it’s about class, race, modernity, the edge of technology and science, all this stuff that feels really relevant now.
Yeah, it had everything for me. It was about everything I’m interested in. Primarily, how new knowledge is created. That was the thing that I was most interested in is just watching people trying to figure shit out. Then you just had all this other stuff on top of it, the race and class issues, immigration. The complete lack of any rights on the part of the patient and the suggestion that an era which is about to come of a public health department is — like, it can’t be that much of a crap shoot walking to a hospital.
But it was back then, wasn’t it?
Oh, totally. Obviously, back then, if you were going to a hospital for surgery, the assumption going is you probably weren’t going to come out. There were two things that didn’t exist that were crucial at the time. One was antibiotics which changed everything. The other was a still incomplete understanding of how infection works. In particular, as we see, no gloves and no masks in the operating room. That was developed about a year later by William Halsted who was a loose model for the Thackery character.
Halstead started working on these gloves and other people started wearing them for another reason: to keep their hands from getting so screwed up by various medicines and then as a by-part, they realized, “Wow, fewer people are dying.” It was discoveries that came out of vanity more than any sense of, “Can we keep people from dying?” For me, what was awesome about this taking place during the time that it was taking place was they weren’t wearing masks and that was huge. It’s like, “Oh, my God. Nobody is sitting in front of a computer. Nobody is wearing a mask in the operating room. This is fantastic.”
Halsted seems like a good baseline for who Dr. Thackery is and the show itself.
Yeah. Halsted was a jumping off point. We steal stuff from his life and several other doctors that were not unlike him during that era but I’d say at least 80% of the protocols that are in place today for surgery, Halsted developed. This was an extremely bright, drug addicted overachiever. He did the first mastectomy and there are like 150 hemostats around the chest of the woman, the photos are insane. I mean, this is the work of somebody who is jacked up. It’s not normal and he would disappear for months too.
How you’re describing Halsted, that also just sounds like that’s the impetus for the aesthetic of the show.
Yeah, pretty much. Like he’s jacked up. That’s the feel of the show a little bit. That also drove the music approach. His experience of New York was like yours and mine, which is like too many things happening, too many people, too fast. How do you create that impression for the a modern audience? And that’s where the idea of doing an electronic score came in.
It creates such a terrific immediacy to everything. The feeling of contemporaneousness.
That’s what I hoped and I remembered when “Gallipoli” came out, the Peter Weir film, there was an electronic score in that by Jean Michel Jarre and it totally worked. It didn’t take you out of the movie at all. It was one of those things where before we started shooting, everybody was asking, “What’s the approach for the music?” I kept saying, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking. I have an idea but I don’t want to tell you what it is yet.” The reason being that I wanted some footage to cut to to see if it worked. I’d been talking to [composer] Cliff [Martinez] in the background saying, “I think I’m going to lean this way,” but I didn’t want to show anybody anything until I had some stuff. Then once they looked at it, I didn’t have to sell them on it. They saw it and it worked.
It’s so bold, it announces itself in such a strong way: this is our show, this is who we are.
The first seven minutes of episode one, season one were, for me, like — there’s everything about the show in the first seven minutes in terms of the sound, the look, the surgery shit. It’s like if you can’t take this or don’t like it, just stop because this is what it is.
It’s a good mission statement too.
Well, I think it’s fair to do that to announce yourself and just go, “This is what we’re doing.” It will save you some time if you like really find yourself struggling. It’s not going to get any better for you.
Did your visual approach change in season two, and if so how?
Yeah, it changed a little but also I think there was a consensus on the part of the creative brain trust that while we were happy with the first season that there was another gear to be had that all of us needed to push a little harder. As a result I wanted to push the style a little harder and open my toolkit up a little more but primarily from a story standpoint, it’s just a bigger canvas. The ideas are bigger. We’re outside of the hospital more in ways that still connect back to the hospital. And just on a practical level, we spent 10 more shooting days outside the hospital than we did in season one for the same length of shooting time. That’s a lot. That’s a pretty big percentage. And some things had a real slow burn that stake their way through to the last two episodes of the show.
Was there a specific goal?
We just felt like we can do better, like we can push this even more, and so I just felt like we were all better and I think the result is that your engagement with the characters is stronger partially because you’re building on ten hours that you already have. Also, I think they all had more to do. I felt like we sort of stood on the shoulders of season one and just pushed and I’m happier with season two. I think it’s deeper.
I feel like if you’d step me into a time machine after “Sex, Lies, And Videotape” and showed me this and said, “25 years from now, you’re going to this,” I would have been ecstatic. I would have gone, “Whoa, that looks like fun.” I’m really, really happy with the show. Like I said, it was just lucky this thing landed in front of me when it did.
“The Knick” can be seen on Cinemax now and should be playing in repeat on HBO soon. Season one can currently be found on iTunes and as the director said, season two will arrive on the service early in the new year.
My interview with Steven was incredibly long, and I’ll be running a second part soon that delves deeper into “The Knick, his “proof-of-concept” approach to his “The Girlfriend Experience” series coming to Starz in the second quarter 2016, and much more. If you’ve seen “The Knick” and want to delve into spoilers you can read Soderbergh’s thoughts on the future of the series here.