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'The Knick' Creators on How They Went From Writing Studio Rom-Coms to Steven Soderbergh's New TV Show

Photo of Ben Travers By Ben Travers | Indiewire August 6, 2014 at 10:50AM

Jack Amiel and Michael Begler wrote all 10 episodes of Cinemax's upcoming historical medical drama "The Knick," more commonly known as Steven Soderbergh's first TV show. The show was a first for the writing team, who had previously penned unsuccessful sitcoms and romantic comedies like "Raising Helen" before finding themselves writing for one of our generation's most prolific directors. Below they explain what they needed to keep climbing the Hollywood ladder, how "The Knick" came to be and what it's like to work with the most sought-after retiree on the planet.
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Michael Angarano, Andre Holland, Clive Owen, and Eric Johnson in "The Knick" on Cinemax
Mary Cybulski/Cinemax Michael Angarano, Andre Holland, Clive Owen, and Eric Johnson in "The Knick"

The first thing I was curious about is your working relationship. How did you guys get started? 

Michael Begler: We’ve known each other since college and –

Jack Amiel: Since '86.

MB: Yeah, so we became friends in college. We were both from New York, but we both ended up in Wisconsin and we started writing in college together. The quick story is we were both in a fraternity and we did this one-act competition, where they paired you with this sorority and you did these silly one-act musicals. So Jack and I teamed up to write it for our team and we stole everything from Woody Allen, but nobody noticed, so that was fine with us. And once we graduated we both started working as PAs on different sitcoms.

In New York or LA?

JA: Michael went to New York. I’d taken a semester off to be a ski bum and amazingly they don’t give you college credit for that. Mike had gone to Italy and gotten college credit. So he was clearly brighter than I was. And so I graduated a semester after Michael did -- he went to New York and by the time I graduated, he was already a PA on “The Cosby Show.”

Oh, nice.

JA: And then I went to LA and I got a job as a PA. Fox was just starting up and they had a whole bunch of forgettable sitcoms and I worked on a large number [of them]. I bounced around there, and Michael and I kind of got together. I think he came out and visited and we sort of realized that we were making pennies compared to the dollars other people were making. And we were getting other people food, when what we really wanted was for other people to get us food, and we thought we could do that thing that the writers in the writers room were doing. [So] we wrote a bunch of spec scripts for sitcoms and Michael moved out and we gave it a shot. Michael became a PA, then a writer’s assistant at Witt/Thomas on a show called “Herman’s Head,” and that was our first script ever. I think '93-'94.

MB: '94. From that point on we worked consistently.

JA: We’ve never stopped working. We’re very lucky.

Jack Amiel and Michael Begler on the set of "The Knick"
Mary Cybulski/HBO Jack Amiel and Michael Begler on the set of "The Knick"

What’s your writing process like? Do you guys sit down together to write or go back and forth?

JA: We have an odd way of working, but it’s developed over time. First of all, we learned how to write together, so we start in the same room. When we first started, we would just toss ideas back and forth and then one of us would sit at -- well, back then it was a very rudimentary computer. One of us would work on the scene; one would go and play video games behind them.

"Technology has really helped us. We don’t live in the same city. Ten years ago we couldn't have done that." - Michael Begler, "The Knick"

MB: He had to have a mandatory Playstation break every day.

JA: And then the other one would read it and they’d edit and it was sort of a slow process. Michael likes to work in the morning and so he’d write four or five scenes and email them to me. I like to work at night. So we’d work during the day. We’d Skype. We’d always have several irons in the fire. That night I would take Michael’s four or five or six scenes. I would rewrite them and then write my four, five or six scenes. I’d send them back to Michael. He’d wake up in the morning and he would--

MB: It’s a sweatshop. Technology has really helped us because we don’t live in the same city anymore. I live in LA and Jack lives in Park City. So we depend on Facetime and we use that to talk ideas. "Knick" is a perfect example. Everything we did to write the pilot, we did electronically. We did it via email or sending each other so much information. We Facetime-ed and we discussed all the characters and broke it out on our computers. And once we got to pass the outline stage, we wrote the script in this fashion. Ten years ago we couldn’t have done that. So I think it’s so great and it just forces us to be as efficient as possible.

Did you go to grad school at all?

JA: No. No film school. No DGA programs. Nothing.

MB: I applied to film school before Jack and I decided to do this. I thought that was going to be the road to take and I only applied to four and thankfully I got rejected from all four of them. We felt working on these sitcoms was like going to grad school. I mean, we were in those writers’ rooms all day, taking their notes and learning the craft and then just going home at night and doing it over repeatedly, over and over again.

"I only applied to four [film schools] and thankfully I got rejected from all four of them." - Michael Begler, "The Knick"

JA: When I started working in the business, I saw scripts because I was delivering them and I was photocopying them. So you learn very quickly the format and all that stuff, but we’re very self-taught and very lucky that we started in sitcoms, because it is an extraordinarily good way to learn to write.

Why are sitcoms a good way to learn writing?

JA: Well, it’s a good way I think because you have to be quick; you have to change things on a daily basis. So you’re constantly rewriting and so you constantly have to be thinking of the next way to fix this problem or how to fix the puzzle. And so I think that sort of daily work, work, work is just like you’re in it all the time.

MB: You don’t have the luxury of writer's block. You don’t have the luxury of sitting around and going, "Hey, maybe I’ll just hang out and go get some lunch and walk around." You don’t have that time. You’ve just gone through a run through. The run through hasn’t gone well. It’s 4:30-5pm, you’re about to order dinner because you know you’re going to be there at least through dinner and now you’ve got to rewrite 55 pages. You’ve got to solve all your problems that you now realize you have [because] you see it up on the stage, and the actors need something for the next morning. So you had better rewrite those pages and you get a lot of responsibility really early. It’s a meritocracy. If you’re getting jokes in, if you’re the guys that handed in good drafts, you’re going to get more of them and you’re going to get more experience.

Clive Owen in "The Knick" on Cinemax
Mary Cybulski/Cinemax Clive Owen in "The Knick"

If you’re in a job where you’re forced to write, it just helps you become a better writer because you can’t stop.

MB: Yeah, it just creates this discipline. You’re forced and you do it day after day and it just becomes so ingrained. That’s just how you operate and I think, for us, that was so important and it helped us when we wanted to move to the next thing, when we wanted to make that shift from doing sitcoms into features.

It seems like you've made a pretty big genre shift from sitcoms to rom-coms to "The Knick." How did you decide "Okay, now we’re going to write this show”?

MB: Well, we sort of organically moved over into features. I’ll put it this way, we worked on a lot of sitcoms and obviously we’re grateful for every experience we had, but we weren’t on any hits. We were on a lot of shows that got cancelled after a season or even half-a-season and we had to keep hustling. We had to keep trying to reinvent ourselves. We had friends who were on these hit shows and they got to ride them for a long time. They were on “Seinfeld.” They were on “Friends.” Whatever. But that wasn’t our path. So we had to constantly figure out like, “Ok. How are we going to make the next leap?” And so we just kept our heads down. It opened us up to experiment and so the first experiment was saying, “Okay, let's try to write a feature.” And we just took it on and again, it was like starting back in sitcoms. We didn’t know what we were doing.

"All the film people -- because it’s hard to get a movie made -- they’re running to TV." - "The Knick" co-creator Jack Amiel.

JA: Writing a feature and writing a sitcom are vastly different. Your character arcs are different. Obviously, the size and scope are different. The worlds don’t cross over in terms of the executives. They do more so now. Everyone’s doing television and film and everything. And all the film people -- because it’s hard to get a movie made -- they’re running to TV. But back then, they were two vastly different worlds and we got very lucky. We were basically moonlighting in film and working happily in TV and what started to happen was TV started to wean. There was just a glut of sitcoms and sitcoms started to die. Reality got big. News magazines got big. Dramas got big and there were fewer and fewer sitcoms. And we were ready to staff because what you do when sitcoms use staff -- after everyone picks up their pilots, you quickly scramble -- it’s musical chairs. Everyone tries to find a job.

MB: Yeah, and it was interesting too because the features we set out to write as specs were a little darker in terms of -- we were still doing comedy, but we were writing sort of dark comedy features and they were getting thrown around town because people really loved them and responded. But the thing is they weren’t making those movies. So we went where the jobs were and so that’s why you look down our credits, it’s like “Ok. Well, hmmm. These guys wrote 'The Knick,' but they wrote 'The Shaggy Dog' and they wrote 'Raising Helen.' They wrote 'The Prince and Me.' And it’s like, “Yeah, because we’re working guys.” We want to make a living and it’s just – that’s what the studios were looking to make.

The Knick
Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

JA: That’s what they wanted from us. We did it successfully a few times and before you knew it, they were calling us for romantic comedies.

MB: And we were happy to take all those jobs. And we approached each job as a puzzle. Like, how do we make the best version of this that we can? But after a while, and this is just leading into why we went to “The Knick,” it started to get frustrating again. Like, we just felt that we weren’t being seen to the potential we knew we had, and so we were sort of being pigeon-holed into these romantic comedy movies and they were making fewer of them and there was more competition to get these jobs and you were just pitching on things that your heart wasn’t into and it got to a point where it’s like, once again, we said, “You know what? We’ve got to do something for ourselves.” And that’s what we did and that’s what lead us to try something that we never in a million years thought anybody would do. We just wanted to try this. We wanted to try something that would challenge us as writers.

"Ok. Well, hmmm. These guys wrote 'The Knick,' but they wrote 'The Shaggy Dog.'"

JA: And every time we’ve done that, every time we’ve written it for ourselves and said, “We want to write something that no one’s going to make.” Michael said that there was a spec script we wrote years ago that was very dark and got tossed around town and everybody loved it and everyone knew us for it. And it got us the rewrites at Disney and Paramount and all these places because people really loved the script, but then they would ask us to write “The Prince and Me” or “Raising Helen” -- which was great. We were so incredibly lucky to get those jobs and to work and break into a new genre. 

But the things that we said, “Oh, no one is ever going to make this” made it around town, no one ever made them.  And this is really the first time -- maybe “Big Miracle” because when we originally wrote “Big Miracle” we got the rights to the book and we wrote it as a very dark cynical --
 
MB: Satirical movie.
 
JA: Yeah, it was “Network.” It was our version of a modern day “Network” and sort of about how everybody runs to the next media circus. But to get it made 15 years later, we turned it into a family movie because nobody wanted a dark, cynical look that would also cost a lot of money to make and have CGI and whales in it.

So, what we found was we just had to write for ourselves. And that’s what we’ve done with every episode of “The Knick.” We’ve written probably six, seven hundred pages of it now, and I don’t think there’s a word of it that we wrote for the audience or for Steven [Soderbergh] or for Clive [Owen] or for the actors, as much as for what this show needed to be. And we are incredibly lucky. It’s like winning the lottery, getting Steven on board this thing. It elevates it to a level of mastery that we could never have imagined. 

So after all those spec scripts floating around that were good but didn't get made, what made this one happen? 

MB: Well, after we’d finished the draft and we’d put together -- and I give Jack most of the credit for putting this together -- a giant book of pictures. We called it "the Look Book" and [it showed] a good sense of how we wanted to arc out the season.
 
JA: We had a document -- a seven-page document -- with each character sort of arced out and where they went and what we could possibly do with them and how they interact.
 
MB: Our manager Michael Sugar, who flipped for it, he gave it immediately to Steven and Jack. We heard that. We heard Michael say, “Okay. Well, I’m going to give it Soderbergh.” We’re like, “Well, yeah. But he’s not doing anything, so I hope he likes it.”
 
JA: Maybe he’ll paint an opening shot or closing shot for it like the end of “Good Times.”
 
MB: Or we can get an email forwarded from Michael with Soderbegh saying, “Cool script.” I'd frame that.

A little boost of confidence.

MB: Right, but he fell in love with it. He saw the things that we saw and right away, he sent it off to Clive and we got on the phone with Clive and talked just about what we wanted to do, how we saw his character arcing. This happened very quickly. It happened in a matter of weeks... [at the] end of April, beginning of May? Right before Cannes, and then we got the go ahead and it was like -- have you ever seen “The Candidate”?

With Robert Redford? Sure.

MB: We got the go ahead and it was like the end of the movie where he just looks up and goes, “What now?” And it’s like how we felt. “Oh shit, we’ve got to write nine more episodes of this and we’ve got what? Ten weeks?”

Steven Soderbergh on the set of "The Knick"
Mary Cybulski/HBO Steven Soderbergh on the set of "The Knick"
"Anyone who thinks they can direct... after you see Steven do it, you realize if that’s how high the bar is, then almost none of us can credibly do it." - Jack Amiel

What was it like when you got them done and went to set?

JA: Steven doesn’t waste a minute on set and he doesn’t waste a dollar on set. And it’s the most efficient -- he and Greg Jacobs, who’s normally our first assistant director, but [was] one of our EPs and Steven’s producing partner. They are an extraordinary production team, so you are getting nine pages done a day without blinking. I mean, Steven is just an extraordinary creature that way and he’s getting such interesting, wonderful things and he’s doing it at the pace of his own mind, so everybody else has to keep up with a man who makes decisions quickly, has an extraordinary vision and is doing things that you don’t see. He’s putting brushstrokes on a canvas that’s going to turn into a gorgeous portrait and you’re just going, “Ok. Brushstroke today.” And then what you see is how he puts it together and you go, “Wow." Anyone who thinks they can direct -- after you see Steven do it, you realize if that’s how high the bar is, then almost none of us can credibly do it. You know, I used to think that one day Michael and I would go, “Oh, let’s direct,” and now I see how great is. It’s a whole different world.
 
MB: I like to say that Jack and I see all the colors of the spectrum, but Steven see’s in the ultraviolet. He just sees things that I don’t think I would ever see and that’s what I find so incredibly humbling about him.
 
JA: And he uses that to solve problems. Everything’s a puzzle. Every scene’s a puzzle. How do we fit all these pieces together? How do we get all this done? How do we do it in the right amount of time? Steven is extraordinary at finding the most interesting, incredible way to solve the problem, yet be efficient. And that’s our film school.

Do you have an example of that? Something you’d written and you didn’t know how it would be shot?
 
MB: There’s --
 
JA: A million scenes.
 
MB: But the one example I would give is -- you saw the first episode where you have the previa surgeries, the big opening surgery. Well, without giving to much away, that comes back a couple times. It’s like, we’re going to come back and explore that operation a few more times and Steven said after we shot that first one [something] like, “Look, I’m not going to repeat that. We’ve got to figure out a way that’s going to make each of these surgeries feel unique.” And so we’re on the day of shooting number two and he says, “Okay. What if we strip out all the dialogue and what if we do it just as a before and after? And how do we make that work?” And so it’s like we’re all there in the moment trying to rewrite the scene and then bring it to Clive and work out the dialogue and because Steven had a vision of what he felt like would progress it, not just in terms of story, but visually. He wants to tell the story visually, and I think that was so key and those are the type of things that he was doing on a daily basis. There are other examples, but I don’t want to give anything away plot-wise.

JA: I’ll give mine very quickly, which is we had a scene in Episode 7 where all of our characters are essentially together in the ambulance bay, and I won't tell you why. But it’s a very chaotic scene and it has a lot of people talking, so you’re wondering, how many set-ups are we going to do here? Because we need to get this person and that person and then there’s a body coming in and this happening and that’s happening.  And what’s extraordinary to us is that Steven did it in one shot and it wasn’t a camera switching around.

“I don’t need the coverage. I can do this," Steven Soderbergh's shooting mentality according to "The Knick" creator Michael Begler.
MB: It’s like the junction box scene, too.
 
JA: Yeah, it’s not the camera swinging around. Whose scene is it? What’s it about? And can we get all the information? Because he really trusts the audience to be smart enough to figure things out and so that scene was extraordinary to me because we’d never even shot in that space before.
 
MB: In Episode 2, when Zachary takes the axe to the junction box, it’s like a four-page scene and Steven says, “Okay, I got about an hour to shoot this thing. How am I going to do that?” And he just designed this single shot -- you sort of track around them, when Barrow comes in you’re following him around this as he’s lifting up all the shades and then come back around to our main guys, to Zachary and then he chops the box down. And to me again, it’s like, he’s thinking so quickly because he’s like, “I don’t need the coverage. I can do this.” And it ends up being, to me, a really memorable scene for the visual style of it.
 
That’s great. It sounds like that exactly what you want to look for as the writers, for a director.
 
JA: He took it to a place we could never have imagined.

"The Knick" premieres Friday, August 8 at 10pm on Cinemax.

This article is related to: The Knick, Television, Steven Soderbergh, Steven Soderbergh, Cinemax, Interviews





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