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Steven Soderbergh, Frances McDormand, and Mike Nichols Spearhead HBO Projects and TCA Summer Session

Steven Soderbergh, Frances McDormand, and Mike Nichols Spearhead HBO Projects and TCA Summer Session

Mike Nichols and Meryl Streep will begin work early next year on “Master Class,” an adaptation of Terrence McNally’s Tony-winning play about opera great Maria Callas, HBO president Michael Lombardo announced Thursday at the Beverly Hills hotel. This officially confirms a rumored collaboration, in which Streep will play Callas and also executive produce along with director Nichols and Celia Costas. McNally will adapt his own work for the screen.

In other news, Steven Soderbergh said he will, in the show’s second season, do a ten-episode directing job on “The Knick,” the new Clive Owen-starring drama about a pioneering, cocaine-addicted medical doctor in 1900 New York. On Thursday, HBO announced it has renewed the series even before its August 8 premiere. Soderbergh, who also acts as D.P., camera operator, and editor on the series – which will air on Cinemax, HBO’s sibling channel – said, “You’re seeing a trend now — a sense that there’s a positive aspect to having a specific and unified visual language throughout a series.  It’s not only creatively satisfying, but practically speaking, it’s a better way to work, in terms of the economics.” 

Soderbergh took a strong hand in shaping the series, bringing on key players from HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra” to produce, cast, and design the production and wardrobe.  The material originated with the writing team of Jack Amiel and Michael Begler.  Time will tell whether the model catches on and how it will play with various stake-holders, given that, typically, powerful writer-producers provide the continuity in series television, while directors tend to be hired on a per-episode basis.

HBO’s presentation during the summer session of the Television Critics Association (TCA) came on the same day that Emmy nominations were announced.  The premium cable network landed 99 – the most of any network for the fourth year in a row.

Soderbergh explained how “The Knick” had put the kibosh on his planned retirement from filmmaking.  “When I read the first script, I knew that if I didn’t say yes to this, the second person who was going to see it would. My whole life I’ve moved in any direction that I felt was going to excite me and engage me.  It’s unfortunate that people have to keep listening to me explain why I went back to work, but I’m glad I did.”

Foo Fighters frontman and guitarist Dave Grohl presented “Sonic Highways,” an eight-part documentary series he hit upon as a follow-up to his acclaimed feature-length doc “Sound City.” “I’m new at this,” Grohl laughed when his phone rang in the midst of his press conference, prompting him to fish it out of his jeans and drop it on the carpet.  But the bearded, long-haired rocker proved to be a natural at meeting the press, spinning engaging stories about the musical cultures of various U.S. cities explored in the series — including Seattle, Chicago, and New Orleans — and how they influence the records that are made there. Grohl’s interviews included one with President Barack Obama. “I wanted him to talk about America as a country where you can start with nothing, like Buddy Guy, and wind up a blues legend inducted into the Hall of Fame,” explains Grohl.  “I wanted to talk with the President of the United States of America about America.” The series debuts in November on HBO.

Also in a musical vein is “Bessie,” the new film by director Dee Rees, who made a splash at Sundance 2011 with “Pariah.” Queen Latifah plays blues legend Bessie Smith in the HBO Films project, currently filming in Atlanta and set to debut next year.

Frances McDormand has apparently found a powerhouse role as the biting, blunt, and depressive Maine resident who is the title character in “Olive Kitteridge,” an HBO miniseries directed by Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are All Right”), based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Elizabeth Strout. Bill Murray and Richard Jenkins are also cast in the project, for which locations in Gloucester, Mass., stood in for the novel’s working-class Maine settings. It was McDormand who brought the idea to HBO, said exec Carey Antholis, adding that the actress and exec producer also enlisted Jane Anderson to adapt the book, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman to executive produce, and Cholodenko to helm. In the miniseries, which debuts on HBO this November, Kitteridge ages from her ‘40s to her ‘70s. “A 90-minute time frame is not long enough to tell a good female story, which is why longform television has become such a great format for female directors and actors,” said McDormand, who is 57. “I wanted to start generating my own work, so I optioned the book the same week it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.” She began working with Anderson and HBO on an adaptation before Cholodenko came into the picture.  “For me, it’s about a marriage, and how a marriage survives depression, and how a small town deals with it,” says Cholodenko. “Sometimes the material is really funny, and then it shape-shifts and becomes heart-breaking, which is what attracted me to it. I was there to guide the tonal shifts.”

Added McDormand, “It’s about a woman who, in a lot of circumstances, is invisible, but she makes sure she’s not.” Asked what she thought of the FX TV series “Fargo”–which followed “Game of Thrones” as the second-most recognized series in Thursday’s Emmy nominations–McDormand said, “I haven’t seen it, but congratulations to them.” McDormand won an Oscar for the movie version, playing pregnant Sheriff Marge Gunderson.

Anderson called the adaptation of “Olive Kitteredge” “the hardest assignment I’ve ever had.” “The greater the piece of literature, the harder it is to adapt,” she says. “This could be one of the bravest things HBO has allowed a team of artists to do, because it is so quiet and so deceptively ordinary. It’s an incredibly fragile, subtle piece of work. Olive is that horrible math teacher you had in school, the neighbor who was cranky and wouldn’t talk to you over the fence. But she’s infinitely decent and brave and noble, and that’s the brilliance of it.”

Also presenting were writer-producer Michael Patrick King and star Lisa Kudrow, co-creators of “The Comeback,” which returns to HBO in November. When HBO chose not to renew the unconventional reality spoof nine years ago, “It didn’t fit in a box,” said King. “It was polarizing, because it was allowed to be too original.” King said he and Kudrow avoided talking about a return of the show for years because “it was too much of an emotional risk. And then we got a call from HBO, saying that they wanted “The Comeback” to come back. And then it was no longer a risk, emotionally – just creatively.”

The show picks up nine years later, but its DNA is the same, says King. “It’s about getting Valerie Cherish (Kudrow) in front of a camera, unedited, and her need to be in front of a camera. Valerie thinks she’s evolved, and she has, a little bit.” “We’re just really grateful we get to do it again,” said Kudrow. “We loved doing it so much.”

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