BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – No rubber gloves. No high-tech instruments. No medical-malpractice lawyers.
Welcome to the Knickerbocker Hospital, aka the Knick, a bloody citadel of healing in circa-1900 Manhattan where great strides are made (soon, an X-ray machine!) even as its routine procedures seem borrowed from the butcher shop and its mortality rate isn’t much better.
This is the setting for “The Knick,” premiering Friday at 10 p.m. EDT on Cinemax.
The 10-episode season is directed throughout by Oscar- and Emmy-winning Steven Soderbergh, and stars Clive Owen as the hospital’s world-class, hard-driving (and, by the way, drug-abusing) chief surgeon.
Beautifully filmed in New York City, “The Knick” captures a distant era with remarkable fidelity, as if the filmmakers had transported themselves back in time and then let the cameras roll. And despite the distance spanned, much about “The Knick” feels comfortably familiar – though only up to a point, as the premiere quickly demonstrates.
“Medical dramas tend to be about people coming in very sick and doctors working hard to heal them,” says Owen. “But with our pilot script, we’re just four pages in” – he snaps his fingers – “and we’ve already lost a pregnant woman and her baby. Welcome to 1900! This is startlingly different from other medical shows in its casual brutality.”
If “The Knick” evokes a more primitive “St. Elsewhere” or less frantic “ER,” Owen’s Dr. John Thackery might suggest the titular hero of “House.”
Thackery is “brilliant, he’s abrasive, he’s extremely difficult,” says Owen during a recent joint interview with Soderbergh, who adds, “He’s very direct. I like that!”
So is Soderbergh, especially when voicing his dos and don’ts of directing actors (who in “The Knick” also include Andre Holland, Jeremy Bobb, Juliet Rylance, Eve Hewson and Michael Angarano). A major do, he advises: Maintain a light touch.
“I don’t want to get in the actor’s head,” says Soderbergh. “If he’s THINKING instead of BEING, that isn’t good. I like to keep whatever instruction I have pretty technical,” which is to say, largely focused on the blocking.
On “The Knick,” Soderbergh’s camera (he’s the cinematographer, too) is nimble and ever-attentive, sometimes sticking with the scene in a single shot as much as three minutes long, staged as theater-in-the-round with the camera covering the action, rather than rallying the actors to its needs.
“If the camera’s gonna move,” says Soderbergh, “it’s moving because the actors are moving, not ‘cause I want it to move.”
This is not to suggest he’s indifferent to where the camera lands.
“To me, the difference between placing a camera HERE and a camera THERE” – his hands are extended just inches apart – “is the difference between a shot and something that’s NOT a shot.”
Another Soderbergh creed, this one specific to “The Knick”: “I said, ‘I don’t want to see a single surface that isn’t glossed in some way. Tabletops, wainscoting – I don’t want to see a matte finish on anything.”’ Why? “It looks authentic. And looks better!”
Meanwhile, Owen had his own concerns. The 49-year-old Brit’s many credits (including “Gosford Park,” “Sin City,” “Hemingway & Gelhorn” and “Closer”) have established him as a fine actor, with his performances often drawing on his dreamy heartthrob charms. Not here. While Dr. Thackery is a charismatic figure, his obsessions, demons and addictions leave him often looking ill, haunted or deranged. Among Owen’s challenges was keeping track of his character’s vacillating physical and mental state from scene to scene.
“I kept a wall graph: ‘How am I now? When did I do some cocaine last? Do I feel like I need another hit?’ That issue was always going on, underlying everything while I was playing him.”
Owen was not looking for a series and the commitment of a five-month shoot. But the script by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler won him over, he says: “As an actor, it reminds you why you do this.”
Soderbergh was even more surprised. He had declared last year (or seemed to) that he was done making movies. His final film was to be “Behind the Candelabra,” the acclaimed HBO biopic of pianist Liberace that premiered in May 2013.
Then the script for “The Knick” reached him, “over the transom,” and his plans abruptly changed.
“I did not expect to be back on a set for a long time – years,” he says, “but being back and being happy, I realized this is what I do, what I’m supposed to be doing. It reoriented me in a very significant way.”
Now he’s primed to direct and shoot the already-ordered second season of “The Knick” while Owen reclaims center stage. And with luck, any further advances from Dr. Thackery won’t include his introducing surgical masks.
“The bane of doctor shows!” says Soderbergh, noting with a laugh how they obscure actors’ faces and muffle their speech at key moments of high drama. “Not having to use them – that’s fantastic!”