THE KNICK Showrunners Jack Amiel and Michael Begler on Bringing Their Show to Life
By Dan Casey on August 7, 2014
Like a racist, cocaine-addicted Dr. House, Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) is a brilliant but flawed hero. He is the lifeblood of the Knickerbocker Hospital, but he is also a product of the times, unable to shake himself of preexisting prejudices. Still, Thackery is an incredible surgeon and he soon finds himself in the unenviable position of managing the ailing Knickerbocker Hospital. In an era of rampant disease, little-to-no antiseptic, and sincerely revolting hygienic standards, the Knickerbocker is a beacon of enlightenment, a progressive hospital with one foot in the past and one in the future. This is just the tip of the iceberg in Cinemax’s incredible new series The Knick.
As part of HBO’s ongoing renovation of its sister channel Cinemax, tomorrow sees the premiere of The Knick, a turn of the century medical drama directed by Steven Soderbergh. Starring Clive Owen, The Knick has generated a healthy amount of advance buzz — enough to earn it a second season order even before a single episode had aired at this summer’s TCA Tour. So, with the series premiere right around the corner and seemingly endless potential, I caught up with showrunners Jack Amiel and Michael Begler to put their medulla oblongatas under the microscope. The duo, previously known for lighter-hearted fare like Big Miracle and Raising Helen, have crafted one of the single best new shows I’ve seen in a long time and, in a wide-ranging discussion, we talked about how The Knick’s evolution from concept to completion, working with Soderbergh, and much more.
Nerdist: Guys, I have to say – I watched the first two episodes last night, and I really, really enjoyed it. Job well done.
Michael Begler: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Jack Amiel: Well, thank you so much.
N: Also, congratulations on already getting picked up for a second season. That has to be a nice boost of confidence.
JA: Thank you.
N: What’s it like having that kind of confidence in the show, even before the general public has had a chance to see it. Is that invigorating, or is it a little daunting?
JA: It’s not daunting at all, because the team around us is pretty extraordinary, and following Steven [Soderbergh] into battle, frankly, he gives you the confidence to basically go once again into the breach quite happily. The thing is that this entire ride has been somewhat of a dream. So when they go “You get to do it again,” you go, “OK, now who is playing a joke on us? You guys! Come on!”
MB: The other thing is that I think it really is invigorating, because we know what we want to do. Much like when we went into start season 1, we had a good idea of what we wanted. We have an even larger idea of what we want this time, so we were just hoping we were going to get a chance to continue the story of all these characters. We all love them so much.
JA: Honestly, they’ve been so, not easy, to write, but they’ve flowed so well once we felt like we knew them and we inhabit this world. Everything has really felt organic, and next season just feels like the next step in a really organic process.
N: When you guys conceived of the show, did you design it just to be one self-contained season, or did you want to leave that door open?
MB: Oh, we definitely wanted to leave the door open. We definitely felt like the show could go on as long as we wanted it to go on, you know. We just have so many stories to tell, and ten episodes is definitely not going to be enough for us.
JA: Bullshit. I want leave the money on the table. Right now.
N: [laughs] I’m going to quote you on that.
JA: [laughs] From day one, we knew we wanted to keep spending more time with these folks.
N: Well, it’s definitely a very rich area of history to mine. I have to say I was a little surprised to see it, because based on some of your past works, like Raising Helen and Big Miracle, this one feels like you guys are sort of stepping out of your comfort zone. Walk me through how the story came into being, and how the show went from concept to completion.
MB: Well, first of all, you didn’t read the first draft of Raising Helen, which was a really dark movie about raising Helen from the dead.
JA: Wait, wait, wait. Let’s torture him a little bit. I don’t understand what you mean.
N: Oh, boy.
JA: What are you saying? Are you saying our past work looks like shit?
N: No, no, no! It’s a different genre than I’m used to seeing from you two.
MB: We did – we do a lot of sitcoms, we’ve done romantic comedy, and this literally came at a point in our career where we were feeling a bit frustrated, and we just felt like we wanted to challenge ourselves and we were tired of going and pitching on all of these same types of projects. We wanted to do something for ourselves, with no intention of anybody ever really wanting to make it. We just felt like, let’s see if we can write something that we would want to watch, or would like to see.
It really originated with – I had a health issue I was dealing with, and I was going down the road of alternative and traditional treatment, and I was at times amazed at what medical science figured out, and at times I was really frustrated by what they hadn’t figured out yet. Jack and I started talking, saying what would my experience have been a hundred years ago? I wouldn’t have had the resources that I have today. So what was medicine back then? So we bought a couple of books off of eBay – medical textbooks from 1900, just out of curiosity.
We were astonished. We couldn’t put these books down. We just kept e-mailing each other, saying “You can’t believe what I just read,” or “You won’t believe what I just found!” And then that led us into really looking into what was life like outside of medicine in 1900, and that was a treasure trove.
N: Yeah, obviously, a show like this demands a certain level of research, and it’s funny to see what’s considered an advancement then, when they’re all excited about medicinal cocaine, the new miracle drug. In addition to that, how much research did you guys have to do to inform the world you were building?
JA: I think that if we had done this much research in college, we probably would have gotten into grad school.
JA: [chuckles] We really immersed ourselves in this. I don’t think we wanted to write – to start writing until we really felt we knew it, and that we understood the world, and that we could make these people and characters feel real, to feel like you could know them, and that you can click. So that we could, ourselves, stand in a room with them. So we spent four or five months reading every book and going online. There’s some wonderful resources from the National Institute of Health, and surgical papers from the era in reprint. I know I’ve read a lot of them. I know Michael’s probably read more than I have.
We just wanted to know everything that we could about the era so that when we were writing it, we weren’t faking it, and we felt like we were in the moment. Because that was really what we wanted to show – you’re in the moment, you’re not looking back, you’re not looking to 2020. You’re looking, you’re in the moment, because the world is moving so quickly. There’s only one place to look. You have to deal with what’s now, because tomorrow you have no idea what’s going to happen, who is going to invent what, what’s going to – what new miracle is going to come out of science or technology or architecture or medicine.
N: Yeah, that era in particular is so exciting because of exactly what you just said – you don’t know what the next day is going to bring. It felt like an era where one revelation after another was happening. Because we don’t have the same information infrastructure that we do nowadays, the spread could be a lot slower, relatively speaking.
You guys touch on a lot of issues of progressiveness in the first two episodes, both in terms of medical advancement, and in terms of equality, talking about things like addiction, class-ism, women’s rights, and immigration. What sort of themes and issues are you hoping to explore in the series on a larger scale?
MB: I think that we want to – I mean, obviously, it’s a lot around the ideas of medicine, but also a lot has to deal with addiction, which was not understood at all at the time. Race, class, sexism – all of those things that were so prevalent in that era, and really look at it through a very truthful lens. We didn’t – we don’t want to tread lightly. We want it to feel very authentic, and that means to portray Zachary as a bit of what we would call today a racist, and it was because that was just the way people saw African-Americans back in 1900, and we don’t want to shy away from that.
It would be a disservice to all the people that came after 1900 – the Jackie Robinsons and the Rosa Parks and the Martin Luther Kings – to not say, “OK, look – this is why you were struggling. This is what you tried to…”
JA: We didn’t want to – the mountain we had to climb – we didn’t want to minimize it. We didn’t want to show 1900 as some sort of racially progressive era, because it wasn’t. There were lynchings in the south, because African-Americans were not treated equally, because Jim Crow was still around, and because African-Americans were treated almost as if they were children, or as if they were beasts.
So the idea that we have this African-American doctor who can walk in the door and compete with the best doctors of the era, who had this extraordinary education – that was such an anomaly for the period, but those men existed. And you can only imagine the struggles they had. And you can only imagine that we’re 48 years – 48 years, two generations away, from Jackie Robinson. We’re literally 60 years away from Martin Luther King.
I think what Michael was saying is we don’t want to minimize how incredibly steep that hill was, by saying “Oh, things were pretty darn good in 1900.” They weren’t.
N: Yeah, exactly. You don’t want to whitewash anything. You don’t want to minimize any struggles. I think authenticity has to be one of the biggest challenges in bringing a period piece like this to life. Would you say that’s accurate?
JA: Medically, we had to get it right. Look – we were the great beneficiaries, Dr. Stanley Burns was our medical consultant. He is this incredible treasure trove of books and over a million photographs from that era. Our department heads, our prop guys, were extraordinary – Michael Jortner and Peter Gelfman – they had their own research team, and everything was authentic. Ellen Mirojnick, who was our costumer – she had to dress hundreds and hundreds of actors and extras scene by scene, and it had to be real.
And the same with our production designers – Howard Cummings did the same thing. Everyone brought their A game, and everyone was striving for absolutely pinpoint authenticity. So at the beginning, we were the only ones who knew about this series. By the end, everyone was coming up with their one facts and their own preparation, and that was so wonderful, because everyone became an expert in their area.
N: That’s really awesome to hear! Well, it really shows. All those little details, all the way down the production design – everything, it all rings true. It doesn’t play false up on the screen, which is great.
N: Another thing I was really excited about was that Steven Soderbergh was involved, because A, I love him…
JA: [joking] Who?
N: The director.
N: Yeah. He’s a little indie guy. You might not have heard of him. Anyway – he’s explored the medical industrial complex before, in the ways in which disease can spread in films like Side Effects and Contagion, so The Knick felt like sort of a natural move for him. But how did he get involved, and what was it like collaborating with him on this project?
MB: Steven’s involvement came after Jack and I had written the pilot, and we gave it to our manager, Michael Sugar, who is also one of the executive producers on the project. Sugar said, “OK, well, I think I’m going to give this to Steven.” We were like, “OK, that sounds great. Maybe he’ll e-mail you and say, ‘Cool script,’ and we can put that up and frame it.”
We never in a million years thought that this guy would commit to a pilot, but then to commit to ten episodes was insane! But he fell in love with it as quickly as we fell in love with the concept. So once we got him, we soon after got Clive on board, who also fell in love with it, as well. Then we were off to the races. We had two and a half months to now write nine more episodes, which was insane. But I think we were all up to the task, and I don’t think Jack and I can say enough good words about Steven in terms of collaborating. He’s incredibly loyal, and we all left our egos outside. We all just wanted to make the best possible product. I think that we achieved that, because a good idea was a good idea. It didn’t matter if it came from Steven or from us or one of the actors or a grip. It was just about let’s make the best possible show.
So every day, being on that set, we were all working in incredible harmony. That’s why, I think, it comes across in what the end product is.
JA: I think, you know, in our wildest dreams, if you had asked us a year, year and a half ago, “Yeah, will you be working with Steven Soderbergh not on just ten episodes, but on twenty?”, our brains would explode. We feel like the – if you could win the Powerball ten times, that’s how we feel. Working with him, and getting to see how a true signature film maker – an artist – how he works with his canvas, and the collaboration with him has been extraordinary.
Michael and I never went to film school. We’ve been doing this for 22 years, but I can easily say I have learned more about the art of movie making – film making, really, or TV making, if you want – just by watching Steven and realizing, if you want to be good in this, there are a lot of people who are good. If you want to be great, now I’m intimidated by directing. I used to think it was something we could do. Now I look at it and go, “If I can’t be that good, I never want to do it, and I’ll never be that good!”
N: [laughs] Well, exactly. If you’re going to have a director, you may as well have the best one possible, and I definitely think you guys landed a great one with Steven. One of the things I like the most about the first two episodes – it feels like a hallmark of some of his recent films – it was the soundtrack.
N: It had this very sort of electronic, modern feel to it, and for some reason, that worked so well for me, when it’s set against a medical drama. It added a nice sense of modernity to it. You didn’t feel like you were watching Masterpiece Theater. You felt like you were watching something more thrilling and exciting. Was that something that you guys always had in mind for the series?
MB: Jack and I didn’t. That was totally Steven, and it was a brilliant find. I think we all agreed that we wanted the period to have a modern feel, because we didn’t want that – that wall gets put up when you’re watching something that is period, where you feel this sort of separation. We wanted you to be right in there with the characters, and to feel this sense of – what would you say? Of inclusion, I guess.
And so by shooting it the way he did, and I think the way we, the way the lines are written, it’s not this very studied, old-way of speaking, but it’s much more colloquial, and also the score gives it an energy and a feel that it can be so much more relatable.
JA: Also, we wanted – we didn’t want anyone to be able to separate themselves emotionally from the era by saying, “Oh, it’s a long time ago.” We all think our parents grew up in black and white. From our perspective, we wanted you to feel like you could be one of them, and they could be one of you. They were in a different time, they had different mores, they had different standards of behavior, but they were also human beings with the same foibles and needs that we all have. We never wanted to separate the viewer from that.
Steven’s camera, because of how intimate it is, does an amazing job of putting you in that room with those people, and you feel as if you’re not a fly on the wall but you’re a person in the room. That’s because when he stands there and he shoots, he’s another person in the room, with holding the camera, and it really does feel that way.
N: Yeah, you feel like you’re one of the doctors watching from the surgical theater.
N: We did a Top 5 summer shows to watch out for feature on Nerdist News, and this was something I made sure we put on the list, because I’m very excited for people to see it. Thank you guys again for taking the time to speak with me, and congratulations on everything. I think people are really going to dig this.
JA: Thank you so much.
MB: We appreciate it.
The Knick premieres on Friday, August 8, 2014 on Cinemax at 10 PM ET.
Will you be tuning into The Knick tomorrow night? Let us know in the comments below