Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Knick: Health Care Isn't What It Used to Be

Last night I attended a screening of Steven Soderbergh's upcoming Cinemax series, The Knick, short for Knickerbocker Hospital in New York City circa 1900, followed by a Q & A with the director and series lead actor Clive Owen (several other cast and crew members were also in attendance, including actor Andre Holland, writers Jack Amiel & Michael Begler, Soderbergh's longtime production designer Howard Cummings, and the excellent costume designer Ellen Mirojnick [Wall Street, Basic Instinct]).

First off, kudos to Cummings for design and Soderbergh for cinematography; the film looks stunning.  (It's often quite literally dark; I'm not sure how that will play on smaller screens, but Soderbergh said he delighted in the Red camera's ability to work in low light and show actors' dilated pupils.)  

In the opening scene, there's a sense of an uncertain time and place--I didn't know anything about the series, and I almost thought it was set in a kind of retro future (there's an electronica score by Cliff Martinez), as Dr. John Thackery (Owen), wearing cool black sunglasses, steps into...a carriage.  Soderbergh said that he deliberately didn't want to depict a period piece in the usual way, with a kind of stuffy reverence.  Instead he wanted to use the "solid foundation of the medical drama" to show that what Thackery and his acolytes were doing in their day was as new and exciting to them as we perceive our own times to be.  Hence the director's choice to use contemporary music and to give the series a timeless quality despite its firmly anchored period.  (I'm reminded of another new series that's also conveying an exhilarating period quest well:  AMC's Halt and Catch Fire.)

There's a graphic frankness to the show (or at least the first episode) that's refreshing.  We are forced to watch actual operations, with scalpels cutting through skin, viscera, pumped and sponged blood, and a surgeon digging his hands into a pregnant woman's belly to try to pull out her baby (and it's all so amazingly realistic!).  There's a senior nun who smokes and trades barbs with the apparently free lance ambulance crew who negotiate fees for prospective patients (the Knick needs more patients because its finances are dwindling).  There's a nurse played by Eve Hewson (yes, Bono and Ali's daughter, below), who is delightfully green, earnest, and lovely.

Dr. Thackery is a cocaine addict and a pragmatist, which is an interesting combination.  He wants to push the boundaries of surgical science, so he needs to keep the Knick afloat so he can do so.  I won't reveal more of the initial plot to avoid spoilers.  But let's just say that Thackery is as drug addled as he is proficient.  And that while he may come across as simply arrogant and racist when the hospital urges him to hire a surgeon who happens to be black (Holland), it's really Thackery's drive and pragmatism that make him resistant.  The show promises to realistically portray class as well as race issues.

Soderbergh told moderator Elvis Mitchell, "I think proficiency is compelling," and referenced the Edward Fox character in Day of the Jackal--he's an assassin, but his proficiency makes your shadow side root for him.

Asked by Mitchell about the fact that Soderbergh had declared that he was on a sabbatical from filmmaking, the director shrugged and said that he had been sent the script, and, well, "I got lit up." 

Soderbergh immediately phoned Clive Owen,  
who was a tad skeptical about doing a series, but after reading 40 pages of the script, was compelled to commit.  Both men were mightily impressed with the writing and the detailed, copious research the writers had done to get the medical and period details right.

And of course what also drew Soderbergh to work with HBO again was the "creative autonomy on the ground" that they allow him.  (No calls from the studio asking, he quipped,"Where's the coverage?")   This autonomy allowed Soderbergh (below) and his "brain trust" to move more swiftly to conceive and execute complex shots.  They reportedly did 70 setups the first day.

My reaction to the first episode?  Wow.  Best new series I've seen since True Detective.  And like True Detective, the same writers did all 10 episodes, and Soderbergh turned it into a "10-hour movie."  I just wish I got Cinemax.  And I certainly hope Soderbergh will not retire from filmmaking.  Here's the trailer:

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