Steven Soderbergh, will you ever make another movie?He was the indie-movie master, George Clooney’s go-to guy and an Oscar-winning director. Now he’s made 2014’s most shocking TV series
The first moments of the first episode of The Knick go like this: a man awakens in a brothel and in the taxi to work injects cocaine between his toes. In the operating theatre, where this man performs pioneering surgery, his morning’s first patients, a mother and her unborn child, die on the table. As opening salvos go, it’s perhaps the most shocking and attention-grabbing of any in the current so-called golden era of TV.
It might also be a surprise to learn that the guy who wrote, directed and edited this and every other moment of the 10 hours of The Knick, set in a New York hospital in 1900, is the same guy who directed Erin Brockovich and Magic Mike. But Steven Soderbergh, for it is he, has made a successful career out of U-turns and new directions. The 51-year-old has won a Best Director Oscar, for Traffic, and made six films with George Clooney, including the Ocean’s trilogy. All this after he became the godfather of independent cinema after his first film, Sex, Lies, And Videotape, in 1989. Last year, Soderbergh said he was retiring from filmmaking. His new TV-making has brought him very firmly back into the spotlight.
THE RED BULLETIN: Why did you say ‘no more films’ and then immediately do a 10-hour TV series?
STEVEN SODERBERGH: When I feel instinctively it’s time for a change, where I need to shift either what I am doing or how I do it, I take that very seriously. Six years ago, I started to put in motion a plan that would put me in a different place, take me out of films to do something else. I just decided I wanted to do something different. As it happens, I thought it was one thing and it turned out to be another. I thought it was, ‘Oh yeah, you should go learn how to paint.’ When in point of fact it was, ‘No, you should go find another medium where you can enjoy yourself, but not abandon all the things you really enjoy doing.’ So it all worked out.
Was it hard to go from film to TV?
I had a moment when we got into the production and were shooting when I realised: ‘This is what I do, this is what I am built for, this specific job.’ That’s why I have done this for so long. I was lucky enough to find it early on. That did sort of shift my attitude about whether to take time off. I realised, ‘I like being here, I like doing this job.’ There is nothing wrong with that.
What did you find to be the biggest difference between films and TV?
We had to shoot 570 pages in 73 days, so about eight pages a day, which is a healthy number. I knew we had the benefit of one of the most indestructible genres in television – the medical drama – but viewed through a lens I hadn’t seen before. So I felt like we had the best of both worlds; it was fresh but also familiar, the audience goes, ‘Oh I know, it’s a show about a hospital,’ which it is. Then I made a list of things that I don’t want to do – with the musical score, for example, I didn’t want to hear a string anywhere in this, as it just screams period piece.
You directed all the first season of The Knick and will do the same for the second. Are you a control freak?
We basically scheduled the first season like a film and shot it and budgeted and [story]boarded it like a film, which is a very efficient way to work. Eleven months ago, I didn’t think I’d be sitting here talking about 10 hours of material that is in front of us and 10 hours of material that is behind us. My whole life I’ve moved in any direction that I thought was going to surprise me and engage me.
Is it rigorous on the actors, too?
It’s great to work with Clive [Owen, who stars as surgeon Dr John Thackery]. We wouldn’t have been able to pull off this schedule if he didn’t show up, totally prepared, ready to work. He has the same work attitude I do, which is ‘don’t make it harder than it needs to be’. We’re a really good match.
Do you miss making movies?
I’m always thinking about the next one. I always operate under the assumption that whatever film you are making at the moment is basically annihilating everything that came before it. You are always starting from zero. If you are not thinking that way, you are probably not going to evolve.
Best Director award for Traffic
Nominee for Erin Brockovich
Screenplay nominee for Sex, Lies, And Videotape
Is that really you?
Soderbergh directs under his own name, but uses pseudonyms for his cinematography and editing: check the credits for Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard