Steven Soderbergh, will you never make a movie again?With the success of The Knick on Cinemax, the award-winning director reflects on shifting his talents from movie theaters to living rooms.
Steven Soderbergh is one of those rare birds whose creativity and passion is much more important than anything in his bank account. Wearing a multitude of hats—screenwriter, executive producer, director, cinematographer, editor— Soderbergh is known for his versatility in a wide range of films, including Sex, Lies and Videotape, Erin Brockovich, Traffic (for which he won the best director Oscar in 2001) and Magic Mike.
After the success of his last movie, HBO’s Behind the Candelabra, he announced his retirement from filmmaking. It was a bit of a game of semantics, perhaps—retiring from filmmaking, it turns out, is not the same as retiring from creating TV shows. The lure of a quality project brought him back to direct and executive produce the Cinemax series The Knick, which stars Clive Owen as a brilliant chief surgeon in the Knickerbocker hospital in 1900s Manhattan. On average, almost 1 million viewers watch the show each week—a very respectable number for pay cable — and the show has already been renewed for a second season.
THE RED BULLETIN: Jumping from an award-winning and lucrative career in film to TV takes some nerve.
STEVEN SODERBERGH: When I feel instinctually it’s time for a change, where I need to shift either what I am doing or how I do that, 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 and do something else. I just decided I wanted to do something different. So as it happens, maybe 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 the thing you really enjoyed 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 that I realized: “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 or not to take time off. I realized, “I like being here, I like doing this job.” There is nothing wrong with that.
What’s the biggest challenge in creating The Knick?
We had 570 pages to shoot in 73 days, which is on average nine 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, in a way that 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 every episode of the first season—and you’ll do the same for the second. That’s a pretty hectic schedule.
We basically scheduled the whole season like a film and shot it and budgeted and boarded it like a film, which is a very efficient way to work. Eleven months ago I did not think I would 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 also is an executive producer on the show]. We wouldn’t have been able to pull off this schedule if he doesn’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 are a really good match.
Do you look back at your film career with any amount of nostalgia?
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 from 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 cinematography and editing: Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard