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How Steven Soderbergh Made 'The Knick' Must-See TV, and More

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood May 31, 2015 at 3:12PM

Michael Sugar of Anonymous Content has been Steven Soderbergh's manager for six years; he walks us through why the director has rejected movies in favor of must-see Cinemax series "The Knick," starring Clive Owen. And more.
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Clive Owen in 'The Knick'
Clive Owen in 'The Knick'

I sit down with Anonymous Content veteran manager Michael Sugar, who handles the careers of Joe Wright, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Winona Ryder, Richard Linklater, Marc Webb, Gavin Hood, Patty Jenkins, Scott Burns, Cary Fukunaga and Steven Soderbergh, among others. HBO's 2014 drama series "True Detective," entirely directed by Fukunaga, won three Emmys including director, and now has a second season coming up with new directors and a new cast. And Soderbergh not only directed the 2013 Liberace movie "Behind the Candelabra" for HBO (which won 11 Emmys) but directed the elegant 2014 Cinemax series "The Knick," starring Clive Owen as a forward-thinking surgeon in 1900 trying to save lives under primitive conditions at New York's Knickerbocker Hospital. Both series follow innovative new models for director-driven television.

Soderbergh will also direct all of "The Knick" Season Two, which returns with Owen in fall 2015. Also coming up is a 2015 Starz series based on his "The Girlfriend Experience," with writer-directors including Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan. 

Ellar Coltrane and Richard Linklater making 'Boyhood'
Ellar Coltrane and Richard Linklater making 'Boyhood'

So, congrats on Richard Linklater's “Boyhood.” In a weird way, it’s a necessary corrective, because everybody’s become so inured to what movies have to have in order to be commercial — and this movie goes the other way, toward what we’re missing.

I would describe it as the indie version of “Gravity.” It’s one of those things where, experientially, it’s just something you’ve never felt. Whether you’re engaged in every minute of the movie or not — what’s interesting is the way people are experiencing a movie rather than watching it. And having now seen it a dozen times with audiences, it's how it impacts teenagers, parents, grandparents. And so it has a “Catcher in the Rye” effect, where I hope that people will revisit it at different points in their lives and have that experience of it. 


How long have you been working with Steven Soderbergh?

I’ve been working with him… it’s now been six years.

And so you’ve navigated this interesting career trajectory. Soderbergh is like the canary in the coal mine: someone who sees the future sooner than others. What did he go through? What did the studios do to him? What were the different markers that led him to make this decision to ditch moviemaking for cable?

I don’t think Steven was beaten down or demoralized. There were bumps which were well-reported, but those are the bumps that come to anybody who does what all of us do. Maybe he didn’t even articulate this well at the beginning, but he was watching more and more television and he was starting to call and say, “What about that format? What about this?” Because the kinds of stories that he wanted to tell were just better-painted on a canvas that was different than a movie screen.

But wouldn’t he have rather done “Behind the Candelabra” as a film, if he could?

You know what? I think he could; I think he could have. I don’t think Warners was going to do it, but we didn’t try it. Normally, when there’s something to put together, we go and we put it together. It was a quick decision to do it with HBO. 

But he seemed to feel that it had been passed on, specifically, at a certain budget.

At a certain budget? Perhaps, but we didn’t really do the “we have to make this as a movie.” He wants to connect with as big an audience as possible; I think most storytellers do. And I think he saw the opportunity to get the budget he wanted out of HBO, to have the creative freedoms that HBO is so generous with at all times — they are amazing partners — and to be able to do that in a way where, if the amount of people who watched that movie on HBO had seen it in theaters, it would’ve been one of the highest-grossing films of the year. So you really do reach a big audience. I don’t think it was a defeated quality that led this decision.

Well, maybe it's a defiant quality.

It’s somewhat defiant, but also, the day I started working with him, he said to me, “I don’t know why you want do this. I’m going to retire soon.” And when I mentioned that to his lawyers and other people in his life, they said, “He’s been saying that for a very long time.” It was always in his plan to stop directing movies. And I personally think he will come back, eventually. I think something will get him excited, but he’ll do it in a way that’s different. 

He seems a little angry to me. Well, a filmmaker of his stature — who’s had accomplishments, financial success — should be able to do what he wants, and can’t. Now, this is true of many, many filmmakers of his ilk, across the board, because they’re not making what the studios want. I mean, he doesn’t want to do “Ocean’s”… whatever.

Right. Yeah, because, as somebody who’s charged with finding opportunities and money for directors for a living, I find the appetite for him is massive, still. I’ve never had a problem.

So people come to him all the time.

All the time. I’m playing defense all day long, apologizing that he’s not reading feature films right now. All day long — and it’s from studios and producers and international financiers. So I’m not feeling that he’s in a position where he’s, like, forced into doing something different. I feel like maybe he was demoralized by the process more than the outcome. And I wouldn’t even say that.

With him when a project falls apart, he just organizes something else right away!

“Side Effects" didn’t fall apart. It was going to be Annapurna, and then that changed. But, yeah, it took us about 24 hours to figure it out. So, case in point, the process is annoying. What has changed in our business, that he’s aware of — that any filmmaker would be — is that the risk aversion is so great, and so what happens is, instead of betting on the storyteller, who’s done it over and over again, you’re betting on a calculus. You’re betting on a formula that’s been run through over and over again.


This makes me crazy.

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in the first season of "True Detective."
Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in the first season of "True Detective."

Well, it makes everybody crazy. Because why would a movie at $65 million ["Behind the Candelabra"] make sense, but not at $70 million? Really. If you want to tell the story, what’s $5 million? That’s what they spend on a promotional tour to promote the movie. So you really need that money. That’s the frustrating part — that there’s not a lot of, like, "whatever you need." Because it used to be, with him — and it still is, to some degree — he would say, “This is the budget.” And they trust that he’s never been over-budget, even once.

And, in fact, he’s always under-budget, and just trust that he’s not padding a budget, like some filmmakers might cleverly do, because he’s just one of those guys who wants the repeat visits. I think it was a little frustrating for all of us — I mean, we’re all frustrated on a daily basis. Not just Steven. On that new order of “running the numbers.” Everything’s “running the numbers.”

It’s about, “Well, we know what this means, so we don’t have to take this risk.” Because if you look at the successes of probably the last five years, I would say a good 50 percent are probably films, in that space, that a studio wouldn’t make. The surprises.

Right. The ones that come at the end of the year, like “The King’s Speech," or "Dallas Buyers Club."


There are certain folks in all of the studios that have that desire to not be forced to run the numbers, specifically. They all are a business, but I would like to see those voices get heard a little more, because there are a lot of great stories to tell. And you look at these movies, and there’s still an audience for them — but it’s harder. And that goes to that whole television conversation. Where are people consuming great drama, for example?

Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh

I’m the same way. I am watching television all the time. And there’s so much that I can’t consume it all. So “The Knick.” Tell me how that came about.

We all are. The writers, Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, are clients of mine at Anonymous, and they have been successful comedy writers throughout their careers. Started in television, then did a bunch of Disney movies, then had really established themselves as guys who just got paid to do funny stuff. And then they handed me a pilot for “The Knick,” and said, “We’ve written a one-hour drama.” As you can imagine, I had rolled my eyes. When I read it, it blew my head off. The pilot was extraordinary.


I’d given it to Steven, and he’s not reading. He’s painting. And I just called him; I said, “You have to read this one.” And then Greg Jacobs, who’s our producing partner for many years also read it and so we ganged up on him and at least had him read it. And then he felt the same way we did — that it was a way to tell a story that we haven’t seen before, that has real contemporary relevance. As it evolves, there’s so much science in that era where what we know of medicine comes from.


And you got a movie star to do it. Was that hard?

And we got Clive. No. He hadn't done a TV series in a long time. And it wasn’t hard at all, because the material spoke for itself.

Clive is one thing, and everybody else is less well-known.

Because Steven is excited, as he always is, to break new talent. And with a lot of actors that have nice bodies of work, really talented actors. But he wanted to cast all New York actors.


The first two episodes offer some gross-outs.

It was an interesting decision to go as graphic as we did in the first episode. Steven wanted to do that. We had a long conversation about it. Well, he just wanted to say, “This is what this show is. We’re going to show this in an authentic way, but now it’s behind you. You’re going to see this in the first ten minutes, and hopefully you’ll be desensitized.”


So you represent [Cary] Fukunaga as well. He's like Lena Dunham, in a way, as a promising, exciting indie filmmaker (“Jane Eyre,” “Sin Nombre”) who moves to television.

I do. “The Knick” was on the heels of “True Detective,” which we also made. So we had this like limited series — which neither “True Detective” nor “The Knick” is — there hasn’t, as far as I know, been a singular-directed… I mean, even “Band of Brothers” had multiple directors. 

That’s very unusual for a director. That’s a movie thing.

Right. And “House of Cards” is not the same, as David Fincher directed the first two of “House of Cards,” but he didn’t direct the rest of the episodes.

And it remained within the purview of the writer Beau Willamon, as would ordinarily be the case.

Right. And in these shows, it was a collaboration, as always, but, in these shows, the director is doing every episode, which enables us to do a couple of things. It enables us to shoot it at a more efficient budget, because we’re using economies of scale — we’re shooting at locations that are in multiple episodes, instead of having to go back.

Like a movie.

And, also, your actors have a relationship with the director, where you’re not subbing someone new in every two weeks.

It must be exhausting, though. He’s a young man.

It’s horribly exhausting. Yeah, Cary’s young, and Steven is like, twenty away, and I’ve never seen energy like that in anybody. He did all ten. We did it like a movie. We shot it in 73 days, at ten hours, and he’ll do the next ten. So this is the model. Now, what’s great for Anonymous Content, we’ve got so many people who want to do that, because this is sexy for a film director. Some director doing a pilot has usually been about the money. Just do a job, do a pilot, you’re in and out in two months. This is like a year’s commitment. But what you get out of it is really comparable to a movie.

So “House of Cards” had an impact on the rest of the industry. 

Well, “House of Cards” did have an impact because it was straight to series, and it had movie stars — Robin and Kevin. And it was a paradigm-shifter. I think the evolution of that was maybe “True Detective,” in that it was a singular director. Also straight to series. And “The Knick” was a singular director, also straight to series. We have several more in the pipeline.

And Anonymous has this list of directors that could interested, like Iñárritu?

But we’re doing “The Revenant” with him right now, so he’s been busy with that for a while. What film directors are excited by is that they get an opportunity to tell a much longer story, but they don't have to do it at a reduced TV rate, like it used to be. So the budgets on “The Knick” and “True Detective” are tantamount to a studio movie. So you have all the comforts and creative toys that you need to get it done.

What are the normal budgets? $2 million for an episode?

We’re looking for between $3 million and $6 million an episode, for a high-end cable show.

Really? Because you have a period piece with “The Knick,” so that’s expensive. But Clive isn’t getting paid like he might have been paid for a movie.

It’s expensive. Well, no, but it’s a different model. What happens is, the show can sell all over the world, just like a movie — it’s not that different. But the asset of a TV series can be much more valuable than a movie and television, because you can be selling it over and over again. That’s why “Friends” sold for $1 billion in syndication. The economics have shifted in television, so that you can attract people that need to make a living, and they’re taking as much of a pay cut as you might think. But what is really compelling them isn’t the money — it’s the opportunity to tell a story over a period of time.

Of course. So Steven really enjoyed it. He’s a workaholic. More than most.

He really enjoyed it. And Cary was the same way. We developed the script internally, and we gave it to Cary, who is one of our guys — someone who I’ve been working with since he did a short film — and we thought he was the right guy for it. It turned out well for him, and he's is still doing movies. He wrapped on his next movie [Focus Features' Africa drama "Beasts of No Nation"], so.

So what happened with Edgar Wright and Marvel over “Ant-Man”?


He’s the best. You know, what happened with “Ant-Man," the behind-the-scenes, the little machinations that were more frustrating than maybe had been reported were just machinations of what really has been reported. It was just, like, there was some kind of moment where what Marvel wanted to do and what Edgar wanted to do just suddenly fell out of whack.

He had a specific tone in mind. It took a long time, it seemed stalled, partly because he wanted the visual effects to catch up.

It wasn’t stalled. He put if off and he wanted to do other things. Marvel was gracious with him about waiting, because it was his. So the biggest bummer is that he’s not doing it. But it was one of those things where there was a meeting and a conversation and a mutual choice. Also Marvel is the kind of place that controls their product, their world, in a very specific way, so they’re always going to be that way. If you don’t meet their vision, you’re done.

We all know what agents have to do, but you at Anonymous Content can make money for your clients in commercials and videos as well.

Yes. I’ve always felt that if you enable your clients to do good work, regardless of how much they’re making, the portfolio grows for them. Right? So Steven can go make a movie that will not make any money, and I can be that guy going, “Dude, we need to make some money, because I need to make that money.” Or I can say, “Go make something that you really care about. Go make ‘Girlfriend Experience.’” But then “Magic Mike” comes.

You’re also in a place of where you’re thinking about the long term, and, someone like Steven — you want him to stay happy.

I want everyone to be happy; that’s my psychology. But the other through line is that I don’t represent people that are fucked-up. They’re just not. There’s not a lot of managing of psychology with my people. Every single person I work with is just human and kind. Because I’m not interested. I’ve let go of a lot of clients that make a lot of money because they’re mean to my assistant. I’m not interested in that.

One of the things for me, personally, that has been to my benefit, strategically, is that I’m always honest with people, I don’t treat people poorly, I don’t yell at people, I don’t manipulate people, I don’t deceive them — I’m truthful. I feel like, in a business where that’s not as common, I don’t stress. I don’t have that stress about my work, because I know I’m not putting them in situations like that.

So you represent Patty Jenkins. So tell me about the stresses and strains that make it difficult to be a woman director. What’s your take on what the problem is?

I do. That’s a big question. I don’t know the answer. I would love to see more women directors. You know, I was sitting yesterday with Debra Granik, who I think extraordinary, and you look at what Kathryn Bigelow has done and what Patty has done so well lately. 

Jenkins also fell off of a Marvel movie. The “Thor” sequel. 

Yeah. I get more incoming for her than almost anyone else I work with. Studios love her. She’s picky. She’s worked on something for a long time, her passion project that she wants to direct next. I mean, she will direct a movie in the next twelve months, there’s no doubt about it, but I don’t know if the traditional hurdles for a woman are necessarily hurdles for her. I think it starts a lot earlier; we need more women in high school and film school.

Those numbers are very high; they’re almost equal. It happens after. It’s not even about submissions to Sundance — although that’s lower than it should be. It’s when money is in play. Isn't that’s what it’s about? The stakes, trusting people with money? That’s where it seems to fall down. Somebody brought up the idea — and I’m not sure how I feel about it — that studios should really consciously apply quotas. Well, just that they should agree to give a project to a woman director — X number of projects a year. Like, if they really put their minds to it and put the best women directors on the job. Because there seems to be some kind of unconscious bias of some sort.

Well, if it’s unconscious, then quotas are probably the wrong way to do it, right? Quotas are probably designed to fix conscious problems. I’m not sure that’s a solution; I’m not sure that the beneficiaries of that solution would want the quotas, either. I don’t love it, as a gut reaction. 

So conscience-raising is the next step. I feel like there’s been a lot more of that in the air now than there has been in a long time. When you make a list, it’s a pretty long list of talented and successful women. Because there are a lot of women directors that are doing well, right? But in the studio system they’re not doing that well. So maybe it is about money. 

Well, I will tell you one thing: I would love to manage Debra Granik and Kathryn Bigelow and many others, so.


Give me one thing that you’re excited about in the film and entertainment industry, and something that you’re really worried about.

The reason for optimism is seeing people at film festivals screaming for the people that they love; watching them talk to the directors and the actors, and you realize that this is in the DNA of everyone that’s alive. Everyone that’s in this moment, movie are a part of… well, not everyone, but, for most people, movies are a part of their life. That, for me, is the best reason for optimism: that people still want to see their stories.

The reason for pessimism is that the reason they want to see those stories is changing so rapidly. If I don’t differentiate the movies from movie business, it’s not as dire. The movie business we know is going to change — it has to. But movies, to go back to “Candelabra,” that was a movie. It was as much of a movie as any movie, but it also got seen. Twenty million people in the U.S. saw that movie.

So I think it’s not so much about the format of the stories that we’re going to tell, as filmmakers — it’s about the way it’s going to be consumed. That’s what’s going to be changed.

Which also changes the economic model for being able to make a living.

This is the thing. But I think demand and supply will always find its way to figure it out. I always tell this to my clients: if you can consume it on television, it’s going to be hard to succeed as a movie. For me, I think moviegoing is now about a shared cultural experience, in some way.

But I went to the premiere of the last season of “Mad Men” at the Arclight. Why not take that content and put it in movie theaters?

I’m not surprised if that starts to happen. Or look at “Entourage.” “Sex and the City” was a huge… granted, it’s a movie based on it, but it shows that there’s an audience. So I think you’re tapping into something there; there’s probably some version of that happening. I told Steve, looking at “True Detective” playing on a big screen, and it looks so beautiful. It looks like a movie, and I said, “I wonder if you release the first two hours in a theater, if people will go see it.” I don’t know. They would have gone to see it if it hadn’t premiered on television.

Indeed. These are the questions.

This article is related to: The Knick, True Detective, Steven Soderbergh, Steven Soderbergh, Steven Soderbergh, Clive Owen, Clive Owen, HBO, HBO , Home Box Office (HBO), TV, Television, Television, Interviews, Interviews, Interviews , Cary Fukunaga


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.