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How Steven Soderbergh Made 'The Knick' Must-See TV

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood August 13, 2014 at 5:25PM

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 (August 8). And more.
Clive Owen in 'The Knick'
Clive Owen in 'The Knick'
On the occasion of the Karlovy Vary Film festival tribute to Anonymous Content's Steve Golin and Michael Sugar, I sat down with the veteran manager 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. As we talked, HBO's "True Detective," entirely directed by Fukunaga, is competiing for multiple Emmys and coming up was Soderbergh's elegant new 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. 

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.

'True Detective'
'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?

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, who is 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, 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 hopefully — if we get picked up again — 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? Is it $1 million an episode?

It’s significantly more than $1 million an episode.

In general, you’re looking for $2 million for an episode?

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

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