Steven Soderbergh Is Doing Some Next-Level Work on The Knick

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Photo: HBO

Let’s take a moment to appreciate what we’re watching when we watch The Knick: the greatest sustained display of directorial virtuosity in the history of American TV, courtesy of the show’s primary and thus far only director, Steven Soderbergh.

The seventh episode of this Cinemax drama, which aired on Friday, is one of the most exciting, horrifying, beautiful, and clever hours of filmmaking I’ve seen this year — and that’s saying a lot, considering how great the year has been. The show is created and written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, and set in and around the titular hospital circa 1900. This episode, “Get a Rope,” shows what happens when an incident of racial violence touches off a wave of vigilantism, pitting African-Americans against Irish-Americans and plunging the neighborhood into chaos.  

“Get a Rope” contains many harrowing setpieces, starting with the inciting incident (an off-duty Irish cop mistakes a black woman for a prostitute, scuffles with her boyfriend, then gets stabbed and taken to Knickerbocker Hospital) and continuing through the inevitable escalation. When I watched “Get a Rope” the first time, it seemed almost unbearably brutal, but on second viewing, I was struck by how Soderbergh had pulled a Hitchcock or Spielberg, never showing us as much as we think he’s showing us. The initial stabbing and a subsequent scene of a white mob dragging a black man off a bicycle are filmed from a distance (which makes them more horrifying even though, or perhaps because, the direction isn’t rubbing your face in gore).

When we see shots of African-Americans being battered by a white mob, the camera tracks the action laterally through a chain-link fence in the foreground. The fence creates a kind of “scrim” effect: You see the gist of the horror, but not every detail. The fence bit consists of three acts of violence that last about 12 seconds total, but they’re so ugly that 12 seconds is all Soderbergh needs to get the point across. Even the most prolonged moments of savagery, such as a fight in a hospital hallway and a scene of a prone man being kicked, are shot so as to obscure the bloody details. I wouldn’t call this approach “tasteful,” exactly. There’s a touch of the documentary to it; it’s journalistic, perhaps cold. It’s unflinching, but not exploitive. It feels right.

But there’s more to this episode’s great direction than adroit handling of brutality. About 21 minutes into the episode, there’s a marvelous example of how to lay out geography, ratchet up tension, and advance the plot, all at the same time: A group of doctors and nurses in the main operating theater barricade a door against the mob, which then shatters the door glass and pushes through. This frightening moment is conveyed with one shot that pans from the hospital staff, screen right, to the mob, screen left, and back again.

It’s worth noting here that a good deal of The Knick’s coiled power — conveyed not just in this episode, but in all of them — derives from Soderbergh’s economy. He directs the way Joan Didion writes. He often seems to be challenging himself to see how little he can get away with and still give the audience the information it needs to make sense of a moment. He never covers the action in a scene with ten or 15 angles when just one or two will suffice. If you rewatch pretty much any episode, you might be struck by how many moments play out in just one take — and I’m not talking about showily choreographed long takes, where the entire point is to wow the audience into realizing how much is going on in the scene, how many moving parts it has, and how daring it is to convey it all without cuts. That “wow” factor is what made the six-minute tracking shot at the end of the fourth episode of True Detective, and the warehouse shoot-out in episode six of Fargo, so pleasurable (I mentioned both here). But for the most part, Soderbergh is doing what film geeks call a “stealth oner” — a one-take scene that’s so subtly executed that you may not notice the lack of cuts until you watch it a second time.

An example of a stealth oner can be found in the second episode, “Mr. Paris Shoes”: the scene in which Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) and other hospital staffers argue in a ward while newly installed electric lights flicker. The camera follows the staffers from bed to bed, weaving among them with a dancerlike grace, the tension building until Thackery blows his stack and attacks a fuse box. In his recap, my colleague Keith Uhlich called it “sublime.” It is, but there’s more sublime direction where that came from. Episode seven contains several more instances. One is the moment where Dr. Algernon (André Holland) hides under a gurney surrounded by a sheet while traveling through an unfamiliar neighborhood, and we hear Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson) talk her way past a cop: We hear the exchange but don’t see it, and the camera remains on Algernon for the length of the scene (about a minute). The episode ends with two elegant but rather spare love scenes. One consists of a very long shot illuminated by a single lightbulb (Algernon cozying up to his boss and childhood friend, Julet Rylance’s Corneila Robinson); it moves from a wide shot to a couple of close-ups along different axes, the camera getting closer to the characters as the characters get closer to each other. The second love scene starts with Thackery and Elkins entering Elkins’s apartment building, builds with a faintly McCabe and Mrs. Miller–like shot of Thackery and Elkins in front of Elkins’s makeup mirror lit only by an oil lamp, then, ahem, climaxes with a modified version of the “before and after” montage from Soderbergh’s 1998 classic Out of Sight (itself an homage to the love scene in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now). The first love scene is dominated by a shot that goes on for about three minutes without a cut. The second love scene is busier, by Knick standards, but there aren’t a lot of different angles: The episode keeps returning to the same ones, intertwining them via judicious editing, building it into a memory anchored to Hewson’s expressions.

I don’t mean to diminish other great directors’ work on TV. In fact, as I’ve written many times for New York and Vulture, TV has always been hospitable to smart and/or inventive filmmakers, perhaps more so recently than in the past. There have been many examples of excellent direction in recent years — I highlighted just a few of them in a 2013 magazine piece — as well as examples of filmmakers directing several consecutive episodes of a TV series. The most acclaimed recent run happened on HBO’s True Detective, all eight episodes of which were helmed by Cary Fukanaga.

But what Soderbergh is doing here goes above and beyond because it’s a feat of multitasking and physical endurance as well as artistry. He did not just direct all ten episodes of the show’s first season, which would be impressive in itself. According to Cinemax, it takes about seven work days to shoot an episode of The Knick (fewer than most dramas), which means Soderbergh is directing and editing for 70 days without any significant break. He also serves, under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, as its cinematographer (overseeing lighting, composition, and camera movement) and its main camera operator. A great percentage of the time, when you see the camera moving with the actors, it’s usually Soderbergh holding it; there is sometimes a second camera getting another angle, but Soderbergh is always the primary. When the production wraps each day, he assembles a rough edit of everything the crew shot, and eventually does the fine cut himself; the show’s editing credit, Mary Ann Bernard, is another Soderbergh pseudonym. This is not how things are usually done, at least not at the level of a lavishly detailed pay-cable period piece. There are other people doing all of these jobs, under the supervision of the showrunners, who tend to identify themselves as writers rather than as directors.

Soderbergh told me recently that a lot of the show’s simplicity is driven by time and budget constraints. They’re working on a tight schedule and have to shoot a lot of script pages every day, so they don’t have the luxury of shooting things five different ways and deciding later which one they like the best. The use of compact, high-definition, light-sensitive digital cameras allows Soderbergh to shoot with one or two visible light sources, often of fairly low wattage, and achieve naturalistic lighting effects that Stanley Kubrick spent a fortune on when shooting the visually similar Barry Lyndon (the first movie with interiors shot entirely by candlelight) on 35mm film 40 years ago. I’m almost reluctant to convey all that information here, though, because it might make it sound as if what Soderbergh is doing is easy. It’s really not. That fusebox scene I mentioned earlier is so complex, in terms of choreography, that a lot of period shows and films would set aside a day to block it, rehearse it, and shoot it. Soderbergh did it in two hours, from start to finish. You can’t work that fast and get such great results unless you’re absorbed in your craft so fully that it has become instinctive, in the way that a painter’s brushstrokes are instinctive, or a great basketball player’s moves are instinctive. At some point, intelligence becomes physical. The eyes and hands are just taking dictation from the subconscious. That, I suspect, is the level at which Soderbergh is operating now, 25 years after the premiere of his first feature, sex, lies, and videotape.

All of which means that when you watch The Knick, you are seeing the closest thing to an undiluted filmmaking vision as top-shelf TV drama has ever given us. Not even Louis C.K. is as hands-on as Soderbergh; he writes and edits Louie himself, but somebody else is lighting and shooting the series. The Knick is not just directed: It’s direct, in the sense that its visual sensibility is going from the filmmaker’s eyes to yours, without layers of other people as intermediaries. The camera and editing software are expressive tools as intimately connected to the artist’s mind and body as a paintbrush or a pen. 

This would all be meaningless if the show’s direction were terrible or merely okay. But it’s consistently so extraordinary that after finishing episode five and seeing Soderbergh’s name flash onscreen yet again, I was reminded of a story a relative told me years ago about going to the West Side piers to watch Jackson Pollock do one of his drip canvases. Soderbergh is making art in collaboration with Amiel and Begler and their outstanding ensemble cast, but he’s also putting on a show. He’s performing, turning creative expression into a real-time display of physical assurance that’s as much an athletic event as it is an artistic one.