Spoilers ahead for the season-one finale of The Knick.
As The Knick kicked off this past summer, Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) reminded those around him that “We live in a time of endless possibility.” Unfortunately for this brilliantly unhinged surgeon, that potential boundlessness got him sentenced to a hospital bed on this weekend’s season finale. Turns out shooting liquid cocaine into your veins before surgery is bad for both you and the health of your patient! Thankfully, Thack will get himself cured with a new drug called, uh … heroin, which was considered safe at the time. “It’s from the Bayer Aspirin Company,” says the prescribing doctor.
A fitting way to end the poetically harrowing first season of Steven Soderbergh’s 1900s medical drama — with its antihero hitting rock-bottom. What will Soderbergh and the rest of The Knick team have in store for us in season two? Vulture spoke with Owen to discuss those possibilities, the finale, and the unlimited energy it takes to play a cocaine addict.
So let’s start right at the end. Thackery is finally able to get the help he needs …
… only to find out he’s getting weaned off of cocaine and onto heroin.
Exactly! I always thought that was a pretty brilliant ending. And apparently it was true. There were a lot of people getting addicted to cocaine at that time, because it was a new wonder drug and they didn’t realize its addictiveness. So they prescribed heroin as a kind of antidote. Out of the frying pan, into the fire …
It feels like you need a tremendous amount of energy to play a cocaine addict.
It’s true. It was very exhausting, simply for that reason. It was exhausting anyway because it was a very intense shoot and Steven [Soderbergh] worked so fast and we were doing a lot, but you do realize that every single scene takes a lot of energy. Especially those episodes towards the end because there’s the [cocaine] shortage, and then when it comes back, he’s taking more than ever. [Laughs.]
And you guys shot the scenes out of order, almost like a movie.
Yeah, [Soderbergh] boarded it like a ten-hour movie, so when we were in [Thackery’s home], we shot everything, from the first episode to the last episode, in just two days. So that was quite a challenge. I made a visual white board on my wall, which just plotted through all the episodes and all the scenes in the episodes, and part of that was to graph my drug intake. That this was a period where you need more drugs, or this is where you were on too many. In some ways, that needed to be charted throughout the whole ten hours.
So you were filming those scenes where Thackery is self-destructing early in the shoot?
Exactly. It was all location-based. At first I thought, That’s fine. You always shoot anything out of sequence. But it wasn’t until we started that I realized what a challenge that was. It’s a big undertaking, especially with a part like that.
One of my favorite — though certainly horrifying — aspects of the show is to see all the medical procedures and techniques that are shunned now. Obviously there’s the cocaine, but then there’s the fact that doctors aren’t wearing gloves or that people need to stand in front of an X-ray machine for like 45 minutes.
The great thing is, not only were the operations really well-researched — when we did them, they were incredibly faithful to how they were being done at the time — we go into discoveries that were made. But also there were a number of crazy ideas and crazy notions that they were exploring. I am sure in 20 or 40 years from now, we’ll look back and think, Did we really believe that?
I understand you went through a brief medical-school crash course with the show’s medical adviser, Dr. Stanley Burns, before you began production.
Yeah, he was an unbelievable source of research and information. It’s almost like this show was his fantasy come to life, because his place, he has hundreds of thousands of photographs from this period, he had medical instruments from the period, he had booklets that were handed to doctors at the turn of the century. He was just an unbelievable resource to have.
What was the hardest procedure for you to do onscreen?
Really, the first one was in some ways the most shocking, because we did everything we could, but we had never seen it with all the blood and everything. We had rehearsed it thoroughly, we shot everything up until the point where we make the first incision, and then the blood was pumped through and we just did everything in real time, and Steven kept his shot going. The blood just kept coming, and by the end, when he shouted “Cut!,” we were all covered. It was all over the place. It was a real moment of “Welcome to 1900!” [Laughs.] That was quite shocking. So we knew from then on that this was the direction we were going in.
I read Steven was looking for that “David Fincher” level of blood.
Yeah, and again, Dr. Burns was there for every single procedure … He would be like, “More blood,” “Less blood” — that was what he asked for.
I assume you’re not too squeamish in general, right? It would probably be pretty difficult to play the role to begin with.
Um, no, and also the scenes were so technically challenging. They work on such a number of levels. You’ve got the technical side of the operation, you’ve got to know what you’re doing, you’ve got the dialogue with the other doctors, and the whole element of performing it in front of an audience. So they were just very challenging scenes generally, and there was no real time to get squeamish. You just wanted to look like you knew what you were doing.
There’s a pretty brutal scene in the finale where you’re doing a blood transfusion and cutting your wrist open. Could you walk me through that?
Well, first I thought, throughout the whole show, but specifically that one, the prosthetics guy did such an incredible job. Even to the naked eye, just as an actor standing there, some of the stuff that we were looking down and working on, it was so convincing. And that’s without doing any CGI. But I do remember that one, with the little girl lying on the bed, and wondering if the veins are connecting, and looking at Steven and saying, “How are we ever going to come back for the second season? How are we ever going to bring this guy back? He’s irredeemable!” [Laughs.] So that felt like a scene where we pushed him as far as it was possible to push him.
We don’t know much of Thackery’s background. He made a brief speech about his father slaughtering Indians, but that was about it. Had you and Steven come up with a backstory?
There was actually, in earlier drafts, there was an element of him going back to see his father. So there was some stuff there that in the end Steven took out, which I think was a wise thing to do. So there was kind of a rough outline there, but we may find out more about that in the second season.
You’ve mentioned before that there’s something that strikes you as very rock and roll about Thackery.
That came out of a conversation with the costume designer, who did such an excellent job. I went to a fitting and she pitched me the idea of these white boots. It was such a strange arrogance about it. And as we were looking at clothes — I have done period things before, and very often, a costume designer will say, “Oh, no, you can’t wear that because they never did that.” But Ellen would say to me, “Well, you can do what you like. You’re Thackery.” He’s the 1900 version of rock and roll. He can wear anything. There’s something about the way he carries himself, and his attitude, and the fact that he’s brilliant also helps him get away with it. There’s something so edgy and visceral about him.
I think one of the most interesting aspects of him is that he’s able to transition seamlessly from an uptown lifestyle to a more downtown decadence, where he goes to these opium dens.
Yeah. And it’s also a lovely flavor of what New York must have been at that time. You get the broad spectrum. You get the real rough areas, where disease has taken a grip; you get the wealthy areas, where people are funding the hospital. It gives you such an opportunity to experience a broad palate of life at that time.
Did filming the first season feel more like a movie than a TV show, since Steven directed every episode?
For sure. It didn’t feel any different. It felt longer, obviously — though I say longer, we shot the thing in 73 days. It was like the length of a really big movie. Apart from the amount we were getting through each day, which was an awful lot. We moved so quickly. I think our record was 13 pages of dialogue in one day. Apart from that, the pace of it felt absolutely no different from doing a movie. At the end of the day, Steven Soderbergh is a movie animal. And also the fact that we didn’t shoot it episodically. He did board it like a movie. It didn’t feel like television.
Is 13 pages a day a lot? That seems like a lot.
It’s a hell of a lot. You try learning that and knowing you need to get up the next day and do another one. [Laughs.]
That’s what’s so great about the show and how insane it must have been to shoot. You’re not only playing an interesting character, but you have to learn all these medical terms that you’re not that familiar with.
They are hard to learn, those scenes. And we did occasionally shoot one operation after another, but you have to really put time into them. You’ve got to look and sound completely convincing. I really thought so highly of the writers — the rhythms were often good. Oftentimes when the writing is good, even if it’s technical stuff around the operation, the rhythm is easier to learn. And it’s really difficult to learn if it’s stilted.
How much rehearsal was involved in shooting the actual scenes? There are some really long takes during those surgery sequences.
He’s very, very quick, Steven. Those operation days, I’d say yes, the first hour or two of that day were crucial, because that’s where you’d dictate how everything plays — the technical side of it, the rhythm of the dialogue. But genuinely, we’d go and rehearse the scene a number of times, and Steven would have a look at it from a number of perspectives and make a very clear decision and take a very strong perspective on where he wants to shoot the scene from, and then shoot it fairly quickly.
Have you and Steven talked about what’s in store for season two?
Yeah, I’ve got five scripts in front of me here. It’s just very exciting because it was such a bold take on a period genre in a way. I thought it was so visceral and edgy. It’s brilliant to be able to come this far. The exciting thing is we can hit the ground running. We’ve already done so much work in taking it to very interesting, unusual and dangerous places. It’s really exciting.
Are you worried about being able to top the first season?
No, we’ve got such a wealth of opportunity. It just goes to really interesting and crazy places, and there is still so much there. We are lucky [the writers] literally immersed themselves in the time. There was stuff they were trying to cram in the first season that they can go to. It’s just really great stuff. There’s an awful lot still.