Howard Cummings, production designer, and Ellen Mirojnick, costume designer, last worked together on creating Liberace’s glittery world for Behind The Candelabra. Most recently they got down in the muck and marvels of medicine at the turn of the last century, creating the astounding look for Steven Soderbergh’s new show The Knick.
It’s a look that both supports the characters and gives us an enthralling window into an earlier time of great change. And that, say the designers, was one of the goals of the show. DnA spoke to the designers and learned how they went about dandifying the daring doctors Thackeray and Edwards, changing soil colors to reflect wealth and poverty, and creating a period piece that feels utterly modern. Listen to the interview here and read it in more detail below.
DnA: So the show feels like it is making a larger point about 1900 being a time of extreme technical and social change akin to our own. Was that the intention?
Howard Cummings (below, left): It was completely on the creators and Steven Soderbergh’s mind that this period in American history was actually mirroring our current time, and the interesting part is how socially people had to adapt to all these new technologies, and some of which were, you know, tremendously helpful and some of which were slightly horrific. In general the approach was meant to be very modern. Even though we were doing a period drama, the intention was to actually make it feel modern and not nostalgic in any way. Steven said in an interview, “I would prefer people look back at this and feel like, ‘thank God I’m not living in this period!’” but it is ultimately fascinating to watch.
DnA: One of the many intriguing details is that after performing horrific-looking surgeries in front of an audience, Dr Thackeray seems to run down stairs and make his own medical tools. It’s a period of growth for medical devices, and we’re seeing an explosion of medical devices now. That research must have been fascinating.
HC: Well, you know there was a lot of available material to draw from, and as far as medical devices goes, there were endless catalogues because manufacturing, as you said, was just in its beginnings.
Mass manufacturing was taking hold, so people were creating these crazy devices that, you know, are no longer used now, but we had them in catalogues drawn at the exact size that they should be. So some of them we actually had to remake, and some of them we found collectors.
DnA: And some of them are absolutely terrifying.
HC: Yes. Our big secret weapon was Doctor Stanley Burns who has this incredible archive (a Manhattan ophthalmologist and creator of the Burns Archive of medical, historical and memorial photography). His townhouse is basically packed with these things, and he was part of the inspiration of the series as well. He had documentation about how these operations were performed, which was great and was very helpful for the prop department and for what exactly these tools were, which tools they were using, and the different kinds of guts and things that they used all came from his research. There’s a whole sequence with an X-ray machine later on, and that was an actual functioning X-ray machine from the period, which glowed green. I kept going, “Is this real?”, and they go “Yes, it’s absolutely real.”
DnA: Lighting seems to be a big character in the story, and electrification is a theme. I understand Steven Soderbergh lights his own films; is that true and was lighting both important to the story but also important to Steven as a director?
HC: He was an early proponent of using the RED camera, which is a digital camera. It’s very light sensitive, and so early on with camera tests he really wanted to see if, “gee, could we actually light a scene just using a gas or oil lamp without having to augment it, without having to use film lighting.” And it was just shocking that you could actually. There are many scenes in The Knick, where we only used candles or oil lamps. So, you had the real sense of what the period felt like because we could work at very low exposures. I think toward the end of episode one, I think, Zachary turns the lamp out in his room, and on any other film you’d have somebody off to the side cranking down some rheostat.
DnA: So that adds to that feeling of verisimilitude, like we’re there.
HC: Exactly. We had a gaffer who does the lighting and stuff, but in many respects we used practical lighting for the interiors, but I worked closely with the gaffer to create the different looks because the invention of electricity was transforming everything. Oddly, we decided that having looked at the period, we felt like the electrically-lit interiors should actually look darker than the gas-lit interiors. We kind of played it backwards. In those days people might’ve had three or four gas lamps and a chandelier, but when electricity was first coming in they probably had one bulb, or they’d stick the bulb in the gas chandelier; that was common. They’d do combo lighting, so we experimented with that, which was really fun.
But in terms of the class system of lighting, the tenements had almost none. I don’t know how these people survived. Of course, the Robertsons, who were the upper class people and the benefactors of the hospital, are completely electrified, and we’ve found this wonderful location that was an actual Victorian mansion. It belonged to Bailey of Barnum and Bailey, and it was the penultimate at the time, you know, totally electrified. The fixtures were still there; I was just in heaven. The place was covered in light bulbs, almost decorative. They were very proud of their light bulbs. And so we used that a lot, we used just the image of the bulb and what that would mean to people. It meant power.
HC: Yeah, it was like you had hold of this new technology, and it was the haves and have-nots.
DnA: One of the other striking elements of the design is city life. We currently are moving back into downtowns and they are seen as clean and relatively safe places to live. But 1900 was a time when people started to think about leaving the cities which were petrie dishes of illness, poverty and crime.
HC: People were still making everything in their apartments, and that’s what the term sweat shop comes from, actually, from all these apartments. So that meant that if they were going to go buy something or get something, they had to go to the street, because every conceivable space was being used to manufacture clothing, and unfortunately, the working conditions were terrible, and tuberculosis was rampant, and we eluded to that.
And then right around 1901, New York passed these laws to put in air shafts to put ventilation between the rooms, and people had to restructure the buildings, because at that point backyards were places people had laundry, and stuff like that. They had to actually invade those areas in order to provide this air circulation into the building, and light. Often these buildings had absolutely no light at all. Not even a gas lamp. Nothing. So they’re working in the dark, and it was filthy, so for Ellen and I, the idea of going from the hospital to that kind of environment, you know, that’s a great challenge, and a design opportunity.
Ellen Mirojnick: So in the tenement area, there is dirt, grime, and distress not only in their lives, but in their clothes. There was nothing that was clean, nobody had anything. They just had the clothes that they came off the ship in. And so their working lives and their sleeping lives and their eating lives were all the same. Everything was just a mix of mud, in a way.
HC: And that’s in juxtaposition to the hospital where you’ve got these beautifully cleaned uniforms and there’s order, and so it was a great visual set up for us, because we got to go to all of these other places, and one of the things that Steven said to me early on was, “If I could make this a black and white film, I would. And I took that and I said, “Ah, the hospital” and Ellen basically said, “Ah, I see it’s all black and white, so let’s just keep the world of the hospital. . . This very elemental, clean monochrome place.”
EM: It’s very purposeful.
HC: And then so, when you leave that world we can then explore and define those different worlds in color and texture, the dirt, the grime, or the exact opposite. The rich people were kind of in blues and cool things, and everything had a shine to it, you know, that was very important. I changed the color of the dirt depending on where you were in the city.
So when you’re actually in front of a hospital, it’s clean. It’s kind of gray and it’s intended to make the exterior look almost like a black and white film, whereas when we went to the tenement area, it’s very muddy. But for the affluent people we had cobblestone.
DnA: But Doctor Thackeray’s white shoes really ring out, very white.
EM: Those white shoes, yes. That was kind of crazy. I was very committed to the white shoes. When Clive Owen came for his first fitting to meet and talk about John Thackery, I immediately presented the idea of white shoes, and he said, as everyone says, “White shoes?” And showed them, and he put them on, and he immediately became John Thackery. He said, “Would he do it?” He was very, very interested in the truth of it and not to be so far from the truth that it would just be silly. Well, the truth was that, yes, he would do it. And he could do it. I thought that it was a very, very good character note to add to this element of not just making a rock ‘n’ roll type of character but really having a man that is possessed.
He is possessed with what genius lies inside of him and being able to make everything happen and really be at the forefront of the new age. And so there’s a romance to the character as well, and there is a touch of the color green that we used for John Thackeray. Clive Owen loves velvet, and we thought we can push the character that extra bit because he does have that arrogance, that self-possessed narcissism. And he could do anything that he wants to do. The bigger note was the green works so well, because it’s the opposite of red, and we have so much blood.
DnA: But the blood doesn’t get on his white shoes.
EM: Yeah, it does. It does, but it just becomes dirt on his white shoes.
DnA. So your work on the show makes it both realistic and painterly.
EM: We didn’t want to make an oldey-timey show. That oldey-timey kind of precious, nostalgic approach, we’d seen many, many, many times before. And the subject matter and the idea of the show was hard hitting and was modern.
HC: We all felt like we had to know what the real thing was. And, actually, I worked in the past with Steven on another medical sort of drama, which was Contagion. Steven had said to me very early on in Contagion, he said, “I think, in this case, the real thing is so scary, that we do not embellish it in any way. I do not want to movie-ize this movie, you know, I don’t want to have that approach. You don’t make it bigger than what it is. Tell me what it looks like.” And he said, “I guarantee it’ll scare people more.” And I felt like that was also somewhat the case for The Knick.
DnA: We haven’t talked about another sort of important character in this story, which is Doctor Algernon Edwards and he represents the means to explore racism at the time which is as hard to watch as the awful medical experiments. But, Dr. Edwards clothing is debonair — to the point that he enrages people.
EM: I think him walking into a room enrages them. And what we felt we wanted to do. Doctor Algernon Edwards has been working in Europe. He witnessed great wealth, but he also became an individual in a more open society in Europe. And with that we did take license of being able to add pattern and texture and color to just make a bit of a statement. It is not out of arrogance, it just is. It is his confidence of where he comes from.
HC: Thackeray is just so horrible to him, but it’s very pragmatic. He is afraid of what he will do to the hospital. But the two of them have the same passion for medicine and so the two of them have kind of the same goal, but they’re at totally at opposite ends.
DnA: But they’re both…Jimi Hendrix when it comes to dress.
EM: Yeah, he’s Jimi Hendrix, and Thackery’s David Bowie.
HC: Exactly. Just as Thackery has had the confidence to wear white shoes. Yeah, Algernon is wearing the latest men’s French fashions. And he’s not afraid to.
EM: And he earned it. I mean there is a confidence that he earned it. There was never a doubt that he wasn’t a top rated surgeon.
DnA: Back to our overarching theme which is the extent to which this this depiction of the turn of the century somehow echoes our own time in terms of innovation in medicine, new technology and social change. One of the qualities that the Knick has that really does seem to distinguish itself from other period dramas, particularly Downton Abbey, is the pace. You know, we all talk now, we’re so busy, everything’s so frenetic and it sort of feels the same then, like everybody is in a race, and a stressful race.
HC: Well, if you watch the way it’s photographed, it’s almost entirely handheld. And it’s not meant to be handheld in sort of that Hillstreet Blues kind of moving frenetic thing. It’s just very subtle. It’s always active. The camera never settles. Which was wonderful because it allowed Steven to do all sorts of complex shots, but you’re not really aware of it. Even during the surgeries the camera’s moving around, stuff is happening. We didn’t cut out of a lot of those surgeries. So it makes it very real and very scary with the pressure of the people watching.
DnA: As designers, how is it to work with Steven Soderbergh?
HC: He really gives you, as a designer, he really gives you freedom to do your job.
He basically says, “Bring me your A game. And I don’t want to see a million choices of a million things. I want you to show me your point of view.” But he gives you this great freedom to sort of move forward and really create a world, and he is…for Steven it’s all about telling the story. So, if you know what the scene’s about, and you go in, you’re going to win. If you don’t know what the scene’s about, he knows right away. And he immediately has this wonderful sense of knowing exactly where to place the camera, how to tell the story of that room, you know. And for a designer, that’s gold.
And same with clothing, as well. You can have a dialogue, which is great, because some directors are brilliant and visionaries, and they basically want you to do just that vision, but Steven allows you to come in with ideas and will, you know, react or work with it, or not, but, you have this great freedom.
EM: It’s liberating.
All images depicting scenes and characters in The Knick, by Mary Cybulski, courtesy of Cinemax.
For more on production design depicting the style and technology of the early twentieth century, listen to this DnA interview with executive producer Gareth Neame about Downton Abbey.