A Chat With The Knick Writer-Producer Steven Katz

By , Contributor

Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

(L-R): The Knick's Steven Katz and Michael Begler

In today’s world there are numerous medical breakthroughs that have become commonplace and are used in treating patients. One hundred years ago, however, many of these methods either did not exist or were on the cusp of being invented, tested and perfected. Set in 1900 New York City, Cinemax’s period TV medical drama The Knick finds the staff at the fictional Knickerbocker Hospital (a.k.a. The Knick) carrying out their respective duties without the aid of many modern day “miracles.”

The hospital’s chief of staff Dr. John W. Thackery and his fellow surgeons work tirelessly to come up with new ways to heal the sick, with varying degrees of success. It is a time in history that writer/producer Steven Katz is quite familiar with and that fact did not escape the notice of The Knick’s award-winning executive producer-director Steven Soderbergh.

“I’ve known Steven Soderbergh for about 20 years,” says Katz. “We worked on a project together in the early 90s which subsequently wound up being directed by George Clooney [the 2008 feature film Leatherheads]. That just shows you the incredible lengths that [creative] development can go to in this business. Last summer in June 2013, Steven emailed me out of the blue and asked if I could send him a couple of writing samples. I asked why and he said, ‘I might be doing this TV thing.’ Two weeks later I was drafted into The Knick [as a writer as well as supervising producer].

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“I’ve written a lot of scripts set in New York City during the 19th and 20th centuries, so I think Steven felt I would make a good addition to what he called his ‘brain trust’ for the show and bring some more know-how and knowledge of the era to the other writers. The other writers on the show are terrific researchers and certainly know their stuff, but their chief interest is, I believe, medical history, which is not necessarily an interest of mine. So my interest in the city and its history complements theirs. I actually joined the project a little late. The other writers had already written, I think, two or three scripts by then and had done the ‘heavy lifting’ of the outline for the first season. I came in, contributed some ideas to the outline and wrote episodes five and nine.”

In The Knick’s opener "Method and Madness," Dr. John W. Thackery is appointed the new chief surgeon at the Knickerbocker Hospital after his boss and mentor Dr. J.M. Christiansen (Matt Frewer) commits suicide following the death of a woman and her unborn child during surgery. Thackery wants Dr. Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson) to replace him as deputy surgeon, but, instead, the hospital administrator, Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), hires Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), a Harvard graduate and gifted European-trained black surgeon. Racial tensions as well as jealously erupts as the surgeons prepare to operate on a patient suffering from a post-operative infection. It was quite a dramatic (and medically graphic) start for the show.

“As far as getting the series off the ground, Steven already had a terrific relationship with HBO, having come off the award-winning TV movie Behind the Candelabra,” notes Katz. “I think it was then just a matter of once he decided to commit to The Knick, he gave the script to Clive Owen [Dr. John W. Thackery], who also committed to it, and they brought it to HBO. I wasn’t involved with it at that stage, but from what I can tell, it was a pretty painless process. When it comes to the physical production challenges, one of the hardest things - or at least I thought it was one of the hardest things - is that we were filming in New York during the so-called polar vortex. I felt bad for the cast, who would be dressed in their summer outfits and have to pretend it was warm, when, in fact, the temperature was in the single digits.

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“Steven shot the first season using a method called cross-blocking, which is how they shoot movies. So we’d go to one location, shoot every single scene that we needed there, and then move on to another location. I have to give a great deal of credit to our script supervisor [Thomas Johnston] for keeping all this stuff straight, and Steven, who has this iron-trap brain for remembering. I, on the other hand, would forget which character was where, which one had the bullet wound, etc., but, again, Steven always remembered, which tells you something about great directors. They really do keep the whole film in their heads, but it was definitely a challenge keeping things straight, even the scenes I’d written.”

As Katz previously mentioned, he penned The Knick’s recently aired fifth episode, "They Capture the Heat." In it, Barrow calls on Thackery and Edwards to perform an operation that could cost all three men their lives if the patient dies. Meanwhile, Gallinger discovers that his and his wife Eleanor’s (Maya Kazan) baby is suffering from meningitis, and Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) brings Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) to Chinatown to perform another abortion.

“As I said, my co-writers [and executive producers/series co-creators] Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, had already done the bulk of the outlining before I joined the project, so I have to give all the credit to them for that,” he notes. “The one unusual contribution I made to this episode was proposing that it open with the scene in the sawbones office. I mentioned to them that since we were talking about this hospital on the cutting edge, we should show what the non-cutting edge of medicine looked like back then as well. I was a little bit inspired by the Dr. Meade [Jackie Moran] character in the movie Gone with the Wind, whose instinct was always to reach for the saw first and cut off the afflicted limb.

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"Again, we were shooting during the polar vortex, and there’s a scene near the end of this episode where Thackery is talking outside on the street with Captain Robertson [Grainger Hines] about how hot and muggy it is. In actuality, it was freezing and you could see their breath. Something else that sticks out in my mind about filming this episode is the last scene where Lucy [Eve Hewson] is teaching Thackery how to ride a bicycle. I don’t think Eve knew how to ride a bicycle prior to The Knick, and she had to be taught for this show. When we shot this scene, it had been one of those really long working days, and as Thackery is riding around on the bicycle, the light was changing as the sun set. Steven had to very cleverly edit that scene so it didn’t appear as if the lesson was taking 10 hours. Also, Thackery is supposed to be singing a song, Sidewalks of New York, as he’s getting his bicycle lesson, but Clive didn’t like to sing, although I thought he had a terrific voice.”

In the writer’s upcoming second episode this season, "The Golden Lotus," Captain Robertson intervenes financially in order to save The Knick’s reputation, and Lucy goes to extremes in order to get drugs for a desperate Thackery. “Not to harp on it, but one of the challenges with this episode was, yes, the weather,” says Katz. “There’s a scene with Robertson and Barrow, and it’s just this extraordinary shot of them in a moving carriage. Once again, it was freezing outside and we had blocked off this one portion of a Brooklyn [New York] street. We just kept running this carriage around and around that street to get the shot perfect. That was a cold one. I once asked Sydney Pollack what kind of script I’d have to write for him to direct. After thinking about it, he said to me, ‘Write one set in Hawaii.’ I totally understand his logic now,” says the writer with a chuckle.

 “One scene I really enjoyed writing for this episode is where Thackery goes to visit a patent medicine salesman and tries to get some money by peddling his recommendations for a particular snake oil remedy, One of the fun things about writing this kind of period stuff is getting into the brains as well as linguistic rhythms of characters from over a hundred years ago. We would consciously try, though, not to be too accurate, too creaky or too period-like. Instead, we tried to smooth things over and give the dialogue more of a contemporary feel to match the filming style, music and everything else that Steven brought to the project. Also, you have to be really careful writing this stuff because actors love to sink their teeth into such material and take it to a high acting style. That wouldn’t have fit too well with the way that the series straddles the 1900 period and the more contemporary. We did go through the scripts and comb out all the real anachronisms, but there are a number of places where the language is still not 100% accurate to the period.”

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What can fans look forward to in The Knick’s first season finale and beyond? “I know some people have been struck by the level of gore, but as Al Jolson once said, ‘You ain’t heard (or in this case seen) nothing yet.’ The first season is going to end in such a way that you’re really going to want to come back next year and see what happens to these characters,” muses the writer/producer. “As far as season two, these characters are going to be taken in some unexpected directions. I don’t want to say anything more because I don’t want to ruin the viewers’ pleasure of being surprised.”

A lover of films since childhood, Katz eventually channeled his passion into a successful career in the industry. “When I was growing up in the 60s, pop artists and pop culture began recycling images from silent films starring actors such as Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy,” he recalls. “I became really interested in film history, originally silent films and then just film history in general. At the time, it was difficult to see old or foreign movies because it was before VHS, DVDs, DVR, cable and the Internet. However, I was fortunate enough to grow up in St. Louis, Missouri, which had a lot of great revival houses, local college film societies, and libraries that even had film festivals.

“So I got a pretty substantial film education, and all I ever wanted to do was work in film. Then in 1972 when The Godfather came out, that changed my life and sealed the deal for me. I started out writing plays and then had an idea for a movie. So I wrote my first screenplay, which eventually turned out to be the first movie of mine that got made, Shadow of the Vampire. It wasn’t the first script I ever sold—that would be my fourth spec script—but that’s how I originally broke into the business and I haven’t written a play since.”

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Directed by E. Elias Merhige and starring John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, and Udo Kier, Shadow of the Vampire is a fictionalized account of the making of the classic 1922 horror vampire film Nosferatu. “The thing that always stuck in my head about Nosferatu is that even though it’s a vampire movie, it looks incredibly realistic," notes Katz. “It was shot on-location in around Germany as well as Czechoslovakia and some other places using actual physical buildings and local architecture, so it had this unusual documentary-like quality to it.

“Max Schreck is the name of the actor who plays the vampire in the movie, Schreck is the German word for ‘fright,’ and because I had never heard of or seen him in any other movies, I had this little ping of inspiration that maybe he really was a vampire. Funnily enough, since then I’ve seen pictures of him in other movies, so I found out a lot more about him as time went on, but he was my original inspiration for Shadow of the Vampire.”

As a fiction writer, you are taking the stories in your head and putting them down on paper, or in more modern terms, typing them into a computer. The icing on the cake is to then one day have those stories truly brought to life onstage, on TV or the big screen. That dream has come true for Katz.

“It’s been very rewarding seeing my visions on the screen,” he says. “You write in your little office all day long, and then one day you walk onto a set and you’re actually standing in the location that you imagined in your brain and the people you had imagined populating it are standing there as well and speaking your lines. It’s a pretty extraordinary feeling. The relationships I’ve made along the way have been incredibly rewarding, too. I’ve met and become friends with a number of extraordinarily talented and exceptionally intelligent people.

“I just really love writing, and I feel incredibly blessed to actually be paid to turn on my computer and ‘transcribe’ the voices in my head.”

The Knick airs Fridays at 10:00 p.m. EST/PST on Cinemax. Please note, all Knick photos by Mary Cybulski and courtesy/copyright of Cinemax.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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