Lead, Follow or get out of the way

We had an excellent guest speaker in the office last week.

Jack Amiel is the showrunner for HBO show The Knick (podcast interview here). If it has yet to reach your shores, it’s kind of a graphically bloody much better version of Grey’s Anatomy set around 1900 with a main character who is a racist drug addict played by Clive Owen.

Oh, and it’s shot by Steven Soderbergh.

Those of you who listened to the Robert Rodriguez stuff from a couple of weeks ago might like to know that Steven operates in much the same way: he is the camera operator, DOP, editor, director and exec producer, so when he shoots he only captures exactly what’s needed for the edit in his head. This saves the show around 35% of its budget each year, allowing them to spend more on massive, authentic sets with ceilings (very unusual).

Jack was very pleasant, funny and entertaining. He started in the world of sitcoms and told us how different shows have entirely different geneses. For example, Friends writers worked until 5am, while Everybody Loves Raymond‘s writers worked from 9 to 5. Roseanne had a writers room of 12 TV writers and another room of 12 stand up comedians to add more jokes. Apparently everything we’ve enjoyed in the world of American sitcoms was basically invented by Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball’s then-husband. He dispensed with live shows and came up with the multi-camera format which every show followed until the single camera format began to make an impact in recent years. He also invented the repeat/rerun.

Jack then told us an excellent story of how he pitched a script ‘exclusively’ to two producers. When the pitch was over the producers didn’t hang up properly and then proceeded to take several more calls from other writers who were pitching the same project. Jack and his partner listened to all this then sent an email saying they weren’t interested because they didn’t feel they could do it justice. They then heard the two producers receiving the email and panicking, saying they had to offer Jack and his partner the gig right then and there, which meant Jack had to hang up so the producers could get through to him with the offer (which Jack still declined).

Another fine story: Jack was talking to a director on set when a crew member came up and asked if she wanted the cameras set up left or right for the next scene. ‘Left,’ she said immediately. Jack then expressed amazement that she would know the answer to that question so quickly. She replied that she had no idea where the cameras should be for the next scene, and didn’t even know what the next scene was, but if you hesitate you lose the crew. She then looked up what the next scene was and realised she wanted the cameras set up on the right, so she got Jack to scribble some changes on the script and went back to the crew member. ‘Look at this,’ she said. ‘Jack’s made all these damn changes, so know we’re going to have to set up the cameras on the right’.

But the most interesting stuff was about Soderbergh. Apparently he ‘retired’ because he felt he had made too many good films to have to go cap in hand for funding. The straw that broke the camel’s back came with Behind the Candelabra, which no one would fund, despite the inclusion of Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. So now SS owns his own Red camera and can shoot faster and cheaper than anyone, and better than almost anyone. Apparently he heard about The Knick in June a couple of years ago and said, ‘Right, I’m going to start shooting this on August 22nd. I really hope I’m going to be shooting something you (HBO) are going to own’. The title of this post is how Jack described Steven’s working method.

He also keeps a strictly closed set. This became funny when one of the actresses playing a nurse asked if her dad could come to the shoot, only to be told that it was closed to all. SS didn’t budge, even when (or perhaps because) the actress explained that her dad was Bono.

Check out The Knick. Grow the balls of Steven Soderbergh. Furnish the planet with greatness (thanks, Jack)..