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Emmy-Nominated Production Designer Howard Cummings Talks The Knick [Exclusive] 

Emmy-Nominated Production Designer Howard Cummings Talks The Knick [Exclusive]
Photo Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO

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The Knick is such a great TV show and I love that it’s getting the attention of Emmy voters. While I’m fully invested in following the stories of these characters, sometimes I have to look away from the action onscreen. If you’re a fan, you know how intense and realistic those surgery scenes can get. If you aren’t a fan yet, you really should get on board. All the actors, but especially Clive Owen and Andre Holland, are doing some really great work here, and even the more minor characters shine.

Here’s further enticement (if you need it):

Another great thing about this series is how it looks. I’m obviously talking about Steven Soderbergh‘s direction, but I also want to highlight production designer Howard Cummings. He has made turn of the twentieth century New York City come alive. It’s not always glamorous or even attractive, but it seems authentic.

I talked to Howard earlier this week about the research he had to do to get the look and feel of this story just right, how he got involved with The Knick in the first place, some of his favorite sets and more.

TV GOODNESS: First of all, congratulations on your Emmy nomination.

Howard Cummings: “Thank you.”

TV GOODNESS: Your sets are beautiful, so I’m so excited you got a nomination.

Howard: “I’m grateful because really, the crew- I had a lot of people back from Season 1. It’s really about them this year, I think, ‘cause what they managed to pull off was really. I was just thrilled.”

Photo Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO
Photo Credit: Paul Schiraldi/Cinemax

TV GOODNESS: Good, good. I have to say the pedigree on this show is really impressive. Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you hear about The Knick and what made you want to do it?

Howard: “Actually, it was a while ago and Steven Soderbergh was going to retire and I was about to start another movie. I was going off to Argentina the next day and he called me and he said, ‘Something is coming together quickly. It’s Victorian, New York, based on a hospital.’ And he said, ‘Do you want to do it?’ I was like, ‘Uhhhhh…,’ and I said, ‘Is there a script?’ ‘Well…yes.’ [Laughs.] I said, ‘Are there any actors?’ ‘Not quite.’

But he had a script and he was in talks with Clive Owen, but it was all very speculative. Something told me to do it. I hadn’t had an opportunity to do any kind of period work in a long time and so I was very excited about the prospect.

It was worth the risk. My friends were all saying, ‘You’re crazy. You’re turning down a for sure job to do this?’  And I go, ‘Yeah. I think it’s something special.’ Thank God that turned out to be true.”

TV GOODNESS: And also, I feel like if Steven Soderbergh asks you to work on a project you have to say yes.

Howard: “Generally, yes. [Laughs.] I’ve been saying yes for 7, now 8 years and he works a lot, he keeps me busy. And all the jobs are so varied. I think right before that we had just done Magic Mike. It was just such an opportunity.

The good thing is he wants to find something different every time he does a job. He always has a reason. There’s something he’s looking for. It’s always a different way of exploring some method of working as well, so it makes it very fun and certainly not boring.”

Photo Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO
Photo Credit: Paul Schiraldi/Cinemax

TV GOODNESS: I love the look of this show. Are there challenges working on a period piece and can you tell me a little bit about the research you did for this?

Howard: “When we were first trying to figure out where we were gonna shoot the project, there was discussion of places like Chicago and stuff. I said, ‘This is a New York story and I promise you guys I will deliver Victorian New York to you,’ and I didn’t realize- I lived in New York for a long time, but I was going, ‘Oh, wow. This is bigger than I thought it was gonna be.’ [Laughs.]

So we had a great location department headed up by this guy named Rob Striem. Thank God he was really great at getting cooperation from people. Then we really did our homework for doing these giant street dresses with dirt and horses and carriages right in the middle of New York. That took a lot of trying to figure out the right neighborhood with the right people living in it. He had to take all these factors into consideration.

And I had a ton of research. The first person I hired was a research assistant. Her name was Coco White and Coco really helped me. She just delved into everything. We had a whole library, by the end of the second season, a huge library of work.

For the medical aspects we had a medical historian, Dr. Stanley Burns, who is related to one of our writers; he’s his uncle. He was somewhat inspired by just the story. Dr. Burns has this incredible townhouse just packed full of stuff that is all medical history and oddities. He knew tons about procedural stuff, so a lot of the stories came out of his research and were true.

It was very important that we had the right accuracy ‘cause you can do period projects, but Steven, his thing was, ‘I want this to mean something to a modern audience. I don’t want it to be a nostalgic view of 1900.’ And he said, ‘In fact, I’m gonna make it quite clear in the first five minutes that people will say to themselves, ‘Thank God I didn’t live in 1900,’ which you get right away with particularly graphic hospital sequences.

Photo Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO
Photo Credit: Paul Schiraldi/Cinemax

The costume designer, Ellen Mirojnick, and I tried to reinforce with by making the hospital almost completely black, white and gray and brown. The only real color in the hospital is that blood and it makes it more arresting. You’re not prepared because all the scenes leading up to that are so drained of color, so it was an interesting way to approach medical drama.

And thank God, early on, Coco found through the Columbia University library, some medical reports from Presbyterian Hospital, which was in existence back at the turn of the century. They had documented in their annual report, with photographs and ground plans and detailed descriptions, of what’s going on. So I based a lot of how our hospital functioned on that research. It was like a godsend. It was like having yet another advisor, ‘cause I didn’t really understand how things like the wards were laid out or where you put the sterilizer in the operating room and how the things are laid out so that was a great help.”

Photo Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO
Photo Credit: Paul Schiraldi/Cinemax

TV GOODNESS: I’m glad you mentioned the costume designer because it seems like you guys worked pretty closely to get the look of this series right. Can you talk about that relationship? And how early did you guys have to start working to make sure everything was ready for filming?

Howard: [Laughs.] “I’m laughing because we didn’t have a lot of time. Ellen Mirojnick and I worked together before and it was on Liberace [Behind the Candelabra], that Steven directed. The clothing and the sets there, you couldn’t separate them really because of Liberace and his crazy excess.

We forged a really good relationship there so when The Knick came up we just turned to each other immediately. About 11 weeks out before anyone else started, we were in our yet-unfinished studios, crammed into my office because it was the only functioning office in the building at the time. It was just she and I. She had some staff on because they had to worry about manufacturing all the nurses costumes and the uniforms all had to be worked on immediately.

She and I sat down and I was all freaking out. I was going, ‘Ellen. I have like, I don’t know, 98 locations to find.’ I said, ‘I don’t have time to sit down and talk about color swatches,’ but Ellen ruled and she said, ‘No, Howard. We’re doing this,’ and she was absolutely right.

Just sitting down and looking at period paintings and photographs, it just centered where we went. We started from the same kernel of where to go. You don’t often get that opportunity and now that Ellen and I have done it a couple of times, we don’t want to do it any other way. That’s the way it should be, but you don’t often get the opportunity. I think Ellen’s persistence, that’s what we stuck to and it worked.”

TV GOODNESS: Do you have any favorite locations from Season 2 and tell me a little bit about them.

Howard: “I kept thinking, ‘How hard could Season 2 be?’ I got the script and I got to page 2. I literally put it down and I went to one of our producers, Gregory Jacobs. I said, ‘Have you actually read this?’ It was so crazy. I said, ‘Chinatown, San Francisco? Are you serious?’ They didn’t know how we were gonna accomplish that.

Photo Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO
Photo Credit: Paul Schiraldi/Cinemax

I talked to Rob Striem, who was the location manager. I used to live in San Francisco and Rob just went to San Francisco. Most of it doesn’t look the way it did in 1900 because it burned down in 1908. So it doesn’t make any sense to go there because it’s not really the right thing either.

And he goes, ‘What about Yonkers?’ [Laughs.] As soon as he said it, I went — ‘cause we had shot some things in Yonkers the first season. I go, ‘Hills, Victorian architecture, bay front windows. Oh my God, I think you’re right,’ and that’s where we shot it. We found a removed street in Yonkers and transformed the whole thing, a Chinese section based on research. [Laughs.] Even Chinatown in 1900 didn’t look like the way it does now, which is more like an amusement park. It was much more rudimentary.

Photo Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO
Photo Credit: Paul Schiraldi/Cinemax

And they threw in the docks. I took Steven to a dry dock off a navy yard in New York and he’s going, ‘Where’s the boat?’ Anybody else would go, ‘Well, I’m gonna build part of the side of the boat and you’ll have a gangway going up…’ ‘Well, where’s the rest of the boat?’ And I go, ‘Ok. Ok.’ Everybody would’ve CGI-ed that and Steven did not want that. So that really left one place within range of New York and that was the South Street Seaport. I said, ‘There’s a giant highway running right next to it,’ ‘cause of sound.

Photo Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO
Photo Credit: Paul Schiraldi/Cinemax

One of the challenges we had in Season 1 was trying to find parts of New York that you could record dialogue without major traffic. We made a commitment based on what the themes were that we could get around that. There’s this giant period correct boat, the Peking, sitting there. Actually there are parts of another boat docked right across the way. So I blocked parts of it [and] only showed the parts that were period correct and then built the façade of what would be a ferry terminal.

It’s a huge project and we only had a week because every day 250 people would talk through that dock to get on boats to go do tours and they weren’t gonna stop. But that was fun.

Photo Credit: Mary Cybulski/HBO
Photo Credit: Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

My favorite location was called Hubert’s Palace museum. It was a freak show/wax museum. I had this vision of it being in this very long warehouse with balconies. The location department found this Victorian warehouse and they let me cut holes in the side of the wall to put the entrance. We built all the little stages and they let me cast all the freaks and the entertainment.  [Laughs.]You don’t get to do that every day and that was just really great.

Other shows like American Horror Story, that was their whole season. For us, it was only somebody’s date and then a plot point of conjoined twins. So that was great.

Photo Credit: Mary Cybulski/HBO
Photo Credit: Mary Cybulski/HBO

I got to do some really fun things and the dance hall, that was a church meeting hall in Brooklyn. I added a ton of lightbulbs and covered all the flooring and brought in the furniture and drapery and built a stage and it looked like the Eiffel Tower. That was just really awesome.”

TV GOODNESS: When do you get to work on Season 3?

Howard: “They’re still writing Season 3. It sounded to me like in the Spring, we’re gonna start pulling it together. They haven’t given me any clues as to what it is, although I know they’re shaking up things. Everything still has its same thematic resonance. The show has its innate quality and it’s still there from what I understand.”

TV GOODNESS: Are you working on anything else you can talk about?

Howard: “Steven and I worked on a project for new media called Mosaic. It’s for HBO. I can only say that it’s not a TV show and it’s not a movie. It’s experiential.”

TV GOODNESS: That sounds interesting.

Howard: “Yeah. So once again, he’s trying to do something and here we are. It’s very fun.”

TV GOODNESS: Do you have a dream project? Is there something else you really want to do?

Howard: “Now that I’ve gotten the chance to do the Liberace project and The Knick- before that nobody would arrest me for doing a period drama. So I am completely hooked on doing anything period because you can really discover your own world. The camera really relies on you to interpret what that world was and bring it. So having that scope is, for me, really what I’m hoping to get again.”

Edited for space and content.

Cinemax is replaying Season 2 later this month or you can buy the DVD now. All 20 episodes of The Knick are also available on MAX GO.

Here’s a selection — curated by Howard himself — of the sets and locations.

Photos courtesy of Mary Cybulski/Cinemax.

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Photos courtesy of Paul Schiraldi/Cinemax.

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