×

‘The Knick’s’ Production Designer Explains How He Re-created 1900s New York

Howard Cummings’ creative partnership with director Steven Soderbergh stretches back over two decades, but Cummings never expected it would take him to 1900 New York.

“(Steven) called me the day before I was going to start another job,” Cummings says of the offer to work on period drama “The Knick,” which would result in his second Emmy nom. “I was about to fly to Argentina. He sent me a text saying, ‘Dude, you’re gonna pass up 1900 New York?’”

Besides already being committed elsewhere, Cummings couldn’t think of a reason to turn his friend down.

“How often do you get to do that?” he says of the project’s unique time and place. Besides, he notes that “other than ‘Behind the Candelabra,’ which we did together, no one would hire me for a period project,” and this would be a calling card like no other.

Soderbergh directed, shot and edited every installment of the 10-episode series, allowing production to function like a very, very long feature film.

“We started the show thinking it would be done episodically and then it became clear that wasn’t going to work,” Cummings says, in part because of the immense number of exteriors required. “We had something like 90 locations to scout. I think we were something like 47% out, which is unusual for a period drama. Usually you’re in the same location or the same sets a lot. That was another reason why it needed to be shot like a 10-hour movie.”

Serendipity struck on the first day of location scouting, when Cummings found the most crucial exterior of all: a public school in Brooklyn that would serve as the visage of the show’s central location, the fictionalized Knickerbocker hospital.

“(The location manager and I) got out of the car and said, ‘This is it,’” he recalls. “It was a beautiful, creepy, kind of Romanesque Victorian building. I knew right then and there what the whole show looked like. But it also meant the sets had to be huge in order to match the exterior.”

And working on a TV schedule, even for premium cable, meant there wasn’t a lot of time. Cummings joined the project 11 weeks out from production, and had eight weeks to build massive sets full of period-accurate Victorian detail.

“During season one, the paint was wet (during filming),” he says. “Our set decorator, Regina Graves, was always standing on a ladder putting up curtains when Steven would walk in the room. She was like, ‘I can’t have one set finished when you walk in?’”

On top of that, every exterior had to be dressed in period detail, too. “We were crazy to do these giant exterior locations where we were changing everything in New York City,” Cummings says with a laugh.

As demanding as the project was, Cummings says the crew embraced the challenge wholeheartedly. “A lot of people would say, ‘Screw this.’ But they all got into it,” he raves. “That’s the only reason it all happened in the time frame it did.”

Much of that, Cummings believes, comes from Soderbergh’s energy and enthusiasm for filmmaking, which he’s seen grow with projects ranging from 1995’s modern-day film noir “The Underneath” to 2012’s male stripper hit “Magic Mike.”

“(Steven) will only (look at a set) when we go to shoot it, because it’s inspiring for him. I told Regina, ‘Don’t expect a lot of “fantastic” or “wow.” That’s not gonna happen. You know you’ve done a great job when Steven walks in and whips the camera out immediately.’ ”

Popular on Variety

More Artisans

  • Mark Damon, CEO & Chairman, Foresight

    Mark Damon's DCR Finance Receives $150 Million for Financing Georgia Films (EXCLUSIVE)

    Mark Damon’s DCR Finance Corp., co-headed with financer Adi Cohen, has received a $150 million investment from Go Media Productions for Georgia projects, Variety has learned exclusively. Damon, whose credits include “2 Guns” and “Lone Survivor,” made the announcement Monday with Cohen. The deal calls for Atlanta-based Go Media Productions to join a private placement as [...]

  • The Handmaid's Tale -- "Household" -

    ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Crew on Why the Lincoln Memorial Shoot Was Worth the Effort

    Shooting on location at a national monument may seem glamorous, but it often involves extensive prep to comply with strict regulations, restrictions and crowds — all for a short on-screen moment. For the cast and crew of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the seven months of planning and negotiations required for a one-day shoot at the [...]

  • Producer and crew on set. Twelve

    'Driven' Kept Shoot in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria to Help Locals

    Behind-the-scenes featurettes have long enumerated the many obstacles any movie or TV show has had to overcome to reach the theater or TV screen. But few films faced hardships as severe as those overcome by “Driven,” the real-life hero-to-zero story of automaker John DeLorean (played by Lee Pace) and his misadventures with ex-con pilot-turned-FBI informant [...]

  • The Righteous Gemstones Adam Devine, Danny

    How Televangelists, Elvis Inspired Costumes for HBO's 'The Righteous Gemstones'

    HBO’s new comedy series “The Righteous Gemstones,” about a famous family of televangelists whose dysfunction runs far deeper than its Christianity, seems to exist in its own time and place. Set in present-day Texas, the inspiration for the Gemstone family — played by John Goodman, series creator Danny McBride, Edi Patterson and Adam Devine — [...]

  • A Wrikle in Time

    New Zealand Offers Breathtaking Locations, Trained Crews, 20% Cash Grant

    With its heart-quickening vistas and magnificent views, New Zealand is a prime location for savvy investors seeking to maximize the incentive on their next project. Consider the production value of filming amid the daunting heights of the Southern Alps, or along the stunning shores of Lake Gunn. There’s also Auckland, with its magnificent Sky Tower [...]

  • DESCENDANTS 3 - DESCENDANTS 3 -

    'Descendants 3' Choreographer Mixed Dancing, Acting and Sword Fighting

    For a generation of dancers, Jamal Sims is one of a handful of choreographers who’ve pushed the boundaries of dance in film, TV and onstage. With a career that’s included stints working alongside Madonna and Miley Cyrus, he brings his edgy pop style to the dance numbers in “Descendants 3,” which premiered Aug. 2 and [...]

  • Avatar

    Manhattan Beach Studios, Home to 'Avatar' Sequels, Sold for $650 Million

    Hackman Capital Partners has acquired the Manhattan Beach Studios, home to James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequels, as part of a $650 million deal. Hackman announced Wednesday that it had bought the MBS Group from global investment firm the Carlyle Group. The MBS Group operates the MBS Media Campus — a 22-acre, 587,000 square foot production facility [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content