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.’ ”