August 8, 2014
It all began with the white boots. In the first moments of the new Cinemax series, “The Knick,” the camera opens on the pale, loosely laced, cap toe boots of a mysterious someone reclining in a hazy, sexy setting—an opium den. The ankle-high boots belong to Dr. John Thackery, the brilliant surgeon at the center of “The Knick,” an original series that viscerally dramatizes the medical practices at a 1900s New York hospital, the Knickerbocker.
The boots launch not just the series, but also the look and feel of Dr. Thackery, played by Clive Owen, said Costume Designer Ellen Mirojnick, who won the costume design Emmy Award for “Behind the Candelabra,” directed by Steven Soderbergh, who also helmed all 10 episodes of “The Knick.”
Though Mirojnick conducted intensive research to precisely identify period elements, the designer sought what she called a modern approach to early 20th-century Manhattan.
“When it came to Clive what we found is that doctors in surgery at that period in time did wear white, including white shoes,” she said. For inspiration, Soderbergh had the cast and design crew read “Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York,” by Luc Sante, to get a feel for the tenements, the opium dens, theaters and saloons that were part of the urban fabric of Manhattan from 1840 to the 1920s.
The book was a starting point, but the character of Dr. Thackery wouldn’t come together until Mirojnick and Owen met for a fitting: “We had to try a bunch of different boot shapes on him—and collars, and ties, and hats, and coats, and find out who is this guy?
“We found after two hours of doing this collage work, if you will, this somewhat rock’n’roll imagery of John Thackery. It was from there that we were able to leap into the unknown,” she said.
They arrived at the idea that the doctor could be a sort of David Bowie figure, a hard-edged romantic who wears a bowler cocked slightly awry, a double-breasted vest, a thin mustache and an elegant, sharply tailored coat.
“Clive then said what made it more perfect. He said, Can I wear green velvet?
And I looked at him and said, I don’t see why not,” said Mirojnick. “That’s the part that equals David Bowie.
“Clive was, OK, it’s done. I don’t have to think about this anymore. He was thrilled by the idea that John Thackery could be David Bowie,” Mirojnick said.
But green? Thackery’s coat is green cotton velvet, “very plush,” she said. “Everything is green, even the pants and the vest. Everything is green simply because you are in the hospital and there is a lot of red blood.”
A bit of magic happened in that two-hour fitting in August, said the designer. “It was the foundation for the next six months. It was sensational,” she said. “But the basic character was absolutely 100 percent knocked out in the first 15 minutes with those white boots.”
“The Knick” premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on Cinemax.