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8 Things You Didn't Know About Filming 'The Knick' On Location in NYC

By Radhika Marya | November 5, 2015 7:44am
 Cinemax medical period drama "The Knick," currently in its second season, takes viewers back to early twentieth century New York City.
The Knick Behind the Scenes
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Blood, guts and drugs may be some of the first things that come to mind when someone references the Cinemax period drama "The Knick." But the beating heart of the show is New York City itself.

Currently in its second season, the show follows surgeon John Thackery (Clive Owen) and the staff at Knickerbocker Hospital in early 1900s New York. As a result, the cast and crew of the Steven Soderbergh-directed series spend approximately half their time shooting on location in addition to filming at a Greenpoint studio.

Howard Cummings, the show's production designer, and Rob Striem, the location manager, said the show has filmed in all five boroughs. Despite a modern electronic score, the series makes an effort to avoid the nostalgic tropes of period drama, striving to offer an accurate portrayal of the time period through its costumes, sets and harrowing medical procedures.

Making the show involves "balancing this very challenging aesthetic with the practicality of executing it in the living and breathing city that is New York," Striem said.

Striem and Cummings talked to DNAinfo New York on what filming "The Knick" involves:

1. While scenes set in the Lower East Side and Chinatown were actually shot in those neighborhoods, some scenes are shot outside their historical locations. This includes the Tenderloin District, an area that once encompassed parts of Chelsea.

Cummings: "In our story, we had to do what we call the White Tenderloin and the Black Tenderloin. So the Black Tenderloin … Rob and I were in Williamsburg and I kind of wanted the [J train]. At the time, there were a lot of elevated trains. There's this bar called Moto [near the J train] … we walked in there and I went, 'Well, you know it’s not period correct, but it really is our show.'"

"Then for the White Tenderloin area … we went to Front Street … so we used Front Street for Chelsea and Williamsburg for Chelsea, different parts of it."

2. Though Astoria was used for scenes set in San Francisco, Yonkers — which was also used for New York scenes — stood in for the West Coast city and Chinatown in season two.

Cummings: "I think some of the producers thought we were going to have to go to California and Rob said, 'What about Yonkers?' And then I kind of went, 'Oh it does look like San Francisco because of the hills and the architecture and the bay windows.'"

3. Director Steven Soderbergh isn't a fan of green screens. While the show uses visual effects from time to time, the crew tries to keep things real. Supplemental exterior sets were built in the vicinity of Boys High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which was used as the downtown location of the Knick.

Cummings: "That location required an ambulance bay/stable for the horse and carriage ambulances. We actually built that building, it wasn't just a façade — we also built the interior there because of the way Steven shoots. So we had to build the whole building in two-and-a-half weeks I think."

4. The reduced reliance on visual effects meant working around some challenges while using the Peking at Pier 16 in South Street Seaport for shipyard scenes, since tourist ferries weren't exactly willing to shut down.

Striem: "You start building scenery to block the passage of people, so that you can maintain egress while still having control within the confines of your set."

5. While the crew has relied on dirt, snow and gravel to cover up modern New York City streets, it also came up with a special type of cobblestone matting.

Cummings: "We developed these rubberized mats that were OK for horses, but light enough to move around … that was something that evolved in season two, we finally got that down … but that had to be very horse proof as well and people proof and traffic proof."

6. The show requires meticulous research into everything from vending carts and street signs to medical history and architecture. To stay true to the period, the show does not film in buildings that were built a decade or so too late.

Striem: "Our first season was set in 1900, our second season was set in 1901. We definitely cheated occasionally, but Howard has become an expert of walking into a room and telling you when a place was designed … [he] will walk into a room sometimes and just go, 'This is 1920.' And I’ll say, 'No it’s not!'"

Cummings: "In season two, I allowed buildings that were closer to 1904, 1908 — because the style [in the city] was shifting and it was a story point, so in season two, I sort of opened up the field a little more although I still wouldn't allow the '20s."

7. New Yorkers have generally reacted favorably when the "The Knick" transforms a street to look like the turn of the twentieth century.

Striem: "Obviously some people are less than excited when they are asked not to walk down a street or to redirect themselves in some way. … But I think the spectacle of our sets sort of diffuses the inconvenience and kind of aggravation a little bit. People are always amazed at how quickly it transforms and how quickly it disappears."

8. The crew put a fake dead horse on a Lower East Side street. And signs on it to say that it was a fake dead horse.

Cummings: "There was an image in some of the research pictures that we found of some kids in the Lower East Side poking a dead horse with sticks ... we rented a stuffed fake dead horse. ... We put a big sign on it saying, 'Fake dead horse.' ... We were afraid animal rights was going to be involved."

Season two of "The Knick" is currently airing on Cinemax on Fridays at 10 p.m.