VANCOUVER - With a background in sitcoms, "The Knick" showrunner Jack Amiel was excited that the 1900-era medical drama pushed him out of his comfort zone.
"Every time my writing partner (Michael Begler) and I decided to do something where we said, 'Oh, no one's ever going to make this,' it's always ended up changing our careers," Amiel said in an interview at the Vancouver International Film Festival.
The pair began as writers on programs including "Malcolm In the Middle" and "The Tony Danza Show," then wrote and produced features: the teen romantic comedy fairytale "The Prince And Me" (2004) and "The Big Miracle" (2012) about whales trapped in Alaska.
Begler's personal experience also helped contribute to the birth of "The Knick," which stars Clive Owen and airs on HBO Canada.
"Michael had some health issues and we talked about what he would have done a hundred years ago versus today, and before we knew it we were doing research. Michael became obsessed with the surgeries and I was nuts about the history. We knew this world. We knew these people. Writing is story, it's character, it's specificity, it's research. We were working a lot of the muscles we'd been working over the years. we'd just never quite put them together in this way."
Owen plays Dr. John Thackery, a brilliant surgeon and inventor who is keenly aware that medicine is rapidly advancing and wants to drive that advance, dependent on cocaine for forward momentum and inspiration, and opium to relax between shifts at the Knickerbocker Hospital. "Twenty years ago, 39 was the number of years a man could expect from his life. Today it is more than 47," he says proudly to his co-workers.
Though it's set more than a century in the past, a lot of the aspects of the world of "The Knick" are familiar.
"So many of things that were going on in 1900 are going on today," Amiel said. "There are immigration fights, there are fights over health care, there are fights over the rights of the poor, there are fights over how wealthy the wealthy should be. You then have to get into the human nature of it, because history's a story."
Steven Soderbergh directed and edited the entire 10 episodes of the show's first season, and originating network Cinemax has ordered a second season to start shooting in February 2015.
The sweeping changes in television over the last 15 years helped make the gritty, unflinching look at the distant past possible, said Amiel.
"I don't worry about artificial act breaks where I suddenly have to throw in a commercial. I don't worry about standards and practices. I can have my characters say, do, wear — or not wear — anything," he said.
"Ten episodes allows you to tell just the right size story and then move on to the next season. Then you get filmmakers who want to ply their trade without the constraints of film, without the constraints of just two hours. So to get Steven Soderbergh and Clive Owen on board, you're suddenly raising the bar to a level that hadn't been seen."
Added Amiel: "You need to scare yourself every once in a while and say, 'Can I do this?' We shoot the show out of order. So we had to have all 10 episodes done and scheduled well before we started shooting. That was terrifying. But it was also a good terrifying; you have to rise to the challenge."