On the set of Cinemax's The Knick, Dr. Stanley Burns, M.D., serves as medical technical advisor. The series, directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Clive Owen, is about the Knickerbocker Hospital circa 1900, which is home to groundbreaking surgeons, nurses and staff who push the boundaries of medicine in a time of astonishingly high mortality rates and zero antibiotics. So, of course, it makes sense that the creators of the drama would want a surgeon and leading medical and photographic historian working closely with the production and actors to make the hospital scenes realistic and authentic to the times.
Dr. Burns took time to answer some questions about his involvement in the Cinemax series, working with an Academy and Emmy Award-winning director, doctors of the 1900 and much, much more.
Q: How long have you been collecting rare photographs and medical books?
Dr. Stanley Burns: I have been collecting medical books since 1960 and photographs since 1975.
Q: How did you get involved with The Knick?
SB: Creator and writer Jack Amiel, who wrote the script with Michael Begler, knew of my work and requested my input and involvement.
Q: What was your involvement in the show?
SB: I read the scripts for historical accuracy. I supervised the medical and surgical situations, making sure examinations and procedures were correct to the period. I supplied stories to the writers, and as the production unfolded, added events that were dramatic and were woven into the production, such as a case of severe spasms seen in meningitis, called opisthonos.
Q: What was it like working with Steven Soderbergh?
SB: It was beyond amazing. His analysis of every scene on set and its interpretation was a joy to watch. He holds and shoots his own camera, which weighs 35-plus pounds, and some of the precarious positions he undertook, such as leaning over the top of a ladder he climbed, were remarkable.
Q: Did Steven tell you what he wanted the action to be, and you then showed him how it would be done? Or did you show him how the real procedure would have been performed, and he then directed the scene around it?
SB: We did it both ways. I showed him and he showed me.
Q: After years of studying turn-of-the-century medicine in photographs and books, how did it feel to walk into a surgical theater with all of the old equipment and costumes, where hundred-year-old procedures were being simulated?
SB: It was absolutely mind-boggling. I felt transported back in time. I was especially stunned by the “doctors,” packed into the amphitheater audience, as each one was individually perfect in dress, demeanor and appearance. They looked as real as professors and surgeons of the time period.
Q: What medical training did you give to the actors?
SB: I established “The Knickerbocker Medical School & Hospital,” where we familiarized them with procedures and trained them in operative technique. Aside from discussing specific cases and diseases, I taught the principal “surgeons” and “surgical nurses” how to tie surgical knots quickly, how to use forceps to clamp blood vessels, and, especially, how to tie or cut and hold an extra clamp in their fingers so they could quickly swing it into action to grasp a bleeding vessel. It looked so great on screen!
Q: What skills did you teach the actors that differ from modern-day techniques?
SB: I taught them the hand-washing technique of the period, using three solutions, and also how to administer drop anesthesia techniques.
Q: The Knick isn’t a typical medical drama, visually depicting much more of the realities of surgery than most shows. Did that present challenges?
SB: The challenge was to make the operations and results medically accurate and realistic to the time period. Showing the real results of deadly disease and operative adventures necessitated uncomfortable views not usually shown to the public. Medical photographs were made for the limited audience of medical specialists. We are now vividly sharing not only the medical view and gruesome outcomes, but making it come alive.
Read the entire interview here, and watch The Knick Fridays at 10 p.m.