'House' writers' room: Shooting the bull
Executive Producer Tommy Moran and Consulting Producer Larry Kaplow wrote Monday's episode of "House," titled "Out of the Chute." Below, they chat about writing the episode, and working on the show in general:
The opening of “Out of the Chute” is as good an opening as “House” has ever had, in that it’s highly dramatic and certainly doesn’t fall into “The person you least expect to collapse is about to collapse” category. It was masterfully directed by Sanford Bookstaver. It had a theatrical film quality about it. How difficult was it to film? How did you feel about the final result?
TM: The opening, thank you by the way, was very difficult in the sense that it was a massive undertaking necessitating practically every light available for rent in Southern California in order to shoot at 1,600 frames per second wild animals that can, will and probably wanted to kill the stunt person we’d hired to ride them. But it was not very difficult in the sense that we had a fantastic director, an extremely experienced crew, one of the best DP’s in the business (Gale Tattersall), and the best bull-riding tech advisor in the business, who supplied us with actual bulls and stunt riders from the PBR circuit. Sandy shot the entire teaser in one day, which is truly remarkable, and I was ecstatic with the results.
LK:Gale (DP Gale Tattersall) joked that we were going to need so much light to film the bulls in super slow motion we were going to have roast beef for lunch. Though of course we took every precaution with these rough beasts so you can’t sue any of us. For anything. Sandy did an amazing job and brought so many great ideas to the table –- like capturing the bull’s testicles moving in slow motion. That was all Sandy. We have an amazing art department and production team. Garrett and Marcy basically give us whatever we write. Monday’s episode is a good example of a pretty ambitious teaser. I thought it looked great.
Talk about the latitude and limits of writing for the show. Tight budget or carte blanche? Deadline pressure or “write till you’re done”?
TM: One of the advantages of being on a hit show is we have outstanding support from our studio and network. Gerrit van der Meer and Marcy Kaplan are also geniuses at stretching every dollar allotted, so we’re usually pretty free to let our imaginations run wild (like shooting 2,000-pound wild animals at 1,600 frames per second). The deadline pressure though is enormous. We shoot a new episode every eight days and it usually takes at least a month, often longer, to conceptualize the story and complete a shooting script, so … the calendar is definitely always on our minds. We have a large writing staff (a rarity and another advantage of being a hit show) and everyone pitches in to help so we can get our directors their script on time (which I’m proud to say we always do).
LK: The scripts are complicated and they sometimes can take months to break. Doesn’t mean we can’t bang one out a lot faster. I don’t think production has ever really told us "no" ever. Which is pretty amazing. It’s always been a team effort to make complicated and ambitious story telling work, and very fortunately we all play well together.
I’d like to know more about the collaboration with medical consultants. Lane, our poor bull rider, had a ruptured diaphragm, cracked sternum, broken nose, partial hearing loss, low-grade fever, neurological disorder, nausea, muscle weakness, smelly feet (!), the whites of his eyes turned yellow and he had to have a tracheotomy. It was like standing in an ER of a major metropolitan hospital. How do writers know what symptoms to give the Patient of the Week, what to diagnose and which treatments to administer?
TM: Every writer uses the medical consultants differently. On this episode Larry came up with a disease and most of the medical moves. During the writing process I rely on Google a lot. I just search for a list of all the possible symptoms of a disease and pick whichever combination makes for an interesting scene. After I write a rough draft of the scene I’ll have one of our medical advisors, John Sotos, read it and he’ll usually suggest good changes in dialogue so it actually sounds authentic and makes medical sense.
LK: Basically I read a ton of material then kinda throw it around in a pot and make up a bunch of stuff on the fly. Surprisingly, more often than not our medical consultants somehow can make it work. One of our medical consultants, John Sotos, really outdid himself in this episode and came up with some very clever hinges to connect physio and biological impossibilities. When he or the gifted David Foster can’t fix it is about when [creator David] Shore or Moran throw up their hands in frustration. Which I admit is kinda fun to watch, though I’m not sure why, because their frustration is due to my logic flaw, but I guess since I’ve made up a lot of it the fact we’re arguing about anything is pleasing. I’m glad to be having a conversation. About anything really. Even my own mistakes.
Last week, Huddy broke up. The reins were then handed to you two, and you had to ask, “What would his reaction be? And Cuddy’s? Wilson’s?” How did you arrive at the hookers, booze and Vicodin? Wilson as diplomat? Cuddy as, well, Cuddy?
TM: We broke the House –- Cuddy breakup arc (and all multi-episode arcs) in whole staff meetings that take a week or more. I think there may’ve been some initial skepticism among the writers as to whether the House jumping off the balcony moment would work dramatically (probably because some moron (me) originally pitched it as House base jumping off a building). I was convinced the balcony leap was a great idea, so I jumped at the chance to write that episode in the arc. I had no medicine so I asked (forced) Larry to co-write with me because I knew he was already working on medical story he wanted to write. In the staff meeting we decided House would cope with the breakup by going on a hedonistic bender, and what’s more hedonistic than a five-star hotel? I’m pretty sure the hookers were Larry’s idea. I don’t find that sort of thing interesting or pleasurable at all (by the way my wife is an avid reader of the L.A. Times).
LK: Everyone tossed around favorite breakup stories, and the one thing we all agreed on is they suck. Breakups suck. So how can House make it suck less? Where’d the hookers come from? I’m kind of in a blackout most of the time and can’t really tell you how I come up with anything that makes sense. I believe Shore and Moran will back me up on this. But with a lot of work on their part, somehow they make some of my nonsensical ideas really great. Except for the hooker idea, which I had nothing to do with. The hookers, they came from God.
Talk a little about following the characters’ arcs during the season. Each episode is written by a writer or team of writers. There must be certain character evolution in each episode. You’re at the point where the shows must be aired in order, right? No stand-alones, because of all the history with the characters, right?
TM: For the most part we try to make our episodes fairly stand alone. While we have certain jumping off points and end points, the middle episodes can (and in fact have) been switched around on occasion.
LK: Figuring out the story arcs is tricky because you’ll find something that works really well for a character in one episode, only to learn that it would simultaneously kill a storyline five episodes later.
Which character is the easiest and most fun to write? Which is the most difficult?
TM: For me the most fun character to write is Cuddy because she reminds me of women I know in my own life, which makes it easier for me to connect with her emotionally. House is the most difficult because he’s smarter and much wittier than I, so I’m constantly struggling to think of a better line or funnier joke (and David Shore usually comes up with an even better one during the rewrite process).
LK: They’re all fun. Since the show’s called "House," we do think about him a lot, but it’s the same process for all of the characters, mining our darker selves and putting it on the page.
Do you write in the same room, or go to your separate corners, then come out swinging?
TM: Larry and I split up sections of the script and wrote first drafts separately and then we’d get together to rewrite each other. I tend to write slower and more methodically and do best in a quiet space so I find it’s more productive to get the brunt of the heavy lifting done alone. It’s good to be able to bounce things around though so it helps to work together as well. All the senior writers on our show have two computer monitors on their desks so when we’re collaborating both writers can see what’s happening on the page.
LK: Basically Tommy writes about a sentence every day, then I send a finished act to Tommy, who reads then groans, then gives me notes, trying hard to be upbeat while basically saying nothing works, then I go back to my room and rewrite while he writes another sentence, and so forth, until we sit in his office and probably sound a lot like Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty in "Ishtar," two idiots telling each other the dialogue or idea we just came up with was good.
Why DOES House jump into the pool? I want to hear it from the horses’ mouths.
TM: I would say House jumped in the pool because showing off for a bunch of drunk college kids seemed (in his depressed and drunken state) like a good way to forget about his personal problems. And because the movie “Harold and Maude” made a lasting impression on me and I thought I could steal from it without it being too terribly obvious. Interestingly, my 12-old-son said the ending was a cop-out and thought it would’ve been better if House had actually killed himself. I gotta stop letting him watch [Darren] Aronofsky’s movies. Although…
LK: I pitched cliff diving in those cool flying squirrel suits –- there was this awesome YouTube of a guy in Norway who jumped off a cliff with a camera on his head. He jumps off this cliff but his flying squirrel chute didn’t open. So you hear this guy ooh and ouch all the way down this cliff and crashing through tree branches and I thought that’d be fun. Then Tommy pitched pool diving and then Shore thought the pool could work (high praise, believe me) then I said awesome and clapped like a toddler. I would say that House jumps into the pool for freedom. To be free of that which he thinks is holding him back. Is he free? Is anyone, though? I don’t know.
Gentlemen, Show Tracker thanks you for your time.
-- Linda Whitmore
Photo: Lane (guest star Chad Faust) has his brain probed by House's team (Peter Jacobson, Amber Tamblyn). Credit: Michael Yarish / Fox