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'House' writers' room: Shooting the bull

RiderExecutive 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

 

 
Comments () | Archives (17)

While I generally enjoy the show, the notion that a hospital administrator would parade around in a hooker's wardrobe like Cuddy is ridiculous--she's like the forever bare-shouldered "insurance appraiser" in White Collar. Also, the never-ending medical twists and turns are annoying after a season or two. Surely the practice of medicine even at this level and in this setting is a tad more predictable. I realize that drama is the name of the game, but it gives a really distorted view of reality.

Thank you so much for interviewing these talented writers! I loved this episode, and it's so interesting to hear their thought processes. And yes, it was masterfully directed by Sanford Bookstaver.

How about an interview with Sanford Bookstaver, too? That would be cool.

Interesting that each writer uses medical consultants as they wish. Sometimes the medicine on House is really good, sometimes it's so bad it makes me want to hit my head against the wall.

I'm glad the Huddy relationship is finally over. While it's nice for Tommy Moran that he gets to write for a character he likes, I am sick to death of Cuddy and her problems and her narcissism. Why does the show focus so much on the least pleasant characters (Thirteen, Cuddy, Foreman) and give such short shrift to the more complex ones (Wilson, Chase)?

It felt too good to be true that House and Cuddy finally broke up and I guess it was. Now it looks like the show is going to continue to milk it for the rest of the season. Just let it die already.

LOL at Moran's disclaimer about the hookers.

Now that the show seems (finally!) to be going back to what made it great in the first seasons, is it too much to hope that Cameron will be back? She was more complex and interesting than her replacement Thirteen, and to me drove better medical stories than Cuddy's many family and illness ones.

It troubles me that these writers find Cuddy easy to write but House difficult because he is "smarter and wittier" than they are. What about Cuddy? Before they gave her stupid lines this season about toothbrushes and toilet seats she used to be smart and witty as well.

I sometimes feel like this show has no respect for women. The men are brilliant, Byronic loners, the women are co-dependent, obsessed with having children and prone to whining. I used to love the unconventionality of this show until I realised it was not meant for ME – as a woman, I'm not included in this unconventionality, I'm on the "other side", trying to reign in genius and tame men into a conventional life. Cuddy of the first few seasons was never like that, she used to represent us, but it's almost like they felt the need to change her into a "normal woman" so House would stand out.

I'm sad that House and Cuddy broke up, not because I didn't realise that it was more or less inevitable, but because the way it was written was so dull and was such a lost opportunity. Where were the intellectual arguments, the insane fights about medical problems, the raw passion from that first kiss in season 5? It's almost as though they sabotaged it just to make it seemed like a break-up made sense.

Also, it might be because there was a difference between what was written and the nuances added by the acting, but I really didn't get the "freedom" vibe from House's binge – he seemed more like a deranged and pathetic old man on the road to delirious self-destruction. It was sad and beautiful (at least while he was walking onto the balcony, the rest was a bit tacky) but in no way uplifting. I wonder with so many writers, producers, and of course actors, if you actually have any kind of unanimous vision regarding what these scenes mean and who these characters really are?

I thought House jumped off the balcony so that he would finally _feel_ something--so that he would get a huge, if temporary, adrenaline boost. I thought his huge grin in the pool indicated that it worked. So it was a surprise to me that the writers didn't actually have this in mind.

"Until somebody uninvents the telephone, nobody here needs more authority than what I give them." Or attention. Or screentime. It was easy: all that needed to be done was turn the focus back to House, and everything else also became clearer, brighter. Even better - it started to make sense again. That was compelling television. Easily the best episode this season. Probably the best since "Under My Skin" / "Both Sides Now."

Of course, it's tempting to compare it with "Distractions," as in both episodes House suffers a break-up and decides to self-destruct. Or does he? I think there is a significant difference here: in "Distractions," after voluntarily refusing from happiness and sending Stacy away, House chooses a path of self-inflicted pain; in "Out of the Chute," after sincerely giving his best effort to achieving happiness with Cuddy, House is searching for excitement elsewhere. "I will have to find something else to love." In both cases House was trying to feel (physically or emotionally), but the latter approach is obviously healthier, despite a few too many hookers.

Was jumping into the pool an act of desperation or an act of courage? One can argue that for a "normal" person it would be "me-out-of-my-mind radical" behaviour, but for House calmly planning ahead of time that after a week-long binge he would be "fine" and back to his life and not being suicidal was actually pretty "regular radical." I have to say that I half-expected Wilson to spread his arms and try to catch House. Or have a heart attack to keep both House and the patient company with another "broken" heart.

House's judgement was obviously NOT compromised, though the following words were very poweful: "I used to run my beast, but now he is running my way." House cannot count on being in control of his addiction anymore, not like in earlier seasons.

I loved how quiet, contemplative, dignified, and ... yes, sober House looked when he was not playing one of his tricks. "My damaged, depressed, drug-addicted judgement is still better than yours or anybody else's in his hospital." Oh House, how I missed you. It feels like seeing an old friend again after a really long time.

The hookers "thing" was completely unnecessary, however, I must say this was one of the best episodes this show has ever had. The directing was superb, the choice of music was very accurate and overall I thought the storyline was well executed.

I agree with the fact that, after all these years, women in the show should have a more prominent role and not be constantly portrayed as objects. There can be beauty and brains, Cuddy demonstrated that throughout 5 seasons.

And... since I'm not a sell out... I will stick to the show and keep watching until the end. I honestly don't care if Huddy ever gets back together.

Sue, you took the words right out of my mouth, my thoughts exactly!

Somaya hit it right on the head: what was so deeply tragic about the House/Cuddy breakup was the utter waste of so myth opportunity for character exploration. For six seasons we have had intimations of how well matched these two are. We noted their collaboration of intellect, the passion with which both approached their professions, their off-center wit, rebellious attitudes, alpha- sized commanding personalities, their zest for laughter and life. House and Cuddy sizzled together and it made sense that they would feel it too.

And yet when they finally got together, the treatment of their relationship turned sodden with a nagging worry over when and how it would end. We never got to see them try to forge a relationship as unconventional and quirky as they are. Instead we saw strange attempts to cram House and Cuddy into a stultifying relationship even Ozzie and Harriet would condemn as too conventional. We never got to see them talk about anything of substance, such as House's leg pain, or his mother's infidelity, or his father's emotional abusive behaviors, or his bio-dad. Why in the world would these two atypical and driven solitary people try to live in the same house and share a bathroom? That just never made sense given what we have learned of these characters over the past seven seasons.
So I am sad they broke up, not for the fact of it, because that was inevitable, wasn't it? But it is dismaying to think of all the missed potential thrown over when Cuddy left House. They could have really been something.

I thought House jumped into the pool as a final desperate act to regain some emotions after feeling numb for so long in grief over the breakup with Cuddy. His maniacal grin as he emerged from the water suggested to me that while he felt something, it was only temporary. And that the gloom he had been trying to fend off with the whore- fest was bound to return soon. House won't get over Cuddy through hedonism; in fact he won't get over her ever.

So I am sad they broke up, not for the fact of it, because that was inevitable, wasn't it? But it is dismaying to think of all the missed potential thrown over when Cuddy left House. They could have really been something.

They really could have been somthing.

Thank you. Carol. Perfect.

I am dismayed they broke House and Cuddy up. Count me as one that thought they actually had a chance at a romantic relationship.

The fact that it has now been revealed TPTB initiated the romantic aspect of relationship for no other reason than to break it up is uncreative. Perhaps this explains why they tried to portray this unconventional couple as conventional. What a waste and rip off to those that enjoyed the banter and sexy dialogue and progression of this couple over the past 7 years.

I totally agree Trish, they've been in the previous seasons interesting characters with so strong personalities and an amazing chemistry and these writers brought them together only to transform them in a couple of demented Minnie and Mickey Mouse. Such a waste for these talented actors. We could have got epic and intense scenes instead of that nothing. And now all is over to project House again in a hooker&pills fest. Six and a half seasons erased. I'd like to know if in that bunch of writers there's still someone who hasn't lost completely the touch.

This show has given me so much pleasure. The writing is magnificient. The episode where house was in a sanitarium however in my view beats all others. There is spiritually and beauty mixed with pain and doubt and hence comes addiction. The main actor is superb, he is funny, bitter, arrogant, self-absorbed, mean and yet brilliant and the quality that attracts us to him is the fact that we all want to save him whether he wants or deserves saving. He gives us hope in the midst of hopelessness. Added to the wonderful case, great acting and superb writing, is the choice of music which transports us spiritually and in person in each episode of house.
I cannot say enough of this show. Thank you the writers, actors and producers of this show for giving us so much joy.

Was the bullrider being name Lane a tribute to Lane Frost or just coincidental ?


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