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'House' writers' room: Hitting the jackpot

May 4, 2011 |  4:31 pm

Rift Co-executive producer Eli Attie wrote Monday's episode of "House," called "Changes," with a story assist from Seth Hoffman. Here's the behind-the-scenes skinny from Attie:

Talk a bit about collaborating on this episode. You and Seth Hoffman wrote the story, but you wrote the teleplay. How does that work?

EA: The initial idea for the patient in "Changes" -- a lottery winner trying to turn his miserable life around, to end up something other than a destitute, drug-addled cliche -- was Seth's.  He'd picked up on something that ("House" creator) David Shore has always been very interested in, a fairly well-known happiness study from the 1970s that showed that within a year, both lottery winners and paralyzed accident victims are about as happy as they were to begin with. Then Seth and I worked together to develop all of the story threads, and we co-wrote several drafts of a very detailed outline -- a lot of sitting in a room together, brainstorming, arguing, and most importantly procrastinating. Seth's responsible for a lot of great stuff in the episode.  But he'd already started co-writing Episode 22 and couldn't do both, so I wrote the actual teleplay -- the scenes, the dialogue -- by myself.  Though "by myself" really means "with David Shore," who oversaw it and made it better and funnier at every turn.

The strain between House and Cuddy seems to be near the breaking point. How do you write for characters who are basically the love of each other’s lives, but have broken up and have to see each other at work every day? It can never go back to the way it was before, can it?

EA: In some respects, it did go back to the way it was before -- the kind of cat-and-mouse sparring that's defined their relationship since the pilot of the series. Of course, every jab now has a slightly deeper meaning -- cuts a little more, you might say -- and we wanted to see both House and Cuddy go further, be more destructive, than they had in the past. The wonderful thing about working with those two actors is that they took what we wrote and invested it with a lot more subtext on their own. Generally to make the scenes tougher and less glib. But it was fun to get back to some aspects of their old, pre-romance relationship: the gamesmanship, the snarkiness, the love-mixed-with-not-so-thinly-veiled-hostility.

Who came up with the idea of an elaborate deception of the lottery winner? I have to admit, when the first Jennifer shows up, I didn’t trust her. But I also didn’t suspect Phil.

EA: We wanted our lottery winner to be aware of the cliche, that lottery winners usually end up "naked and penniless in a strip club parking lot," to use House's phrase -- so that we could ensure we'd do a version of the story people hadn't seen before. Seth came up with the idea of Cyrus looking for a long-lost love, instead of squandering his winnings on custom-painted Bentleys and fur-lined sinks. But we wanted to give the story a properly House-ian point of view, to show that people can't change, can't turn their lives around. So I came up with the idea of having the long-lost love turn out to be a grifter and a fraud, in cahoots with the only true friend the patient ever had.  No warm, fuzzy endings on this show!

Did any of this story come from incidents that had happened to either of you in real life?

EA: Well, I've certainly had experiences reconnecting with long-lost loves that showed me how impossible it is to go backward. If Seth's ever won $42 million in the state lottery, then I think he should start buying me lunch. Someplace with tablecloths.

Since Thirteen returned, we’ve gotten thrown some nuggets about her back story. What kind of an agenda is involved with what’s happened to her and where she’s headed? She’s starting to sound as jaded as House.

EA: In Episode 18, when House meets Thirteen at the prison gates, we see a new level of understanding and connection between them. In this episode, we were trying to show a continuation of that connection -- that they think similarly, are perhaps even similarly broken. Jaded's just the start of it, I think.

Arlene was trying to encourage Huddy to reconcile—I guess she doesn’t know House is married, technically?

EA: For a true yenta like Arlene, a marriage license is a mere technicality. Plus, I don't think we were ever meant to take House's wedding vows particularly seriously.

How did the Chase versus Foreman competition evolve?

EA: We wanted all of our characters to be engaged in the broader theme, which was change, in particular trying to change one's level of happiness.  We actually started with Chase's side of the story. I'd written an episode much earlier this season in which Chase reveals that he's sleeping with four women at once. It seemed like the perfect analogue to now make him a "supermonk," in Foreman's words, trying to reform himself after a wild post-breakup-from-Cameron phase. It was much tougher to figure out how Foreman might be trying to change, and how to turn this into a bit of a competition. Foreman has a lot roiling beneath the surface, given his background, he clearly buries some anger and emotion, but in early drafts of the script, I kept trying to bring the anger to the surface. It was David Shore who pointed out to me that Foreman never shows much of anything, so the only way to measure his relative level of anger or calm was to hook him up to medical equipment. Fortunately, we knew where we could find some.

Talk a bit about the process of weaving plot and theme:  There is talk of money (lottery winner, Arlene’s lawsuit and threatening to cut Lisa out of her will), betrayal (Phil scamming a cousin for money, Thirteen hooking up with a high school BF’s sister), and loss (Cyrus searching for a woman he hasn’t seen in 23 years, the rift between House and Cuddy).

EA: We always tend to start with a central question or theme -- in this case, is happiness circumstantial, or built into our DNA -- and then try to design stories that comment on it in different ways, and from different directions. What you really want is for the patient of the week to affect our own characters' lives, to spark some kind of discussion and action. Then it becomes a question of continuing the various plot threads that the show's left dangling from previous episodes, and making the individual stories work, and making all of them say what we want them to say. It's an awful lot to juggle. So some of the connections you mention (like money and loss) were a bit incidental. Of course, we'll take credit for them anyway.

How difficult is it to come up with a Disease of the Week that will keep people watching for the entire hour? How did you come up with the “when is a cancer not a cancer” twist?

EA: I won't lie, it's extremely hard, especially for someone who can barely stand the sight of blood. We have a lot of great help from a lot of smart doctors, and we tend to call them 500 times a day. It was Dr. Lisa Sanders, one of our wonderful medical consultants, who wrote a column for the New York Times about the teratoma. I discussed it with her and loosely outlined it more than a year ago, but just never got around to using it last season. Lisa told me back then that teratomata could theoretically cause multiple and completely different cancers at the same time. That seemed so weird and interesting that we knew we'd want to use that. But it was Dr. David Foster, a fellow writer-producer on the show and a true master of the show's medical plotting, who helped us figure out how tumors could appear and then disappear, leading us to realize that cancer was a symptom and not an underlying disease. The doctors deserve credit for the substance, but -- not to brag -- I think the writers deserve quite a bit of credit for calling them at all hours and waiting outside their offices.

Talk about being on call! Thanks Eli.

-- Linda Whitmore

Photo: House (Hugh Laurie) gets read the riot act by Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) after Cuddy's mom threatens to sue the hospital. Credit: Adam Taylor / Fox