Monday, October 24, 2005

Q&A: House, M.D. writer Lawrence Kaplow

Read the article on Blogcritics based on my interview with Lawrence Kaplow, one of the writers of House, M.D. ("Paternity," "Detox," "Control," "Kids," "Honeymoon," "Autopsy"):
Constructing House: An interview with House, M.D. writer Lawrence Kaplow
But for more Kaplow quotes and less Diane dissection, the following is an edited, partial transcript of the interview:

I know you previously worked on Family Law and Hack. How did you get your start on TV?

LK: I started out as an assistant first at Clueless, then Chicago Hope, and then I met Marjorie David, who brought me over to Family Law, where Paul Haggis gave me my break. That's where I met David (Shore), and David has brought me along to Hack and then to House. So we've been working together for 5 years now.

Did you have an interest in medicine or medical shows? Is there a lot of research involved?

LK: There's a lot of reading involved. There is quite a bit of research. I do enjoy science, so that part comes easy to me. I suppose everyone has their pre-med moment in high school, dissecting fetal pigs, perhaps wanting to be a doctor. I took that maybe a step further than most. In high school, during the summers, I worked at Temple Medical School. I'm not quite sure why I did that, but I enjoyed science, and it was fun. We were operating on sheep - it was crazy. It was a doctoral program, and this guy was studying lymph and pulmonary arrest and all of a sudden I found myself operating on six or seven sheep over a summer, which was a really cool experience. So yeah, I like science.

OK, so you've got quite the medical background! I don't think I ever had a pre-med moment in high school.

LK: Really? Come on, everyone had one!

Well, kind of. I like science ... but no, even on House I have to cover my eyes when there's too much blood and guts.

LK: I guess in "Sports Medicine" there was a moment when the guy throws the ball and his arm breaks. I winced then.

Oh yeah.

LK: There was a snapping sound in episode three this year ("Humpty Dumpty") when they amputated the guy's hand, when they cut into his wrist. I winced then too. Aside from that, the gore doesn't bother me. In real life, I can't watch it. If there's a sports injury on TV, I look away, but on the show, it's not really a problem.

Is there anything of yourself in the character of Dr. House?

LK: I'd say the imprint is truly David. He created the character and we're all lucky enough to get to write him, because he's a lot of fun. But I think all the writers bring a little bit of themselves to the table. I think some of House's most adolescent moments are in my episodes. House playing air piano, House snorting Benadryl, those sort of things. They're outrageous but they're fun. I think we're all teenagers at heart, and he does the sort of things we'd like to be able to do or say, so writing for him is easy.

It does sound like it would be a lot of fun.

LK: It is a lot of fun. We have a lot of fun pushing limits as far as we can.

He's always crossing the line of what we think of as acceptable behaviour, and for the most part the audience is cheering him on, but do you ever worry about alienating people if you take it too far? Do you ever censor yourself?

LK: Not really, because all of his actions are, I think, justified. And his actions are for the benefit of his patients. What he says doesn't necessarily follow what he does. If you look specifically at his actions, they're all designed for one thing - they're constructed to benefit the patient. So no matter how outlandish he is, you can always count on House doing the right thing to save a life. I don't think we can get too outrageous, because so far he's always been in the patient's corner.

There are times, like in "Control" where he lies to the transplant committee and the patient gets the heart, that I'm cheering him on, but as we learned in "Detox," somebody else died because they didn't get that heart. Are you always on House's side when you present an issue like that, or do you look at it as a way of presenting a grey area of ethics?

LK: It's a grey area, and it's worthy of discussion. House is an advocate for his patients, not all patients, just as other doctors are advocates for their patients. And everyone is moving that line, lying about what their patients have taken so that they get the heart or the liver. So who's to say, really, that what House has done is wrong?

Did you have any trepidation over showing things like addiction as a viable alternative, or showing a pregnant 12 year old in "Kids"? How do you approach those more controversial issues?

LK: In "Kids" - I wrote that with Tommy Moran - it's a larger issue I think, and that is the maturity of kids today, and some of the things that parents push their children to do and be. So in our minds, this was a little girl who's being treated like an adult. Because she was treated like an adult, she made adult choices, and in the process forgot that she was a little girl. We get to see the consequences of that, which I don't really view as controversial. I think it's just really cool to expose that.

And how about showing the addiction as probably the best solution for House? Was there any worry that people might take that the wrong way?

LK: "Detox" is another one that Tommy and I cowrote. House's point is that he doesn't take drugs for recreational purposes. There's always a medical reason for it. He takes drugs because he's in pain, not to get high. That would be his argument. I think it's a defensible argument. There are lots of people who need pain medication in order to do their jobs, and if they are in pain, they can't do their jobs. Now, does House take advantage of that? Maybe.

It's suggested that maybe he does, yes.

LK: What do you think?

I think we're shown that he takes it during emotional times for him, which suggests it's not just about the physical pain.

LK: Well, I think we all medicate ourselves in one form or another for a variety of reasons, whether it's emotional pain or physical pain, and it's not just drugs. It could be candy, ice cream, name it. And we're going to go deeper with all that stuff as the season goes on and try to get at the core of what his drug use is – is he just getting high, or is there something else going on.

You are going to explore that a bit more, then?

LK: Gently. You don't want to move too quickly.

It seems that starting with "Honeymoon," we're seeing more of a self-destructive House. We're seeing alcohol use as well as Wilson warning him that it's "all about speed." Is that fair to say, or is it more of the way he's been all along?

LK: It's an interesting point. It's one that I'm writing right now. I'm writing an episode called "Happiness" that deals with exactly that. House does some pretty outlandish things in this episode, and it raises the question: is this only about addiction or is he self-destructive? Does he have some sort of death wish? What does House want in the end? Those are all questions that Wilson is going to put in his face. We're going to see how he responds, and I think it's going to be a lot of fun.

Do you know when that episode is going to air?

LK: Looks like it's going to be #12, so that's going to air in January. We start shooting beginning of November.

I know at one point there was a different ending to "Honeymoon." How does an episode change from when you write a script to what appears onscreen?

LK: What do you mean a different ending?

[Oops. If it had occurred to me this might be a surprise, I would have framed the question differently.] Wasn't there supposed to be a bar fight at the end and instead it was ...

LK: Now how did you hear that?

On the Internet, of course.

LK: I don't know how that stuff gets out. We had a writers meeting where we discussed how to end the season - this was 12 writers sitting in a room - and we talked about the ending being a bar fight. And then John Mankiewicz and I cowrote the finale, and we had a version with the bar fight at the end.

When we were discussing it, it was a little too much. House instigates this fight solely to get pummelled, because he feels bad. And even though we wrote it, it wasn't really House. House has developed into a character that you can sometimes predict, although you never really know with him. But that event in particular didn't feel like House. He would not do that, go to that length. It just felt like that was a loser move, and we don't think of him that way, so we changed the ending to make it a little bit more real. Which I think was successful. What would House do, after losing the love of his life? Well, he would retreat. And so I think it was a satisfying ending, him testing his leg, and then taking a pill.

Yeah, I thought it was a better ending. It seemed more like House was beating himself up rather than going and getting a bar patron to beat him up.

LK: Yeah. It was a cool bar fight, though - chairs being thrown, bottles. It was a really cool fight.

You didn't shoot it, did you? There's no way it's going to end up on a DVD?

LK: No, there was no need to, because we all agreed that House wouldn't do this. And I don't know why we thought he would. I guess just sitting around the table it made sense - this would be cool, seeing House in a fight. Yes, it would be a cool moment, but would House actually do that? It seemed unrealistic.

So are all the writers involved in planning the season?

LK: Yes. We get together as a group at the beginning of the season. We sort of loosely map out character arcs, where we're going to go with each character. Then we're individually responsible for coming up with the various medical stories, and then we integrate them with the character beats. And sometimes they're stand-alone episodes and sometimes there's a progression where we follow a story arc for several episodes. But for the most part, they're stand-alone episodes.

So the character really comes first and then you put the medical mystery on top of that?

LK: No. It's a little sleight of hand, actually, because all you remember from an episode are these little character moments. But if you read a script, you would be surprised to read that they're 90% medical mystery, with just a dash of character. There are only maybe eight pages of character stuff per script, and the rest is medical mystery. So the most important thing for us in breaking the stories is these "A" stories, the medical mysteries, because without that engine, it's a really boring show. But it's deceptive, because if you look on the web or see what people are talking about, they're talking about character moments, which occupy not a lot of space.

It seems there's a blend, where the medical part of it reveals character.

LK: It's integrated. We definitely marry the character elements to the story elements, which I think is what makes the character elements resonate. Otherwise, they're just sort of hanging out there, and then in 42 minutes it's pretty difficult to tell an engaging story or to tell some emotional character story in that amount of time. So what we do is layer it in through the mystery, so we're actually able to tell the character story through the medical mystery. At least in our more successful episodes, that's what happens.

Dr. House especially has a huge collection of quirks and interests and talents. How do you all keep track of what's already been revealed and keep a consistent vision for the characters?

LK: Do we?

[Laughs] I think for the most part, with House.

LK: I think if you look at anyone, they do have varied interests. It's just that we're lucky enough to really focus in on this guy every week and bring him to light. So I don't think there's much under the sun that he wouldn't find interesting. He finds human nature interesting. Why people get angry. Why people choose their mates. How they choose their mates. Internal jealousies in his department. He finds all those things interesting. He finds life interesting.

But is there a trick to knowing that you mentioned he understands Portuguese in one episode, and speaks Spanish in another episode? Do you keep track of those things?

LK: Katie Jacobs, one of the executive producers on the show, always thought House would be multilingual, and it makes sense. Several of the doctors we've spoken to have backgrounds in other languages. There are journal articles in other languages. Someone like House, certainly during his rehab, probably had a lot of time to study obscure things and keep his mind occupied while he was recuperating. So I don't think it's unbelievable.

No, no, that's not what I was saying. More how you keep track of what's been said about the character so you don't contradict yourselves in the future.

LK: I'm not sure how we would contradict ourselves. His interests are so varied. I'm not sure there would be a script where someone would challenge him on his inability to speak Portuguese. I would be surprised if that came up in script.

All right, fair enough.

LK: I guess the simple answer is we don't.

He's such a blend of intellectual and juvenile, compassionate sometimes but pretty much a bastard. It seems like it would be a fine line between making him too elitist or lowbrow, or too soft or too abrasive. Is it difficult to juggle that, or is that part of the fun of the character?

LK: That's part of the fun of the character. Absolutely. We have a really good time pushing those limits. I think there's a fundamental question of what do you want out of your doctor. Do you want him to be nice? Or do you want him to be good?

If you can't have both.

LK: Well, sometimes you can. With the doctors that I've spoken to for my family, a lot of them are just pure scientists who don't communicate very well, but they're really good at what they do. I'd much rather have that person taking care of me than some guy who can hold my hand, because I think I can find someone to hold my hand, but I don't know that I can definitely find someone to cure me. So I'd much rather have that. I think that's part of the fun of writing this character. He can get away with it, because he's the one guy you really want on your case if you're sick.

I think, also, it's not that the audience forgives him his rudeness, it's that we want it. That's an appealing part of the character, that he's funny and he's sarcastic.

LK: Yes, he's all those things. He's a lot of fun to write. We have a very good time pushing buttons, but not just for the sake of pushing buttons. Everything that House says, every response, is justified, no matter how rude – at least in his twisted mind. He has a reason, which in our logic could be messed up.

But we enter his world and we know why he's saying what he says.

LK: We root for him, and we root for his rudeness. We all encounter it every day and he says the things that we would like to say.

How deliberate is the pacing of the episodes? Like in "Detox," that was one of the most intense episodes, and there were no clinic patients for comic relief, but there was the scene with the masseuse and other funny moments. Do you think about the need to lighten the mood, or tone down the one-liners, or is it more instinctual?

LK: I hope that it's organic. There have been a few instances in the series where I think we've intentionally inserted a clinic beat, but not just because we need to lighten it up because of the pace. It was more just we need to insert a clinic beat. I mean, this is part of his daily life and that's part of the fun of the episode. It didn't really have to do with the rhythm of the show, the way the show was going. It was more like this is the show, and he does do clinic duty, and the clinic beats are fun. I haven't really seen it where it's because the rhythm needed to be broken up.

The “A” stories, the mysteries, are so difficult to break. In a cop show, you can go anywhere. You know: "The bad guy's at the wharf." All of a sudden the cops are off. But we're in a very tight box, medically. We have three medical consultants on the show, and we write something and we're told: "you cannot do this; the body doesn't work this way." So there's only so many places we can go, which makes it very difficult.

How do you work with the medical consultants? Do you write the script and then vet it through them, or do they have input at the beginning?

LK: It depends. David Foster, who's a writer on staff, is a doctor, and he's been instrumental at the beginnings of stories. We have two other medical consultants, Harley Liker, who's a professor at UCLA as well as has his own private practise, and Lisa Sanders, who teaches at Yale and writes the New York Times column "Diagnosis" in the Sunday Magazine. Those are our three consultants. So Harley and Lisa vet the scripts after they've been written. Sometimes if we get stuck, we'll get Harley to help us finesse a point. I guess you can compare it to orthopaedic surgery; when we're really just trying to break bones to make the structure work, we generally go to Foster to outline the big picture.

What can we expect from season two that we haven't seen before?

LK: I think you've gotten a taste already. We're going to continue to challenge our audiences. Obviously from what you've seen in the first three episodes, they are not your basic stories. I think we've done a really good job in presenting a Housian take on familiar things. Like the episode "Kids," any other show would have shown an epidemic. That would be the episode. And in "Kids," we showed while the epidemic is going on, one little aspect in the background, and I think that's the show. What House finds interesting, I think people will find interesting.

All the praise that the show has gotten, we're all incredibly gratified to work on the show and watch it grow as it has. It's been a blast.

Do you keep track of fan and critical reaction to the episodes, or do you try to keep a distance from that?

LK: It's nice that you get instantaneous feedback, and it's funny because it comes in waves. When you write a script, there's the instantaneous feedback of the staff, positive or negative. Then there's the feedback from the studio, positive or negative. Then from the network. So it goes through these phases. And then you shoot the thing, and then you look at the cut, and there's feedback from that, and notes on that, does it work, is it successful, how can we make this better. And then by the time it goes to air, it's gone through so many permutations and so many hands, and everyone's done their job to the best of their abilities.

And Hugh (Laurie) ... he is ... if you were to sit on the set and watch him, it is unbelievable the performance that he delivers day in and day out. It's just amazing.

[Suppressing bitter jealousy that I cannot sit on the set and watch him, and looking on the bright side:] Yeah, it comes across on TV as well.

LK: Yeah. Yeah. The whole cast is excellent, but certainly, he is a ... pleasure.

So ... what was I just saying? What was your question?

[Laughs – it's easy to get sidetracked by admiration of Hugh Laurie's performance.] I was asking about fan and critical reaction.

LK: Oh yeah. So by the time it gets on the air, then there's the feedback of friends and family. Or the staff. They saw your episode, how was it, blah blah blah. But then there's this other, weird sort of universe on the web which is incredible to read. There's the House website on Fox, there are all these Yahoo groups, then there's Television Without Pity. You can get a review of your episode in depth. It is unbelievable the detail with all these people out there who are TiVoing the episodes, rewinding back and forth, "is that what he did?" Which is so cool, because all that stuff - a lot of it, anyway - is intentional. We went to great lengths to place it there, and the fact that they're picking up on everything that we're laying out for them is awesome.

Have you seen on the Television Without Pity site that people are obsessed with the ball on House's desk?

LK: Yes.

Would you reveal what the ball is?

LK: No.


LK: Sorry. [But I can tell he's not sorry at all.]

Isn't it weird that the ball is what people are obsessing over?

LK: And there's the white board. They haven't really come up with much on the white board yet, though.

Oh, there's some talk about the white board.

LK: There's "love the white board," "obey the white board." But no thoughts on it like there is about the ball.

No. I think because we know what the white board is, you know. The ball seems too big to be a tennis ball.

LK: Yes. The white board must be a white board.

I think it's great that there's a venue for all these people to talk to one another about the show, and we have a lot of fun reading them.

[Trying desperately not to end on the sad combination of stupid question and rejection:] Do you have a favourite episode that you've written?

LK: I guess I'd have to say that "Autopsy" is probably my favourite. I don't think that it's a typical episode of House. We see House in a different way in that episode than we've seen him in others. Generally he berates the patient, and yet in this one he just has a very frank conversation with her and that conversation is incredibly emotional. I felt connected to the material from the very beginning. I'm very proud of that episode. I think it really came off well. Deran Sarafian, who directed it, did a great job and Sasha (Pieterse), the actress who played the nine year old, was amazing. At the act three break, she did that scene seven times in a row, identically. It was amazing to watch. So yeah, I would have to say that one.

But they all have their moments. I love him playing air piano in "Control." Every single script has its little moments that you love.