Sunday, March 12, 2006

A Fun House at the William S. Paley Television Festival

At the recent William S. Paley Television Festival, about 600 people filled the Directors Guild Theatre in Los Angeles to watch an upcoming episode of the FOX medical drama House. Despite that drama classification and the gripping patient mystery at its core, it provoked more laughter than the average multiplex comedy feature. Listening to the entire cast and all four executive producers answer questions about the show afterwards, House's comedic sensibility comes as no surprise: these people are funny.

Creator and executive producer David Shore; executive producers Bryan Singer, Katie Jacobs, and Paul Attanasio; and cast members Hugh Laurie (Dr. Gregory House), Robert Sean Leonard (Dr. James Wilson), Lisa Edelstein (Dr. Lisa Cuddy), Omar Epps (Dr. Eric Foreman), Jennifer Morrison (Dr. Allison Cameron), and Jesse Spencer (Dr. Robert Chase) fed off each other's responses with teasing rapport, and showed a facility with one-liners that Dr. House would envy, if he didn't firmly believe he was superior to others in every possible way ... and, if you want to get picky about the distinction between fiction and reality, if he weren't simply a product of these funny people.

At one point, the actors were asked what they'd like to see for their characters in the future.

“Perform Hamlet in its entirety,” contributed Broadway veteran Leonard.

“Do a differential diagnosis in interpretive dance,” said lithe Morrison.

“Disappear,” offered the overworked Laurie.

“Have sex,” responded quirky Edelstein, before adding slowly: “Oh, you meant my character?”

“And I actually thought that would be helpful to me,” writer Shore sighed, mock-exasperated.

In the beginning

Shore announced at the beginning of the session, to applause but no great surprise, that FOX had renewed House for a third season. The panel then delved into the genesis of the show. Producers Attanasio and Jacobs decided to pitch a medical series inspired by the Diagnosis column in the New York Times, and turned to Shore to write it. When asked how he conceived the character of the hostile doctor, Shore said: “I tend to take all characters and attach the word 'hostile' to them.”

“I'd still be practicing law if I didn't have to deal with clients,” he continued. “It's not just me – we all have to deal with idiots. We never think we are the idiot, but we often are.”

He recounted an anecdote about going through with a doctor's appointment even though the hip pain he'd been suffering from had already disappeared. He imagined the doctors whispering about him behind his back, and used that as the inspiration for a doctor who had no qualms telling patients exactly what he thinks to their faces. Combined with the vision of a doctor attacking medical cases with Sherlock Holmes-like deduction skills, the character of House was born.

Hyperkinetic Singer, known for the first two X-Men movies and the upcoming Superman Returns, also directed the pilot episode and helped shaped the show's visual style, with its rapid walk-or-limp-and-talk scenes. “This was like The West Wing in a hospital. It has that energy and pace,” he said. “It was almost a throwback to working on The Usual Suspects, working with these actors and this dialogue.”

Jacobs indicated that they brought the idea for the show to FOX because of their desire to work with then-entertainment president Gail Berman. “You end up with a marriage out of a blind date,” said Attanasio, Jacobs' husband. “You don't know what network would be the best, yet it's one of the most important decisions you can make.”

Jacobs mentioned that when they sold the show to FOX, House was supposed to be in a wheelchair. “FOX, to their credit, changed it,” said Shore. “I will never again thank a network for changing a character.”

They pondered a scar, then “Gail said canes are sexy,” Jacobs said to some laughter and comments of “well, they are now” from the audience, before she added that Laurie uses the cane like a superhero, not only as an extension of his hands to open doors and grab items, but throwing and twirling it dramatically to punctuate a scene.

She also explained how the disability contributes to his psychology. “He's hiding. He doesn't want to see patients, but he also doesn't want them to see him.”

“If he was just a healthy, good-looking guy, we wouldn't be able to do as many things with him,” Shore explained, causing reluctant sex symbol Laurie to wonder if he'd intended a comma between "healthy" and "good-looking" in that sentence or not.

Congregating a cast

Early on, the moderator asked what attracted the actors to the show. “It's going to be a boring answer,” Leonard warned when it was his turn. “It was a great script, great writing.”

“I don't find this boring,” Shore countered.

“The stupidity is astounding in this town,” Leonard said to the LA audience about the quality of scripts he tended to see, before explaining his attraction to the role of House's only friend, Wilson, and invoking an Odd Couple comparison. “I like being the guy who isn't the guy but that the guy counts on. Plus I've wanted to be Tony Randall all my life.”

After commenting that the pilot script was “phenomenal,” Epps tarnished his compliment slightly by mentioning that on meeting Bryan Singer for his audition, they “talked about life and everything but the script.”

“Sorry,” Singer called to Shore, who was sitting on the opposite end of the stage.

Hugh Laurie read for both the Wilson and House roles, though he discounted his chances of being cast as the “handsome man with the boyish, open face.” Instead, he focused his energies on the irascible House. “He didn't try to be liked, and the show didn't try to be liked, and I found that very likeable,” Laurie explained.

At the time, the show was simply called The Untitled Attanasio/Shore Project (“that title didn't test well”), and Laurie was only faxed three pages to his Flight of the Phoenix shoot in Namibia. So he was shocked to eventually find out that House was the central character.

Singer told the now-familiar story of being unfamiliar with Laurie's previous work – or at least, not recognizing him as the same actor – and his excitement at finally finding a red-blooded American to fill the role. “I'd said I didn't want to see any more fucking foreigners,” he admitted.

Laurie's story of getting only a glimpse of the script resulted in a fun game of one-upsmanship between the cast. Spencer indicated that he got six pages, while Epps rubbed it in that he got the whole script. Edelstein, last to be asked about her audition, complained: “I only had one joke, and that's that I got the whole script.”

“She also played the hooker on The West Wing, my favourite show,” Singer added helpfully, explaining her audition success.

“I'm a hot hooker. That's my thing,” agreed Edelstein,who also played a transvestite in a memorable Ally McBeal role.

“The biggest challenge with FOX was getting them to see her as a woman,” Singer said, before Morrison quipped: “Cuddy's back story hasn't come out yet.”

“This is why you never see Cuddy wearing pants,” declared Edelstein, who looked stunning – and undeniably female - in a blue and white dress.

Jesse Spencer, who appeared in clothes mercifully more stylish than Chase's eye-straining wardrobe, claimed to have murdered both the American and English accents before the producers were convinced to let him speak in his native Australian voice. “At one point we were going to make him English,” he said. “I'll never forget Hugh's face at the read-through.”

But before that, the then-24-year-old had been reluctant to even audition for the role of Chase, who was originally written as a 35-year-old American radiologist. His motivation came from his agent asking what else he was going to do today, and realizing that the pub was perhaps his only other option. When he recalled that he had to pay for his own plane ticket to appear for a second audition, Attanasio suggested perhaps they should pay him back now.

Jennifer Morrison claimed her House audition was the worst she'd ever had, and she went to bed depressed after meeting Singer as “a sopping mess” in the lobby beforehand. However, admitting for the second time that his directorial eye may not translate well to recognizing faces, Singer recalled FOX sending him a reel of audition tapes and asking him to choose two actresses as finalists for the role of Cameron. “They sent me one of you as a blonde in Dawson's Creek, and one of you as a brunette in something else,” Singer recalled to Morrison.

“And you picked both of them,” Morrison remembered with a laugh. “I ended up being my own worst competition.”

Writing the gospel

All the panelists praised the writing of the show, with head writer Shore in particular expressing his pride in his writers, who were sitting in the audience. “I've got a great writing staff,” he said in response to a question about how they find the medical stories that drive the plots, “and we have a lot of help from a lot of doctors. I don't think of it as a procedural, but you need the procedure.”

When he and Attanasio discussed the pilot for the show, Shore had told him: “I've only got one idea. I don't know what episode two is going to be. Paul's advice was, 'you only need one right now.'”

Each medical story begins with a real life case, but evolves with the dramatic needs of the show and the characters. “We've resisted a lot of weird stories because they don't fit the show," Shore said.

When an audience member who suffers from vasculitis and runs a vasculitis foundation asked why they'd chosen that disease as the possible diagnosis that seems to pop up in every episode, Shore quipped: “Because we're doing God's work” before adding: “No, we're just trying to entertain.”

“My brother e-mails me when he thinks he's seen something wrong, and he writes 'ha ha' at the end,” said Spencer, whose brother and father don't just play doctors on TV.

“The thing that's real is that doctors don't know,” said Attanasio. “Most of the time when you walk in, it's a medical mystery. They put on the white coat because they don't know.”

“The show is a hypochondriac's worst nightmare,” laughed Singer.

Leonard revealed that every script comes with a vocabulary list, with definitions and pronunciations. Morrison said she used to obsessively look everything up so she could understand it completely. “I've stopped that,” she grinned, but suggested that the actors have to know enough to understand what their characters are fighting for against House. “I don't know why we always argue with him – he's always right,” she added.

Shore said the memorable Housisms that pepper the show “just kind of happen” and that the writers' challenge is to not succumb to the allure of the brilliantly sarcastic one-liners. “That's one of the temptations we have to resist. That's the biggest challenge – to motivate the Housisms.”

Singer's stock answer to questions about the possibility of future romances, revealing Cuddy's Ally McBeal-esque back story, or making House more likeable, was to yell “Sweeps!”

“He gets really nice in February and May,” Morrison joked, before Shore promised that “House will never get soft and cuddly,” provoking applause from the audience.

“I want to thank FOX,” Shore continued. “That was the note everyone expected - 'make House more likable.' We never got that note.”

New episodes of House return March 28 and are scheduled to run without further breaks until the season finale.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)

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