Monday, April 23, 2007

Q&A with House writer Lawrence Kaplow

The interview with Larry Kaplow that was the basis for the Blogcritics article Ending Season Three with a Bang? was much postponed, creating a personal challenge for Jamie the very funny, very nice, very foiled assistant trying to schedule it. It finally happened, ironically, on a Tuesday evening at 9 p.m. Thank god for Eastern time zone FOX.

Anyway, here's an edited transcript of our talk:

DK: Are you still writing the final episode, is that what you're doing now?

LK: Yeah, we actually shot the teaser Saturday night. Tommy [Moran] and I wrote it, and we're just doing some final tweaks and then we start shooting on Friday.

DK: Saturday night seems like an weird time to start shooting.

LK: It is a weird time, but Katie [Jacobs] is directing again and the teaser is extremely ambitious and required an unbelievable amount of prep, so there've been quite a few meetings over the past three weeks.

This is the first time we've had a teaser but no script. We actually wrote the teaser prior to writing the script. We knew what the teaser was going to be, and we had a general idea of what the rest of it was going to be, but because of the preparation necessary to make it look good ... I mean, I think this show really does look phenomenal. It takes time. Katie's been working very closely with [cinematographer] Gale [Tattersall] and we want it to look good.

So we wrote this teaser and all of a sudden there are all these special effects guys and stunt men talking about these crazy things. I'm not going to get into what it is.

DK: You're going to say all that and then you're not going to tell me what it is? I don't like spoilers, though.

LK: Exactly. Since you're a fan of the show I think you'd be pissed if I ruined it for you. I mean, not that it's insane, like Mars blows up, but for our show it's big.

DK: I might be pissed at that for a whole other reason. It's a sci-fi show now.

LK: Well, we needed to go somewhere for the finale. No, I think fans of the show will be pleased.

DK: Can you give any hints on where the finale's going, or is that going to ruin it?

LK: I don't think I should. We've been teeing up a lot of things in the last couple of episodes and those tensions will continue to play out over the next while. I think fans are going to have fun. I think in many ways these have been some of our best episodes yet. We've hit a stride now and every episode that comes out, the writers are all very pleased. It's not easy, but it's very gratifying.

DK: Can you tell me if we're ending on a cliffhanger this year?

LK: Hmmm.

DK: He doesn't get shot, does he?

LK: As I said, I believe fans of the show will be pleased.

DK: OK, you're being a little vague.

LK: I'm not doing it intentionally, I just ...

DK: No, no, I don't like spoilers. Any time I've ever indulged I've been disappointed.

LK: Yeah, exactly, so I'm keeping that in mind. I'm not trying to tease at all either.

DK: No, well, I'm the one asking. [Let me summarize: "Tell me! No, don't! Tell me! No!"]

LK: I hope you're not going to say, "Oh my God, he could have told us this, because this sucks."

DK: I doubt it. I'll trust you that it's gonna be big but I don't want to know. I'll move on now. So you're cowriting the finale. Are there any other episodes of yours coming up?

LK: No. I mean, we all have various hands in. I'm sure you can probably tell where some of us pop in and out of episodes, but we try to keep a low profile.

DK: What do your producing duties entail when you're not writing an episode?

LK: It depends. We shape some of the other writers' stories before they get to David [Shore]. It's our responsibility to make sure the outlines and scripts are at a level where, by the time David comes in to look at it, it's good. And some of that isn't an arbitrary bar. You might say, well, so-and-so didn't like this, but I think it's brilliant. On House it's not so arbitrary because the medical stories are very complicated. They need to be told simply so the audience can follow them, and at the same time be a mystery. So they are very difficult to pull off and they take a lot of work. That's our responsibility -- there's Russ [Friend] and Garrett [Lerner], Tommy, Doris [Egan], and me whose responsibility is to look after some of these other stories.

DK: You've been with the show for three seasons now. Is it a struggle to keep finding those medical mysteries or is it becoming second nature to you?

LK: You know what, it is so second nature. It's very hard to explain, but it's almost like you stay buried in a story and then you come up for air and look around the world, maybe you read a newspaper for the first time, and all of a sudden all these stories are leaping at you. It's fun.

This is apropos of nothing, but I'm going to say it anyway. This is when real life and our TV show intersect, and you're floored.

We get excited when we find a really bad disease. We're happy. We're saying "Oooh, someone's spleen can fall out their eyeball. That's fantastic. And it strikes children. This is so cool!" Because for us, it really is great, to find something that plays on all those emotions. But there are real people out there with real diseases, the ones that are on the show, and then we get letters saying thank you so much for showing X.

A friend of mine had brain cancer. This really young guy. He was basically ... he was done. So I put a line in the "Half-Wit" script about Duke, and they got flooded with calls from people who were sick with brain tumours asking if there was hope. And the head of Duke Brain Tumour called, and he said thank you so much for mentioning us on your show, does this have something to do with a relationship with FOX? The Tisch family donated a lot of money to name it [the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center]. And I felt bad because, no. No vertical integration there. It was just that my friend went there and I thought my friend would get a kick out of hearing Duke on the air.

DK: I think your reason's better.

LK: Meanwhile, all these people called looking for answers for their own lives. That's the part that's really strange to me. The writers are just having fun, telling stories. But then because it's a medical show, people sometimes are watching it not just to see the characters and who's kissing who, but for answers. And that's where it sort of makes you ashamed.

DK: Doesn't that put a lot of pressure on you, to know that there's people watching who are going to react that way to your show, or do you not think about that when you're writing?

LK: What it does is it brings responsibility to try to get the medicine right. Sometimes we have these things call hinges, where we move from one area of the body to another. And sometimes we get criticized from doctors who say that would never happen. And the truth is, in your practice that would never happen because this is not the norm, but we have documentation from here backed up to NBC Universal showing that this is possible, this is what can happen. But we can't tell you the 15 steps it took to get there, because that would be really boring. So we talk to [writer and medical consultant David] Foster to get a hinge and then we're good to go.

DK: And you said last time that David Shore is the imprint for the character.

LK: You have to understand: Shore is House. There's no question about it. As much as we all try to approximate it, it's him. There are aspects of all our personalities that we give to House in the stories. I try to put as much of myself into the scripts as possible in terms of meaning. But for Shore, it literally comes through him, that biting ... it's not even sarcasm, it's just truth, it's painful truth, maybe an exaggeration of reality.

DK: It's been about a year and half since our last interview and it seems like it's been a pretty good year and a half for you. You ended up getting a Writers Guild award for "Autopsy" -- what does that kind of recognition mean to you and your career?

LK: Um, I don't know. Honestly, I don't know. I was shocked that I was nominated at all. And thrilled. And thought, well, there's no way. And then getting the award was thrilling.

DK: You signed a development deal too. Did that come out of that recognition?

LK: I don't know. I was surprised anyone was aware of me. I keep my head down and I am truly interested in the work I do. I have such a good time doing it. I am so happy doing it.

That sounds so Pollyanna. Kill me.

DK: It sounded very sweet and genuine.

LK: And earnest, and dripping with ...

DK: OK, say something sarcastic, quick.

LK: I can't even get back on track after that.

DK: This will come across as total ass kissing, but when we did that first interview, I was excited because you'd written some of what I thought were the stand-out episodes. So I don't think I was the only one to notice that.

LK: Thank you.

DK: Now I feel the need to say something sarcastic but it's just not in me, I'm too Canadian [forgetting that so is David Shore and he seems to do just fine]. So, moving on, do you feel the pressure to top what you've done before, to make House nastier or more self-destructive or have a juicier medical mystery?

LK: No, and I think that's borne out in the episodes. If anything, they've become even more real. I think it depends episode to episode, and part of that is mixing it up a little bit for our audience. We try not to give the same thing every single week. Sometimes it'll be a lighter story. The goal of every episode is not to make somebody cry. It's great when you can do both, laugh and cry, or have a good time. There's nothing wrong with coming away from an hour of television saying boy, that was really satisfying, and I didn't cry, and I laughed a couple of times. That's fine too. You're not going to therapy when you watch television.

For me, I don't set out to do something special, I set out to do something cool, that I think is cool. So with "Half-Wit," all I knew was House is going to fake cancer. Literally, that's what I was pitching. I had no idea where that was going to go. And then in various conversations with Foster, we worked it out to be an interesting House story, I think. I hope I'm not trying to top myself. I'm not looking to do that, I'm just looking to tell cool stories.

DK: Do you think we'll see any more aftermath from him faking cancer? That seems like a pretty extreme thing to do.

LK: Yeah. You know what's funny, there was an early cut where we could have very easily just lifted it out of the story and that thing could have gone on for a long time without us resolving it.

DK: You mean the audience thinking he had cancer? That would have been mean.

LK: Yeah, it would have been very mean. But not for long, just maybe a couple of episodes. Because everyone was thinking, there's no way he has cancer. But for an act or so, I think you did. I mean, it happened quickly, so I hope you asked yourself, "where's this going."

DK: That was one of the episodes soon after the Tritter arc, and it doesn't seem like he's learned anything ...

LK: Do you think he ever will?

DK: ... or at least he's learned that he can get away with anything. Do I think he ever will? I think it would ruin the show if he did.

LK: Yeah, I think it would too. I do think he's self aware. I don't think he's in the dark about who he is at all. I think people like to think that deep down he has a heart of gold. Um, no, he doesn't. He really doesn't. And it's cuddly to think that, but he doesn't.

DK: No, but he's got a little gold sprinkled in there. He shows a glimmer of humanity every now and then.

LK: He does have humanity, but it's odd. It may not even be humanity. He gets annoyed at irrational choices, so he will tell the truth rather than a lie to get his way out of a conversation. Mainly for patients -- he'll lie his ass off to colleagues just because it's fun.

This was set up in the pilot. When House comes in to talk to the kindergarten teacher and he convinces her to live, he's not doing that because he's a good guy. He's doing it because he's annoyed with her decision. It's a stupid decision.

Maybe that's humanity. I don't think it is. I think it's illogical, which annoys him, which is why he says death is always ugly to someone who wants to die.

I think that's one of the strengths of the show. Because as soon as House takes someone by the hand and we have Marcus Welby talking, I think the show's dead.

DK: Because he's the hero of the show, some people look at him as a role model.

LK: And not only our characters, some who admire him, some who hold him in some level of contempt. I'm sure there are some doctors out there who think he's a good role model and wish they could talk to patients like he does. But actually it's been my experience with doctors that they're usually pretty frank regarding your health. It's, "Well, you either have cancer or an infection." So I think the shock value that is so stunning in House isn't so unrealistic. Doctors have ... I don't know how many patients they see a week, maybe 400 ... so there's not a lot of time for hand holding.

I guess I'm happy people see him as a role model. I just don't want to be friends with those people.

DK: Has your perspective on the character changed over the three seasons? Do you see him differently now than you did in the early days?

LK: "The early days." Like we were on in 1947.

DK: Yeah, think way back to 2004.

LK: It's been said before that TV characters never really change. They're born in the pilot and we uncover other flavours in them, but who they are is somewhat immoveable. I think we've played with some of the other characters ... not a lot, but a little bit. I think House has been right down the centre, right from the word go. I mean, can you think of any example where we've shown genuine change in him? Where he seems like a different character?

DK: Well, no, not where he seems like a different character. I thought at the beginning he seemed a little more depressed, and he seemed to get more gleefully sarcastic as it went on. This season, it isn't really a change in character so much as a progression of plot, but he used to justify his addiction as allowing him to do his job, and this season we've seen it interfere with his job.

LK: Yeah, we're moving into a different area. We're no longer just talking about pain in his leg, but we're talking about where he is mentally. Wilson is arguing that depression is a chioice, and that for Wilson he chooses not to be, and that House chooses to be.

There was a really cool study a few years ago about how everyone has a default state of being on the spectrum from miserable to happy. If you're normally fairly depressed or bitter and people are telling you to be happy, the stress of people telling you that, and your efforts to try to be happy, can make you more depressed than you would be in your normal state.

DK: You seem to write episodes that are heavy on the Vicodin. What would you say we've learned about his addiction over the past season or two? How has that story evolved?

LK: I do?

DK: Well, in "Detox," and "Distractions," and "Half-Wit" ...

LK: In "Distractions," he took those drugs to prove his former classmate was a moron. So this goes to who House is as a character. I mean, he does like drugs. However, it's also that he's willing to experiment on himself to prove someone wrong. I think "Distractions" shows there are no lengths House will not go to bring this man down, including giving himself a stroke. I think if House ended up with a stroke and was slurring his words and was in a hospital bed unable to move, he would still breathe into a tube and his last words would be, "I was right." And he would smile.

DK: But in that episode, Wilson also said House needs to distract himself from emotional issues as well as physical. And in "Half-Wit" we get him faking brain cancer to get good drugs. You're not seeing this pattern, obviously.

LK: No, I do see it, of course.

DK: So the question is how has it evolved, what have we learned about his addiction?

LK: I think he's become more willing to experiment. We left a good deal of this out of the story, but in order to actually get accepted into a clinical trial, using someone else's MRIs and all that, we're talking weeks and weeks, maybe even months of preparation, taking someone's digital MRI and putting his name on them, making sure the head size is correct, taking various blood samples, going back and forth to Boston. If you really play out what he needed to do, it's a desperate act. Is it a desperate act to feel good? Is it a desperate act to feel normal? I think House would do anything to just be average. And unfortunately he's cursed with a mind that will not allow him to rest. I think that brings about a lot of his pain, forget about his leg.

DK: I'll get into some lighter questions now. Assuming House is the most fun character to write, who's your next favourite?

LK: Probably Wilson. Hugh [Laurie] has always maintained that one day the show will be Wilson, and they'll forget all about this wise cracking doctor, what's his name, he took Vicodin or something. He's said that Wilson was the real show. That's typical self-deprecating Hugh, but at the same time, it is a lot of fun to mess with Wilson. And it's fun to watch Wilson try to keep up, and the two of them torment each other. There's an episode coming up that Pam Davis wrote that I think is one of the funniest we've done with their relationship.

So probably House and Wilson, and then ... do you want me to go down the list? Yes, and then you know what we should do, let's make a chart with hearts on it, and then let's send it to all the actors.

DK: We should. They'll love you after that. By the time you get to the end of the list, that actor's going to be pissed.

LK: You know what's funny though, I don't feel that way. I mean, it's a procedural, so there are various aspects to each character that are necessary to tell the story. We try to maximize that, and we try to use everyone as much as possible in every show.

Other shows have a billion characters and they seem to service them just fine. We find it very difficult to tell deep stories in a couple of lines per act per character. So even though there are only six characters in the show, plus a guest cast, it's really hard to work them all in, in 59 pages.

So in every story, we try to focus on a different character, still giving everyone else their fair due. You find different things to play with and to bring out in each of them. You fall in love with all of them. You really do.

DK: Do the actors give you any input into their characters? Are they pitching storylines to you?

LK: Yeah, on occasion. It's fun to listen to what they have to say. It's fun being on set. I love the production experience and working with them. It's really satisfying after working on a script. I'm always pretty blue around the second-to-last day because it's coming to an end. I have so much fun on the set and being with them. These people are in your head while you're writing the scripts, and then you watch them move around and they do it in ways you weren't even thinking.

It's lonely when you're in your room and not with them. But then if I was down there all the time I would go insane. I don't know how they do it.

DK: There's a lot of pressure on set?

LK: Well, the pressure is the clock. It's always an effort to finish the show on time, and the shows are tricky. It would be one thing if we didn't care.

DK: That would make everything easier.

LK: It really would, if we didn't care about the scripts or the stories: "You know what, the third act doesn't work, but it's good enough." That's one thing that's really great, that the process is so rigorous. Out of 24 episodes, which is so many episodes to do in one year, there's not too many clunkers.

DK: For another frivolous question, there's battle lines between the Cameron lovers and the Cuddy lovers over who gets House. Which team are you on?

LK: Well, frankly, neither. I think both of them have qualities that are interesting to House. He likes aspects of them. But long term, I don't see him with either.

DK: Last time my really stupid question was about the ball on House's desk ...

LK: Oh my god, you're going to bring it right back.

DK: No, I've given up.

LK: I've got nothing. I have no idea what it is.

DK: I knew it. It's a dog toy, it's a big tennis ball, no one knows. No, but this time my stupid question is, is there a McGill connection on the show?

LK: Yes, but how do you know that?

DK: Well, when I met you at the Paley festival you were wearing a McGill cap, and then Wilson wore a McGill sweatshirt in an episode soon after that, and since it's a Canadian university it stuck in my head.

LK: I'm not sure if Pam [Davis] actually went there or not, I don't think she did, but she brought back the hats. She's from Canada. We have four writers from Canada, David, Pam, Leonard [Dick] and David Hoselton. So I'm almost positive she brought back the McGill hats. I lost mine at the airport. I really loved that hat.

DK: She must have brought a sweatshirt, too.

LK: I don't know. Maybe he went there.

DK: I think that's the assumption now. Well, that was my dumb question and you actually answered it this time. That makes me feel good. I had nothing else. Was there anything you wanted to add?

LK: Yes, I wanted to ask you, how has your watching experience changed over the past few years? Obviously if you take the time to do this it must be one of the shows of however many you watch regularly. Did you like it more at the beginning, do you like it more now?

DK: [Hey, I wasn't expecting to be interviewed, so expect some incoherence here.] Well, it's the only show I watch this regularly. It's certainly the only show I take the time to write about regularly [besides Intelligence, which I forgot about because it hasn't been on for a while and has a season that's half as long, and he probably wouldn't have heard of it anyway, though orange guy from the House pilot has a recurring role]. So obviously it's still my favourite show.

My viewing experience has changed partly because of that whole particle physics thing, where observing something changes it. [Huh? Oh well, go with it.] I mean, the first season I was purely a fan, I just watched the show and loved it and it was the first time I'd done the whole "oh, I have to talk about this on the Internet with complete strangers thing" because no one I knew was watching it. Those were the dark days when the ratings weren't great. When I started doing the episode reviews, my experience changed a little because now I'm watching it differently than I used to, more critically, because I'm thinking about writing about it.

I try to make this clear when I'm writing, but even if an episode wasn't my favourite, I say a bad episode of House is better than a good episode of most other shows. So yeah, it's still holding my interest consistently.

[To answer the actual question, you can't beat that first year's giddiness of getting to know the characters and the show, but while each season has its highs and lows, I thought the second season was overall a stronger one, and the third is close to maintaining that level for me -- I'll reserve a final comparison until it's over.]

LK: What do you hope for? You know, other than to be surprised and entertained?

DK: I think you guys do a great job at that. The one critique it's always gotten is that it's formulaic, and I think that's an unfair criticism, especially in the last couple of seasons. You do a lot of things outside of the formula, and even within the formula there's always things that are unexpected but then make complete sense once you have all the pieces.

But what I hope for, I don't know, I guess a continuation of the same. I tend to lose interest in shows when the main cast start pairing off and everyone's slept with everyone else, so I really don't want to see House get together with Cuddy or Cameron [though, I should add, I do want to see him continue to flirt with both]. I like the idea of bringing in fresh blood.

LK: Cool. Well, I'll be very interested to hear what you think after the finale airs.

DK: I'm very curious. It's got a lot to live up to now.

LK: Uh oh.