Written By Summer 2012 : Page 44

The House That SHore Built 44 • WG A W Written By SUMMER 20 12

The House That Shore Built

LouIse Farr

Memo from David Shore, after eight seasons and 177 episodes: The DocTor iS ouT.

It’s difficult to imagine Monday nights without Gregory House, that misanthropic, bullying, diagnostic genius created by David Shore and inhabited so memorably by the british actor Hugh Laurie. But late in April, following the cancellation of House M.D. in the middle of a remarkable eight-season run on Fox, a move was underway at the show’s production offices. In a maze of corridors in building 89 on the 20th Century Fox lot, file boxes sat stacked against walls. Sofas and chairs blocked passageways. Workmen hammered, already reconfiguring the space for the next occupant.

Shore, who co-wrote and directed the last of the 177 episodes, had wrapped his final shot the previous day. Afterward, everyone drank champagne on the closed set, where the atmosphere combined elation over the accomplishment with melancholy about the end of this much-honored series that earned an Emmy for Shore and Writers Guild Awards for him and his writers; Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards for Laurie; Image Awards for the actor Omar Epps; and too many other awards and nominations to list here.

Shore, who is slender with salt-and-pepper hair, ambles in from the editing room and settles into a deco-style leather lounge chair in the conversation area of his office. A massive House poster emblazoned with the New York Daily News pull quote, “One of the best-written shows on television,” hangs above his desk; a note of encouragement, perhaps, to keep polishing, since this is where he and his staff have reworked scripts, Shore at the keyboard, writers at a second computer screen, watching his every change.

“We’ll rewrite over and over and over again, and continually things will get better,” says executive producer Russel Friend, who with writing partner Garrett Lerner joined the show in its second season. “It’s a benign dictatorship; ultimately, David is going to make the call,” Friend goes on. “He can be very funny, and he doesn’t pull punches. Like House, he uses honesty like a sword.”

Says co-executive producer Thomas L. Moran: “Either by accident or design, he’s hired a number of writers with similar coping strategies. Some of the wittiest, most clever, and just damn funniest people I’ve ever met were on the writing staff at House, which made some of the darkest days at work over the past eight years—and there have been a few—also some of the most side splitting.”

Those dark days included learning after season seven that Lisa Edelstein, who played Lisa Cuddy, House’s love interest and the Dean of Medicine at the fictional Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital where House M.D. was set, could not hammer out a new contract and was leaving. This abrupt departure followed a controversial season-seven ender in which, months after Cuddy had dumped him, House careened his car into her home.

“We were going to have Cuddy punish House severely and have House pay the price, then they would be back on a working relationship basis, though never a romantic one,” says executive producer Peter Blake, about the House-Cuddy storyline planned for season eight. “When Lisa couldn’t come back, we just totally upended our plans and had to completely rethink.”

It didn’t help matters that Shore and his writers went into season eight not knowing if it would be the last. “We had to start thinking about it before we knew,” says Shore, leaning back in the office armchair. He’s dressed in chinos and T-shirt, and he looks surprisingly awake, considering that there had been a wrap party the previous evening, in addition to that champagne. But wrap parties don’t box up all the emotions associated with such a spectacular run coming to a halt.

“It’s not a divorce,” Shore says, trying to figure it out.“When you get married, you hope it will last forever. I knew going in that I wouldn’t be on my deathbed with House still going on. If somebody had told me it’d go three years and be a middling hit, I’d have been thrilled.” A little more editing and a little more post, he says, then it’s all over and it’s back to square one, where he’ll be “thrown back into the place that we all return to on a regular basis: looking for work. But that’s part of the joy of being a writer, I tell myself. It’s the starting over. It’s the doing of a new job, exploring a new situation, exploring new characters. That’s the bane of this existence, but also the great thing about this existence.”

Louise Farr: By now, everyone knows that in the series finale, House faked his own death, survived a burning building, and rode off on a motorcycle with his best—and probably only— friend, Dr. James Wilson [Robert Sean Leonard], an oncologist dying of cancer. How did you arrive at that ending, and how do you view it?

David Shore: It’s an examination of who House is, asking those questions, “Am I capable of happiness? Am I capable of happiness now? Was I ever capable of happiness?” Which to a great extent the show has been about all along. It’s about this character and the value of his life. We knew we didn’t want a happy ending. We’ve probably come as close as I dare come, and we have come close, actually, except for the fact that Wilson’s dying. That’s kind of our version of a happy ending.And I didn’t want to go to just a miserable ending either, which is kind of typical of the show. Every bit of happiness is mixed with sadness and every bit of sadness is mixed with happiness. Nothing is simple. Nothing is pat. And when we came on this idea, it just felt good. It felt right. It came out of one of our rare writers meetings when we collectively got together at my home.

You co-wrote the last episode with Eli Attie [see sidebar] and Peter Blake, and you brought back characters from House’s past. How was it to write?

It was tricky. There was the danger of getting sucked into it becoming a cold, philosophical discussion, because we’re dealing with very heavy issues. Eventually we got the visual element of it. Aside from the fact that House is in a burning building, it’s a lot of two people talking to each other, so it was figuring out how to make the flashbacks work, how to make the flashbacks compelling, even though we know where he’s going to wind up. If you’re asking how was it to write emotionally, it was funny. Each of the writers came in after writing their last scene and said, “I started getting choked up when I wrote it, and I don’t think it was the content of the scene. It was just the mere fact that I wasn’t going to be writing for this character again.”

Did you get choked up?

Not that much. I changed the whole situation a little bit by choosing to direct it. Instead of being able to enjoy the process and stand back and watch, I suddenly had this huge responsibility on my shoulders to actually get it done. And that can be overwhelming. On the middle of the last day of shooting, somebody would ask me, How does it feel that this is the last day? And I went, I just want to make my day. There’s so much pressure to get the job done. But every now and again during it, I’m saying goodbye to Jesse Spencer [Dr. Robert Chase] and saying goodbye to Omar [Dr. Eric Foreman], and this is our last shot. There were a few times where I just suddenly went, Holy crap, this is the last time I’m going to be in this [hospital] lobby. I was actually nauseated during our last shot because I was in a helicopter.

Did you feel even more compelled than usual to get this episode right?

Too much gets put on a series being judged by its final episode. There have been hundreds and hundreds of shows that ended, yet we only remember a few. This series was created to explore this character, and I explored this character for 177 episodes. And every one of those was important. I didn’t know when it was going to end when I started. It’s not about that. It’s never been about that. It’s been about this individual character and how he was going to deal with specific situations.That’s what I find interesting to explore. The moral dilemmas are real. The attitudes are real.

House faking his death created another symmetry with your House/Sherlock Holmes conceit.

That wasn’t the reason we did it. And in Conan Doyle’s case, he killed off his character because he was sick and tired of his character, and there was so much pressure to bring him back that he wrote an episode in which the death had been faked.

The First Patient

Let’s jump back and talk about the show’s creation. Executive producer Paul Attanasio read the New York Times column, “Diagnosis,” by Dr. Lisa Sanders, who became a House technical adviser, and he came to you with an idea for a new medical drama.

I wasn’t sure the idea could sustain itself beyond a couple of hours: Here a patient comes in, don’t know what it is, figure it out. I was very leery. The character [of Gregory House] was my way of reacting to that. That it couldn’t be about the medicine.It had to be about the character, about humanity, and not about germs. It’s clearly a medical show, but I never viewed it as a medical show. The medicine allowed me to impose stakes on a situation, which acts as a crucible, allowing us to really see how people react. It forces the issue; it forces the stakes.

Much as they love the characters, though, doesn’t the audience see it as a medical show?

It’s always bothered me when people ask, What was wrong With that person? When doctors ask me that, I’m okay, but I never remember. It’s important to me that the medicine be real, but that’s not the essence of the show. And people get too worked up about Chase dating Cameron or House dating Cuddy. That’s also not what the show’s about. The people who love House and Cuddy are going to read that and say, See, he never really cared. I cared, and it was important that I do it right, but that didn’t make the show, and that didn’t break the show. The show was about something much more fundamental, which is the nature of right and wrong; the decisions we make; the choices we make, and why we make them.

How long did the idea simmer after Attanasio brought it to you?

A long time. The original pilot we sold in early August . . .Just a very, very general story idea. House wasn’t even a character at that point, just a medical investigation type thing. I started working on who was going to occupy this world, and I didn’t put pen to paper until Christmas time. I had an outline, but it was just percolating for four months. Then I wrote the thing in a week while on vacation at my parents’ place in Florida with my family. I’d go to the pool with my kids, then I’d run back to the condo and write for an hour. But it came out really fast and really well at that point. I don’t usually write that way.

How do you write?

I take a lot of mini-breaks. I go to the kitchen. I take a lot of walks. It clears my head a little bit. Or maybe it’s the idea of stepping away from the keyboard. I’m never looking forward to writing. It’s work. It’s deeply satisfying work, but it’s work. I hate writers who love their stuff, and I’ve fallen into that trap on occasion, but I try not to. You’ve got to be your own worst critic. You’ve got to look at your own work and say, “Oh, God, you think that works? You think that really does it?” Or you just put a Band-Aid on a deep wound. Writing’s hard. And if it wasn’t, we’d be making a lot less money. Writing is all— maybe I’m just not that good a writer—but writing is all about a magic trick. What is the story I want to tell, and I don’t want anyone to know that’s the story I’m telling. So it’s magic in the sense of distraction. I’ll hold up sparkly objects, and maybe you’ll think that’s what the story is when it’s about something Else entirely. But the search for that makes you better and you come closer. The actual process can be fun. I kind of like the times I bring the writers into my office and I rewrite with them. There’s moments doing a scene that are weirdly emotionally satisfying. I enjoyed math as a child, and there’s something about finding an answer.

The First clue

You came to Hollywood in 1991 after a career as a municipal and corporate lawyer in Canada. How did that come about? Did you write as a kid?

No, no. I was a math major before I went to law school. I was as far from an English Lit type person as you can get. I had written for the comedy rag in law school. One of my writers here, bizarrely enough, David Hoselton, was one of the editors with me of the school paper, which was just a comedy thing. We were writing short columns, I had done stand up comedy once or twice, and I thought, Maybe I’m entertaining. I sort of suspected that I was looking at things a little differently than other people. And as I get older, I realize that we’re all looking at things a little differently than other people. We’re all kind of weird, which is fine.

But still, what got you here?

You’re looking to me to defend this decision. It was a stupid decision that worked out well. But I also knew I could go back to law. It just seemed like a cool thing to do.I didn’t view it as that big a deal. It obviously was in some ways, but as long as you’re not burning bridges, it’s fine. I wasn’t burning bridges. I was quite prepared to go back to law if I had to, and the great thing that career gave me was the ability to fail on my own terms, if it came to that. I didn’t need to find work here. If I didn’t find work here, that would be fine, so I kind of came out here thinking, I’m going to write what I want to write. And if I find an audience that’s great, and if I don’t find an audience, that’s fine, too. So I never felt any pressure to write what somebody else wanted to hear, or what I thought would sell. And as a writer you don’t have to write what you know, but you do have to write stories that couldn’t be written by somebody else. It took a year to get an agent. It took another year to get my first freelance writing assignment, for a syndicated show called The Untouchables, and that led to nothing. And then, about a year after that, I got on a show called Due South as a baby writer, and I’ve been gainfully employed ever since. I became an executive producer on Family Law, and since then I’ve been trying to collect writers that I’ve worked with.

How did you gather your House staff, which, by all accounts, has been unusually stable? I know Eli Attie is a former Al Gore speechwriter who worked on The West Wing; Thomas L. Moran [Family Law, JAG] was with you from the first season; Garrett Lerner and Russel Friend [Roswell, Boston Public] interviewed the first year, but turned you down for LAX, with Heather Locklear and Blair Underwood. Then, when that tanked, they joined you for Season 2. Clearly, you don’t hold a grudge.

[Garrett and Russel] told me they liked this show more, but they took the deeply cynical route. They thought this show was going to fail miserably, but this other show was a surefire hit so they should go there. I like writers with a varied perspective and different ways of looking at things. When I read a script, if something surprises me and makes sense, that’s what I love. There’s a fair bit of consistency within the writing population in this town, a little too much, so I’m looking for diversity, but in the broadest sense. Not in terms of racial or ethnic, though that’s fine too, good even, but I’m just looking for people with different perspectives to bring something new that I hadn’t thought of to the table. Most of them I’d worked with before.

Talk to me about House himself.

I love the character of House, obviously, and his attitudes are to an extent my attitudes, but I sometimes worry about him being held up as a role model. So those moments from time to time where we call into question the wisdom of House being House, in a larger sense, are important to me because he gets away with it because he’s brilliant. And we should all be asking more questions and striving for objectivity and to find answers in this world, and not just blindly following the rules that are laid before us. However, if we all just ignored the rules, it would be a pretty ugly situation.It’s sort of trite, but it’s important to remind the audience every now and then that it’s not just, Do whatever you think is right.I was not a philosophy major, but I was always fascinated by that whole philosophy thing and the whole nature of right and wrong. To me, a story’s only worth telling if it has something to say about that. House is just striving to objectively look at things, which is so impossible. But the search for that makes you better, and you come closer. I slightly get annoyed at people who got wrapped up in the House-Cuddy relationship. Not that I didn’t think it was a really good storyline, but I thought it was in some way distracting from what I like about the show, which is the exploration of philosophical issues. What is reality? What is true? Now that doesn’t make a good Entertainment Weekly column. But to me that’s what the show is, and the rest of it’s just the colorful ribbons we wrap around it.

How do you keep a show fresh for eight seasons?

It is a challenge, and the problem is, if you ignore the challenge, then you’re doomed to fail, and if you’re too aware of the challenge, if you react too much to that challenge, you’re doomed to fail in the sense that you end up going over the top.You end up doing outrageous things for the sake of doing outrageous things. You have to keep it interesting by continuing to strive to keep it interesting to you. What’s new, what’s different?But at the same time is it motivated, is it good storytelling?There’s no shortcut. I don’t have a pat answer. If I did, then every show on the air would be in its 12th year.

Now that it’s over, how do you feel about having had such a huge success?

At no point during this whole run could I quite wrap my head around the whole thing. You sort of put your head down and do the job, and every so often lift your head up and go, What’s going on? How did that happen? You try not to be affected by all the external stuff. You just try and do your job. You do what you can control. You try and make a show as good as you can. Period. And I never imagined staying with any show for more than three years. It’s a tribute to others, Hugh, the crew, that I just kept getting drawn back into it. I’m sure there were more stories I could tell, but the big story of who this guy was and what he stood for I felt we had told, and I wanted to get out before I felt we’d overstayed our welcome. I spent weeks agonizing over that choice. I’m sure we could have done another year.But you’re taking a chance. We took chances every single year, but the chances increase exponentially as you go along.

You’ve implied that Gregory House is your sort of alter ego. In person, you seem nicer.

His opinions I largely share; his attitudes I might not. I don’t think I’m quite as miserable, quite as angry. The things that are important to him are important to me: striving for an objective reality, trying to take emotion out of equations, figuring out why we do the things we do, what’s the right thing to do, and really asking those questions.

Constantly asking those questions can make for a painful life.

That may be one of the minuses of the show. House has been my life for the last eight years. It’s been wonderful, but Hugh might agree with me on this: Living with that character day after day, as much as I love that character, having that character in my head, embodying that character, takes its toll psychically on a human being. So I’m going to do something happy next, fun. Hopefully there will be something else that I’ll get a great deal of satisfaction from. This was a specific type of success. It would be difficult to imagine, and arrogant to hope, that I would get this sort of thing again.

“EvErybody diEs”

HoUSE finalE EpiSodE #8022

Written By DaviD shore & Peter BLAke & eLi Attie

Series finales are incredibly tricky. People have opinions about them, and we have very passionate fans. There’s almost no way i think that you can devise an ending for a character as wonderfully complex, and contradictory, and funny, and dramatic, and multifaceted as House and not anger some huge chunk of fans. I’m convinced opinion will be all over the map.

One day, david Shore asked all the writers sitting around the conference table, “Think about the ending, so if we do end up doing it this year we can do it in a proper way.” The thought occurred to me, i think our fans love the House character so much, it would be satisfying to know he’s still out there somewhere. I said, “What if we set up some series of circumstances where the walls are closing in on him in some way, and he fakes his own death, and then he appears to Wilson, and they ride off together?” david kept coming back to that idea. And the thing i didn’t know when i pitched it to him, was that was really the ending of Sherlock Holmes.

As the season went along, it took many twists and turns, and the whole notion came up of Wilson getting cancer— an idea that had bounced around for several years. Wilson is an extension of House, his conscience. He’s the better part of House, a part that House doesn’t really have on his own. House is a character whose life has been on the edge of collapse for so long it probably didn’t take much for us to push him over that brink. To lose his last time with the only person he cares about in the world, Wilson, leads to all the craziness of the finale. It became a question of trying to connect these dots. But the main elements that we had were Wilson getting cancer, this notion of House facing his own death, where he might be, and what physical evidence he would need, which led to the idea of the burning building.

David asked me and peter Blake to write the finale with him, so then it became the same process that it always had.It began with us taking some walks around the fox lot, saying, “Well, okay, we’ve got this burning building, and we know what the very ending is, and what’s a satisfying way in which to bring back a lot of characters from the past,” which sort of led us to a funeral. David was interested in making it a thoughtful exploration of this character who has been so torn between withdrawing from the world and being part of the world: does he choose life? Does he choose death? Has his life been worth anything? Is it worth saving? And david has always pushed us as his staff of writers to go deeper.

—eLi Attie

“TwEnTy vicodin”

Written By Peter BLAke

We left off [Season 7] at an incredibly low point for House. Cuddy had broken up with him at the middle of last season, and he spends the rest of the season pretending nothing’s wrong. Meanwhile, people are telling him he should address his anger. He finally does, in the most self-destructive way imaginable. He drives his car into his girlfriend’s house. We wrote the scene in the way we all imagined it. We meant it to be self-destructive, and after it aired it became clear that it seemed a lot more homicidal than any of us had in mind.

We wanted to do three things in this episode: We wanted to pick up realistically from where the last season ended; we wanted to have something interesting happening; and we wanted to redeem his character. For a whole day we discussed, Well, what if we had every episode of the last season being a year after the previous episode? So the season would take place over 22 years. We realized, as interesting as that sounds, it makes for weird television. We had this idea that House would have ended up in a South american jail, as the in-house doctor to a big drug mafioso. And that again was too weird. But the thing that made the most sense was that House would go to jail. He did a terrible thing, and he should get punished.

We had him paying the price in jail for what he did. And the other two obvious ways of redeeming House’s character are to make somebody worse than House, which is why i put in the storyline of the neo-nazi prison gang leader who menaces House. Also, House does something heroic at the end. He gets himself sent to solitary confinement and gets his sentence extended in order to save the life of a prisoner. Like in everything House does, the motivations hopefully aren’t clear. You could certainly make the argument that House doesn’t care about this prisoner; he only cares about the answer to this medical mystery. But in either case it humanizes House to have him put himself out for this guy.

—Peter BLAke

“nobody’s FaulT”

Written By DaviD Foster & russeL FrienD & Garrett Lerner

As writers, we’ve always been intrigued by a story from a hospital where the sister of one of the writers on our staff worked. A patient had gotten violent with one of the doctors. And we were hoping to do something for Jesse Spencer [dr. Robert Chase], because we all thought he was doing particularly fine work. It was also an opportunity to do something we’d been wanting to do for a long time: put House’s process on trial. We also wanted to tell a story that was told in multiple time lines, which are always difficult to execute. It was tricky from a number of angles, so we sort of pulled them all together.

Garrett, Russ, and i had written seven scripts together over the years, so an ease and flow comes with that.The outline is something we hashed out together and got feedback from david Shore. Where the scene begins, where the scene ends, the content of the scene, is all there in the outline, so executing it isn’t as much of an individual process as it might seem.

Often the simpler scenes are trickier, but one scene that was particularly tricky is when House comes to apologize to Chase at the end, because it’s such an un-Housian moment.As House says multiple times, “Bad outcomes aren’t my fault. It’s part of the process. It doesn’t mean i was wrong.” So it’s hard to come from that position to saying, “i’m sorry you got hurt. I’m sorry that you were damaged.” How do you make it believable? Our show wouldn’t do the sentimental version of that. So it’s letting you do it with comedy, indirectly. How to make those moments Housian—those are some of the tricks we’ve used.

These things usually come out of, How do you want to stretch your characters, where do you want these moments to come from? The Chase story, i just loved the idea of something that couldn’t be fixed immediately, that would give us jeopardy for a while. We wanted it to have a diagnostic twist after we fixed the heart. And also, dramatically for Jesse, we wanted to give him a deficit to overcome. So you start putting together the pieces that you want and thinking about how can we get that? What generally happens is we end up with a lot more than we can use, and we end up paring down the medical aspects of the stories, because there’s twists and turns that don’t give you the character payoff that you’d hoped for. We get rid of those and pare it down to the ones that are giving us character payoff. Because there really is no point in telling a medical story unless it’s elucidating some point about our characters.

—DAviD Foster

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