Originally posted March 2007.
We just finished shooting Episode 20, “Housetraining.” (It’s listed as “House Training,” but I always meant it to be one word — I just didn’t have the heart to put our script supervisor through the ream of corrections he’d have to do to change it. This is my blog, though, so within these sacred precincts I decree it one word. Also, I would like towel boys to bring me peeled grapes.)
One of my respondents has drawn my attention to the “St. Doris” thing. I am touched, but must disclose that there’s not as much room for chocolaty House-Wilson goodness in this episode as some might wish. The story went elsewhere, and it’s always best to follow where the story wants to go. Still, if viewers who like that sort of thing can’t watch an episode through rose-colored slash glasses, I can only say that fandom has gone downhill since the days of the Mulder/Krycek kiss. (And I don’t believe that for a second.)
Shooting a television episode is an exercise in survival. I’m speaking generally here; that’s why you may have heard the metaphor of working in TV as throwing steaks down the maw of an endlessly hungry beast. I can’t tell you how hard a crew works. I’ve occasionally seen people wonder why the same director doesn’t shoot all episodes — trust me when I say that wouldn’t be physically possible. The director begins prep over a week before shooting begins, while the cast and crew are still working on the previous episode; they walk the sets, work with the locations people, meet with props, meet with the art department, meet with production in general, meet with the executive producers, meet with the writer… basically, everybody meets with everybody. They have to; it’s like planning the invasion of Normandy. Everyone sits down and goes through the script scene by scene, more than once. The writer, having already been through the rewrite process, is still juggling notes — on House this would include notes from five different medical advisers, who invariably disagree firmly with each other — and collecting more notes from the director and the assistant director (“Lovely script! Too bad it’s unproducible. Could you lose six scenes?”), and hearing from Locations that Changes Must Be Made.
This is all happening at top speed, because shooting will begin at a certain day and time, ready or not. It’s not unusual to see a writer/producer running through the halls during prep, hurrying to casting meetings, tone meetings, production meetings; rushing back to put out new pages; rushing off again before somebody drives somewhere without them — because nothing can wait. And once shooting does begin, the train only goes faster. There’s no time to do anything but field each potential disaster as it comes, and if something goes wrong while shooting a scene — well, that’s it, that’s what the world’s going to see. There’s no budget and no time to re-do anything. (A director once kidded me, after things had indeed gone wrong in a big way, “Good thing this was the out-of-town tryout. We’ll fix that before we actually open.” Television is a different world from plays and films; once it’s shot, it’s like history: immutable. “Moving on,” as the director will say, and the tide pulls us all to the next scene. Goodbye, scene that didn’t quite work out; I loved you in theory.)
I remember watching an episode of Smallville where an actress said the word “ancestors” instead of “descendants.” People made fun of the writer, but not for a second did I think that was what was in the script — if it were, about fifty people would have commented on it before shooting. I can well believe it happened while shooting the scene, however. Actors are not machines, though they’re expected to perform as if they were; and the wrong words will come out way more often than you think. Consider: they’re only given about fifteen minutes to rehearse, a little bit of time while lighting’s being set up, and then they’re tossed into the lion’s den. And then there’s the pressure of filming — and it is pressure; if someone were to point a camera at me I’d forget my name. And it’s not as if we were asking them to simply perform a task; no, we’re saying, “And by the way, could you be wonderfully talented and entertaining while you do that? Starting… now.” I’m continually in awe of how consistently actors take all this straw and hand you gold back.
By the way, the director won’t catch that sort of mistake either, at least not unless the problem is egregious, and often not even then. They’re keeping track of a hundred other things — where the actor is, where the camera is, was that a shadow down the hall, did the emotional tenor of the performance feel right, did he cross over in the same place he did in the master shot, was that a plane I heard messing with the sound — on and on and on. The script supervisor tries their damnedest, but they’ve got their own list of problems to catch, and dialogue is only one thing among many. Or maybe they caught it, but the one time everything was perfect was the time the lighting blew a fuse or the film ran out and needed to be reloaded.
And the train speeds on. Thirteen, fourteen, sometimes fifteen hours a day. You’ve got enough time to drive home, wind down, get your six hours of sleep, and hurry back. The AD will schedule things so that people who don’t have to be there for any particular set of scenes can be released; but while actors may be sent home, the director stays through it all. I talked with a director once who said he’d made the mistake of shooting two episodes back-to-back — he finished shooting an episode of one show and the next day began prep on another show. “Never again,” he said. “It nearly killed me.” Contact with spouses and children is non-existent till the weekend, and even then a director may take Saturday to collapse and Sunday to work out the next week’s scenes.
As you can tell from this, I hope, my respect for television directors, crews, and actors is enormous, and whenever I hear rumbles from the heartland that suggest those Hollywood folks are lollin’ around by their pools getting stoned, I think, if only you knew. The Puritan work ethic is alive here more than anyplace I’ve ever seen, and I worked on Wall Street during the 90s, when they assumed associates were there to put in endless hours. Try going to a party where television people are gathered; by 11:00 pm they’re on their way home, because it’s going to be a long day tomorrow. The usual end of the workday, for a writer, is about 7:00-8:00 pm; and we’re spoiled and cosseted children of privilege compared with the production crew. Whenever we’re filming an episode of mine, I look at the people around me and think how remarkable they are, and how fortunate I am to be in their company.