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Behind the Scenes with House, M.D. Production Designer Jeremy Cassells

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Here be (slight) spoilers for an upcoming storyline…

So here we are folks. One week to go until the House, M.D. season six premiere “movie event.” When last we saw the beleaguered House (Hugh Laurie, who must, absolutely must be finally granted his long-overdue Emmy award this year), he was struggling with hallucinations and the terrifying realization that he had lost his grip on reality.

The season premiere, "Broken," takes place solely inside and on the grounds of Mayfield Psychiatric Hospital, where House committed himself at the end of “Both Sides Now.” The story picks up right where it left off and focuses on House in the hospital over a two- to three-month period.

I had a chance to catch up with House production designer Jeremy Cassells recently to talk about the season premiere as wells as the unique look and feel of the show.  As production designer, Cassells works with the executive producers and the episode directors to give the show its signature look. He oversees everything from props to costumes and each set, whether a standing set used every week or, as in the season premiere, one built for a specific episode.

He confessed that the work on "Broken" was one of the biggest challenges his production team has faced since joining the show mid-season four. Cassells and his team of production wizards needed to turn an 8,000 square-foot space into the fictional psych facility. He told me that the original plan was to be at Mayfield for longer, but a decision was made to leave Mayfield behind by the end of the season premiere.

According to Cassells, the idea for House’s new (albeit temporary) home was to blend the rather forbidding exterior and old-ish feeling with something that would realistically exist as a well-run and modern facility. Originally thinking of basing it on a California-style rehab facility, executive producer Katie Jacobs thought a touchy-feely and cushy setting would be too comfortable a place to put House. The less welcoming-looking design they went with seems to better fit the tone of the mini-film and dire nature of House's predicament.

When House leaves Mayfield at the end of the premiere, Cassells noted, he is not particularly ready to return home. His apartment holds a lot of bad memories for House right at the moment. It’s where he hallucinated having sex with Cuddy and, in season three, nearly killed himself, and he’s not quite comfortable returning to it right away. Where does he go? Cassells wouldn’t say directly, but I have it on good authority that House is going to spend some time bunking with Wilson. (Hey, turnabout’s fair play, right? After all, Wilson spent time living with House back in season two!)

Speaking of House’s apartment, I did have the chance to ask Cassells about the look and feel of House’s house. Not having been with the show since the beginning, Cassells noted that the apartment is really the work of Katie Jacobs. Dark and masculine, “it’s House’s nest: his sanctuary.” However, many of the objects d’arte that decorate the apartment are Hugh Laurie’s doing.

I had always wondered about House's beautiful and fully stocked gourmet kitchen. It seems completely out of character for a guy who seems to live on a spare diet of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, beer and Vicodin. Cassells teased that maybe the kitchen is not so much out of character as we might think. He intimated that House might be more into cooking than expected and to look for him to explore that side of himself after he’s discharged from Mayfield. “Like everything else House does, he does this with some degree of obsession,” Cassells said. I wonder if a Vicodin soufflé might be on the menu this season, since House has tried practically every other delivery system for the drug, including chopping it up as a condiment in a Reuben sandwich.

House’s apartment suggests a man into history and culture. Cassells noted the many medical antiquities both in House’s home and in his office. House, who despite his rough-around-the-edges demeanor has clearly given a great deal of study to the history of medicine. And the trinkets scattered around his apartment speak of a life lived around the world.

Music is also an important part of House’s life, and his surroundings also reflect that. Of course, the largest piece of furniture in House’s apartment is the grand piano. The piano has changed over the years, from a wonderful old (and very mellow sounding) German piano to the shiny, modern Yamaha (let’s hear if for product placement), now sitting in the middle of the living room. The piano is more than a prop or bit of set dressing. When not doing a scene, Hugh Laurie often relaxes by playing it, and a tuner is available every day Laurie is on set to make sure the piano is tuned correctly. (I would imagine the piano is often moved and in changeable humidity conditions—making it detune rather easily.)

I also asked about the banjo always sitting by House’s bed. Cassells said that, to his knowledge, it’s not an instrument Laurie plays (or at least he hasn’t while working on House), but, he added, banjos are beautiful instruments and look nice dressing the set. And it’s not unlikely that House with his collection of vintage guitars might well have a banjo in his collection.

It’s well known that the props in House’s office (and occasionally in his home) are practically characters themselves. Laurie uses them like a magician, whether contemplating his “magic pool hall oracle,” the Magic 8 Ball, or juggling staplers and other objects within his grasp.

Sometimes the script calls for a particular prop; sometimes it’s Laurie’s own idea. Whatever the origin, said Cassells, Laurie is insistent that the item remain where it is henceforth. It would make no sense, he would argue for a toy to find a place on House’s desk and then suddenly disappear the next episode. Clearly Laurie understands the show's fans, who, make note of each prop: mortar/pestle sets, antique pharmaceutical scales, knick-knacks of every description.  And of course that most important toy of all: the giant red and white tennis ball (which went missing between seasons one and two and had to be replaced–not an easy task, noted Cassells). House’s desk is packed up carefully after the shooting day and replaced exactly as it was the next morning. “Hugh is very meticulous and dedicated about House’s toys,” Cassells noted. Drop by film historian (and House fan) Sherlock Jr.'s site for a very in-depth look into House's house.

The production designer, originally from Scotland, has been a Hugh Laurie fan since he was much younger, recalling watching Blackadder with his dad and enjoying Laurie’s performances as “George” in the third and fourth seasons of the legendary British series.  Cassells enjoys working with Laurie, calling him generous and kind, but very hard on himself. A perfectionist who takes his craft very seriously, but is always a “real English gentleman” when voicing his opinion about a scene or a setup.

He hoped that the Emmy powers that be finally awarded Laurie his long-overdue Emmy Award. I couldn’t agree more. Now if only the Academy voters have finally gotten it right!  We’ll find out next Sunday night. Hugh Laurie is nominated for Best Actor in a Drama, and the show is nominated for Best Dramatic Series.

House premieres with “Broken” Monday, September 21 at 8:00 p.m. ET (Remember! It’s two hours!) 

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.
  • Quin

    Thanks for the peek into the world of set creation and decoration. My brother teaches scenic design and I understand from him how important it is to create a plausible environment for the actors to use when they are developing their pieces of the story. Great article. I hope you get to do more interviews with some of the creative people behind the scenes. They don’t get enough recognition for the wonderful work they do. Thanks!

  • xinyuActor

    Laurie’s always amazing. Thank you Barbara as always for your great job! :)

  • Visitkarte

    Lovely and interesting reading. I just don’t grasp the need to remove the decors in the evening, just to put them back in place the next morning. It doesn’t seem to make any sense to me, but I’d love to be corrected…

  • Sandra

    Thanks for the refreshing article, it’s so interesting to sneak a peak behind the scenes! Having high hopes for season 6 (hopefully a season WITHOUT Huddy – yeah, I’m not fond or the Huddy arc), I can’t wait to see the season’s premiere!

  • blacktop

    Great article, Barbara. I always love learning about the exquisiste behind-the-scenes work that goes into producing my favorite show. Did Cassells give any insights into the details of the others standing sets, especially Wilson’s movie-infused closed off space and Cuddy’s collection of Judaica and family memorabilia?

  • sdemar

    Thanks for this terrific article. I love how Hugh makes sure all toys are never removed. I’m glad that Hugh is able to play the piano throughout the day to help him relax.

  • sherlockjr

    That was great! And thanks for the link… There’s a lot more to House’s House than you might think. And now that I’ve got the Season 5 dvds, I’m going to have to update everything.

    Loved hearing how much input Hugh Laurie has into the props and how insistent he is on making sure they stay where they’re supposed to.

    Still wish I knew where that other hall went…

  • flippet

    Fabulous article. I get so geeked out over the House sets and props, especially in House’s apartment. If I could ever spend a day on set, I’d spend it studying the props. :-)

  • Orange450

    Thanks for a great article! Wonderful and fascinating information. My favorite fact is how House’s desk contents are carefully packed away at the end of each shooting day, and then replaced.

    Like absolutely everything else that goes into making this show, the attention to detail by the production design staff is extraordinary. It’s the kind of thing you almost take for granted until you notice its absence in other (more mediocre) shows.

  • Quin

    Visitkarte-after seeing how much HL’s cane went for on e-bay I can see the need to pack up the toys every night. They are too big a temptation for some sticky-fingered person who wants to make a fast buck.

  • Sue

    I looked at the photos and the explanation from the link you provided. One thing not mentioned is that House has no personal photos in his home or office. He may have momentos of places he has lived or traveled, but he has no personal photos of himself or friends or loved ones from those places. He wants no reminders of the good or the bad about the people who have come into or have left his life. He does not even have a picture of his mother around. The only time we have seen him with a photo is when he was looking at Stacy before she appeared in Three Stories.

    House is a man with traditional values and intersecting with the modern medical world. One environment he has total control of, the other he doesn’t. Can he be true to himself in either environment?

  • maya

    Thanks for the article, Barbara. Hugh is obviously deeply immersed in his character and it’s great to know that he’s behind many of the objects in House’s apartment.

    I wonder if House will move or redecorate his apartment after everything that occurred there at the end of season five.

  • Celia

    I love studying the articles on the set of House once I’ve digested the storyline du jour. It’s fascinating & I should have known HL had a big hand in it all. KJ has done a lovely job on House’s laird. I do miss the old German piano though it seemed more in keeping with House’s personality than the Yamaha. Oh well. I do treasure this show for it’s commitment to getting it right time & time again.

  • angelcat2865

    Lovely article Barbara. I love knowing that Hugh plays the piano on his breaks. I also love knowing that Hugh pays so much attention to the set.

  • Gaby

    Was hoping if we could get anything about the new Cuddy/Lucas relationship? It’s said H takes it pretty hard, and that Cuddy finds out. Will she take it into consideration?

  • Silvia

    We’ve been on a run of bad Huddy news. As a Huddy fan I’d like to know where the whole House/Lydia + Cuddy/Lucas plot twist is going and whether the torture is going to be payed off sometime further along this season.

  • Sooz

    Thanks very much for this very interesting article, and especially for your remarks on House’s gourmet kitchen. I had always wondered whether the kitchen had been Stacy’s idea and left “as is” after she moved out.

  • Sera G.

    Very nice interview, Barbara, as always!
    Hey everyone, I have tried so hard to stay spoiler free. Could people please preface remarks with a warning? Thank you.
    Now, I am depressed! I had so hoped that the show wouldn’t resort to the trite old ploy of having one or both characters meet someone else in order to postpone what (I hope)is inevitable.
    Monday can’t get here soon enough!!!!