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House, M.D.'s production designer Jeremy Cassells on the season premiere and the show's star, Hugh Laurie.

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

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!) 

About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."

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