Behind "Half-Wit" and Beyond: An Interview with House Executive Producer Katie Jacobs

The next episode of House has two familiar names taking on unfamiliar assignments.

“Half-Wit,” airing Tuesday, March 6 on FOX, features musician Dave Matthews acting in his major first television role, as a man who suffered severe brain damage as a child that rewired his brain to make him a musical savant.

House executive producer Katie Jacobs, who oversees casting as well as music, editing, production, post-production, and collaborates on scripts, had seen a sample from the movie Because of Winn-Dixie in a previous season, when she was casting for the role of a little girl. She was amazed to realize that one of the actors in that sample scene was the singer.

When it came time to cast “Half-Wit,” she remembered Matthews, who also contributed the song “Some Devil” to an episode in House‘s first season.

Despite the fact that Matthews is a guitarist and singer rather than a pianist like the character, “I felt like somehow having a musician in the role would serve me well,” said Jacobs in a recent interview. “He was my very first choice after seeing him in Winn-Dixie.”

Another of Jacobs’ duties is to choose the directors for each episode’s eight-day shoot. For “Half-Wit,” she gave the opportunity to a directing newcomer: Katie Jacobs.

“It was excellent to be right in there with them fighting for it to be the best it can be.”

Though it’s her first professional directing credit, it turns out the NYU grad went to film school and signed to the powerful ICM agency as a director. She then became “horribly afraid” and decided to work with writers to develop ideas instead.

“It’s not like it’s been burning inside of me for years. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve been doing,” Jacobs said before explaining why she chose to finally direct an episode on House. “I was really strongly encouraged by the actors in particular, because I’ve been with them since the beginning, I’m so close with them, I adore them. I always want to see them do their best work. So I finally said, OK, I’ll give this a try.”

Though she’s already heavily involved in all aspects of the show, directing gave her a slightly different perspective on the action, bolstered by the fun of doing something different. “We were all kind of excited about my trying out this new role. So it was very cool.”

Her enthusiasm about the atmosphere of the show isn’t limited to the novelty of her first foray into directing, despite the challenges of churning out 24 hours of high-quality television each year.

“We have a great workplace in terms of the synergy between (creator and fellow executive producer) David Shore, Hugh (Laurie), the actors, the other writers, the producers and myself,” she enthused. “We’re all on the same team. We’re all trying to climb this mountain together and make it better and better and better.”

“Songs have become an important signature to every show, ours included.”

Jacobs is also in control of the music for the show, both the score and song selection, and even that is a product of teamwork. “I get a lot of great suggestions from people around me and I sit on it, stew, worry and obsess, as I am right now — I have a mix later today — and then I decide at the last minute which song I’m going to use,” she revealed.

She’s particularly excited right now because they’re preparing the first House soundtrack CD. It will contain songs from all three seasons, plus a couple of tracks covered by star Hugh Laurie’s Band From TV, which also boasts Greg Grunberg of Heroes, James Denton of Desperate Housewives, Bonnie Somerville of Kitchen Confidential, and Bob Guiney of The Bachelor. When we talked, Jacobs wasn’t sure if the rights had been secured yet for Elvis Costello’s rendition of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” which he recorded specifically for the show, but she is hopeful it will be included — as will be fans who have hunted for the elusive track since “Autopsy” aired.

“The more you show about the characters that relate to him, the more you expand our world.”

Her other bit of news was the just-finalized casting of Jane Adams as Wilson’s second ex-wife in an upcoming episode. A Tony award winner, as is Robert Sean Leonard, Adams is probably best known as Niles’ second ex-wife on Frasier. Chances are she’s going to be playing a needy character, in keeping with Wilson’s history.

“He’s been married three times and he tends to gravitate towards slightly wounded people, thinking he can make them feel better. So House certainly fits into the same category.”

Jacobs, who admires the “brilliant chemistry” between Leonard and Laurie, hinted that Wilson might find someone other than House to gravitate toward soon, though. “Wilson is now three times divorced and alone and has plenty of time for House. What happens if he no longer has as much time because he’s finding himself in a relationship?”

Cameron, who’s still obviously harbouring feelings for her boss, has for now turned to the “very practical” friends-with-benefits arrangement with coworker Chase. “They slept together once last season and it didn’t screw things up, so why not,” Jacobs laughed. “So we’re having a really good time playing with that. How long can that go on? Maybe it will be entirely successful, but somebody always starts to feel more of an attachment than the other person.”

Though Jacobs doesn’t hold out much hope of romantic success for House himself, she said “it would be hard not to” show him in future relationships. While she’s cagey about the possibility of one being with a regular cast member, she loves the escalating tension between Cuddy and House in the second part of season three. “There’s always been a tension there, and we have slightly more fun in dealing with that. ”

“It’s what he knows, to keep people at arm’s length.”

A hallmark of the character is his incredible talent for keeping people at a distance, romantically and otherwise. “He pushes those relationships that he does have pretty far,” Jacobs said about “Half-Wit,” which the FOX promotions promise will reveal something shocking about House.

Though a network promo that didn’t use the word “shocking” would be shocking, the news release with the episode description reveals more than I wanted to know, and does seem fairly, well, startling. I put Jacobs in the thankless position of clarifying without spoiling further. What she had to say is far from surprising, and far from un-vague. “I think it’s a turning point in the season, but not in the way you’d expect it. … The ultimate reveal does change things slightly, but we’ll never change him too much. His evolution will be gradual.”

There is already evidence of that evolution, from the often downright depressed character in early season one episodes who had to be enticed to take every case, to the gleefully bitter House who often seeks out patients now. A large part of the tension of the series is the battle between House struggling to maintain his seemingly miserable status quo and those around him trying to force the evolution.

So is Wilson right, that House enjoys being miserable? Jacobs doesn’t think that’s the whole answer. “Being miserable is familiar and what he knows, so it’s hard for him to get out of that hole and find his way out.”

“But I think that is one of the many things that Hugh Laurie brings to the character. If you didn’t see behind his eyes and behind his rough exterior into the wounded quality, you’d never love him and root for him and wish for him to find something other than the miserable existence that he lives.”

His world view has been shaken in episodes like the season two finale “No Reason,” which had House questioning his devotion to rationality over humanity, and the Tritter storyline, which further explored his relationship with drugs.

“I do think he’s smart and he has learned. Whether he is capable of having all of that experience change his actions is quite another thing,” Jacobs pointed out. “He is so deep in that hole and committed to that because that’s the way he survives. I think slowly but surely he takes it all in, but I don’t know that it affects the way he lives his life quite yet.”

She describes a moment in an upcoming episode where House tries to decide on a vacation destination. “The very notion that that’s even a topic for him is huge for House. So we’re having a lot of fun with how much he’ll change and how fast he’ll change and how well he’ll change, all of those contradictions.”

“It’s a wish fulfillment thing.”

Jacobs, who conveys a very un-House-like warmth, has some theories about what people are responding to in the character — the irreverence, the vicarious thrill of watching someone with no censor, and of course the combination of brilliant mind and wounded heart — but she still seems slightly astonished and hugely grateful that the show has struck such a chord in the audience.

In season three, the already tremendously popular show has hit series-high ratings following the return of American Idol. With success comes freedom, but also responsibility. “We have an enormous amount of creative freedom right now because audiences seem to be following the show, so we have a lot of latitude in terms of what the studio and network support,” she commented.

“It is absolutely thrilling that here we are in our third season and we continue to grow and find a larger audience, and we take that as a huge responsibility. We’re always trying to say, OK, now what can we do better.”

Though Heel and Toe Films, the production company she heads with her husband, Oscar-nominated screenwriter and House executive producer Paul Attanasio, has signed a development deal with FOX, Jacobs insists she’s “trying not to be too greedy but enjoy this rare moment.”

“It is so rare in this business that you get to work on something that you can both be proud of and that is reaching so many people, and that you really enjoy working with your partners. I am trying very hard to be focused and be in the moment of this experience.”

This entry was posted in House, TV Interviews. Bookmark the permalink.