Kath Lingenfelter on the writing life and her years on House Special

Posted May 20, 2012 by Mindy Peterman
Kath Lingenfelter learned much from her two years writing for the hit medical drama. Now that the series has ended, it's time to move on.
Kath Lingenfelter
Kath Lingenfelter began our phone conversation with a hint of reluctance. As a writer for House, the FOX series that after eight seasons airs its final episode Monday night, she knows how the story ends and having that knowledge gives her the right to be suspicious of journalists. Perhaps I was after that super secret bit of data so many are wondering about: the fate of Gregory House and his long suffering friend James Wilson. Speculation on the final House episode with the foreboding title “Everybody Dies” has been running hot for weeks on Twitter, Facebook, and any House related blog you can name. The answer won’t be found here. After I assured Lingenfelter that I wouldn't press for that much coveted piece of information, she was eager to talk with me about her journey as a writer and her time on House.
Where are you from originally?
[This] is a complicated answer. We moved around a lot growing up. We weren’t part of the military or anything like that. My father was just sort of a roguish soul and his various adventures had us moving all over the country. Currently a good portion of my family lives in Michigan. I have a sister in Chicago and I have brother that lives in Los Angeles.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I’m not sure. I know that at a very young age I was writing really bad jokes that didn’t make any sense. On occasion I would write a little short story for myself. My family’s ambition for me was to be a doctor so the idea of being a writer didn’t seem like an option. I did a little bit of poetry in high school but when I went to college and I was pre-med, I really thought, “Is this what I want to do?” When I took organic chemistry I realized I couldn’t. I couldn’t do this. It really threw everything upside down. And then it was like, wow, I have no idea what I want to do and I have every option available to me, and that [was] terrifying.
I graduated from college, was working in a bookstore, living with my parents and my brother who lived in Los Angeles said, “I have a friend who is in the industry. I can get you an assistant job. Why don’t you come out here and see if you like it for three months. If you don’t you go back to Michigan, if you do, you stick around.” It turned out his friend was an assistant at CAA. So I got a job at an agency as an assistant for an agent called Brian Lord, who was a managing partner. After a couple of years, I got the lay of the land and understood the industry more or less, and revealed my dirty secret that I wanted to be a writer. I guess it was then that it really solidified it for me [because] the first year I moved out here, I moved out here without a plan. I didn’t know what I was moving out here for necessarily. I knew if wanted to learn how to write and do it well, television was the best place to do that because TV is a business of writing and making stories in volume. Because I worked in the agency I kind of got first dibs on jobs that were available. I got a job at Jason Katim’s assistant and worked for him on a show called Roswell. That was my very first experience in TV. Sitting in that writers room is how I learned how to write.
What other shows were you associated with prior to House besides Roswell?
I was a script coordinator for years on many, many different shows. In fact, once Roswell ended I followed [Russel] Friend and [Garrett] Lerner show to show. They were writers and I was script coordinator and we worked on Boston Public together and John Doe and a show called LAX. Then I decided it was time for me to really make a big push to get an agent and I got signed with the ETA. My friends Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts created a show called Pepper Dennis and they gave me my first writing job. It was a very safe environment to have my first experience writing television. I wrote two episodes for them then went on to a show called Related. That was a great learning experience. Then I went from there to a SHOWTIME series called Sleeper Cell and then Pushing Daisies.
You’ve said you were a fan of House before you wrote for the show. How thrilled were you to get that job?
I was very excited. Not just because I was a fan of the show but because of the prospect of working with David Shore and working with Friend and Lerner again. I had never written a procedural before so I was excited about gaining that set of tools. It actually is not your typical procedural show. It’s not a cop show or a lawyer show. So I was excited about broadening my set of tools and it lived up to all my excitement and expectations and more.
Was writing your first House episode a daunting task even though you’d had so much writing experience prior to it?
It was terrifying. The funny thing is, before I got that job I had watched over 100 episodes and thought, “No problem. I know how to write this show. I know the show inside and out.” It turned out to be much harder than it looks. It’s really, really hard. I actually pitched an idea and they said, “Great. Do that.” When I really got into it and looked at it, I spent about six or seven weeks really trying to make it work and had to admit to myself that it didn’t work as an episode. It wasn’t the idea I thought it was. I went to Friend and Lerner and said I had to abandon this idea, that I’d like to do something else. “You Must Remember This” was the first episode I wrote for House but it was not my first idea. It was not my first pitch. That was really hard. I was so afraid of failing and six weeks in I’m failing.
The great thing about the show is they trust their writers. When you say to them, “This isn’t working,” they trust you. They say, “Okay, then abandon it and find something else”. So that was really nice for me. I was like, “Oh, you guys trust me as a writer. If I say it’s not working, it’s not working.” Peter Blake supervised me on three of my scripts and was a really great guide. He was a great teacher.
You wrote the controversial House episode “Moving On” with Peter Blake.
I did.
You got a lot of flak for that episode from a very vocal portion of the House fanbase. As writers, how did you deal with that volatile, passionate sort of reaction to your work?
It’s a very delicate balance you have to maintain because obviously you can’t ignore that you’re writing for an audience. But that audience, especially for a show like House, is not a homogenized group. You have this disparate range of tastes and backgrounds and opinions. There’s no way to tell a story that is going to satisfy everyone when you’re dealing with a diverse community like that. The worst thing you can do as a writer is try to please everyone. As a writer, you really have to make a choice, commit to it and do it the best way you know how. So that’s what we did and that’s what we always do. We make a choice, we commit to it and work really, really hard on it. I understand when it doesn’t work for some people.
When you’re a writer in television, you’re constantly getting notes. You submit an outline for an episode and you get notes from the studio, you get notes from the network, notes from your showrunner. You turn in a script and it’s the same thing. In order to survive that process, what you have to be able to do is not fear what they’re saying but to listen to the spirit of the note. So when there was feedback on “Moving On” that was vehemently negative, as a writer what I tried to do was to not hear it literally but digest the spirit of the note. What is it they were reacting to? Then I carried that forward as a lesson. If we were trying to achieve this and that’s not what we succeeded in delivering, next time how do we make adjustments? While fans are very, very important, we can’t let them all have their hands on the steering wheel, so to speak, because [we’d] never get anywhere.
Can you give some details about the day you found out House would not be going on to season nine?
Coming back right before Christmas break, there was a lot of conversation, a lot of speculation. Nobody really knew what was going to happen and no decision had been made. And so we were all living in flux. We were all stuck in this limbo and that was difficult for the ones who were writing the last six or seven episodes because we kind of needed to know. We were really in the dark for a while.
On the day it happened, a bunch of us were sitting in Friend and Lerner’s office and Olivia Wilde had come in to visit. So we were hanging out with her and David Shore stuck his head into the office and asked Olivia if she would come back for an episode. For [episode] 22. Olivia said, “Yes, of course.” Then David disappeared again. All the writers in the office looked at each other and that’s how we knew. We knew the version of the story we had worked out that would have been the series ending versus that that would have been the season ending. The fact that he had asked Olivia to be in 22 was the answer. [We knew] this was the final season.
There was nothing for like two hours except David and Hugh’s assistant running in and out of closed doors. What they were doing was writing the announcement of the series ending. Then Hugh and David asked all the department heads and the writers to gather in the conference room. They made the announcement. Shore said some words and got very emotional. Then Hugh said some words and got very emotional as well. I think it really hit them in that moment and you could see it on them because there was no turning back. We were all just sort of numb for a minute. We couldn’t believe it was really over. It was very, very sad but after subsequent conversations with Shore, when he took us through the process of making his decision, it made sense. Then I was super excited that I was going to be a part of the final few stories on the series.
“Post Mortem”, the episode you and David Hoselton wrote, was the final House/Wilson road trip.
I know. [The writers] had actually been bouncing around a lot of ideas and only had tag lines for the final four episodes. 19 was “Wilson Gets Chemo”, 20 was “Fun With Cancer”, 21 was “Wilson Makes His Decision”, and 22 was the finale. So we got “Fun With Cancer”. We had a very long list of different ideas of ‘what does that look like, what does that mean?’ I finally said, “Why don’t we just go for it and do a road trip?” Hoser, which is Hoselton’s nickname, was all for it and those [road trips episodes] were always my favorites.
Former House writer Doris Egan was queen of the road trips.
I know! She was the maestro of House/Wilson.
I know you can’t say what the finale will bring but do you think House deserves to find redemption?
The only one who can really speak for the character of House is David Shore so this is absolutely my opinion. We always write our best approximation, then Shore is the one who does a final pass on the script and is really the gatekeeper of the character. In terms of the rules of the show and the integrity of those rules, it doesn’t matter if you’re a good person or a bad person and nobody ever gets the ending they deserve. Then that would imply there’s a purpose behind everything and a guiding force and something larger and there’s a fairness to it all. House is a pragmatist and realizes it doesn’t matter. The fact that he has gotten away with what he has...If there was true karma and true fairness in life and the world then House would have had his comeuppance a hundred times over. It hasn’t and he knows that because he knows that other than physical laws, laws of science [and] natural law, there are no other hard truths. So do I feel there is a fitting ending for House? No, because he lives by a truth of whatever happens happens. It’s not whether it’s fair or just or right or deserving. It just happens.
After the show finished shooting, Lingenfelter did not return to the House set to see it taken down, preferring to remember it as it was and move on. This is not to say she is unsentimental about her time there. She will be watching the finale at David Shore’s house with a group of her former colleagues and has kept an item from the set: a small figure of a monkey seen on House’s desk each week.
Lingenfelter is now looking forward to her next project, writing for the new drama Infamous, which will air later this year on NBC.