Interview: USA Channel’s “Royal Pains” Producers

| May 25, 2009

What happens when you screw up on the job, but are a doctor? You get fired. That’s what happens to Dr. Hank Lawson on the upcoming show Royal Pains on USA. Hank is viewed as a very talented and innovative doctor, and is thought to be the “Medical MacGyver.” On the job one day, he chooses to save a dying teenager instead of tending to a powerful hospital patron who seems much less ill, but dies while Hank helps the teenager. He’s fired and also dumped by his fiancĂ©e. With no other options, he takes a summer job as a concierge physician in the Hamptons. It’s different than other medical shows in that while the others bring the patient to the hospital, here they’re bringing the hospital to the patient.

The show creator, writer, and executive producer, Andrew Lenchewsk,i and another executive producer, Michael Rauch, recently held a conference call to discuss their new show. Andrew got the idea for the show from a friend who was telling him about using a concierge doctor and proposed the idea to him of a show. Pitching it to a few networks, USA was the one that seemed to most strongly embrace the idea. Andrew wrote the script, and they shot the pilot last September. It was picked up in January, and they’ve just begun production on the rest of the season.

As far as any difficulties in getting the show from the idea process to a full-fledged series, Michael explains the biggest difficulty was “having to sit on the edge of your chair and stare at a phone for two or three months.” However, he gives credit to USA, as they don’t do a volume business, and carefully hand pick the ideas they want to go to pilot with, and while they spent months waiting, they were really “fine-tuning the script and the characters and the vision for where the series would go.”

Royal Pains will air after Burn Notice, which Michael thinks is “savvy” of USA, in that the two shows both have heroes in the lead who with “no choice of their own, left their old lives behind and are now working outside the system to help people in beautiful, sunny locations, surrounded by a cast of quirky and fun characters.” Michael hopes to show that although Hanks if a fish out of water, he’ll eventually acclimate to the “new and different environment.”

Michael explains it was decided to shoot in New York because they were using the Hamptons, and they liked the authenticity of shooting in the area, as opposed to Toronto or Los Angeles. The environment was such a critical element of the show, with the ocean and “beautiful elegance of the Hamptons.” There was also a tax incentive that New York is giving to TV shows and film which really helped them in sticking to a budget that the network would approve. Mike did a show in New York before, and admits he’d film everything in New York if he could, because of the energy and rhythm.

They liked the Hamptons specifically because it hadn’t really been seen on TV before (I beg to differ; it was featured in Sex and the City), and it seemed to fit with the character and his story. Additionally, there’s only one hospital out there, and it’s one that isn’t “on par with the kinds of institutions where these people are accustomed to being treated.”

When casting for the role of Hank, Andrew notes that they knew from the beginning they needed “a guy who could bring the competency of a physician,” to give that credibility and portray the consequences of that decision in the hospital, yet also bring in the comedy to bounce back from rock bottom when his brother comes in and scoops him up and takes him to the Hamptons. They gave Mark Feuerstein a few critical scenes in his audition, and they felt he “hit all of those colors brilliantly.”

Mark is able to get away from filming for a few minutes and pops into this chat to talk about the challenges of bringing the character of Hank to life. He first jokes that dealing with the executive producers is a real challenge, then more seriously says when you have great writing, there is no challenges, as “you just try to serve the material.” He found it to be a beautiful script form the get go in the pilot, and after Michael joined the team,” it only got stronger and deeper with every episode,” as he tried to live up to the quality of the writing. His only other challenge is trying to figure out how to say certain words like “xanthochromia.” We’ll hear more from him later when he gets the chance to do a conference call of his own.

Hank’s brother, Evan, is played by Paulo Costanzo. He auditioned f\out in Los Angeles. Out of about fifty or sixty people to audition, he was the third one they saw, “and it just didn’t get any better than that.” They felt Paulo brought a “brilliant comedic take” to Evan. The character was originally written to be Hank’s best friend, yet once he walked into the audition, they knew Paulo looked too much like Mark, so they rewrote him to be his brother. Evan will progress throughout the show, as he starts to come into his own a little, and the focus will be how it changes his relationship with his brother.

There will be several other characters integral to the show, such as Hank’s physician assistant, Divya Katdare (Reshma Shetty), who helps him run his concierge doctor service. The romantic lead for him will be Jill Casey (Jill Flint), the administrator at the hospital in the Hamptons. She kind of understands Hank’s viewpoint of the whole flawed system. Boris (Campbell Scott) is a mysterious man of wealth, power, and a background that no one is quite sure what it is, yet he has a “small sense of omniscience about him.” Mark and Evan live on his estate.

Medically, the writers did a lot of research. They have a medical advisor, Dr. Irv Danesh, an ER physician who spends time with them in the writer’s room, or on the set when they’re shooting medical scenes. Again, the authenticity is important to them. Healthcare is such a “dominant issue right now in our country,” that they want to touch on it, but not too harshly. A lot of the storylines will revolve around the less privileged and the healthcare they’re not getting. They want to deal with this in the right way, honestly, yet also keep within the tone of the show.

When I got a chance to ask a question, I wanted to touch on that whole dilemma Hank faces between treating the less privileged and more privileged. It seemed like such a deliberate irony that he was fired for not helping “the rich guy,” yet then seems to have to serve a “penance,” to be stuck only treating rich people for the entire summer. I wondered if this would help him evolve to understand the more privileged more, or if he would begin to resent them more.

Michael admitted that it was sort of a “punishment” for Hank, yet he ends up not just helping the wealthy of the Hamptons, but also those that aren’t wealthy that help the area run, and are more “the heart and soul of the Hamptons.” He’s hoping that if they do their job the right way, that even the “wealthiest of the people won’t come across as caricatures, but more dimensionalized people who might be eccentric or privileged. At the heart of this will be the human beings. “A lot of people wonder how the Hamptons is going to change him, and I think your point of view is more like how is Hank going to change the Hamptons.”

With an interviewer noting the humor in the pilot, he wanted to know who was in charge of bringing that to the show. Michael credits Andrew, saying he has a “wonderful sense of humor.” He says most of the moments came from him, while some came from the actors and the director as well. For his part, Adam wants it known that that’s one of the jobs of the collaboration between him, Michael, and Mark, that they all have extremely similar senses of humor, so it doesn’t have to travel far to go from idea, to the page, to Mark’s mouth, as they “all laugh at the same stuff.”

I think that’s the key to many of these shows on USA. While the executive producers are crediting the network, they’re also crediting each other and they’re actors. Everyone feels blessed to work with each other. There also seems to be definite character work that takes place, and this one seems intentionally designed that way. It’s not really a medical drama, but a drama about a guy in the medical field. I think it’s going to be a very interesting to ride to see how it is that he sets about changing the Hamptons.

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