Behind the Scenes With Vince Duque, House's First Assistant Director

...and in nine days a TV show was created.

By , Columnist
Watching a TV show or movie, you may be impressed by the actors, the writers, maybe even the director. Rarely do you consider the crew: those stalwart folks behind the cameras without whom nothing would be accomplished and you'd be left sitting on your sofas staring at a blank screen.

Vince Duque, first assistant director for the TV show House, is one of those essential professionals who, with his team, makes our viewing experience that much more intense, lively, comedic or dramatic. Whatever the script calls for, whatever the director’s vision, Duque and his AD team-Yuko Agata, Gary Cotti, Christine Danahy, Allison Rushton, along with Derek Oishi and Drew Gardner, his set PAs, and Dalia Doktor, Special Effects Department Head, are there to make it all work within the parameters of a nine day shoot.

Originally from Los Angeles, Duque attended the West Point Military Academy on a gymnastics scholarship. After serving his country as an army officer, he moved back to L.A. to coach gymnastics, while looking for a job in the advertising industry. Instead he found a position as a production assistant for a producer at Warner Brothers. His new employer was impressed enough that two weeks after he was hired, he was offered the job of production coordinator for the Energizer Bunny commercial.  

Not long after, Duque decided he wanted to be a director and enrolled in the Directors Guild Training Program.

“I realized [when working as a PA] that it demystified the entertainment industry because at that point [directing] wasn’t something that was on my radar. I thought maybe you had to have a pedigree or gone to film school. It didn’t dawn on me it could be something that I could do.”

The Directors Guild Training Program is a 400 day apprenticeship program where students are given the opportunity to work hands on on studio television shows and studio movies. “You get access very quickly. It’s almost like getting your MBA in assistant directing. Because of that you build up a network with folks who have been in the business for a long time. It’s the kind of professional experience that gives you the tools that you need to succeed.”vince_1.jpg

When Duque’s training was done, he was offered a job on a movie called The Thirteenth Warrior, which starred Antonio Banderas. After this he landed an assistant directing job on the TV drama Party of Five, a job he stayed with for two years.  He eventually went on to work on shows like The Practice, Boston Legal, Diagnosis Murder, and The X-Files before landing the First Assistant Director job on House.

Duque sounds like a kid in a candy shop when he talks about his job. “You’re around so many creative and amazing people who essentially create things out of the imaginations of writers and directors. Say, for example, I want to blow up that building, and all the aspects that it takes to blow up that building safely and also to make it look creatively amazing. It takes an entire army of people to do that. I think out of all the aspects of filmmaking that’s what I love the most. I love a collaborative sense of having to interact with people and finding out together how to solve the Rubik’s Cube.

“On House it seems like there’s a lot of people who come and go but there’s a core group of people who’ve been there the majority of the eight seasons. I was fortunate to be invited by Robert Scott, the other first AD, and [Executive Producer] Greg Yaitanes to join the show in Season 6. I love the crew. Everybody is at the top of their game and I’ve never been on a show like House in which, even in our eighth season, nobody puts in second-rate work. Everybody is so talented in their own way. All they want to do is do amazing work for the show to tell a great story. It sounds like a clichĂ© but it’s so true and it’s what I love about the show.”

He seems as much of an admirer of House’s lead actor as the show’s viewers. “It’s really led by Hugh Laurie because he doesn’t dial it in and he comes into work every single day putting in 100 percent. He knows every single detail and he expects all of us to be at the top of our game as well.

“I don’t know how Hugh does it. He is such an amazing actor. Working with him is like being in a master class every single day and I just marvel at his work ethic, his attention to detail, comedic and dramatic ability. He is phenomenal. I think that many people know that. I read a lot of articles about him. It’s hard to describe the nuances of being around Hugh. There are movie stars who have a kind of magnitude and I’ve seen them dial it in. Hugh never does.

“He memorizes his dialog like nobody I’ve ever seen and he puts a lot of our Patients of the Week, who might not have a lot of dialog, to shame. He does it but I don’t know how he does it. A lot of times we shoot the scenes out of order. So to track the emotional arc of how the story is working is something that Hugh is constantly aware of.  He’s very appreciative of the actors and he’s very appreciative and respectful of the process.”

Duque offers an anecdote about the filming of the episode “Perils of Paranoia” in which House plays a prank ending with Wilson being trapped in a net.  “House was in the clinic and he was talking to the patient. In the scene he’s supposed to look at his pager because his pager was going to tell him that Wilson was being hung up in a net. So in the script it says ‘House looks at his pager’. But Hugh did something, and he does this all the time, that wasn’t scripted. He basically clocked the pager and gave a little bit of a smile. So it gave us a sort of foreshadow of something that was about to happen. It was such an amazing storytelling nuance because with that smile he gave the audience something to hold on to and follow House because something was going to happen. And it made you want to watch and then...surprise! Wilson’s in the net. That wasn’t in the script. It was something Hugh picked up on.”

As first assistant director Duque’s job is a challenging one. He is basically the director’s right hand man as well as the eyes and ears of the producers on set. He creates a balance between the logistical and the budgetary demands of filming a television show as well as oversees the creative aspects of the show with the director and the writer. Facilitating the information flow between the director and all the different departments and helping to create a plan to execute a script in nine days is also his responsibility.  

So what is a typical work day like for Duque? “After we’ve done the eight days of prep, I come on the set. We start with the actors in hair and makeup, very early. We’ll have a first rehearsal with the actors, the director and the writer. We’ll read the scene, we’ll flesh out the blocking and then we’ll bring the crew in, and then we’ll do a blocking rehearsal. Then we’ll light the set and shoot the different angles in the scene and then we do it again and again for four to six different scenes.”

Since he’s now in his third season with the show, I wondered if he could choose a favorite episode from the many he’s worked on. “If I had to put a couple together that I really loved shooting one would be “Broken”. That’s when I first started. I was second second [AD]. I just loved the sets and the actors and the story and the demands on us putting that show together. I loved the story of House having to recover. Lin-Manuel [Miranda] who played the crazy roommate was amazing. Katie Jacobs was a visionary. I was so proud to work on that episode and see it on the big screen at the huge premiere party we had for it.

“The other one was “Help Me” because it was such a daunting logistical challenge to accomplish all of that with all the extras and putting in all the gear and the blood and the stunts, and rallying all the departments who were all focused on the goal of making a great show.”  

In the end, Duque and his team welcome the challenges of creating an hour long TV drama. “I never think that we can’t do that. My approach is ‘let’s figure it out’. What I love about House is that even being a network show in its eighth season, we never compromise on the storytelling and we’re always coming up with new ideas that really push the envelope of what we can do on a TV show.”

House airs Mondays at 8PM on FOX.

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Mindy Peterman is a freelance writer whose focus is on television, movies and pop culture. She has written over one hundred articles for the award winning website and has conducted interviews with producer Peter Asher, psychic-medium John Edward, Greg Grunberg and Bob Guiney from Band…

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