Zach Braff and Donald Faison might be the ones getting the laughs, but the real workhouse of “Scrubs” is the hospital itself. For the past five years, the former North Hollywood Hospital has stepped in for the show’s Sacred Heart Hospital, located in “Santa Grangeles,” a suburban somewhere, according to creator Bill Lawrence.
“Lucky for me, the American health-care system has given us our choice of deserted, creepy, abandoned hospitals,” he says. While the network had originally envisioned the series as a multicamera sitcom, the producer had other ideas.
“We were trying to bridge broad comedy with occasional stories of emotional depth. I find that any time people do doctors on a soundstage with a studio audience laughing, it seems like a bunch of actors pretending they’re doctors, and nobody buys into the real drama.” But that’s not the main reason for using a real hospital. “It’s a creepy, asbestos- and rat-filled hospital that no network executives want to set foot in,” he says with a satisfied smile.
The building wasn’t immediately camera-ready when “Scrubs” moved there in 2001.
“It was pretty much a vanilla box when we got here,” says production designer Cabot McMullen. A small amount of medical equipment and furniture remained, though not much.
“It’s been a culling process,” notes line producer Randall Winston. “The first year, we thought we could use everything, but you can’t.” While for the first year, the production rented real medical gear, McMullen quickly realized that building your own saved dollars. “We started building some of the stuff, so that we could own them and get the rental budget down.”
The building itself required a number of modifications to make it camera-friendly.
“Bill and Randall made it pretty clear there was going to be a lot of walking-and-talking and Steadicam work. So the building needed to be able to allow for long, continuous shots,” McMullen recalls. “One effective strategy was to get two or three different looks out of a single floor, so that we’re able to shoot one floor as two different floors.”
Walls in some patient rooms were removed, replaced with set construction that can more easily give way, to allow for longer-lens shots — even with the diminutive Super 16 cameras d.p. John Inwood uses.
“It’s very challenging shooting in an actual hospital, but we’ve adapted quite well,” he says.
To make up for the building’s low ceilings, Inwood often lights through outside windows with instruments on Condors. “We’re actually able to create a lot of camera movement, with Steadicam shots pulling characters from a hallway, into the ICU, all the way around, and back out into another hallway.”
Existing construction actually provided ideal space for some production departments. “We’re able to put the sound department in the neonatal ICU, because everything’s double-paned,” says Winston. “And we had an X-ray room, which also has thick walls, which we were able to turn into our ADR stage.”
The site’s former urgent-care building was acquired and gutted, and turned into a swing-set stage during the show’s second season, housing the show’s bar and other sets. Unfortunately, though, the location’s neighbors didn’t realize the Urgent Care Center was out of business and continued to stop in for … urgent care.
“There were always 100 people in scrubs wandering around outside — extras and background people — and it still looked like a hospital,” recalls Lawrence. “We had a joke the first year that if someone came in all bloody, we’d give them $100 if they’d sit there for a half-hour and let us photograph them. They were so much better than our fake injured people.”
Live trauma aside, the greatest advantage of using an existing hospital is that it houses not only the show’s sets, but its entire production facility — including production offices, wardrobe, dressing rooms, editing, sound and, of course, the writers’ offices, appropriately housed in the former psychiatric ward.
“It’s almost like our own little mini lot,” notes McMullen.
“It’s great to have everyone here,” adds Winston. “If Bill’s cutting a show, and there’s a question about a shot or a joke, he can grab one of the writers down on the set and find out if there’s something else that can be done to make a scene work out more smoothly.”
“It’s like a college dorm here, with everybody on top of each other,” says Lawrence. And what dorm would be complete without crude pranks?
“Scrubs Factor” started as a challenge to anyone who would eat the disgusting contents of a jar of medical set dressing, but expanded to a night sealed up in one of the hospital’s former morgue drawers.
“At first, I offered $3,000 or something, and nobody did it,” says Lawrence. “It became an hour for less dough, and then people started talking about it, so I quickly took if off the table.”