Written By Summer 2011 : Page 32
Written by Lisa Rosen Portraits by ToM KeLLeR Moms in The Middle Eileen Heisler & DeAnn Heline nurture nature and produce “mom porn.” fter 21 years together, Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline see themselves as being in two marriages: to their husbands and to each other. They were present for the births of each other’s children, live six blocks apart in Pacific Palisades, and hang out together when not in the depths of The Middle. Stands to reason their series centers on a long-married couple. Some TV shows premiere with a new concept or a hot star and immediately catch fire. Others start with more of a smolder than a blaze, but their radiance is no less entertaining. The Middle has that warm glow. The foibles of the Heck family of fictional Or-son, Indiana, sport a cozy ease. Not that we’ve seen it before, but we’ve lived it—and might still be living it as we watch. The walls of The Middle ’s production offices are lined with pictures of school hallways, pep rallies, show choirs, grilling meat, cornfields, and the India-napolis Colts. Similarly, The Middle is informed by snapshots of the creators’ lives: their childhood, their children, their hometowns, their former writing gigs, and their college educations. Or rather, their dorm rooms. Sitting in Heisler’s office a few weeks before wrapping their second sea-son, the women finish each other’s thoughts as they recall meeting in their freshmen hall at Indiana Uni-versity in 1983. They hit it off immediately. Heisler hailed from Illinois and was studying voice, the first 32 • WGA W Written By SUMMER 2011 A
Moms In The Middle
Eileen Heisler & DeAnn Heline nurture nature and produce “mom porn.”<br /> <br /> After 21 years together, Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline see themselves as being in two marriages: to their husbands and to each other. They were present for the births of each other’s children, live six blocks apart in Pacific Palisades, and hang out together when not in the depths of The Middle. Stands to reason their series centers on a long-married couple.<br /> <br /> Some TV shows premiere with a new concept or a hot star and immediately catch fire. Others start with more of a smolder than a blaze, but their radiance is no less entertaining. The Middle has that warm glow. The foibles of the Heck family of fictional Orson, Indiana, sport a cozy ease. Not that we’ve seen it before, but we’ve lived it—and might still be living it as we watch.<br /> <br /> The walls of The Middle’s production offices are lined with pictures of school hallways, pep rallies, show choirs, grilling meat, cornfields, and the Indianapolis Colts. Similarly, The Middle is informed by snapshots of the creators’ lives: their childhood, their children, their hometowns, their former writing gigs, and their college educations.<br /> <br /> Or rather, their dorm rooms. Sitting in Heisler’s office a few weeks before wrapping their second season, the women finish each other’s thoughts as they recall meeting in their freshmen hall at Indiana University in 1983. They hit it off immediately. Heisler hailed from Illinois and was studying voice, the first of many majors. Heline, from Ohio, already had an idea that she wanted to work in television, so she majored in telecommunications. But, she says, “At the time their focus was more on how to be your local station manager,” a la Mary Tyler Moore.<br /> <br /> Frustrated that after two years at IU she still hadn’t been able to enroll in a film or TV class, Heline decided to transfer to New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts. Heisler, wanting to change her major to theater, had the same idea. Both transferred their junior year and decided to live together. “So we went to NYU and got assigned to this insane former prostitution hotel,” Heisler says. “They turned three floors into a dorm.” Their shared urban experiences, such as having to look up the airshaft to see what the weather was like outside, cemented their bond.<br /> <br /> Heline gives Heisler a one-word code, Orange, to remind her of the next turn in their story. Heisler picks up the cue: “I had an epiphany while on the floor of an acting class, where the assignment was to eat an orange and feel the eating of the orange, and like a bolt, I don’t want to eat oranges. I’m out of here.” An encouraging screenwriting professor led her to switch majors again. Now in the film and television program together, the two friends began collaborating informally, reading each other’s work and acting in each other’s films.<br /> <br /> TV was both women’s first love. Let their NYU colleagues become brooding auteurs—they preferred comedy. It was perhaps advantageous that the other students looked down on the medium; Heisler had no competition when seeking a PA job on Kate & Allie. Around that time, the two decided to officially become writing partners. They frequented coffee shops, worked on specs, and planned their journey west.<br /> <br /> Apples to Oranges “I moved to L.A. first,” says Heisler, “because DeAnn fell in love with the guy who lived in the apartment below me, and I could only take so much of watching that firsthand.” Five months later, Heline followed her partner west. (The couple later married, and the groom, Bruce Bolkin, helped return the favor; his sister’s friend introduced Heisler to her future husband, Adam Wolman.)<br /> <br /> After settling in Los Angeles, they made the usual rounds of temp jobs and entry-level positions. Heisler landed a gig as assistant to the UPM on the pilot of Doogie Howser, M.D., which evolved into a job assisting one of the producers on the series.<br /> <br /> “I had become friends with showrunners Linda Morris and Vic Rauseo, and they sort of knew we wanted to be writers, but nothing had happened yet,” Heisler remembers. “Then one day this guy came into the production office and said, ‘I need to get scripts to read because I’m going in to pitch to Linda and Vic.’” He had sold Doogie’s co-creator Steven Bochco a car, in the process mentioning that he had some story ideas, so Bochco told him to come in. “And I called DeAnn and I’m like, ‘That’s it, car salesmen are coming in to pitch. We have to do it.’” <br /> <br /> She found the nerve to ask Morris and Rauseo, who agreed to hear them. But before the pitch meeting, for which they were overprepared, Heline refused to leave the car. “We were young, and it was a huge opportunity,” says Heline. “I remember feeling like I was going to throw up.” Adds Heisler, “She said, ‘If they want to hear the pitch, they can come to the car.’” <br /> <br /> They eventually made it into the office, sold the pitch, and wrote their first produced script.<br /> <br /> In fact, they wrote it twice. After talking through the story, the partners wrote every scene, separately, and then came together to pick the best moments from each. They had no problem figuring out which moments those were. “We have always loved each other’s work,” says Heisler. “Whoever’s most passionate wins, and inevitably you get sick of what you’ve written and the other person will say, ‘No, that’s actually really funny,’ and then you like it again. We don’t fight—ever.” <br /> <br /> They quickly issue an amendment: They sometimes do fight, but only over punctuation and room temperature.<br /> <br /> After the Doogie script, Heisler and Helene scored a staff job on Down the Shore in 1991. The show lasted only seven episodes, but it was notable for the great staff, including Alan Kirschenbaum, Phil Rosenthal, Oliver Goldstick, and Vic Levin. After another Doogie script, their agent asked them where they wanted to work. They had dreamed of writing for Murphy Brown or Roseanne, but realized they needed a new spec to match the sensibilities of those shows.<br /> <br /> “That’s what’s great about being a writer: You can always reinvent yourself,” says Heline.<br /> <br /> Heisler agrees: “If your career’s stalled, you have no excuse to not go write.” <br /> <br /> Their resulting Seinfeld spec was based on experiences of a friend of Heline’s, a Jewish mourner at a Catholic funeral who didn’t know what to do when he was given the wafer (aka the Body of Christ). The outrageous concept got them lots of attention and onto the Roseanne staff.<br /> <br /> By that time, they no longer had time to write a whole script twice, so each took half, a method they continue to this day. Heisler writes the first half, and Heline the second. “If I can jump in halfway through the script, I feel like I’m in it. I hate starting,” says Heline.<br /> <br /> “Jack Sprat and his wife,” adds Heisler.<br /> <br /> After the first draft, they rewrite together, when there’s time. Even when rewriting staff scripts, after talking it through together, each will take their respective half for the pass. Notes Heline, “At the beginning of the year, we’ll go over it together; at this point in the season, we don’t.” <br /> <br /> They attribute their time on Roseanne with teaching them about structure. “And the show was a joy to write because we cared about that family so much,” says Heline. “We sort of went back to that with The Middle because we enjoyed that kind of writing.” But the place was notoriously dysfunctional. “There were 50 million writers, Roseanne would throw out a script for no reason or announce, ‘We’re having Joan Collins on tomorrow, and she’s my cousin.’” They learned the hard way how not to run a show.<br /> <br /> From there they moved to the oasis of Murphy Brown. “It was such a well-oiled machine, the way [creator] Diane English had set it up,” says Heline. Though English had left by the time they joined up on season six, showrunners Korby Siamis, Steve Peterman, and Gary Danzig followed her formula. The women learned so much about story and showrunning that they call the experience the University of Murphy Brown. The Eps were their professors.<br /> <br /> “Korby would do the rewrites, but all the writers would read the second draft of a writer’s script, and we would have to do notes as though we were going to do the rewrite,” Heisler says. Nor could they depend on writers’ assistants to take story notes. “You had to sit with your legal pad and pay attention, and if you had a problem with the story, you had to speak up. You really resented it at the time, but it was like school, you didn’t want to displease them.” The women adopted much of the Murphy Brown system when running shows, except for making the staff take notes.<br /> <br /> There they also earned the monikers Blackie (Heisler) and Blondie (Heline), from colleague Bill Diamond, because their names were so similar and their hair so different. It has since become the name of their production company.<br /> <br /> Fully Committing <br /> <br /> They applied their showrunning knowledge to Three Sisters, the first series they created. The midseason pick-up ran through most of the second year before getting dropped. Then came Committed, a passion project whose cancellation after 13 episodes still hurts. “It pushed our writing boundaries,” Heisler notes. “It was a little bit wackier than what we typically do, but we liked it. And we got to work with [actor] Tom Poston.” <br /> <br /> Reluctant to jump back into development, they joined How I Met Your Mother as executive producers, to support the creators who were first-time showrunners. “We were there just for the first 13 to help get the show launched, and then we moved on after that,” says Heisler.<br /> <br /> They wrote a pilot for Lipstick Jungle, based on the book by Candace Bushnell (Sex and the City). NBC had tackled it previously without success, but the network loved the women’s script and the subsequent pilot and greenlit the show. At about the same time, the writers had a blind script commitment to WB and started tossing around ideas. Each had two children by then. “Mostly I was like, God, we’re just tired moms,” says Heline. So they went with WB. “It was laziness,” Heisler deadpans.<br /> <br /> “And honestly, we felt like ABC needed to go back to family,” says Heline, like in the days of Roseanne. So the writers conjured up a blue-collar family in the middle of the country, an area and a demographic that was largely absent from the TV lineup. The Middle was born.<br /> <br /> The three Overlooked M’s: <br /> Middle class, Midwest, Moms <br /> <br /> “On Lipstick Jungle, there was a lot of talk about wish fulfillment because these women in New York wear the fabulous clothes and the fabulous heels and have fabulous jobs,” says Heline. “For us, maybe from being in L.A. for so long, our wish fulfillment was, I wish I could go back home. People sit on the lawn, have the neighbors over, they look out for each other. They don’t have these glamorous jobs, but they seem happy.” They went into ABC with a low-key pitch. After describing the characters, they started telling funny stories about their own lives. ABC bought it.<br /> <br /> “So we had a pilot in New York and a pilot here at the same time. I wouldn’t advise that,” Heisler notes drily. While working on the Jungle script, they were asked for The Middle outline. “I was like, ‘Eileen, we don’t have anything,’” Heline recalls. Heisler just started cobbling together all the stories they had told in the pitch. “She just started writing shit down, and I thought she was insane, and then she turned it in and they liked it.” <br /> <br /> “A great advantage of having a partnership is that your various exhaustion breakdowns don’t happen at the same time,” says Heisler. “You hope.” <br /> <br /> NBC underwent a regime change during preproduction for Lipstick Jungle, and they were summarily thrown off the show. Meanwhile, ABC didn’t say yes to The Middle after seeing the pilot, but they didn’t say no. They kept the actors on hold for six months before finally letting the show go. Then the writers’ strike began, and everything was on hold.<br /> <br /> After the strike ended, Heisler and Heline’s agent asked what they wanted to work on, and they both knew they wanted to revisit The Middle. ABC was amenable to giving it another shot. Even the economy complied by tanking, making the show’s milieu topical.<br /> <br /> So they went back to work. The creators recognized that the magic just hadn’t been there with the first ensemble and were eager to recast. And while the pilot script remained largely intact, the tone had been too dark and indie. In keeping the show realistic, they’d made it too sad. A subplot with teen son Axl was particularly depressing; his friend had died playing chicken with his truck. ABC wanted it to be brighter, and “to make sure it’s hard funny,” notes Heisler. The retooled show was picked up. Recasting everyone but youngest child Brick (Atticus Shaffer) had provided the chemistry that eluded them the first goround.<br /> <br /> The Middle is their first single camera comedy, which they found liberating.<br /> <br /> The Heck family watches TV and eats fast food. Usually at the same time. An attempt to eat together at the dining table prompts the anguished question from daughter Sue, “Are you dying?” <br /> <br /> The kids look like real kids, the house looks like a real house, the mess looks like a real mess, and the parents look weary. “Our challenge was to not make it zany because we had no interest in doing that,” says Heline of the second goround. “Our goal was to make it real but kick it up a level.” <br /> <br /> They decided to use a voiceover from the mother’s point of view, a television rarity. Heline notes that the voiceover is useful “because you have a lot of story to cover in 20 minutes. It’s getting harder and harder to do.” <br /> <br /> The writers shy away from pat endings. Frankie might feel motivated to improve the family in some way, but by the end of the episode, she usually admits defeat.<br /> <br /> “Your teenager isn’t going to say, ‘Wow, I learned my lesson.’ People respect that about the show,” says Heline. “It’s not just that sweet ending where everything is now settled. It’s more, Well, we tried that and it didn’t work.” <br /> <br /> The humor is grounded in reality. For example, when Mike Heck (Neil Flynn), paterfamilias and quarry manager, says, “I told you I loved you the day I married you. If anything had changed, I’d have let you know,” it rings true, despite the absurdity. And it should. The line was lifted directly from Heline’s real-life grandfather.<br /> <br /> “That exemplified my grandparents’ relationship and that kind of man,” she says. A man of few words, and those few are blunt, but solid as a rock. Which is necessary because Frankie is a dervish, whirling around in frenetic worry over the kids and how to raise them properly. Or, as Mike asks, “What magazine or lady show can I blame for this?” <br /> <br /> Mike is an equal partner in both parenting and household. Here the writers admit to a bit of wish-fulfillment. Not for themselves. Speaking in unison, they avow that their own husbands are both fully involved in family life. But after watching a shot of Mike listening patiently to his wife’s complaints, Heisler told actor Neil Flynn that the scene was Mom porn.<br /> <br /> In its own casual way, the show posits that the very nature of motherhood might drive moms crazy. It’s a nice twist from the usual sitcom sane-mother/oafish- father routine; Mom gets to be the nutcase, while Dad is often the one who manages to keep it together.<br /> <br /> Go Ask Axl <br /> <br /> Axl Heck, 16, is the kind of proud underachiever who announces petulantly, “God, chill, I’ll study while they’re handing out the test.” He was initially the least developed character of the five Hecks. Says Heline, “We wanted him to be that typical teen but still different, not someone you’ve seen a million times.” They found help from Heline’s memories of her cousin as a teen, who behaved somewhat akin to a hibernating bear. But they credit actor Charlie McDermott with thoroughly fleshing out the character. “Charlie’s rhythms were an inspiration” to their writing, says Heisler, “and he’s inherently quite sweet.” His ability to walk around in boxers without any apparent selfconsciousness is a gift all its own.<br /> <br /> Interminable optimist Sue Heck, 14 (Eden Sher), is the quintessential middle child. She tries out for every club, undaunted by her lack of talent. The first season finale has her going out for cross-country and barely making the no-cut team. Even as the crowd cheers her woebegone tryout run that ends in a crawl across the finish line, they get her name wrong. But the writers were careful not to make her pitiful. She’s just a normal girl.<br /> <br /> “I thought I was a pretty cool kid, but then I realized a lot of things that happened to Sue happened to me, so then I realized I wasn’t as cool as I thought,” admits Heline. When Sue is challenged to a fight by the neighborhood bullies, the Glossner brothers, she, and her best friend choreograph a dance to the song “Kung Fu Fighting.”<br /> <br /> This response is based in fact, Heline says. “We dragged a boombox out and did a number. The Glossners looked at us like we were insane, pushed us down into the snow, and went home.” <br /> <br /> Then there’s Brick Heck, age 9 (Atticus Shaffer), an absentminded savant who can say straight-faced, “My project is the State Capitol building. It’s due tomorrow. I’m going to need some tongue depressors, 1,500 stir sticks, and a giant green Styrofoam ball.” <br /> <br /> “Brick is based on my very quirky, very smart, little bit socially awkward son,” Heisler says. For the pitch, she brought a school photo of son Justin “looking absolutely tortured. It expressed childhood so aptly, it ended up on all these bulletin boards at Warner Bros.” <br /> <br /> Like Justin, Brick tends to whisper to himself and read voraciously. An episode called “The Scratch” has Frankie accidentally hitting Brick with a beer bottle as she frantically cleans the house. His subsequent scratch and a well-meaning teacher lead to a call to child services. It’s based on reality, except for the bottle. Even in the midst of dealing with the real police, Heisler knew the ordeal would make a great scene. “It definitely takes the sting off. You’re enduring something you’re not particularly enjoying, but you’re like, Well, it’ll be funny when I write it.” <br /> <br /> The Extended Marriage <br /> <br /> The advantage to being tired moms is that they’re efficient ones. “We want to get home to our kids. Neither one of us wants to be here at midnight,” says Heline. “We love logic and structure and dependability, like moms.” <br /> <br /> Heisler notes: “The people who work for us feel secure in that they know someone’s driving the bus. We’re not erratic. We’re Midwesterners.” <br /> <br /> They have eight other writers on staff; Korby Siamis, from their time on Murphy Brown, is a consultant. “It’s lucky to have the person who taught you,” says Heisler.<br /> <br /> “She has a great story sense,” says Heline. “Story is one of the hardest things for writers to learn.” <br /> <br /> “Writers move up faster now,” Heisler notes.<br /> <br /> “All of a sudden people are running shows, and they don’t always know story,” Heline emphasizes.<br /> <br /> “You can’t write it without the structure,” echoes Heisler. <br /> <br /> “We break down every beat. That teaches people too. And on a new show that’s important.” <br /> <br /> Heline runs the writers’ room, with Heisler acting as copilot when they break stories. Otherwise, Heisler’s often out on set or in the editing room. “DeAnn’s brain is linear,” she says of the division of labor. “Even if I didn’t have all the other things that I have to do, my brain is splattier.” <br /> <br /> “She’s very good at figuring out the spark or a fun dynamic to the scene that just brings it to life,” Heline replies.<br /> <br /> They look forward to writing the last episode of the season together, probably the weekend before the table read. “That’s not to say it’s all Pollyanna,” says Heisler. “We’ll bicker with each other and all that. But I do think a lot of writing partners just happen to write some script together and they’re stuck together for life, and they don’t really like each other. It’s an intimate relationship. If you didn’t trust each other in the partnership, it would be very hard.” <br /> <br /> So in addition to all the other influences on the show— Murphy, Roseanne, taciturn grandpas, and whispering sons —the friendship itself could very well provide the solid foundation for the Hecks’ frazzled but happy marriage.<br /> <br /> So go ahead, curl up in front of the TV with a bag of dinner and relate to the familiar mess. Blackie and Blondie wouldn’t have it any other way.<br /> <br /> Lisa Rosen began her film career at the Nuart, where she learned to hate midnight screenings. From there she moved into postproduction work on such films as Drugstore Cowboy and Waiting for Guffman. In search of greater job security, Rosen then became a freelance writer. Her work appears regularly in Written By and the Los Angeles Times.