Writer Leeper’s first feature filming in Evanston

Moira McMahon

When a very young Moira McMahon Leeper took classes at Evanston’s Piven Workshop, her teacher advised her not to plan things out, “but even then,” she said, “in my mind I was writing the scene.”

McMahon Leeper worked her way up from medical researcher on Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice where she got her big break and penned an episode of the top rated show that aired in 2011.

Since then her career has taken off. In October, 2012, Moira sold her pilot Maddox, a supernatural medical family drama, to NBC/Universal and last season she wrote for MTV’s Teen Wolf.

This week she’s back in Evanston, where her first feature screenplay, a coming-of-age comedy, is being filmed by PhD Productions by PhD Productions and stars Taryn Manning (Orange is the New Black) and Madison Davenport (Noah). PhD’s Valerie Weiss directs and Jeffrey Loeb and Robert Johnson are producing.

How did you get your break on Private Practice?

My job was to talk to docs, read medical articles and find compelling human stories.  It really built my story muscle, l learned how to pitch, how to create a beginning, middle and end, and to approach writers with suggestions without stopping the creativity.

Shonda (Rhimes, the show’s creator/EP) kept me around for a few seasons so that I could grow as a writer.  Finally I had the confidence to ask to write a freelance episode. For an assistant, getting a freelance episode is the holy grail. I am forever grateful to her for that.

What did you learn from that experience?

Terry Rossio (Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean) said it best: “The last 10% of effort is where you learn 90% of what YOU have to learn to solve the problem you couldn’t solve.” That last push is when you grow as a writer.

How have you transitioned over to feature filmmaking?

The script was nine years old when it sold. I had to do massive updating. We did at least eight drafts. We even tried an exploratory draft from one character’s perspective just to see if it worked.

To me, writing is like a porcelain doll, it’s pretty but it needs to be smashed. Then it’s ugly. I have to credit Valerie for helping me make peace with all the smashing. Now the script is more human, less pretty.

How would you describe “A Light Beneath Their Feet”?

Valerie would say a comedy drama and I would say a drama with funny parts. It’s in the John Hughes genre, very truthful, human reality. None of our characters are exaggerated, they are people you’ve known your whole life.

What’s it like for you working on an indie feature in comparison to a TV show?

This is an ultra low budget film, but the Chicago crew is top notch. Carrie Holt DeLama is the line producer and the set is very enjoyable. 

The Light Beneath Their Feet is looking for extras, especially teenage boys. Please contact castinglightbeneath@gmail.com.

Carey Lundin is the director of the award-winning documentary, Jens Jensen: The Living Green.