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Writing a Light

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

English alumna pens a Hollywood feature film about the power of family

by Carlos Anchondo

Moira McMahon Leeper ’96 wrote her first screenplay while working two jobs. As a new Trinity graduate, she split her time as a waitress at Alamo Café and as an assistant for English professor Norman Sherry. Somewhere in between shifts bussing tables and afternoons conducting research on British novelist Graham Greene, McMahon Leeper found time for a beginner’s screenwriting course at a local community college. Back in the classroom and learning the basics of formatting, she discovered the writing form that would become her life’s work.

During the course, McMahon Leeper penned a comedy script about life in college and submitted it to the Austin Film Festival. She won an honorable mention. The award was the validation and stimulus she needed to pursue screenwriting as a career. The following year, McMahon Leeper was accepted to study at the deeply competitive University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. Since moving to Los Angeles, she has served as a research assistant for Grey’s Anatomy and as a writer and researcher for Private Practice and Teen Wolf. She also has two features under option and has sold a pilot to NBC.

Today, McMahon Leeper is busy celebrating her latest Hollywood triumph, the award-winning film, A Light Beneath Their Feet. Starring Taryn Manning, hit actress from the Netflix comedy Orange is the New Black, the film’s screenplay was written by McMahon Leeper and directed by Valerie Weiss. The film tells the story of Gloria Gerringson, played by Manning, a mother who grapples with bipolar disorder on the eve of her daughter’s graduation from high school. Since its premiere in 2015, the film has won the Audience Award at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival and at the Mill Valley Film Festival, among other accolades. Manning’s co-star, Madison Davenport, won the Rising Star Award at the Vail Film Festival for her performance as Gloria’s daughter, Beth.

“The film deals with issues around responsibility and a true fear for someone’s well being,” McMahon Leeper says. “It discusses feeling very torn about how you can take care of yourself when you care about people who cannot take care of themselves.”

McMahon Leeper originally drafted the screenplay in 2005, when she was new to Hollywood and films starring two female leads were often passed over. To write the script, she drew from personal experience where her then-boyfriend developed a mental illness over the course of their relationship. Dealing with similar issues as the protagonist, McMahon Leeper says transforming that experience into a mother-daughter story allowed her to work through the complex emotions she was feeling.

Although the screenplay was not made into film at the time, McMahon Leeper never gave up hope, keeping the script tucked away in a desk drawer. She resurrected it after showrunner Lisa Zwerling introduced her to Weiss, who was looking for a low-budget independent film featuring two female leads. McMahon Leeper sent Weiss her script and the rest is history.

When she altered the script to reflect modern day, McMahon Leeper also ensured that the film accurately portrayed mental illness, interviewing doctors and mental health experts. The film’s cast, director, and one of the producers also read Perfect Chaos by Cinda Johnson, a true story about a daughter living with bipolar disorder and her mother’s mission to help her. Traveling the country on the film’s promotion tour, McMahon Leeper says she has been moved by the number of people who have approached her and thanked her for truthfully depicting the intense emotional struggle of mental illness, both for the sufferer and the caretakers.

“It has really been wonderful that people feel like their experience is on the screen, that they can relate to the film’s protagonist,” McMahon Leeper says. “That has been very satisfying and very moving. I feel I have been of service in some way.”

As she promotes the film, McMahon Leeper also looks forward to her 20-year Trinity reunion. She thanks Trinity for the nurturing academic environment where she was first seriously able to develop her writing skills. Originally from Evanston, Ill., McMahon Leeper came to San Antonio to escape the brutal Midwest winters. She had always wanted to be a writer and thrived at Trinity knowing that she could “experiment with whatever I wanted to write about.” An English major, McMahon recalls fiction writing with English professor Robert Flynn.

“He was a wonderful teacher and he really helped me find my voice,” McMahon Leeper says.

Twenty years later, that voice runs deep through A Light Beneath Their Feet, a powerful story of love, sacrifice, and the bonds between a mother and her daughter. McMahon Leeper, a recent mother herself, is riding high on the movie’s success and the “miracle” of making a feature film.

Carlos Anchondo is a writer and editor for University Marketing and Communications. He is a 2014 graduate of Trinity and can be found at @cjanchondo or at canchond [at] trinity.edu.