Diane: Tell us a little bit about your life before Moonlighting. How did you come to be writing for the show?
Debra: I actually won my career in a contest. Twentieth Century Fox had a writing contest and out of 5500 applicants they picked 10 people and put them under contract at the studio. I was teamed with another writer, Scott Rubenstein, and together we wrote several episodes of various sitcoms. That genre was not my favorite and I wanted to move on to the hour format, so (against my agent's advise) I wrote a spec Remington Steele. That script brought me to the attention of Glenn Caron.
Diane: Tell us about Carl Sautter and your writing partnership.
Debra: Carl was one of the most outgoing people I've ever encountered. He was famous for his pumpkin carving parties. Every Halloween he'd have one and the partygoers were amazingly creative and gifted. That party and the pumpkins that came out of it were the talk of the town. Carl must have been a teacher in a past life because he carried a large blackboard with him and would use it when we outlined our stories. Once we had the outline, we went our separate ways to write scenes and then came together to polish each scene. Carl was quite the negotiator saying I'll let you have this line if you let me have that one. Sort of takes the magic out of it, doesn't it?
Diane: You are credited with writing five episodes in the first three seasons. Did you have contributions to other episodes?
Debra: Part of the job of being on staff is working out the stories, which believe it or not, is the most difficult part of writing. So yes, we were in stories meetings for all the episodes and when needed Glenn had us rewrite scenes for free-lance writers.
Diane: Your five episodes consist of three that include almost flawless renditions or recreations of classic movies. Can you tell us a little about the process of writing Dream Sequence? Was the filming in black and white part of your suggestion? How about the filming in the two different film styles?
Filming in black and white was our idea. We were so young and naïve we didn't realize it was going to be a problem. Carl and I loved the idea of doing an unsolved mystery in the 40's and having the detectives go back in time and play the part of the young lovers. We thought it was a great idea, however, no one else did. We pitched it to several shows and everyone told us it wouldn't work - "black and white will be too confusing, people won't understand, you guys will never work in this town." But we never gave up on the idea and after a while it became our joke pitch. I would open with it, then the producers would tell us we don't understand the business, and then we'd pitch another idea hoping…"Please God, let us get an assignment." Then we pitched it to Glenn. We were waiting for the rejection, the lecture, the usual - when Glenn said, "I love it" and ran with the idea. That's when he came up with the notion of filming it in two different film styles. We talked about Bruce and Cybill getting to play three characters in one episode...David and Maddie, the victims, and the cad/vixen. It was a great day! Once when I pitched to an executive, it came up that I wrote for Moonlighting and he said, "Oh, I remember asking my mother if I could stay up and watch that show!"
Diane: North by North DiPesto is a wonderful episode, yet it does not (or did not) get the attention that some of the others did because it was not a "Maddie and David" episode. Were you assigned to write an episode for her character, or did you come up with the idea of making an "Agnes centered" episode? Is the writing process different when you are writing an episode for a supporting character, rather than for the stars?
Debra: It was close to Christmas and Glenn told us that Bruce and Cybill were taking some time off for the holidays and we had to do a show without them. Actually, we had them for one or two days of filming so we were able to have them in the first act for the set-up and at the end. (Does everyone know we don't film in order?) The writing process is the same - you have to plot out the story...beginning, middle and end. It was fun doing a DiPesto story because Allyce is such a sweetheart. We took the premise that her life is boring and nothing exciting ever happens to her and like the character in North by Northwest, Agnes is in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up having the adventure of her life. For one week DiPesto looked pretty and guys were falling at her feet. Okay, they were falling dead but nothing in life is perfect.
Diane: When writing an episode based on a classic, how bound do you feel to recreate the entire story, or close to it? My question has a point here. In many fan discussions, in It's a Wonderful job, the point of Maddie considering suicide is raised. Maddie strikes most fans as too strong to even consider suicide. Did you make it happen to follow the original plot, or did you really feel it was a viable option for Maddie?
Debra: Both. The first thing we thought about was how much fun it would be to have Maddie look into everyone's lives thinking how awful they must be, and then to discover everyone is really better off without her. Then we wondered what we could do with Maddie. We couldn't make her prettier, or richer - let's face it, she had a great life. And taking away her money and looks just seemed too shallow. Also, Maddie had a confidence about herself, no matter what she did -- life would always work out for her, and we wanted to twist that a bit. Yes, Maddie is strong and that person would probably not attempt suicide, but the Maddie we meet at the bar is a different woman. She made different choices. And that Maddie is capable of suicide. David, Dipesto, and Viola were not in her life and consequently, she was led down a different path. If Jimmy Stewart's character had left town when he wanted to he might not have been suicidal. The Angel helped George Bailey see the importance of his life. In our story, we were excited when the pieces fell together and Maddie was able to truly save herself.
Diane: I probably will gush a little because It's a Wonderful Job is truly my favorite Moonlighting episode. There are some wonderful classic and funny scenes that are so small they might be overlooked (DiPesto's wonderful Joan Collins based take off, Albert "losing" an office worker's papers), and yet the emotion of the roller coaster ride through Maddie's tough period was just so real.....and hit home for me as a career woman of the 80's suffering through some of the same type issues. Do you think being a woman helped to bring that realism to the writing you and Carl did?
Debra: Gush all you want - I'm flattered! I'd have to say yes it helps, but I know lots of men who can get in touch with that realism as well. It really depends on the writer.
Cindy: It's a Wonderful Job has come under occasional critical attack, including some harsh comments from Cybill herself at times that claim this is one of several "backlash" episodes that advances the "distortion of Maddie's character to exploit her." One of the assertions is that Maddie is "frequently penalized or demonized for taking care of business" and that "all sympathy is given to her fun-loving partner's desire to 'humanize' the office. Maddie's insistence on a work ethic is frequently 'scroogified.' Overall, some feminist critics claim that throughout the series, Maddie is made to look wrong or harsh and that chauvinist David comes out on top most of the time in Moonlighting episodes. What is your reply to the criticism of your episode and also to the feminist attack on the series as a whole?
Debra: I think Maddie's right for being upset with everyone. She's under a lot of pressure; her aunt is in the hospital and dies before she can visit her, her parent's call and their requests feel like demands, and then there's the everyday stress of running a business and dealing with David. My sympathies go to Maddie in this episode, not to David and staff, who come off looking selfish and lazy. As for the series as a whole, Moonlighting was known for the banter between David and Maddie and the only way that banter can happen is if they have different opinions. Personally, I thought they complimented each other.
Diane: Tell us a little bit about being a woman writer on an 80's TV show. Did you have to keep the guys in line -- do a bit of consciousness raising?
Debra: Everyone brought his or her own life experiences to the show and since I was the only woman in the beginning, I did bring a different point of view and perspective. But I have to say that the male writers were (and still are) married to very strong women and it takes a special guy to be with a strong woman. We were all friends, the writers and the spouses -- so all consciousness rising came out of healthy discussions and the fact that their wives kept them in line.
Cindy: Would you like to tell us what projects you are working on currently and where we might see your work turn up in the future?
Debra: My partner (Steve Hayes) and I wrote The Muppets' Wizard of Oz, which aired on ABC in May. Currently, we're working on a pilot - if anything happens I'll let you know.
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Gallery from Debra Frank's private photos
Carl & Debra all dressed up for the Emmys 1986
Orson Welles with Moonlighting Writing Staff,
Carl Sautter & Debra on the way to the Emmys, 1986
The Moonlighting Writing Staff,
backlot at 20th Century Fox, 1986
Debra, Guest Star Imogene Coca and
Casting Director Karen Vice
At the Edgar Awards (named after Edgar Allen Poe for mystery writing): Carl, Debra, Allyce Beasley and Debra's husband, Mark Masuoka.
Debra Frank & Allyce Beasley, both pregnant, 1987
A current photo of Debra and her family. Left to right: her husband Mark Masuoka; daughter Alex; Debra Frank; & daughter Kobe. (In the photo with Allyce above, Debra is pregnant with Kobe.)