Adapted to Ficition
After growing up on the North Shore, writer and producer Mike Kelley uses memories from his vivid childhood as inspiration for many of the characters and plotlines in his primetime television shows.
Photograph by John Guan
High School: New Trier
Graduation Year: 1985
Favorite Class: English
Extracurriculars: Intramural Sports, Soccer, Tennis, Gold Caddy at Indian Hill Country Club
During even the earliest years of Mike Kelley’s life, he was taking note of his surroundings and creating stories about them. As a producer and writer for One Tree Hill, The O.C., and Jericho, as well as the creator of the CBS series Swingtown, Mike used much of his upbringing on the North Shore as inspiration for each show’s plotline. “It did not hurt to grow up where I did to write on [these shows],” he explains. “There was a lot of gossip that flew around our community and some good scandals, a few of those made it into my storylines.” But it was not only the North Shore’s dirt that pushed him toward a career in writing: he fondly credits his education at New Trier High School for his success.
Though Mike confesses he did a lot of “bullshitting” in high school, it was there he fell in love with writing. His senior year, he had Mrs. Kelly for AP English. “She was the best teacher I had throughout my education, including college,” he explains. “She changed things around and focused me into telling stories and wanting to do it in a more structured way.” A few years ago, he returned to his alma mater to find her still teaching there, and she even remembered him and his two sisters.
The social activity buzzing around the renowned Winnetka campus served as a great muse for Mike’s later works. “I liked to float between the cliques,” he recalls. “I found something interesting about every group.” His experiences at New Trier were carefully woven into the plots of the two teenage dramas he worked on—One Tree Hill and The O.C. While flitting between the groups, he became close friends with fellow Winnetka native and singer/songwriter Liz Phair. He and Liz met in grade school and both ended up in California, where Liz now creates the scores for Mike’s shows. “[Liz and I] have mutual friends who come out and visit us. We’re all still very connected,” he explains. “We talk about New Trier all the time.”
Probably the most obvious work based on his childhood in Winnetka was his primetime series Swingtown. “Every character had some elements of the people I knew and families that crossed our paths. It was entirely located on the North Shore,” he says. The drama aired for a season in the summer of 2008 on CBS and focused on the impact of sexual and social liberation in the 1970s. Featuring “key parties” and open marriages, it exposed a hidden side of the affluent suburbs on Chicago’s North Shore. Mike pinpoints the vivid summers growing up in Winnetka as the main stimulus for the plotline. “I remembered one summer where the kids all hung out, and some of the parents in the neighborhood kind of switched partners,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 2008. “It felt like they all just moved one house to the left. Eventually, most of those marriages broke up.” Though the show started with a strong pilot, after dwindling ratings and a move from Thursday to Friday night, it was canceled in September 2008.
That hasn’t stopped Mike; he is currently working on another pilot for CBS—The Quinn-Tuplets, an American adaptation of the successful Israeli show, The Ran Quartet, about four famous quadruplets. Mike’s version will be a fictional account of the first quintuplets who were born in the era of test-tube babies. The stellar cast includes Molly Parker (who played one of the lead characters in Swingtown), Amber Tamblyn (Joan of Arcadia), Anna Chlumsky (the My Girl series of films), and Dougray Scott (who Mike tags as an actor “everyone will know” in a few years). Mike just wrapped up shooting in Boston and editing in L.A., with hopes that the show will get picked up by the network this spring.
Though he’s jet-setting between cities right now, he admits one day he would like to have a home back in Chicago. His sister still lives in Winnetka, and his other sister and mother both live in Northbrook, so he comes back to the area several times a year. Plus, he explains that he can really write anywhere now that offices are becoming less important. “I think about [moving there] every year I go back to Chicago,” he says. “I’ll come in for Lollapalooza, Taste of Chicago, or a few weeks during Christmas. And the older I get, the more I want to spend time there.”