Bruno Heller may have been genetically predisposed to writing. Growing up in England, he internalized both the fascination and dread of the craft. His father, Lukas Heller, was a screenwriter responsible for a couple of Hollywood's more diabolical villains—Bette Davis' demented spinsters in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte and the Gothic horror masterpiece What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Today, Bruno Heller can claim his own canon of antiheroes, including Simon Baker's manipulative TV psychic-cum-investigator in CBS' The Mentalist and the rogue's gallery of rulers, soldiers and slaves in the randy sword-and-sandal epic Rome, late of HBO.
But at first, Heller resisted his destiny. “I didn't actually start writing at all until my father was dead,” he says, adding, “for whatever Oedipal reason one might read into that.”
The rather brutal Darwinism of Hollywood is a likely rationale. While Heller's father achieved a measurable amount of success, the ephemeral nature of the business meant that “he was only as good as his last script,” says his son. “He was a very caustic, cynical guy who I guess didn't grow to dislike the business, but he was never comfortable in it.”
His sister is Zoë Heller, the columnist and writer. She has published three novels, including Notes on a Scandal. Nevertheless, for Heller writing was something of a last resort. “For me,” he says, “it was a family trade that I got into essentially because I failed at everything else. And that's been a great strength for me as a writer.”
Heller's self-deprecating streak may stand in stark contrast to the preponderance of titanic egos populating the entertainment industry. But it has apparently worked in his favor. “He's British, and you know, they have that unflappable charm,” says Eoghan Mahoney, the producer and writer who has worked closely with Heller on Rome and The Mentalist.
Heller's early film career was rather unglamorous. He was a union soundman working in England in the 1980s when film sets were staunchly hierarchical. “People at my level had to call the director 'sir,' and you weren't allowed to talk to them unless they talked to you first,” he says.
When informed that his Wikipedia page rather hyperbolically states that he was “a successful boom operator,” he jokes, “Yes, and there's not many unsuccessful boom operators so that's not saying much, is it?”
While working as a soundman on a series of films about England's infamous Miners' Strike, Heller met well-regarded Portuguese director Eduardo Guedes. The two teamed up on what would become Heller's first writing credit, the 1994 film Pax starring Amanda Plummer. (“Pax” is the acronym for the Portuguese epitaph on gravestones.)
Shortly after, Heller left England for New York, where he would meet his wife, Miranda. “I met her at a disco,” he recalls. “It was the first time I had ever managed to pick a woman up at a disco. I was so proud of myself I thought, well, I'll marry her.” They have two sons, Lukas, 14 and Felix, 7.
After five years in New York, Heller moved to Los Angeles, where he got work on various television dramas including USA's Touching Evil. But his breakthrough came with Rome. He'll spend his hiatus from The Mentalist, which is a lock to be picked up for a second season, writing the big-screen version of Rome.
For all of Heller's success, he attributes a certain amount, perhaps a little too much, to luck. “I work very hard at it, but at given moments I was lucky,” he says. “I came in and gave the pitch that people wanted to hear at a specific moment.”
But more importantly, he carries with him the lessons of his father: “I learned [that] you can't let your emotions get involved in it because it is very much a business. I try to be as passionate as possible about the writing but not engage emotionally in the whole business of it. It's so stressful on a day-to-day basis that if you allow yourself to get wrapped up in it and take things personally, it can destroy you.”