Growing up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Hart of Dixie creator and executive producer Leila Gerstein had dreams outside of show business.
“I grew up wanting to be a veterinarian. I was an animal sciences major in the agriculture school for a year and a half,” she says. “I never was a writer growing up. I never kept a diary. I never kept a journal.”
That dream came to an abrupt end in one particular class. “I had a come-to-Jesus moment when we had to dissect sheep,” she says.
It wasn’t until she caught the theatre bug that writing became a part of her life, when she attended theatre school after college. She began writing to fill the time between acting, tutoring SATs and serving coffee.
After getting a few plays produced, she decided to take the path some of her friends had taken in TV and moved to L.A. to write.
“I was broke, and I really hated being an SAT tutor,” Gerstein recalls. “I kind of impulsively moved to L.A. and tried to become a writer. It took a while.”
Her break into the TV industry came after she read a personal essay at an Upright Citizens Brigade performance, describing her love affair with New York Mets third baseman Robin Ventura.
“It was this personal essay about how I had had this terrible break-up, and when my heart was broken and I was at my lowest place, I fell in love with the New York Mets and Robin Ventura…and became obsessed,” Gerstein says. “And [about] how that led me out of my heartbreak.”
Oxygen executives attending the show were impressed enough to hire her to write a pilot based on the story, as well as two TV movies.
From there, Gerstein landed on writing staffs for teen-centric fare Life As We Know It and The O.C., which she followed up with producing stops on Eli Stone and Gossip Girl.
Inspiration for BlueBell, the southern setting for her CW series Hart of Dixie—about a New York doctor (Rachel Bilson) who ends up practicing in a small Gulf Coast town—came from her time balancing writing at Gossip Girl and raising her newborn girl.
Gerstein was looking for headspace far away from Gossip Girl in the Upper East Side and her screaming baby. “I think I said in the pitch it’s a place where you drink mint julep while your feet dangle off the dock in the water, and the men are hot and there’s romance and when you’re sick people bring you soup,” Gerstein says.
In a stroke of luck, The CW called to ask if Hart of Dixie (season 4 premieres Dec. 15) could be a medical show and not a legal procedural as intended.
“The show has so much heart as a medical show,” Gerstein says. “Instead of this woman working against the town, she had to come in and be part of the town. It quickly became a show about people who are quirky characters, and a romantic comedy.”
Hart of Dixie executive producer Len Goldstein admires Gerstein’s unique comedic view.
“She has an amazing ability to tell stories through a comedic lens, but to also engage the audience emotionally with the lives of her characters,” says Goldstein. “I think the incredibly impressive thing is that she’s been able to sustain a series that doesn’t rely on a person solving crimes or melodramatic soap turns by having a unique blend of strong characters and relationships that’s united by her voice and tone.”
Gerstein considers her greatest success as a showrunner to be the closeness among cast and crew. After wrapping the third season, everybody went to a pizza place across from the Warner Bros. lot. One of the camera guys put on a song featured in the finale and everyone started to dance and sing.
“What I had set out to do was to create a world I wanted to go to in my brain and was like a small town that was a community and a family,” she says. “Kind of by the last episode we had actually created that in the crew and in the cast. We were this community. We were this family. We were this small town.”