by Rebecca Fishow
I was hooked on the stylistic TV drama Mad Men the moment I began binge-watching the show a year or so back (thanks, Netflix!). I may have been late to the party, but I was thrilled to step in to Don Draper’s chaotic, morally ambiguous world. Semi Chellas, Co-Executive Producer and Writer for the show, got on the bandwagon long before I did. The already prolific film and TV writer told her agent that she would write for another TV series only if it was Mad Men. Lucky for us, she got the job.
Some of the episodes she wrote or co-wrote, including season five’s “The Other Woman” and “Far Away Places;” and season seven’s “The Strategy,” continually make Top Ten episodes lists. Her writing for the show has received Primetime Emmy Award nominations and a WGA award for best episodic drama. During the past couple weeks, Semi spoke with Cosmonauts Avenue about her writerly beginnings chilling with Ann Beattie, the differences between solo and collaborative writing, and what makes the detail-oriented world of Mad Men so alluring.
Part I: Breaks
Cosmonauts Avenue: What was Semi Chellas like as a kid?
Semi Chellas: I was an only child and I lived in my imagination. I played make believe long after everyone else had moved on. I distinctly remember a friend negotiating a “he likes you, do you want to go around?” deal, while in my mind I was figuring out what colors my imaginary Arabian horse would wear for the Kentucky Derby. I was a huge nerd. Luckily, I had a couple friends who were there with me. In high school — thank God — it morphed into theatre, and there were people putting on plays and musicals and doing improv and that kind of saved me from every having to give up living in that interior make-believe world.
I read all the time. We’d go to a cottage for the summer and I would stay inside and read. I’d tuck a book under the dinner table. My parents let me read anything that interested me. I read a lot of things when I was little that I thought were for kids, like the Brontes and Jane Austen and Defoe. I read Judy Blume and Lois Duncan and Robert Cormier. I read Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Susan Cooper. I read poetry — T.S. Eliot and Adrienne Rich. I read Henry Miller — I knew that wasn’t for kids.
CA: I’ve read that your original sources of inspiration as a writer were your mother, who was a journalist, and literary powerhouse Ann Beattie, with whom you developed a relationship when you were young. What shifted your interests from print to writing on the screen?
SC: My grandfather and his wife lived in Connecticut next door to the writer Ann Beattie. I was obsessed with the New Yorker because at my father’s office (he was a philosophy professor at University of Calgary at the time), they had all these old New Yorkers. I didn’t understand them but I loved them. The old ones, when they were thick and the stories were 40 pages long. Also my aunt had dated a New Yorker writer, and that was always brought up as this amazing, sophisticated thing.
So Ann Beattie was a literary star and her stories appeared all the time in the New Yorker. I was in awe of her because I wanted to be a writer and she was living up to my romantic ideal. She had long straight hair and was very beautiful and kind to me and encouraging. She gave me a copy of her book where she’d annotated the table of contents to show me which stories contained dogs. She used to come over and we would all play poker and my step-grandmother taught me to mix highballs. I remember seeing a scene where Sally Draper is mixing drinks on Mad Men (before I worked on it) and thinking — oh! I was always writing stories and plays — a lot of murder mysteries.
Once, I won forty cents at poker (it was penny/nickel/dime) and my grandfather took me to buy some gum with my winnings, and I told him about a novel idea I had. He took it very seriously and gave me some thoughts. He had worked at Newsweek. I remember one of the things he told me was not to listen to people who say write what you know. I took that to heart. I wrote stories about people in Manhattan drinking martinis. When I was about fifteen or sixteen I submitted one to the New Yorker and got a hand-written reply that basically said (how can I have lost it?) “You’re a good writer but you are clearly not living in a penthouse apartment on Central Park West so maybe you should look a little closer to home.”
When I started doing theatre in high school, I fell in with some kids who loved movies, and were making movies. This was before it was easy. This was when you had to shoot on a video camera and edit VHS to VHS tape. One of them was John Fawcett, who’s now a director and the co-creator of TV’s “Orphan Black”. I wrote some plays and things that John directed, and a few years later when he was at the Canadian Film Centre, he called me and asked me to write a short film for him. He had an idea but he wanted me to write the script. I was living in Montana at the time in a small town. I wrote the script and drove about 25 miles to the nearest fax machine and faxed it off. And a few months later I got a VHS in the mail and he had made this wonderful short film. Everything as I pictured or better. It was that simple. Bad precedent. It was never that simple again.
CA: Your career, up until now, has been really versatile. You’ve written original screenplays and worked on adaptations. You’ve directed for films and worn the producers hat. What do you like doing the best? Up until now, how have you chosen what projects to pursue? What makes you feel as though an idea is valuable?
SC: That’s such a good question! What makes me want to do something changes all the time. Sometimes I’m like — I need to do something that is totally my own. Then the next minute, I just want to work with people who know something I don’t know and people I can learn from. I’ll be like, I want to do something mainstream! Then the next minute, I want to do a micro-budget short film with no dialogue. I went and did some journalism after I did a show about journalists. Here’s what I know. You have to push aside your ideas about what will work, what will succeed, what will be good for you. You are never right about those things. And you have to make it possible to say no to things you don’t want to do. Sometimes you will have to do things for money. But you can’t need money enough to agree to do something you are actively against. I was a waitress and a bartender and I did coverage and consulting so I wouldn’t have to write things I didn’t believe in. “The Eleventh Hour” did well critically and won awards but never really found a big enough audience (this was before the explosion of broadcaster possibilities. Now the audience would be considered quite decent). And it took every particle of my being for almost four years. When I came off that, I got representation in Los Angeles, but I didn’t want to do TV anymore. I got a TV agent anyway and I liked him and we would have lunch and he would say, “Do you want to do TV yet?” And I would say, “If I can write on Mad Men.” And one day he called me up and said, There’s a job on Mad Men your interview is tomorrow. I was in L.A. for the winter; I was actually supposed to leave the following week. I went for the interview and that afternoon my agent called me and said, You start on Monday. I didn’t live here; I had a one year old; I had 48 hours to find a place. There’s a reason they call it a break. SC: My first break really was going to the CFC. Up until then, I had wanted to write fiction. At the time, the program was structured so that you went for six months of workshops and then you reapplied to develop a single project. But I wasn’t accepted to that second phase. I had taken a leave from a Ph.D. program in English at Cornell to go to the Centre, and when I didn’t get in, I thought — well, if I’m not earning a living by September, I’ll go back and write my dissertation. And then Bruce McDonald hired me out of the blue. He said he would pay my rent while I wrote an outline, and then we would get some money from the OFDC to write the script. And he did, and I did, and after that I haven’t stopped working [STOPS TO KNOCK ON WOOD]. My next big break was a series of breaks — I wrote a movie that got financed as a television movie (Dead Aviators) and won a lot of awards and recognition. So CTV approached me about doing a television show. A producer friend, Ilana Frank, had been approached by Alliance Atlantis about the same thing so we all got together and I pitched an idea to do a show about investigative journalists. And they said yes! And so I went and bought a TV. I hadn’t had one. And then somehow that show actually happened and became The Eleventh Hour.
Part II: Mad Men
CA: When it comes to storytelling, the medium makes a difference. Is there anything you feel that the printed form (novels and short stories) is able to do better? Conversely, what can the screen achieve that is more difficult in print?
SH: My first year in college I took a playwriting course and our first assignment was to write a scene with a family in it. Nine out of ten of us brought in scenes set in a living room with a couch in the middle. The professor said something along the lines of, “You all wrote a sitcom scene.” He exhorted us to think about what you could do with a stage. I have tried to bring that lesson to everything I write. What can I do in this medium? What is a story that could only be told in this medium? Or sometimes – what medium does this story need in order to be told properly?
I’m still learning everything a screen can do that print cannot do. For starters: you have performances, you have music, you have sound, you have light. Those things work in ineffable ways to create emotion, suspense, excitement. But there are screens and there are screens. I think that network television is as different a medium from cable or film as it is from a novel.
CA: What specifically attracted you to Mad Men?
SC: I loved the writing. I loved the characters. I had that feeling of kindred spirits, before I even knew who the showrunner was. And it turned out that Matt and I love many, many of the same writers and that we are close in age and had very similar experiences at college. I think we would have been friends at college.
I was interested in the period. I had been writing fiction set in 1958 and 1968 — in fact, I sent Matt 30 pages of that novel when they wanted writing samples. But even more than that, I was interested in the way the Mad Men writers were telling the stories.
CA: What was it like, getting into the 1960s Mad Men world? Did you do anything special to orient yourself with the characters or time period?
SC: The Mad Men sets were inspiring. If you opened a drawer in a secretary’s desk, everything was in there — period staples, a half a pack of period gum. The letters in the in-tray were addressed to the agency, postmarked for the right year, and if you opened them, they had typewritten correspondence about the fictional account. The meticulousness and the detail were astonishing. I think it was because the creator wanted to have an immersive experience for the actors — that every last detail would be within the world of the story. It was similar for the writers. We had every Time, Life, Newsweek and New Yorker from the period. We watched movies and read books — not about the times, but of the times. There were also people in the writers’ room who had lived through the period at the ages of our characters — people who’d worked in advertising then, and great writers like Frank Pierson (Dog Day Afternoon) and Robert Towne (Shampoo).
As I said, I had a number of connections in my family to that time and place — my grandfather had worked on Madison Avenue, my mother had worked in New York offices as a young woman, and I had always been obsessed with those stories. I came across some New Yorkers from the period that I actually remembered from my father’s office! By complete coincidence, I was actually born on the day that my episode in Season 7 “The Strategy” takes place — June 20, 1969 — so people from that era were the “grown-ups” of my childhood. And there were so many details that came back to me about them when I was immersed in the research. But those people were not always au courant of course.
They had been educated in the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s, they sometimes loved old movies and old books, wore their hair a decade out of fashion and hadn’t changed the furniture for 20 years. That was something I thought Mad Men really captured as well — that living in a moment doesn’t always mean being up to date. There were political things going on that we think of now as characterizing the period, but did people talk about them all the time? Of course not. During one season, I drove by Occupy protestors every morning on my way to work. I thought about them and followed what they were doing in the paper. But did I go home and work it into dinner table conversation? Nope.
CA: Describe the collaborative writing process. How does it work? Are writers “experts” of certain characters or story lines? Are there creative disagreements, and is so, how are they resolved?
SC: It works differently for every show, and I’ve always felt that one of the unwritten rules of the writers’ room is not to kiss and tell. We were shut up together ten or so hours a day, five days a week, for nearly a year each season. We didn’t have phones or screens or access to the internet, except for the writers’ assistant, who had the one computer. We ate lunch together. Matt started each season with a huge amount of material — story arcs and moments and inspirations and insights and themes — and then we all pitched ten ideas for episodes. We broke the story-lines episode by episode, together, without knowing who would write the draft. There were endless disagreements and many went completely unresolved. But there was never any question who had the final say: Matt Weiner was the first and final expert on the world he had created. But everyone in the room bled some into every story.
CA: Many of the show’s central conflicts revolve around issues related to the social dynamics of the time period. One of the most interesting aspect of the show, for me, is learning about the various oppressions of race, sex, gender and class, and seeing them be confronted and challenged as time progresses. It’s Don Draper confronting his impoverished youth and Betty Draper navigating her role as a housewife. It’s Peggy Olson struggling to find her place in a male-driven industry. Is there a pressure to get the historical elements of the narrative “right”? Do you have them in mind when you’re writing?
SH: We did a lot of research, but we mostly stayed away for things written after the fact, summing up the period. Instead, we read magazines and books and watched movies and news from the year itself. We didn’t want to get anything wrong, but on the other hand, I think that the show itself questions whether there is a “right” way to approach the historical elements. Characters that are grounded and truthful are so much more complex than the roles they play vis-a-vis their moment in history. We definitely wanted to get the details right — we had to account for things as specific as the weather on a given day or train schedules to Cos Cob.
CA: Do you find some story lines or scenes more challenging than others? How do you get over those obstacles?
SH: About three months before the end of the show, we got completely stuck on an episode. We were grinding our wheels and couldn’t move forward. And I couldn’t figure out why that one was so much harder than the rest. And then one night I literally woke up in the middle of the night and thought, It’s ending. I think what we had was a collective resistance to the finality. For better or worse, we were going to see every character for the last time, explore everything for the last time, dwell in all the places of the show one last time… For me, at least, that was the emotion that accompanied realizing that the end was really coming. There are always obstacles to writing and when you plumb them, you usually realize that the obstacle is your own resistance— your fear of being exposed, of making a mistake, of not doing everything you set out to do or saying everything or saying it right. I have that as much writing these answers as I do in everything I write. You find yourself thinking, Why is this scene so hard? What is the right way to do this? — and then remembering that you are making it up, it has never been in the world before, there cannot possibly be a right answer. The only answer is to keep working.
CA: Mad Men is a rather literary television show. One of the episodes that you co-wrote, season five’s “Far Away Places” (in which Roger and Jane take LSD, Peggy deals with work and life stress by giving a drinking and giving a stranger a sexual “favor” in a movie theater, and Don and Megan have a heated argument at a Howard Johnson’s Restaurant and Motor Lodge), uses an interesting non-linear narrative structure. How did you come up with that? In general, how do you assess what kinds of narrative moves viewers will go along with, and which may be jarring for the TV form? Is there a line between what viewers probably will digest and what they won’t?
SC: That structure was inspired by a movie by Max Ophuls called Le Plaisir. Matt had us watch it as a reference for Don and Megan’s epic fight at the end of the episode, where she smacks him with her hairbrush. Ophuls’s movie has three stories that overlap, adapted from Guy de Maupassant. We always figured out the story lines for different characters in the show separately, then wove them together late into the process. For “Far Away Places,” we decided not to do that weaving. I love how that episode stays in each character’s point of view — Peggy is in every scene in her storyline, etc. That made it possible to experience, with Don, the loss of Megan when she disappears from the parking lot — if we had been moving between points of view, it might have felt coy not to see where she’d gone.
CA: While Mad Men isn’t a comedy, there is quite a bit of humour. For instance, watching “Faraway Places,” I laughed out loud at the horn sound affect that accompanied Roger’s magical, LSD-inspired, shrinking cigarette. In “The Strategy,” Ken Cosgrove, who wears an eye patch makes the joke says he “really needs to keep an eye on” his kid. Where do these moments come from? How do you strike the right tone?
SC: Matt Weiner is hilarious. He started out punching up comedy scripts and his first job in television was writing sitcoms. A number of the writers on “Mad Men” came from comedy. Matt set the tone. We tried to strike it.
CA: Mad Men fans are surely sad that the show is wrapping up. How do you feel about it?
SC: It’s been over quite a while for the people who worked on it, actually — we finished last July. Matt Weiner likes to say, “Television writing is for people who hate being alone more than they hate writing.” It is difficult to return to writing alone, even though that’s how I’ve spent most of my life. I delighted in the company of those other writers, and I learned so much from them. I spent most of four years locked in a room with them but it already feels like a dream.
Semi Chellas is a Co-Executive Producer and Writer on Mad Men, where she ran the writers’ room for the last two seasons. She was the Executive Producer and Co-creator of the award-winning CTV series The Eleventh Hour and has written film, television, journalism and fiction, and directed several short films. She has mentored many writers individually and through programs at the Canadian Film Centre, the Maisha Film Lab in Uganda and as the University of Toronto Screenwriter in Residence. Her interview with Matthew Weiner was published last year in The Paris Review.
Rebecca Fishow is a writer and visual artist living in Montreal. Her work has appeared in Necessary Fiction, The Believer Logger, The Fiddleback, Rover and other publications. She is the interviews editor for Cosmonauts Avenue.